The Disappearing Gulf Oil Plumes Redux

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Now what do we do about the starving bacteria?

Remember the rosy scenario report by the Obama administration that 75 percent of the oil from the BP oil blowout had disappeared. Then a week ago came a somber report in Science declaring that the crude was still lurking Jaws-like below the surface in giant greasy plumes. This report provoked some policymakers and environmentalists to denounce the Obama administration for making stuff up about dire environmental situation in the Gulf of Mexico.

Now comes another research report in Science that says that previously unknown bacteria just love dining on the plumes with the result that the plumes are now completely undectectable. As Science News reports:

In May, researchers began reporting that the massive jets of crude emanating from BP's damaged Deepwater Horizon well were creating deep, diffuse plumes of oil in the Gulf of Mexico. Since then, chemical oceanographers have been probing the plumes for indirect clues about how quickly native bacteria might be gobbling up the oil.

Microbial ecologist Terry Hazen of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California now thinks he has a surprising answer: very quickly.

He's part of a broad team of scientists from two Department of Energy national labs and two universities that has been collecting plume samples continually for months. In a paper posted online August 24 in Science, the team reports data from late May to early June showing that those deep-sea plumes enticed a hitherto unknown cold-water–adapted bacterium to rapidly chow down on the oil.

Indeed, Hazen says, those bugs have been so voracious that for one plume of oil his team had been following, "within the last three weeks we no longer detect a deep plume. At all." It went away approximately two weeks after the well was capped on July 15, he observes. Its oil "is completely undetectable."

Also, the unusual population of oil-digesting bacteria that had inhabited that plume — and that would ordinarily be expected to stay with it as it moved — remained behind in a vestigial microbial cloud. "Doesn't that suggest biodegradation?" he asks.

Before celebrating this triumph of Mother Nature over heedless humanity, Science News notes that a lot of scientists reject this finding as too good to be true. Whole article can be found here.