February 20th, 2011 by Michael Ricciardi
Reporting her results from a fifth Gulf of Mexico expedition ending this past December, University of Georgia marine scientist Samantha Joye has been to the bottom and back, and her findings are anything but optimistic.
Her team has found numerous expanses of oil and soot covered sea floor that were “chemically finger-printed” as deriving from the BP Macondo deep sea well. The soot was the result, she believes, of the burning of oil, which then settled to the bottom with its load of toxic by-products. And, scattered throughout the toxic blanket: large numbers of dead brittle stars, crabs, and even suffocated tube worms.
Joye’s report comes as a bit of a surprise (even to Joye); previous studies commissioned by Kenneth Feinberg, the government’s oil compensation fund czar, were optimistic that the Gulf would “almost fully recover by 2012.”
“I’ve been to the bottom. I’ve seen what it looks like with my own eyes.” — Samantha Joye, marine scientist
Other studies (NOAA, DOE) asserted that “magic microbes” — petro-chemical digesting marine bacteria — had effectively eliminated most of the oil (note: the DOE study was funded through a BP grant). But Joye and her colleagues counter-claim that, in fact, barely 10% of the spilled oil had been “digested”, and that the remainder was still in the Gulf. Her team’s study was also more widespread (covering 2600 sq. miles) than the others and they took more core samples. This current study relied on 250 samples taken within a radius of the Macondo well.
A Microbe Mystery
Joye believes that something else is disrupting the oil decomposition process. That something maybe methane (CH4, a hydrocarbon gas) or the consequence of its injection into the water column and bottom ecosystem. Joye’s team also recently published a paper in Nature Geoscience, asserting that previous studies had completely over-looked the volume and impact of the methane that also spilled into the Gulf fallowing the explosion. Their study estimated that “up to 500,000 t[ons] of gaseous hydrocarbons [spilled] into the deep ocean and that these gaseous emissions comprised 40% of the total hydrocarbon discharge.”
The team’s analysis of water around the wellhead revealed distinct layers of dissolved hydrocarbon (between 1000 and 1300 meters) that exceeded the background dissolved methane level by 75,000 times.
Methane gas can compete with the bio-availability of oxygen (i.e., the water’s ability to absorb O2) and/or inhibit the metabolic functions of the bacteria that naturally consume oil residues. More in depth study is needed to show definitive evidence of what is interfering with the microbial “magic” and/or the role played, if any, by the methane gas leakage.
The results of this most recent, inventory were presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual conference in Washington.
Quoting Joye from an AP interview (see article link, below): “I’ve been to the bottom. I’ve seen what it looks like with my own eyes. It’s not going to be fine by 2012. ”
Read the original AP story ‘Scientist finds Gulf bottom still oily, dead‘ by Seth Borenstein
For more information about Samantha Joye’s work, visit her website: http://www.marsci.uga.edu/directory/mjoye.htm
For more information about the on-going effort to restore the Gulf, visit the NOAA site: http://www.gulfspillrestoration.noaa.gov/
Top photos: courtesy of the Univ. of Georgia
bottom photo: BP handout
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