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Information for the Public
Presented by the University of Delaware Sea Grant Program

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UD Faculty Experts

Dr. Thomas Church

Dr. James Corbett

Dr. Charles Epifanio

Dr. Richard Garvine

Dr. John Madsen

Dr. Jonathan H. Sharp

Dr. Christopher K. Sommerfield

Dr. Dominic Di Toro

Dr. Xiao-Hai Yan

The purpose of this Web site is to help address public questions and concerns about the

Athos I oil spill that occurred in the Delaware River on Friday, Nov. 26.


Research Contacts

University of Delaware

Dr. Thomas Church

Thomas Church, Professor of Oceanography and Chemistry, UD College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment.  Phone: (302) 831-2558 E-Mail: tchurch@udel.edu

A marine chemist, Dr. Church was involved in research on the Corinthos oil spill, which released more than 500,000 gallons of crude oil in the Delaware River near Marcus Hook on January 31, 1975. It was offloading a crude oil cargo when it was rammed by the Edgar M. Queenie. The resulting explosion and fire released more than 500,000 gallons of oil to the river.

“Our group performed research on tracing spilled oil in the Delaware Bay by using trace metals, as reported by G. Leon in his M.S. thesis," Church notes. "That other large spill, from the Corinthos during the late 1970s, was in the same vicinity as the Athos, and also carried a heavy crude/residual oil. Although there was not much oil seen below Pea Patch Island from surface slicks, our metal tracers (Ni and V), detected it farther south," he says. "That spill like this one was in the winter, and consisted of heavy crude that went largely to the bottom.  I doubt that there will be much if any impact or particular danger to southern Delaware coastlines. A much larger question is why single-bottom-hulled tankers are allowed in the bay at all. This would not be permitted in the European Union ports. We cannot afford to witness another large spill in the upper bay because of such short-sighted legislation!" "

In 1976 and 1977, UD marine scientists and graduate students published a series of reports, funded by the National Science Foundation's Research Applied to National Needs (RANN), based on their research on the Corinthos spill. They included "Field Investigations of Convergences and Slick Concentration Mechanisms in Delaware Bay" by C. C. Sarabun, Jr.; "Trace Metals in Petroleum: A Tool for Minitoring Estuarine Oil Spills" by Gerald M. Leone and Thomas M. Church; "Modeling of Oil Evaporation in an Aqueous Environment" by Hsiang Wang, Wei C. Yang, and C. P. Huang; "Remote Sensing of Estuarine Fronts and Their Effects on Oil Slicks" by V. Klemas and D. F. Polis; and "Computer Modeling of Oil Drift and Spreading in Delaware Bay" by Hsiang Wang, John R. Campbell, and John D. Ditmars.


Dr. Thomas Church

James Corbett, Assistant Professor of Marine Policy, UD College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment.  Phone: (302) 831-0768 E-Mail: jcorbett@udel.edu

Dr. Corbett’s background includes operating oil tankers in the U.S. fleet as a licensed marine engineer. He has degrees in marine engineering, mechanical engineering, and public policy. He has previous experience and training supporting the Navy On-Scene Commander with regard to spills and disaster response. He also is an active researcher and instructor in the area of marine transportation, environment, and technology policy. You can read a recent popular article about his research in the UD Messenger.

Corbett has detailed knowledge of the ships that visit the ports on the Delaware River and Bay, where they come from, and what cargo they carry, as well as major issues facing the marine transportation industry — from port security to ship pollution.

“The Delaware River is a major node in the U.S. Marine Transportation System, an extensive network of ports and highways that carries consumer goods,” Corbett says. “Some 67% of the products purchased by Americans move along this system.”

Trade growth projections remain strong, Corbett says, which means that concerns about port security, pollution, aquatic species invasions, and other issues associated with the 2 billion tons of domestic and international freight currently handled by the Marine
Transportation System are likely to become even more important.

“The system faces critical policy decisions that require an understanding of science, technology, economics, and the environment to help set future priorities,” he notes.

Currently, Corbett is involved in a cooperative study with Rutgers University to evaluate public-private incentives to reduce emissions from New York Harbor ferries. He is also leading research projects related to ballast water policy, risk assessment of whale collisions with ships, and energy use in marine transportation.

