Gulf oil spill could widen, worsen 'dead zone' (w/ Video)

Jun 07, 2010
A NASA satellite image recorded May 24 showing areas of oil approaching the Mississippi River delta, shown in false color to improve contrast.

(PhysOrg.com) -- While an out-of-control gusher deep in the Gulf of Mexico fouls beaches and chokes marshland habitat, another threat could be growing below the oil-slicked surface.

The nation’s worst oil spill could worsen and expand the oxygen-starved region of the Gulf labeled “the dead zone” for its inhospitability to marine life, suggests Michigan State University professor Nathaniel Ostrom. It could already be feeding microbes that thrive around natural undersea oil seeps, he says, tiny critters that break down the oil but also consume precious oxygen.

“At the moment, we are seeing some indication that the oil spill is enhancing hypoxia,” or , Ostrom said. “It’s a good hint that we’re on the right track, and it’s just another insult to the ecosystem - people have been worried about the size of the hypoxic zone for many years.”

The dead zone is believed to stem from urban runoff and nitrogen-based fertilizers from farmland swept into the Gulf by the . Higher springtime flows carry a heavier surge each year, nourishing that soon die and sink. Those decay and are eaten by bacteria that consume more oxygen, driving out marine life and killing that which can’t move, such as coral. The dead zone can grow to the size of a small state.

With the spill overlapping a section of the dead zone, the impact on that region is unknown. As it happened, Ostrom earlier had tapped zoology major Ben Kamphuis to be on the Gulf in late May for a research cruise focused on nitrogen cycling. When the British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig blew out and sank April 20, Ostrom and collaborator Zhanfei Liu from the University of Texas at Austin quickly landed federal support to expand their inquiry.

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The nation's worst oil spill could worsen and expand the oxygen-starved region of the Gulf of Mexico labeled "the dead zone" for its inhospitability to marine life, suggests Michigan State University zoology professor Nathaniel Ostrom.

Kamphuis, a junior from Holland, Michigan, learned far more than water sampling techniques during his week aboard the Pelican.

“Down there, (the oil spill) really affects a ton of people. I really didn’t realize it before going, but after going on the trip I realized how much we can help the people in that area.”

With dozens of water samples now returned to the lab, Ostrom, Kamphuis and food science sophomore Sam DeCamp, another undergraduate research associate, are setting up equipment to analyze them in the coming months. They want to know whether the oil in the water will promote oxygen starvation, and if so, how.

Oil-hungry microbes can be expected to consume more oxygen from the water as they feast on hydrocarbons, Ostrom says. But the oil slick and chemical dispersants also could reduce the flow of oxygen from the atmosphere to the ocean, and possibly reduce the sunlight available to nourish oxygen-producing marine plant life.

Financial support for the project came from the National Science Foundation and the MSU College of Natural Science.

A jack of many science trades, Ostrom is on faculty in the MSU Department of Zoology and the MSU Environmental Science and Policy Program. He is a biogeochemist who focuses his studies on the interaction of organisms with their chemical and physical environments.

Michigan State researchers were in the right place at the right time to contribute to our understanding of the effects of such a massive oil spill, he says, pointing to the oil-eating microbes as likely the biggest, if unrecognized, players in the drama.

“We’re fortunate to have them,” he said. “They’re doing the cleanup - not BP.”

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User comments : 7

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ralbol
not rated yet Jun 07, 2010
What about the effect of a surface oily thin film, or subsurface oily particles, on water evaporation?

Less water evaporation? Less precipitation? Drought?

Just curious...
LariAnn
2.3 / 5 (3) Jun 07, 2010
I do wonder why, after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, didn't the oil companies either contract or invest in the production of stockpiles of oil-eating microbes to use in case of oil spills. Aerial spraying of trillions of microbe spores over the contaminated marshlands would be a more sensible way of cleaning them up than using chemicals or manpower. They would also work excellently for surface spill areas when combined with a nontoxic dispersant, preferably one that supplied oxygen to the metabolizing microbes. The rate at which microbes multiply would certainly be a big plus.
Loodt
1 / 5 (2) Jun 08, 2010
This report was posted on 7 June 2010, three to four days after the BP cap was placed on the non-functioning blow-out preventor. The cap is proving some control and capture of the oil flow.

To state 'out-of-control' at the time of posting this article is disingenious and we can only question the motives of the authors.

LariAnn, the microbes are alive and kicking and have managed to infiltrate diesel supplies worldwide. They have also found a way into domestic cars! That is why long term storage of diesel cars is not recommended.
Skeptic_Heretic
5 / 5 (1) Jun 08, 2010
I do wonder why, after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, didn't the oil companies either contract or invest in the production of stockpiles of oil-eating microbes to use in case of oil spills. Aerial spraying of trillions of microbe spores over the contaminated marshlands would be a more sensible way of cleaning them up than using chemicals or manpower. They would also work excellently for surface spill areas when combined with a nontoxic dispersant, preferably one that supplied oxygen to the metabolizing microbes. The rate at which microbes multiply would certainly be a big plus.

This is the reason why the deadzone is going to increase.

There are naturally occuring oil eating microbes in the sea. When they get a massive injection of food, in this case the oil spill, they're going to multiply as conditions are highly favorable for them. This means they're going to be sucking more oxygen out of the water than their species did prior due to the boom in population.
Skeptic_Heretic
not rated yet Jun 08, 2010
So with the realization that there's another leaking platform it makes one wonder:

Look at the world's largest discovered deadzones. They're all in the middle of oil fields or garbage eddies. We suck as a species,. Time to up our game.
Annphilip
not rated yet Jun 10, 2010
Planetresource.net has a Eco friendly solution to clean up the tragedy British Petroleum has created, please watch the video animation:
http://www.youtub...dQQQ3iVw and pass this along to as many people as you know.

One person can still make a difference in this world, is that simple interactions have a rippling effect. Each time this gets pass along, the hope in cleaning our planet is passed on.
cssninja
not rated yet Jun 18, 2010
Have you heard of oxygen-producing microbes? This microbe - Arch-Microbes by Amira EET - not only produces oxygen, but also can work underwater and prevent ocean dead zones. PRNewswire article here: http://bit.ly/c73DRK.