While researchers were analyzing the effects of a major oil spill on the microbial life in Gulf of Mexico, they found that natural oil seeps help Gulf of Mexico phytoplankton thrive.
Study investigators found that phytoplankton was twice as dense in areas dotted by naturally occurring oil seeps than in clear regions. Researchers concluded that oil, in relatively small amounts, may somehow benefit microbial life in the gulf.
The team was able to create a map of oil that either reached the gulf naturally or through man’s actions. Researchers were especially concerned over the environmental effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill from six years ago.
According to the research paper, which was published in the Journal of Geophysical Research Oceans, in the wake of the spill 4.3 million barrels of oil were released in the gulf’s waters. By contrast, natural oil seeps generate between 160,000 and 600,000 barrels annually.
Ian MacDonald, lead author of the study and oceanography expert with the Florida State University, explained that the new data helped his team put the 2010 spill into context. Although naturally occurring oil seeps’ effects are visible on a longer term, a man-made oil spill is more dangerous because it comes in large concentrations over a very short period of time.
Researchers also found that cleaning operations removed 21 percent of the spilled oil in 2010, but they also managed to further spread the remaining oil on larger areas across the gulf’s surface.
The map of oil will help researchers understand how oil seeps and spills affect animals living in the area. It will also allow scientists understand how various life forms adapted to naturally occurring oil seeps over time.
Ajit Subramaniam at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who analyzed the data of the new research, noted that phytoplankton looked healthier and twice as dense in areas marked by natural oil seeps than in areas with no seeps.
Subramaniam concluded that at least some microbial life forms may thrive in oil, unless concentrations are too high. The researcher believes that there is an underlying process that allows phytoplankton thrive when it comes in contact with oil from natural seeps. On the long term, oil seems to be good for Gulf of Mexico phytoplankton, he added.
To create the map, Florida State University researchers used satellite imagery of natural oil seeps, along with more recent data on the Deepwater Horizon spill.
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