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Update on the Gulf's Missing Oil Plume

A new study confirming the existence of a massive plume of oil trapped deep underwater in the Gulf of Mexico defies notions that bacteria, while they are degrading the oil, will make as quick work of petroleum lingering in the water's cold depths as they have on the surface.

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Paul Voosen and Allison Winter, E&E reporters are following the Gulf oil blowout story with the researchers who are looking for the missing oil that is assumed to be floating across the Gulf in giant plumes. A widely hailed study has been published (August 20, 2010) in the journal Science, by researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

The Woods Hole report definitively ties the plume to the oil spill, by analyzing specific components of oil that are not found in natural oil seeps. The researchers found that "even if all of the natural [oil] seeps in the Gulf of Mexico were flowing into the plume," they would support less than half of the monoaromatics found in the plume.

Based on measurements taken in late June, the study confirms the existence of an invisible, finely diffused mile-wide swath of oil-infused water that snaked more than 20 miles southwest from the crippled BP PLC well, some 3,000 feet beneath the Gulf's surface. The plume may have stretched even farther, but the scientists had to cut short their late-June research journey in the face of hurricane threats before they found the end of the plume.

Along the plume, researchers did not find dissolved oxygen depleting at levels they anticipated, indicating that while bacteria growth was stimulated and likely degrading the oil, there was not a huge swell in microbial life. Bacterial growth can deplete undersea oxygen levels, creating "dead zones" that are harmful to other marine creatures.

"These findings confirm that a mechanism exists for direct hydrocarbon transfer into deep marine ecosystems," they wrote, though the larger implications for marine life remain outside the paper's study.

Due to their study's narrow focus on measuring monoaromatic hydrocarbons, it is impossible for the Woods Hole scientists to say how much total oil is in the plume. However, concentrations of monoaromatic hydrocarbons in the plume reached up to 50 micrograms a liter some 10 miles from the site, and elevated methane levels were detected more than 20 miles from the spill's center.

The Woods Hole researchers themselves said there could be greater microbial activity elsewhere. Christopher Reddy, one of the lead scientists on the report, likened the oil-spattered Gulf to a "buffet" for "opportunistic" microbes, which may prefer some compounds in the spread more than others.

"Look, any self-respecting microbe will want to eat oil; it's like butter," Reddy said. "But microbes are like teenagers. They do what they want, when they want to."

"The overall result is that we did not see a marked oxygen draw-down in the plume location at the well," said Benjamin Van Mooy, a scientist who contributed to the report.

In measuring oxygen levels along the plume, researchers found oxygen decreasing "considerably faster" than one would expect at those depths but "considerably slower" than expected at the surface, Van Mooy said. It means it could take a long time to get to oxygen levels low enough to harm marine life but that it might also be a while before the plume disappears.

Edited by Carolyn Allen, owner/editor of California Green Solutions
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