Drilling Deeper in the Gulf

Drilling Deeper in the Gulf

The Gulf of Mexico is one of the country's true energy hotspots. It's also home to deep-sea organisms that are a vital link in the marine ecosystem.

By Amanda Mascarelli
Published: 12/18/2013

Then there are microbes. When the oil hit the surface, these microscopic organisms broke it down faster than expected in the Gulf's warm upper waters. It was a different story in the depths. Some of the crude fell to the seafloor in "oil snow blizzards," says Samantha Joye, an oceanographer from the University of Georgia. In the ocean, detritus and fecal pellets--which scientists call "marine snow"--continually falls through the water column. During and after the spill oil glommed onto the detritus, forming sticky globs and strings that eventually settled on the seafloor. At this depth the microbes are less active and therefore don't metabolize the oils. "The stuff is just sitting there," says Joye. "It's not getting degraded at all."

But it doesn't stay there. Bottom currents can stir up the residues, which then become re-suspended in the water column and poison the organisms that live there. Oil contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), compounds that, at high enough concentrations, can be toxic to sea creatures. PAHs--known to cause cancer and to induce changes in human DNA--also accumulate in tissues and pass through the food chain.

Just as determining a human patient's health requires reliable diagnostic tools, understanding the recovery of the Gulf's deep-sea ecosystems will require long-term monitoring and manpower, and sufficient ships and cruise time--all in short supply. "Any species that you want to name, we don't know how many there are and how vulnerable they are," says Ian MacDonald, an oceanographer from Florida State University.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill raised awareness about the value and fragility of the Gulf and led to critical research funding. In May 2010 BP committed $500 million over a decade to support independent research. The funding has made it possible for researchers to do real-time studies in the immediate aftermath of other pollution events, such as the blowout of the Hercules 265 drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico this past July.

Given that energy experts say future spills in the Gulf are inevitable without more stringent drilling regulations, there's no time to waste in discovering what's at stake.

Speak Up!

Tell your legislators to support further investments in long-term research programs in the Gulf. For the latest on this issue, go to the governmewnt's Restore the Gulf website.

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Amanda Mascarelli

Amanda Mascarelli is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and environmental issues. Her work appears in publications such as Audubon, Nature, High Country News, Los Angeles Times, Science News for Kids, The New York Times, and others

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine

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