In recent work relating to cargo and passenger vessels, he determined that ships could reduce emissions by as much as 80–95% depending on the policies and technologies implemented. His research has been cited in policies developed by the International Maritime Organization and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.


Dr. Thomas Church

Charles Epifanio, Professor of Marine Biology-Biochemistry, UD College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment. Phone: (302) 645-4272   E-mail: epi@udel.edu

Dr. Epifanio has conducted over 20 years of research on the marine life of the Delaware Bay and Delaware’s Inland Bays, with particular emphasis on the blue crab, the bay’s largest commercial fishery. He also conducts research on other crab species found in Delaware Bay including the mud crab, a key predator of oysters, and the Japanese shore crab, a non-native species that now inhabits the bay. Click here for a research brief on Epifanio's current NOAA Sea Grant work, with colleagues Richard Garvine and Charles Tilburg, on developing a predictive model for the supply of larval blue crabs. You can read a recent popular article about his research in the UD Messenger.

“If the oil spill had occurred in early spring,” he says, “it would have coincided with striped bass spawning, which occurs in that area. If it had occurred in late spring, it would have coincided with weakfish spawning, which occurs farther downstream in the main bay -- but with associated upstream migration of juveniles. 

“If the oil spill had occurred in summer,” he continues, “it would have coincided with occupation of the region by juvenile blue crabs and adult male blue crabs.  These have probably (and I emphasize probably) already migrated to deeper water in the main bay where they will hibernate for the winter.

“Overall, I believe the measurable effects on the main bay will be minimal, but the local effects at the spill site will be serious,” he notes.

Dr. Thomas Church

Richard Garvine, Maxwell P. and Mildred H. Harrington Professor of Marine Studies, UD College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment. Phone: (302) 831-2169 E-mail: rgarvine@udel.edu

On the UD faculty since 1977, Dr. Garvine conducts research and teaches graduate courses on the circulation of the coastal ocean, estuaries and geophysical fluid dynamics. Among his accomplishments, he discovered the Delaware Coastal Current, which flows out of Delaware Bay and then turns right, hugging the coast. You can read a recent popular article about his research in the UD Messenger.

He provides the following analysis of the Delaware River and Bay's circulation:

"From our group’s study of the circulation and mixing of water in the Delaware Estuary (the Delaware Bay and the tidal portion of the Delaware River, which extends to the falls at Trenton, New Jersey) over the past two decades, we have assembled a coherent view of how estuarine circulation works in general.

The dominant source of current in the estuary is the tidal period (12.4 hr) rise and fall of the water level impressed on the estuary’s mouth by the tidal variations on the adjacent continental shelf. Typical tidal currents in the estuary are about 0.8 meters/second or about 1.5 mph. The mechanism creating the next rank of tidal current is the horizontal difference in water density between the fresh water in the Delaware River and the heavier water seaward in the estuary where shelf water has intruded at depth and mixed upward with seaward flowing fresh water. This force creates a strong conveyor belt-like circulation pattern in the vertical with the lighter water passing through seaward in the upper half of the water depth and landward in the bottom half. A similar circulation is established in a room with a wood stove in operation. Hotter (less dense) air rises and travels upward along the ceiling while (more dense) air sinks and travels along the floor inward toward the stove. Typical current speeds for density-driven circulation in the Delaware estuary are about 0.05 to 0.10 m/s or about 0.1 to 0.2 mph.

Wind produces current, also. Wind from the northwest induces a seaward flow for the upper 2/3 of the water depth and a landward flow in the lower 1/3 with typical speeds the same as the density driven flow. The directions reverse for wind from the southeast. But there is a special twist to the wind-forced current. Strong winds from the southwest impact the estuary little, as they are crosswinds there, while on the shelf nearby they produce coastal upwelling and falling sea level. This is imposed on the estuary mouth causing falling water levels there, too. In the reverse with winds from the northeast (as in a ‘northeaster’), sea-level rise results, often with coastal flooding. Currents in the estuary then reflect this water-level change by flowing landward in northeasters and seaward in southwesterly winds. The speeds from this action are a fraction of the locally driven winds discussed above.

