Our oceans are in trouble. What happened in the past can affect the future. More than 200 million gallons of oil is estimated to have spilled into the Gulf after the April 20 blowout at BP’s Deepwater Horizon, an incident which also killed 11 people. While the surface of the Gulf now looks clean and most of the beaches have been cleared of oil as well, there’s still a lot of oil out there–The explosion left an oil slick on the ocean floor. Will this be a problem in the future?

New research shows that a cloud of oil exists deep below the surface. It’s relatively small: less than 1% of the total amount of oil that was spilled. Researcher Martin Preston doesn’t think this will create a fish-killing dead zone in the area. In BBC News, Pallab Ghosh quotes Preston as saying, “Oil plumes are normally broken up by microscopic organisms in a process that uses up oxygen in the sea water.”

A group of engineers are studying how naturally occurring microbes can best be used to eat away remaining crude oil spilled in the Gulf of Mexico. Fueled by oxygen, naturally occurring bacteria can slowly destroy blobs and slicks of crude oil without the use of additional chemicals. They hope to determine if the shape of crude oil remnant (whether it’s a flat syrupy sheet or a tar ball) can affect deterioration rates. The researchers also will study how a lack of oxygen can hinder microbe growth.

Researcher Mark Widdowson says, “This research has the potential for improving our understanding of the long-term persistence of chemicals in the environment. In terms of clean up, there are many problems left to solve regarding the most toxic and recalcitrant pollutants that dissolve out of liquid sources, not just associated with oil spills, but at industrial sites, etc.”

Researcher Amy Pruden-Bagchi says, “There are some reports in Alaska, where you can dig a few inches in the ground and find oil left over from the [1989] Exxon Valdez spill,” (which spilled anywhere from 11 million to 32 million gallons of crude oil in the Prince William Sound). “Limited oxygen is a big part of the problem.” If oxygen levels remain low in high-chemical-use areas, microbes likely will not grow fast.

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