Is the giant oil plume in the Gulf really gone? Scientists claim hungry microbes ate it

Posted by Katie Machol Simon on Wed, Aug 25, 2010 at 4:00 PM

microbe

Remember the giant plume of oil lingering in the Gulf that was left in the aftermath of the BP spill? Some reports are saying that the Manhattan-sized plume isn't going anywhere for awhile, while others are claiming that it's been eaten away by giant microbes. Huh?

In the latest issue of the journal Science, scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) have given their findings on the 650-foot-high plume of oil that resulted from the blown out well. Their report is based on research done during a scientific cruise from June 19-28, saying that deep-sea microbes were eating the oil, but at a very slow pace and that it would be there for a long time to come.

Richard Camilli of WHOI's Applied Ocean Physics and Engineering Department, chief scientist of the cruise and lead author of the paper stated, "We've shown conclusively not only that a plume exists, but also defined its origin and near-field structure. Until now, these have been treated as a theoretical matter in the literature."

Okay, that's believable. But, get this: reports released in the last few days say that the plume has been "consumed by a newly discovered fast-eating species of microbes." (Reuters)

Inhabitat reports:

"The microbes responsible for the disappearance of the plume are able to biodegrade hydrocarbons much more efficiently than previously thought without significantly depleting oxygen like other known oil-eating bacteria do. One of the scientists who worked on the study, Terry Hazen of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said that the proteobacteria (a.k.a “bugs”) appeared to have been stimulated by the massive oil spill, boosting their ability to degrade oil in cold water and allowing them to chomp their way through the hydrocarbons so quickly that the plume is now undetectable."

The research team from WHOI was out at the spill site in June and had to head home because of the impending threat of Hurricane Alex. The well was capped in mid-July and Hazen states that the plume was undetectable just two weeks after the cap was put in place. To support this theory, Hazan is giving credit to a phenomenon called "marine snow", where super hungry microbes quickly feast upon hydrocarbons.

Personally, I want more proof (i.e.: underwater photos, more scientists' research) before I believe the plume is just plain gone. Funny enough, the plume is gone but there are still 4.9 million barrels of oil floating around and on the floor of the Gulf. Can we get some hungry microbes to take care of that, too?

Read more about the WHOI report here and the latest report on the plume disappearance here.

Information via Inhabitat; photo via Reuters.

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