Thursday, June 8, 2017

UNO Scientist Helps Dig for Clues to Underwater Landslides

University of New Orleans associate professor Ioannis Georgiou has been pulling the late shift in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico all week. From midnight to noon each day, the director of the Coastal and Environmental Hydrodynamics and Sediment Transport Laboratory at UNO is overseeing the collection of giant samples of the seabed near the mouth of the Mississippi River.

The goal is to understand more about what causes landslides under water. These so-called submarine landslides can be caused by large waves produced during hurricanes. But research indicates they can also be triggered by winter storms, cold fronts and possibly river floods—a phenomena that scientists understand less.

Georgiou teaches within the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences in the College of Sciences and is also director of the Pontchartrain Institute for Environmental Sciences. For the last three years, he has been working with scientists from LSU and San Diego State University to better understand how the makeup of the seafloor contributes to these landslides—events that have the power to destroy Gulf infrastructure such as oil wells and pipelines, which can lead to environmental disaster.

The scientists have partnered with the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which has provided grant funding, to undertake mapping the seabed in parts of the Gulf where landslides are frequently known to occur.

They have spent the week aboard the 135-foot R/V Point Sur, using various coring methods (multi-cores and piston cores) as well as a giant pipe and an 8-meter “needle” known as a cone penetrometer to collect samples from the ocean floor and to gather data on the seafloor’s firmness and squishiness. The penetrometer has sensors on it that measure how fast it takes for the needle to decelerate, giving scientists information about the nature of the seabed and how deep landslides could be triggered. Gauvain Wiemer, a postdoctoral researcher from the Center for Marine Environmental Sciences of the University of Bremen in Germany brought the penetrometer with him so that it could be used in this project.

Georgiou said the group—comprised of two teams of seven faculty and students—is working around the clock in two, 12-hour shifts to maximize the grant funding and collect as much data as possible.

Georgiou is co-principal investigator on the work along with Kevin Xu from LSU and Jillian Maloney from San Diego State. Samuel Bentley, who is also director of the LSU Coastal Studies Institute, is the lead scientist on the project and has been chronicling the team’s progress on Twitter with photos and video.

They expect to return to shore on Saturday.

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Ioannis Georgiou, associate professor, director of Pontchartrain Institute for Environmental Sciences, and director of Coastal and Environmental Hydrodynamics and Sediment Transport Research Laboratory
Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences