Sunday, September 5, 2010

Getting the full view...

I love reading Dr. Wile's blog ( and this post was just too good to pass up posting here. Thank you, Dr. Wile, for your great insight on this topic, among many others :)

Some Perspective on the Deepwater Horizon Disaster

The disaster at the Deepwater Horizon oil rig was horrendous. Let’s make no mistake about that. Because not enough attention was paid to safety and environmental concerns before the explosion, an estimated total of 4.9 million barrels of oil (210 million gallons)1 were dumped into the ocean. The oil killed wildlife and will probably negatively affect parts of the environment for years to come. With that said, however, I want to look at the disaster from a scientific perspective. If nothing else, such a perspective will give you a deeper appreciation for the wonderful creation God has given us.

The first thing you need to realize is how much oil seeps into the Gulf of Mexico naturally. Probably the best estimate done to date was published by the National Academies Press. It indicates that about 140,000 tons of oil (about a million barrels) leak into the Gulf of Mexico each year due to natural oil seeps.2 So the Deepwater Horizon disaster dumped as much oil as 5 years’ worth of natural seepage.

Now, of course, there are some big differences between the way the Deepwater Horizon disaster spilled oil into the gulf and the way the natural seeps do it. First, the natural seeps release oil into the gulf much more slowly. Second, they release oil into the gulf over a wider area so it is not as concentrated. Third, since no one is trying to stop them, there isn’t all the pollution associated with engineers doing everything they can to stop a leak. As a result, the natural oil seeps do not produce the environmental devastation that the Deepwater Horizon disaster did.

However, because oil seeps naturally into the ocean, you would expect that the ocean has a way to deal with it, and indeed it does. What we have seen already as a result of the Deepwater Horizon disaster tells us just how well the oceans have been designed to deal with oil pollution.

A recent study published online by the journal Science3 examined the dispersed plume of oil that came from the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and the authors note that the ocean’s “natural cleanup crew” is already working to reduce the effects of the disaster.

What is the ocean’s “natural cleanup crew?” Well, when it comes to oil, it is a host of bacteria that love to feed on oil. Remember, oil seeps into the ocean naturally, and that oil needs to be cleaned up. The Designer of this planet understood this, of course, so among the plethora of bacteria He created are those that can digest oil so that it doesn’t build up in the oceans.

When the scientists involved in this study looked at the oil plume, they found all sorts of these bacteria busy digesting away the oil. As the authors state in the abstract:

Here, we report that the dispersed hydrocarbon plume stimulated deep-sea indigenous γ-proteobacteria that are closely related to known petroleum-degraders.

So when they looked at the bacteria in the oil plume, they found ones that are very similar to other bacteria that are known to degrade petroleum. In the end, they say that the oil plume stimulated these bacteria. Of course, this makes sense. Give the bacteria more of what they want to eat, and their population will increase.

The details of the report are even more fascinating. They analyzed the genes of the bacteria found in different parts of the oil plume, and they found that those genes varied depending on the specific hydrocarbons that were in that area of the plume. Remember, oil is a mixture of chemicals that contain hydrogen and carbon (hydrocarbons), and the molecules range from very small to very large. Thus, you might worry that these bacteria are good at degrading specific hydrocarbons but will leave others untouched. That’s not what the researchers found. Instead, they found that different bacteria tend to be better at degrading different hydrocarbons, and each type is found where the hydrocarbons they are good at degrading can be found.

So the researchers conclude:

These results indicated that a variety of hydrocarbon-degrading populations exist in the deep-sea plume and that the microbial communities appear to be undergoing rapid dynamic adaptation in response to oil contamination.

So the “cleanup crew” that was designed to take care of the oceans seems to be doing its job and doing it very well. Indeed, it seems that the “cleanup crew” was even designed to adapt to the specific mixture of hydrocarbons they encounter, so that no matter what type of oil is spilled, it can be taken care of! The paper ends on a very hopeful note:

These results also imply that there exists a potential for intrinsic bioremediation of oil contaminants in the deep-sea, and that oil-degrading communities could play a significant role in controlling the ultimate fates of hydrocarbons in the Gulf.

So at least based on this study, there is a good chance that a large amount of the ecological damage caused by the Deepwater Horizon disaster will be mitigated by the incredible design of the ocean and its inhabitants. Does that let BP off the hook? Of course not! Does that mean we shouldn’t work to keep this kind of disaster from ever happening again? Of course not!

What data like these tell us is that the oceans were made for us, and even when we mess up royally, there are safeguards in place that will mitigate the effects of our mistakes. Let’s be thankful that God has designed our world so well, and let’s do everything in our power to make sure we don’t have to “test” His awesome design again!

1. Campbell Robertson and Clifford Krauss, “Gulf Spill Is the Largest of Its Kind, Scientists Say,” New York Times, August 2, 2010. available online
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2. Committee on Oil in the Sea, Oil in the Sea III: Inputs, Fates, and Effects , National Academies Press, 2003, p. 70 available online
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3. Terry C. Hazen, et. al., “Deep-Sea Oil Plume Enriches Indigenous Oil-Degrading Bacteria,” Science DOI: 10.1126, 2010, available online with subscription
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Jay said...

Thanks so much, Lydia. I really appreciate your kind words!

Lydia said...

Thank you for all the work you are doing! :)