With the announcement Thursday that the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is the estimated to be the worst in the country’s history, bigger than even the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, a federal group contradicted earlier, lower figures.

The technical team estimated that 12,000 to 19,000 barrels of oil are flowing out of BP’s leaking seafloor well each day, much higher than the 5,000 barrels previously estimated.

The federal team of technical experts includes researchers from across the country, including one from San Diego: Juan Lasheras, an engineering professor at the University of California, San Diego. He declined comment on his work.

Lasheras is one of several local researchers focusing on the gulf since the spill began April 20. Scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography are also contributing their expertise to research around the spill.

John Hildebrand, the head of the Scripps Whale Acoustics Lab, took a sound recording instrument off a project in San Diego’s waters and shipped it to the gulf to study the leak’s impact on marine mammals such as sperm whales.

The instrument will sit 1,000 meters below the ocean surface — the depth sperm whales congregate in, which is also the depth of the oil well — and record sounds until August. When he retrieves the recorder, Hildebrand can listen for the clicking noises sperm whales make to find food, which will tell him whether whales remained in the area after the spill.

Hildebrand said the information will help him assess the impact of oil spills on sperm whales, as well as other marine mammals like dolphins and Bryde’s whales, which could range from contaminating the fish, krill and squids they like to eat to slicking up their skin. Hildebrand said that eating enough oil-contaminated fish could prove fatal for the marine mammals.

Other Scripps researchers are also contributing to research efforts on the impact of the oil spill. Eric Terrill, the director of Scripps’s Coastal Observing Research and Development Center, is using high-frequency radar to map surface currents in the gulf, which will help follow the movement of the spilled oil. Terrill told the Los Angeles Times that he is sure an ocean current will pick up the oil and carry it to the Florida Keys and the East Coast.

(Terrill was also part of a three-year collaboration with the oil company BP that helped pay for the development of this radar technology.)


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