On September 3-4, 2014, the Gulf Research Program of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council (also referred to as the Program) held the second of three workshops to explore potential activities that could be supported by the Program. The themes of the three workshops—education and training, health and community resilience, and environmental monitoring—align with the Program’s mandate which was identified in the legal settlement agreements that launched the Program in 2013. The environmental monitoring workshop, which was held in New Orleans, Louisiana, convened about 40 participants from the energy industry, state and federal government, academia, and nongovernmental organizations to examine two broad issues at the center of the Program’s mandate regarding environmental monitoring.
This report summarizes the presentations and discussions of the workshop as a source of input to the formulation and development of the Gulf Research Program (see Box 1-1). The workshop planning committee’s role was limited to planning, preparing a background paper for the meeting participants, and convening the workshop. This summary has been prepared by the workshop rapporteurs as a factual summary of what occurred at the workshop. Every effort was made to convey the words, context, and ideas used by the speakers without interpretation in this summary of workshop presentations and discussions. The views contained in the report are those of individual workshop participants and do not necessarily represent the views of all workshop participants, the planning committee, or the National Research Council.
BOX 1-1 An Introduction to the Gulf Research Program
As part of agreements resolving criminal charges against the companies held responsible for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill—BP Exploration & Production Inc. (BP) and Transocean Deepwater Inc. (Transocean)—the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) was asked to establish a new science program focused on oil system safety, environmental resources, and human health in the Gulf of Mexico and other U.S. outer continental shelf regions that support oil and gas production. This program, known as the Gulf Research Program, is to be supported by $500 million paid by BP and Transocean between 2013 and 2018, with the funds to be expended over the 30 years between 2013 and 2043.
To guide the creation of the Gulf Research Program and propose an initial set of activities, the NAS appointed an Advisory Group of 25 volunteers with extensive expertise and familiarity with the region. The Advisory Group met to discuss the charge established by the settlement agreements, held public meetings to gather input from individuals and organizations in the Gulf region, built relationships with other organizations, and identified needs that align with the Program’s assigned mandate. It also articulated a vision and identified both short-term and long-term opportunities for the Program.
The settlement agreements directed the Program to have activities in three broad categories: education and training, environmental monitoring, and research and development. The first workshop in Tampa focused on the first of these three areas. This workshop, held in New Orleans, targeted environmental monitoring, and the final workshop, also hosted in New Orleans, explored community resilience and health.a All three workshops were designed to contribute potential opportunities to the strategic vision established by the Advisory Group.
The 30-year duration of the Program gives it an opportunity to support short-term, medium-term, and long-term projects. Furthermore, projects at different time scales can interact with each other, producing richer results than would otherwise be the case. In addition, the Program has an opportunity to create synergies by bringing together people from different sectors and workforce areas.
These participants were invited based on, in part, for their expertise on the issues and willingness to share their perspectives and insights in a public forum. The workshop speakers and participants were invited as the basis for how the workshop approached the following two issues:
1. How observations and monitoring can be used to restore and sustain the services provided by Gulf ecosystems, and
2. How observations and monitoring can be used to better understand the deep ocean and its connectivity to the coast.
Through panel discussions and breakout sessions, workshop participants identified the following:
• monitoring opportunities within these two foci, and technological and methodological innovations that could help address them,
• monitoring and observation opportunities uniquely suited to the Program’s 30-year duration, and
• opportunities for partnerships and leveraging of resources
Chapter 1 provides an introduction to the Gulf Research Program (Box 1-1), a brief definition of environmental monitoring, and the planning committee’s rationale for the workshop themes. Chapter 2 explores some of the broader issues relevant to the overarching challenge of environmental monitoring for a large complex ecosystem like the Gulf of Mexico. Chapters 3 and 4 highlight the two areas of focus for the workshop, with discussions on monitoring to support environmental restoration (3) and monitoring that advances our understanding of the deep Gulf (4). Chapter 5 provides a synopsis of the key ideas and opportunities identified during the workshop that will inform the Gulf Research Program moving forward.
The Gulf Research Program has defined environmental monitoring as “a continuing program of measurement, analysis, and synthesis to identify and quantify ecosystem conditions and trends to provide a technical basis for decision making” (NRC, 2014a). Environmental monitoring information can be used to increase basic understanding, identify emerging problems and long-term trends, inform restoration projects, prioritize use of resources, and provide information to guide policy and management. For rapidly changing regions like the Gulf of Mexico, monitoring efforts also can yield reference data that flag emerging environmental and health concerns and provide a baseline for future disasters (NRC, 2014a). Donald Boesch, President and Professor with the Center for Environmental Science at the University of Maryland, provided some context for the workshop and highlighted the issues and challenges surrounding environmental monitoring in the Gulf of Mexico. During the 30-year duration of the Gulf Research Program, coastal populations are expected to continue to grow, with increasing demands on coastal and marine goods and services. In addition, the Gulf and other coastal regions likely will face other significant environmental challenges, including climate change, sea-level rise, coastal subsidence, and the possibility of future oil spills (NOAA, 2012). These challenges will call for new tools and approaches in order to understand the extent of these associated risks and damages. Ideally, effective environmental monitoring will provide a strong foundation of data and information for scientists and managers alike to use before a challenge arises, Boesch noted.
