Jan. 21, 2020

Gulf Research Program Awards $2 Million to Seven Projects to Improve Understanding and Prediction of the Gulf of Mexico Loop Current System

WASHINGTON — The Gulf Research Program (GRP) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine today announced $2 million in grant awards for seven new projects through its Understanding Gulf Ocean Systems (UGOS) Grants 2 competition. The UGOS grants support projects focused on new theories, technologies, and methodologies to improve understanding and prediction of the Loop Current System (LCS) of the Gulf of Mexico.

The LCS consists of the Loop Current, a stream of warm ocean water that moves through the Gulf and into the Atlantic Ocean, and eddies that separate from the Loop Current. It influences hurricane intensity, offshore safety, the entire Gulf food chain, and fishing, tourism, and other industries that are vital to the Gulf Coast economy. However, LCS behavior is difficult to study and predict, because its position, depth, temperature, and strength are constantly changing.

“Scientists have been trying to understand the Loop Current System for decades, but several important questions remain unanswered about its features and its interaction with other ocean processes,” said Karina Khazmutdinova, associate program officer for the GRP. “Being able to better predict its behavior could improve disaster planning and response, promote safer offshore operations, and protect the people and marine life in our coastal communities.”

With expertise in physical oceanography, machine learning, data processing, statistical analysis, and other areas, the UGOS-2 grantees will be working closely with teams funded under the first UGOS funding competition.

Listed in alphabetical order by project title, the UGOS 2 projects are:

An Altimetry-Based Statistical Forecast Model for the Loop Current System
Award Amount:  $78,000
Project Director:  George Forristall (Forristall Ocean Engineering Inc.)

Project Team Affiliation: Colorado Altimetrics LLC.
Overview: This project will develop a forecast system, ForLoop, which will pull information from machine learning algorithms and 26 years of open source data on daily sea level fluctuations. ForLoop will allow users to digitize sea level or surface temperature maps to predict Loop Current and Loop Current Eddy locations; and estimate the probability that the current or an eddy will affect a specific location over a range of forecasted periods.

Development of an Unstructured-Grid Nesting Method for the Study of Loop Current Frontal Eddies
Award Amount: $283,847
Project Director: Haosheng Huang (Louisiana State University)

Project Team Affiliation: Louisiana State University
Overview: Researchers will nest an unstructured grid Finite Volume Community Ocean Model — a type of 3D ocean model — within the Gulf of Mexico. They will use the model to simulate energy conversion processes and the interactions between Loop Current Frontal Eddies (LCFEs) and changes in ocean floor depth. The goal is to establish an ocean forecasting system for the Gulf that is capable of an accurate one-two weeks Loop Current forecast. In addition, the team will create a 20-year satellite data archive to detect and analyze LCFE merging events that occur before eddy detachments and separations.

A Lagrangian Methodology to Quantify and Predict the Impact of Caribbean Eddies on LCS Dynamics
Award Amount: $349,874
Project Director: Vassiliki Kourafalou (University of Miami)

Project Team Affiliation: University of Miami
Overview: Understanding the dynamics of the western Caribbean Sea and southern part of the Yucatan Channel is critical for predicting the Loop Current System’s behavior. This project will quantify improvements in prediction skill when these Caribbean Sea observations are incorporated into forecasting models. Observations and high-resolution model simulations will provide a more detailed, objective description about the size, magnitude, and pathway of warm, circular currents (known as anticyclonic eddies) passing through the Yucatan Channel; and their relation to the anticyclonic eddies evolving inside the Gulf of Mexico.

Lagrangian Metrics for the Identification and Prediction of Loop Current Eddy Shedding Events
Award Amount:  $302,287
Project Director: Helga Huntley (University of Delaware)

Project Team Affiliation: University of Delaware
Overview: This project will apply physics-based concepts to develop a new methodology to identify imminent Loop Current Eddy shedding events and the dynamics that cause them. It will also assess how well existing regional models are able to detect waves, currents, tides, and other physical ocean processes that lead to eddy shedding events.

Loop Current System SSH and Subsurface Current Prediction with a Transfer Learning Approach
Award Amount: $346,179
Project Director: Laurent Cherubin (Florida Atlantic University)

Project Team Affiliation: Florida Atlantic University Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute
Overview: Using 18 years of sea surface height (SSH) fields and sub-surface observations, this project will apply machine learning tools to predict Loop Current speed, vertical structure, and duration, to examine the eddy formation and shedding processes. The project aims to improve predictive capability of the location and duration of the Loop Current over a forecast period of one month; eddy shedding at two-three months; and predictive skill for Loop Current and Loop Current Eddy speed, vertical structure, and duration over a several day forecast.

The Loop Current and the Mississippi-Atchafalaya River System: Interactions, Variability and Modeling Requirements
Award Amount: $240,729
Project Director: Annalisa Bracco (Georgia Institute of Technology)

Project Team Affiliation: Georgia Institute of Technology
Overview: This project will explore the interactions between the Loop Current System and Mississippi-Atchafalaya River System discharge, in terms of seasonal changes, Loop Current position, and the presence of small eddies that range in size from 1 to 10 kilometers. It will also examine the physical processes that drive horizontal and vertical mixing in the portion of the northern Gulf of Mexico where the water is deeper than 150-200 meters.

Technology and Methods for Yucatán Channel Monitoring
Award Amount: $414,868
Project Director: Uwe Send (the Regents of the University of California, University of California, San Diego)

Project Team Affiliations: Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California San Diego, with Centro de Investigación Científica y de Educación Superior de Ensenada
Overview: This project will design a transport monitoring system in the Yucatan Channel (YC), drawing on data collected from 19 moorings and 99 sensors between 2018 and 2019. In addition, the team will develop and test innovative mooring designs that would enable real-time data transmission to shore. The goal is to leverage the existing intensive data set to determine which YC conditions are most critical to monitor, and identify the most cost-effective way to do so.

The seven projects were selected through GRP’s standard external peer review process. A collaboration meeting will be held on Jan. 30, 2020, to convene project team members from both UGOS-1 and UGOS-2 funding awards to plan for and facilitate coordination of efforts across the different projects. For more information about UGOS initiative, visit nationalacademies.org/ugos.

The National Academies' Gulf Research Program is an independent, science-based program founded in 2013 as part of legal settlements with the companies involved in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. It seeks to enhance offshore energy system safety and protect human health and the environment by catalyzing advances in science, practice, and capacity to generate long-term benefits for the Gulf of Mexico region and the nation. The program has $500 million for use over 30 years to fund studies, projects, and other activities in the areas of research and development, education and training, and monitoring and synthesis. Visit nationalacademies.org/gulf to learn more.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine. The Academies operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln. For more information, visit nationalacademies.org.

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