In the estuary, the strong tidal currents themselves with daily and twice-daily periods produce a steady or very slowly varying current called the tidal residual. This flow is weaker at about 0.05 mph, but makes up in persistence by its long term of activity in transporting materials, including petroleum. Last in intensity is the current driven by the water added to the estuary by its tributaries, the largest being the Delaware River. This flow drifts seaward at all depths much like water running downhill in a rain gutter. Typical speeds are 0.005 mph or about 0.25 miles/day.

Averaging over the tides, we find under most conditions a net seaward flow, especially in the upper half of the depth. Most of the oil from a spill will be in this part of the water column, and we can expect typical current speeds of 0.1-0.2 mph or about 2-5 miles per day.

 Once at the mouth at Cape Henlopen, the flow continues into the waters of the continental shelf, but because of the action of the Earth’s rotation (Coriolis force) it turns right and continues to follow the coast of Delmarva sometimes as far south as the mouth of Chesapeake Bay.  We refer to this feature as the Delaware Coastal Current. If it originally was transporting oil at the mouth of Delaware Bay, it will likely distribute that oil while gliding along the coast. If southwesterly winds blow, however, sea level falls at the coast in connection with offshore movement of the surface water. This transports oil and water offshore with rapid mixing with coastal seawater.

Our group has applied a mathematical numerical model of the circulation and mixing of the Delaware Estuary and Delaware Coastal Current that has given good agreement when tested against field observations. We are planning to use this model to study mixing of fresh water from the Delaware estuary with the seawater on the continental shelf.  Then we will apply the model to the detailed transport of oil seeking to simulate a spill in the estuary. Results from this modeling effort are expected by 2006."

John Madsen, Professor, UD Department of Geology. Phone: (302) 831-2569 E-mail: jmadsen@udel.edu

Dr. Madsen provides information on an upcoming research project.

Benthic and Sub-Benthic Mapping of Delaware's Coastal Areas for Natural Resource Management: This project will couple the use of three acoustical devices to identify and map the benthic habitat and sub-benthic stratigraphy of the nearshore area of the western portion of Delaware Bay. For more information, please click on the project title.

Dr. Thomas Church

Jonathan H. Sharp, Professor of Oceanography, UD College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment. Phone: (302) 645-4259  E-mail: jsharp@udel.edu

Dr. Sharp has conducted consistent research sampling along the entire length of the Delaware Estuary (from head of tides in Trenton to mouth of Delaware Bay) for over 25 years. He also has conducted considerable evaluation of the long-term monitoring data from the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) (from head of tides to lower bay, 1967-present). 

"My research is on microbial biogeochemistry, specifically in relation to major biologically active elements -- this includes primary production, nutrient enrichment, and dissolved oxygen dynamics," he says. "The DRBC database is for water-quality chemistry. It would be possible with some current sampling to see changes in water-quality chemistry and primary production.  However, this is a time of year when biological activity is minimal.  Probably, it will be more important to assess the impacts next spring and summer; I will have a research cruise in March 2005 and DRBC routine monitoring will resume in March." For more information on Dr. Sharp's current research, please see his Web page.

Over the years, he has worked closely with DNREC (also NJ DEP and PA DEP), DRBC, NOAA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and the Army Corps of Engineers on various aspects of science of the Delaware Estuary.  He chaired the Science and Technical Advisory Committee for the Delaware Estuary Program in its planning stages (1989-1996) and was the original chair of the Board of Directors of the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary (1996-1999). He also has served on several advisory committees for the DRBC including water-quality modeling and monitoring. 

Dr. Thomas Church

Christopher K. Sommerfield, Assistant Professor of Oceanography, UD College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment. Phone: (302) 645-4255 E-mail: cs@udel.edu

Christopher K. Sommerfield is a geological oceanographer specializing in estuarine, coastal, and shelf sedimentary processes.  His research considers how sediment transport, accumulation, and erosion affect the geomorphology and shallow stratigraphy of the seafloor. Click here for a research brief on Sommerfield's current NOAA Sea Grant work. Click here for a pdf of the 2004 UD Sea Grant Reporter. You can read a recent popular article about his research in the UD Messenger.

