There is a particular dearth of data when it comes to measurements of oil rigs in the ocean— in fact there are none in the Gulf of Mexico. In the United States, the majority of offshore oil and natural gas is drilled in the Gulf of Mexico where thousands of platforms are responsible for about 16 percent of the country’s crude oil production.
This is why Yacovitch and her team had to convert their laboratory equipment into something seaworthy, carefully configuring it to function on a boat and then transporting it by road all the way from Massachusetts to Texas before loading it onto the catamaran-style ship they chartered for the research.
“It’s a little scary to watch your $100,000 piece of equipment get mounted onto a crane and lifted into the air,” Yacovitch said of the moment the equipment was transported onto the boat. She’s done measurements on trucks and planes but this was her first marine expedition.
It also took awhile for the captains of the ship to get the hang of the sailing Yacovitch needed for sample collection. Capturing emissions required being down wind and zig zagging to transect the trail of methane multiple times— Needless to say, the opposite of giving passengers a smooth ride.
The trip also involved a surprising lesson: bean bag chairs are the most important piece of equipment on this kind of a scientific mission.
“You don’t want to be in a rigid office chair when you get seasick, you want to lounge in a bean bag chair,” Yacovitch said of her days spent balancing a laptop on her knees, collecting data.
The stress was worth it, however, for a trip that included sightings of bright pink freshwater dolphin pods feeding where the brown waters of the Mississippi River meets the turquoise waters of the Gulf. It also means that Yacovitch and her team brought home some really important, and sometimes counterintuitive, findings.
She is particularly excited about the isotopic measurements, which can help give researchers more information about the source of methane, such as whether it came from the bottom of the ocean or a landfill or somewhere else. She’s looking forward to calibrating and refining their dispersion methods, which still have high rates of uncertainties, for future studies.