It seems that microbes thrive in the Gulf of Mexico due to natural oil spill that occurs in the waters and might actually encourage growth of the bacteria. There is a good side to oil where it concerns marine life. However, as it is in all things, moderation is key.
Researchers from the University of Columbia and University of Florida studied the effects of natural oil in the Gulf of Mexico, particularly the microbes known as phytoplankton. It’s an invaluable source of food for numerous animals within the waters. Many depend on its existence, ranging from shrimps even to whales.
Not just surviving with the oil, but thriving
Lead author of the study, Nigel D’Souza from the University of Columbia, made the discovery while studying cholorophyll fluorescence in phytoplankton cells. While travelling by ship, he noted that the population of phytoplankton was much higher in areas with known natural oil spills. In fact, water samples, phytoplankton study, and satellite images confirmed his theory. The microbes were not only surviving with the natural oil spill, but actually thriving.
D’Souza observed that the population of phytoplankton was twice higher in areas dominated by natural oil spills than regions a mile away. That led to their research which found benefits in the existence of the sleek liquid within the gulf’s waters. However, Ajit Subramaniam, an oceanographer from the university’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, underlined the fact that natural oil per se is not good for the phytoplankton. However, the nutrients it provides in the spilling process are.
The microbes are being fed by the nutrients brought up by the oil bubbles and natural gases that appear with the presence of natural oil. It helps the microbes thrive. According to Subramaniam, this is the first evidence ever discovered that there are some microbes in the Gulf of Mexico who are pre-conditioned to survive with oil. At the very least, in low concentrations.
In this case, they have observed that the phytoplankton, placed crucially at the base of the marine food chain, is not suffering the negative impact of natural oil. However, that does not mean that all types and amount of oil spill will be beneficial. The Deepwater Horizon spill back in 2010, for example. Huge amounts of oil seeping into the ocean is certainly not beneficial for the marine life.
Just the right amount
In the unfortunate accident, around 4.3 million barrels of oil slipped into the Gulf of Mexico. Natural oil, on the other hand, seeps between 160,000 and 600,000 barrels each year. That spill is also spread over time, so it’s not all seeping into the waters at the same time. It covers up to 62 square miles (100 km2) which can disappear in just a week. That was not the case for the Deepwater Horizon spill. It was too much and too quick to be beneficial.
So, there are parts of natural oil spills, specifically the nutrients brought up by bubbles and gases, that feed the phytoplankton and double their population in concentration. However, too much and the negative effects will start to show.
Researchers now plan on conducting further study to see if all types of phytoplankton react the same way to natural oil.
Image source: nasa.gov