The Gulf of new Mexico may seem as rather inhospitable due to high concentrations of natural oil present in some of its regions. But according to researchers, natural oil seeps do not hinder microbial life at all.
In fact, in the regions above natural oil seeps, the population of microbes known as phytoplankton is almost twice as high in comparison to clear water regions. But this does not mean that natural oil in low or high concentrations is beneficial to microbial life.
Phytoplankton is an extremely important part of the natural food chain. It is generally consumed by shrimp which in turn provide a food source for larger animals. In some cases, this tiny plankton can even provide the necessary nutrients for larger species like whales or other plankton-eating marine life.
According to researchers, this phenomenon simply shows how phytoplankton has evolved in order to have a predisposition towards natural oil pockets. They present an increase in population numbers because the turbulent waters caused by rising bubbles and gas bring in more nutrients from below, increasing the phytoplankton’s food supply accordingly.
This finding was made during a monitorization of chlorophyll fluorescence levels inside these microbes. In order to further prove how phytoplankton can thrive above natural oil seeps, the increase in chlorophyll fluorescence was linked to satellite images and water samples.
But one has to take into account that massive oil spills do not benefit the environment at all. For instance, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill did not show an increase in phytoplankton numbers. This growth is present only where spills are made on a much smaller scale or come from natural sources.
Even so, by seeing how microbial life gets affected by oil surplus does indicate that some microbes can evolve rapidly in order to adapt to current environments. Besides this factor, chlorophyll fluorescence levels linked to phytoplankton numbers can unveil previously hidden natural oil sources across the Gulf.
Cleaning operations made after the Deepwater Horizon spill managed to remove only 21% of pollutants. But the remaining oil was spread out over a rather large region, lowering its concentration in various pockets accordingly. Once this occurred, phytoplankton started to emerge more and more in certain regions that presented a lower amount of oil per square mile.
Seeing how natural oil spills do not hinder microbial life by a large extent can pave the way towards a more efficient way of cleaning waters following an oil spill. If oil concentrations are kept low, they can even be seen as somewhat beneficial towards microbial environments, but only to a certain extent. It doesn’t mean that oil companies should stop circumventing oil spills in any way shape or form.