Natural Gas Dominates Gulf Plumes: Microbes Are Degrading Easily Digested Hydrocarbons First

By Raloff, Janet | Science News, October 9, 2010 | Go to article overview

Natural Gas Dominates Gulf Plumes: Microbes Are Degrading Easily Digested Hydrocarbons First


Raloff, Janet, Science News


The plumes that formed in the Gulf of Mexico's depths this spring and summer in the aftermath of the BP oil well blowout were actually only about one-third oil, scientists estimate, with the remainder consisting of natural gas.

In June, marine microbes were primarily feeding on propane and ethane gases in the plumes, researchers report online in Science September 16.

"We estimate that there's about two times as much gas sitting in those subsurface plumes as there is oil--and there's about a million barrels of oil in them," says David Valentine of the University of California, Santa Barbara, speaking by phone from a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research vessel in the Gulf.

Chemists had been trying to estimate how much oxygen might disappear as microbes degraded BP's spilled oil. It turns out that the oil is only part of the issue. "Probably 66 to 75 percent of the oxygen loss--maybe even a bit more--will ultimately come from bacterial metabolism of the gases," Valentine projects.

Microbes were not consuming much methane, a gas molecule that is biochemically much harder to crack than propane and ethane. That suggests that the most digestible components of the plumes were the first to be attacked by microbes.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The new research "is quite solid and something people will be taking seriously," says Benjamin Van Mooy, a chemical oceanographer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. …

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