Environmental Monitoring to Enhance Restoration of Gulf Ecosystems
Boesch also provided the rationale for the workshop focus areas. Environmental monitoring in the Gulf of Mexico is a diverse and fragmented enterprise due in part to the numerous national, state, and county jurisdictions, and due to the fact that the monitoring efforts in and around the Gulf are conducted for a variety of reasons, including socioeconomic, geologic, physical, chemical, biological, and ecological purposes. However, the scale of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill highlighted the need for a regional environmental monitoring network that, for example, could have provided baseline data on a wide variety of vulnerable or affected resources (Green et al., 2014). Baseline data will be an important component for the extensive environmental restoration activities being undertaken and planned in the Gulf of Mexico if for no other reason, to provide a starting condition by which restoration success could be quantified. Baseline monitoring data can also facilitate understanding of expected outcomes without management decisions or restoration projects based on current trajectories. Changes in this complex system due to natural and anthropogenic drivers are likely unavoidable and weighing management decisions against future scenarios without management action will allow for better understanding of expected short-term and long-term outcomes and tradeoffs from management decisions. Finally, monitoring and observational data are fundamental to assessing ecosystem functions, processes, and changes over time, especially in dynamic ecosystems such as those found in the Gulf of Mexico (NRC, 2013).
One way to evaluate the outcomes of management and restoration is through quantification of the ecosystem services provided (NRC, 2013). Scientists who study ecosystem structure and functions have made significant advances in the past decade in modeling the impacts of land use, coastal development, and natural resource management decisions on a variety of ecosystem processes. As advances in spatially explicit modeling have been integrated into the efforts, researchers have developed the ability to map ecosystem services and their flows to various communities (Kareiva et al., 2011).
Despite these advances, understanding of how coastal and marine ecosystems function and react to both chronic and episodic stressors remains limited (Luisetti et al., 2014). A major limitation of knowledge is related to how ecosystem functions contribute to human well-being (Burkhard et al., 2013). The identification, quantification, and eventual valuation of ecosystem services are challenged by the need to better understand socio-ecological complexity and by a suite of questions relevant to ecosystem service flow. For example, who are the beneficiaries? Where do they live? What is the scale of the services provided? How does the management of these services/benefits influence their sustainability? Addressing these questions requires the integration of knowledge from numerous disciplines (Luisetti et al., 2014).
Increasing numbers of researchers over the past decade have been collaborating to develop modeling and mapping approaches aimed at understanding the demands and flows of ecosystem services on different spatial and temporal scales (Nelson et al., 2009; Burkhard et al., 2013). Insights into ecosystem processes are providing greater understanding of the potential supply of ecosystem services. This knowledge then can be combined with the information and data collected by economists and other social scientists who examine the demand for services and how they are connected (NRC, 2005; Nelson et al., 2009). Tools and methodologies used in observation and monitoring—such as geographic information systems, remote sensing, and thematic mapping—are also being applied in linking supply with demand for ecosystem services (Troy and Wilson, 2006).
The communities of researchers involved in expanding understanding of ecosystem services are making significant progress. With the current level of investment and research under way in the Gulf of Mexico, there is a great opportunity to advance understanding of ecosystems through monitoring and the development of ecosystem service models. Together, these efforts can be applied to support adaptive management and restoration efforts in the Gulf of Mexico, and to science, policy, and practical decision making.
Monitoring to Better Understand the Deep Gulf of Mexico
The deep Gulf of Mexico (defined here as depths greater than roughly 200 meters, much of which is beyond the continental shelf) is a vast, remote, and hostile environment that has been challenging and expensive to monitor relative to shallower waters and the coast.1 However, an increasing proportion of the Gulf’s new offshore energy exploration and production is taking place in waters deeper than 200 meters. In fact, much of it occurs in waters deeper than 1,500 meters, which has accelerated the need to understand more about deep Gulf ecosystems, both to protect their living resources and to help anticipate and mitigate the impacts from deepwater development activities. The 1500m depth of the Macondo well blowout—that led to the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion and spill—brought a great deal of attention to the deep Gulf, highlighting the gaps in knowledge for understanding the impacts of a large release of hydrocarbons in this region of the Gulf. These gaps include the ability to predict how the region’s physical processes would interact with the oil and dispersants—where the oil would disperse and how might the subsea application of dispersants impact the trajectory and fate of the oil.
The vastness and remoteness of the deep Gulf pose great logistical challenges for monitoring. Additional technological and methodological advances would be quite useful for stakeholders involved in monitoring and managing resources in this part of the Gulf. Practicality and cost-effectiveness are essential factors in such considerations (Green et al. 2014).
1Much more detail regarding the deep Gulf of Mexico can be found in Chapter 5 in the 2013 National Research Council report “An Ecosystem Services Approach to Assessing the Impacts of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico.” National Academies Press. Washington, DC.