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article imageMicrobes ate BP oil spill? Maybe, but the problem’s not over

By Paul Wallis     Aug 25, 2010 in Environment
Recent studies at Berkeley have led researcher Terry Hazen of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to state that the deep oil plume has been eaten by microbes. Others don’t agree. There’s not even agreement about how much oil was recovered.
There’s now a real war of the experts going on regarding the exact status of the oil and the health of the Gulf. Unfortunately, Hazen's public statement didn’t identify the microbe species involved, and until his paper is published, support for the principle has had to be qualified by lack of information about specifics.
Meanwhile, dilution, which is the other oil-dissipating natural process, is proving to be a major bone of contention among scientists. The level of dilution has direct environmental consequences for the Gulf. NOAA has also reported areas of oxygen depletion, one of the predicted scenarios for the aftermath of the oil spill.
(These are very fish-unfriendly zones, and only jellyfish can live in them. The potential for ecological issues including population crashes and re-population with other species is obvious. That’s a big potential problem for the Gulf fishing and leisure industries.)
For the people around the Gulf, this is a critical issue. The oil volume relative to water is highly significant in safety and health issues. There’s a lot of data to be processed, and the present state of conflicting findings is unfortunately a natural result of the process. Emphasis on one factor in specific studies may not address other data. If you’re looking for oxygen, you may not be looking at oil in terms of parts per million, for example. Consistent, agreed figures will take a while to emerge.
Much more virulent is the debate about the actual amount of oil recovered. What measurements were taken and when, as well as how to interpret them, are filling the pages of scientific journals. The main issues are the nature and volume of the deep water plume, and exactly what forces are working on the plume to break it down. This water is colder, and the combined elements of the nature of the oil, sea temperature (about 5F in the Gulf deeps) and the ability of microbes to process the oil are major issues.
More about Gulf oil spill, Microbial oil actions, Gulf mexico environment
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