UI students return from Gulf research trip - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

UI students return from Gulf research trip

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IOWA CITY (KWWL) -- Two University of Iowa students spent the past week in the Gulf, to gather plant samples from saltwater marshes. They'll study how the plants are being impacted by the BP oil spill, and their natural abilities to fight the disaster.

But even getting the oil samples they need proved to be a challenge because of restrictions set by the U.S. Coast Guard and BP. One student, Elliott Beenk, said it's ironic they couldn't get close enough to the spill to take an oil sample with the millions of gallons that are pouring into the Gulf. But they're still excited at what this research could mean for rebuilding one of the most important parts of the Gulf ecosystem.

"That doesn't mean [the oil] is not down there, it's just that the areas we checked, it wasn't there," Beenk said.

Beenk and Aaron Gwinnup did gather samples of the plant life they'll need for their experiments, which will begin as soon as they can get an oil sample sent to them from researchers at Louisiana State University, which they are hoping will arrive within the about a week.

When that happens, Gwinnup says they can test the amount of oil Gulf marsh plants can withstand, and how much they can naturally break down.

"We use plants to break down all kids of different toxins. We've done PCB's (polychlorinated biphenyls, a kind of man-made organic waste), explosives, things like that in the past," Gwinnup explained. "If it's too concentrated, the surface foliage of the plant tends to die, but the root system underneath will replenish and regrow in time."

He says that could take years, even decades. But that's the long-term goal of this research: to help nature fight back against a man-made disaster, and to prevent further losses of salt marsh habitats, which are already disappearing due to development and erosion. The students say about 50 acres of salt marsh are being lost per day.

Because the conditions of a saltwater marsh will be challenging to replicate in a lab setting, Gwinnup says it could take six months to a year to get conclusive results.

The students are led by Dr. Jerry Schnoor, who says it's possible a second trip to the Gulf may happen in the near future.

Online Reporter: Brady Smith

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