Life is returning to the Macondo well blowout site that resulted in the largest accidental marine oil spill in history, according to a research crew who journeyed to the well site last month.
Researchers from the University of Georgia, Florida State University, and University of North Carolina spent March 30 through April 22 in the Gulf of Mexico, looking at whether the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill was still impacting the ecology around the well. Andreas Teske, marine sciences professor at the University of North Carolina, told ThinkProgress that the research team found small invertebrates, including crabs and shrimp, were beginning to recolonize the region around the well. That’s a major change, he said, from the conditions around the well after the spill in 2010 — back then, the area was “completely dead.”
“In a sense, this is an improvement,” he said. “But it doesn’t tell us much about whether the animals continue to be affected by the oil.”
That’s another thing the research team discovered during their trips — the oil is still on the seafloor, becoming increasingly buried by layers of sediment. Teske said that microbes ate away at some of the most toxic compounds of the oil, but the elements of the oil that can’t biodegrade are creating layers in the seafloor. This layering is what the researchers expected to find — 1,000 years from now, Teske said, people will uncover this brownish-black oil layer on the sea floor and know it was from the Deepwater Horizon spill, “back when people still depended on fossil fuels.”
“The oil spill has become part of the the geological record,” he said. “Since one cannot take a gigantic vacuum cleaner and clean up this stuff, getting buried is the best alternative.”
Teske said the lingering oil creates a sort of “junkyard” for the benthic lifeforms that have returned to colonize the area — not the best habitat in which to live, but one that, for now, is adequate. The oil could become a problem if it’s stirred up by a storm or another disturbance and re-suspended in the ocean waters, however, so the less it’s disturbed, the better. That’s something Teske’s lab is looking at now — what could happen if the oil gets stirred up and re-suspended in the ocean again.
He’s also looking at the long-term timeline of how microbes responded to the spill. In fall 2010, microbes were “practically falling all over each other” to consume whatever parts of the oil they liked the most. As soon as the biodegradable parts of the oil weere gone, however, the microbe boom collapsed. Mandy Joye, cheif scientist on the trip, is also looking into this microbe reaction, to determine why other parts of the oil aren’t being eaten.
“There’s really nothing happening in these sediments; it’s just sitting there,” Joye told FuelFix.
The fact that the oil is still at the bottom of the ocean isn’t surprising, but it does provide proof of just how different the Deepwater Horizon disaster was from other oil spills. The Macondo well was located 5,000 feet under the ocean’s surface, so there was no way for cleanup crews to go underwater and clean up all of the oil that had escaped the well. That difficulty would be magnified if the same sort of spill were to occur in the Arctic, which Tekse — along with other scientists — said was not out of the question.
“It was an object lesson in what happens when an oil spill occurs deep in the ocean,” he said. “All one can do really is collect the tar balls at the beach.”
The Gulf research trip isn’t the only research still being conducted on the effects of the Deepwater Horizon spill — because of ongoing litigation involving BP, much of the research into the Gulf’s health still hasn’t been published. This month, however, studies upped the estimate of birds killed by the disaster to between 600,000 and 800,000 — a huge jump from the 3,000 dead birds that were found by patrollers, even accounting for birds who weren’t found. The findings are disputed by BP and some others, but some researchers have found the new estimates — though high — to be reasonable. And earlier this year, a report by the National Wildlife Federation outlined the impacts oil may still be having on Gulf species — though again, since much of the research on the health effects haven’t been published, the NWF researchers acknowledged they had a narrow pool to work from for the report.