Gulf Oil Spill Disappearing

Gulf Oil Spill Disappearing Quickly

On April 20, 2010 a massive explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling well caused 4.9 million barrels of oil to spill into the Gulf of Mexico from BP’s Macondo well. The explosion killed 11 workers and injured 17 others. Eventually they stopped the leak by capping the wellhead, but not before causing widespread harm to wildlife, marine life, and the Gulf’s fishing and tourism industries. The wetlands, estuaries, barrier islands and hundreds of miles of beaches also needed protection. BP used a combination of Skimmer ships, sand-filled barricades, floating containment booms and anchored barriers to help stop the advancing oil slick. An unusual and unexpected development seems to have occurred that is helping clean up the oil spill.

Of the 4.9 million barrels of oil that leaked into the gulf about 40% of it will evaporate. Of the remaining 60% some of it will naturally breakdown and disperse. Some will be cleaned up with skimmer ships and other man-made devices. The remainder will wind up on our shores and on the backs of birds and sea mammals. The big surprise is that an unknown species of bacteria had been discovered that is not just eating the oil, but eating it efficiently

On May 15, 2010, researchers aboard the RV Pelican, discovered deep underwater oil plumes in the gulf. They are located at various depths. One such plume is believed to be 10 miles long, 3 miles wide and 300 feet thick. These plumes are lingering at depths as shallow as 2,300 feet and as deep as 4,500 feet.

According to Terry Hazen, a microbial ecologist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and principal investigator at the Energy Biosciences Institute, these plumes they discovered are completely disappearing thanks to these cold-loving, oil-munching bugs. It appears after searching for three weeks they have no longer been able to find the plumes. It also appears that the oil plumes have been completely biodegraded and diluted out much the same as the surface oil. The researchers are not 100% sure that these plumes are gone, but they have been unable to locate them.

What the researchers do know is that from the very beginning BP had been heavily using dispersant to break down the leaking oil. In the past these organisms had evolved to feed on these naturally occurring oil leaks that had seeped from the ocean floor. What they didn’t know and what they may have accidentally stumbled upon is that these organisms that had evolved over time to feed on natural oil seeps, when presented with this overwhelming natural disaster, suddenly sprang into action and started to reproduce at a an exponential rate to compensate for the vast amount of oil that was leaking into the ocean.

In conclusion, although it is great news that this oil eating bacteria has greatly reduced the amount of oil in the ocean this saga is far from over. There is still plenty of oil out there.  There is also danger from the toxicity from some of the hydrocarbon elements produced as a result of this. Nature in its infinite wisdom may have helped us dodge another bullet for the time being. As responsible caretakers of the planet we still need to be more accountable when it comes to the safety of our environment and the different species that we share it with.