In the Delaware tidal river and estuary, he has conducted geophysical and coring surveys of the bottom to map sediment types in support of both basic and applied environmental problems, collaborating with the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) and the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) on issues involving contaminated sediments.  He and colleague John Madsen, in the UD Geology Department, recently completed a major survey of the upper estuary, with support from the DRBC and Delaware Sea Grant. Please contact him for a copy of the report titled "Sedimentological and Geophysical Survey of the Upper Delaware Estuary." Most recently, with colleague Kuo-Chuin Wong, a physical oceanographer at the College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment, he has examined currents and sediment transport pathways in the estuary using bottom-mounted sensors.

In a new Sea Grant-funded project that will begin on February 1, 2005, Sommerfield and Wong will undertake a new project, “Sediment Transport in the Delaware Estuary on Tidal and Seasonal Time Scales.”

“In March, we are initiating another measurement program of currents and sediments in the estuary south of New Castle (sponsored by Sea Grant and partnered with the Delaware River Basin Commission)," he says. "We don't measure hydrocarbon in this study, but if the crude moves down-river we might run into dribs and drabs during instrument deployments. Net (non-tidal) transport is seaward in the spill area, so its transport to Delaware waters is very likely indeed.”

The following is an abstract of the project:

The Delaware Estuary suffers from some of the highest levels of sediment contamination among estuaries of the Mid-Atlantic region (EPA, 1998).  To predict the fate of particle-borne contaminants, it is first necessary to document the underlying processes of transport through the river-estuary system.  In this study, fluxes of suspended sediment in the estuary will be examined continually for a period of nine months in 2005 using a combination of bottom-mounted sensors and periodic shipboard observations.  In partnership with the Delaware River Basin Commission, the project seeks to elucidate mechanisms that moderate sediment concentrations and transport by quantifying the relative roles of river discharge, tidal currents, vertical gravitational circulation, and winds.  Time series datasets of currents and sediment concentrations representative for a range of river flow and meteorological conditions will be collected and used to improve the predictive skill of extant numerical models that track particle and contaminant transport in the estuary.

Dominic Di Toro, Edward C. Davis Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Phone: (302) 831-4092  E-mail: dditoro@ce.udel.edu

Dr. Di Toro has conducted extensive research on polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and shares these technical reports with other scientists.


Technical Basis for Narcotic Chemicals and Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbon Criteria. I. Water and Tissue


Technical Basis for Narcotic Chemicals and Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbon Criteria. II. Mixtures and Sediments


Technical Basis for Establishing Sediment Quality Criteria for Nonionic Organic Chemicals Using Equilibrium Partitioning


Dr. Thomas Church

Xiao-Hai Yan, Mary A. S. Lighthipe Professor of Marine Studies, UD College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment, and Co-Director, UD Center for Remote Sensing.  Phone: (302) 831-3694 E-Mail: xiaohai@udel.edu

Since he joined the UD faculty in 1990, Dr. Yan has pioneered the use of satellites in tracking a range of ocean and coastal phenomena, from El Niño to oil spills. This is a recent press release about his research. You also can read a popular article about his work in the UD Messenger.

“The detection, mapping, and tracking of oil spills are of critical importance in a wide range of emergency response activities after a major oil spill,” he notes. “This information, along with additional information on local environmental conditions and model output, can be used to devise protection responses and cleanup strategies. Knowing the extent and trajectory of an oil spill can increase the efficiency of the emergency response effort.

“Remote sensing techniques including Synethetic Aperture Radar (SAR) analyses and feature-tracking methods such as the maximum similarity shape matching (MSSM) method developed here at the Center for Remote Sensing in the University of Delaware College of Marine can help detect, map, and track oil spills. We will collect SAR images, perform image interpretation and analysis, and run our feature-tracking model if more than one image pair of data can be collected,” he adds.

A detailed description of the SAR imagery, analysis method, and MSSM technique can be found in this research article published in the Journal of the Marine Technology Society.

Yan, X.-H., Pablo Clemente-Colon and William Pichel. 1997. The Maximum Similarity Shape Matching (MSSM) feature tracking method applied to an oil spill observed in SAR imagery. J. of Marine Technology Society (MTS Journal) 31(2):8-14.


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