A new study in Nature Geoscience by UGA marine scientist Samantha Joye questions the fate of methane released from the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf and provides evidence that microbes may not be capable of removing contaminants as quickly and easily as once thought.
"Most of the gas injected into the Gulf was methane, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to global climate change, so we were naturally concerned that this potent greenhouse gas could escape into the atmosphere," said Samantha Joye, senior author of the paper, director of the study and professor of marine science in UGA's Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. "Many assumed that methane-oxidizing microbes would simply consume the methane efficiently, but our data suggests that this isn't what happened."
Joye and colleagues from other universities and government organizations measured methane concentrations and the activity of methane-consuming bacteria for ten months, starting before the blowout with collection of an invaluable set of pre-discharge samples taken in March 2010.
The abundance of methane in the water allowed the bacteria that feed on the gas to flourish in the first two months immediately following the blowout, but their activity levels dropped abruptly despite the fact that methane was still being released from the wellhead.
This new data suggests the sudden drop in bacterial activity was not due to an absence of methane, but a host of environmental, physiological, and physical constraints that made it difficult or impossible for bacteria to consume methane effectively.
An ability to step back and see the big picture (bringing greater focus to the original view) is but one major asset of university scientists and researchers. Their goal is to gain a true assessments of any situaiton - not the quickest, nor the most rosy. Kudos to Joye, UGA and the research conglomerates supporting the work in the Gulf to follow up on earlier conclusions and keep attention focused on the consequences of this tragic spill.
Image: NASA photo of sunlight illuminated the lingering oil slick off the Mississippi Delta on May 24, 2010. The Moderate-Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite captured this image the same day.