A new study finds that natural oil seeps in the Gulf of Mexico are helping, not hurting, microbial life.
In a surprising discovery, researchers at Columbia University’s Earth Institute have found that phytoplankton is actually thriving around oil seeps in the Gulf of Mexico.
That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to dump large amounts of oil into the water as in the BP oil spill disaster a few years back, but it does show the surprising adaptation skills of these tiny creatures that form the basis of the food chain, according to a UPI report.
Oil and gas is trapped in the rocks and sediment on the sea floor, and it occasionally leaks out an bubbles to the surface. When it does, it brings nutrients deep down on the ocean floor to the surface where phytoplankton can eat their fill. So it’s not the oil that benefits the phytoplankton, but rather what it brings with them.
So low concentrations of oil that come specifically from deep down below are helping these tiny creatures thrive, but exposure to oil at any concentration for a long period of time may still be harmful to them.
Scientists will continue to research the interactions between marine life and oil, and will look deeper into which types of phytoplankton benefit the most from this situation. Also, more research will be needed to better understand the path oil takes as it rises to the surface.
Researcher Ajit Subramaniam, an oceanographer at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, said in a statement that “this is the beginning of evidence that some microbes in the Gulf may be preconditioned to survive with oil, at least at lower concentrations,” adding that researchers can “clearly see these phytoplankton are not negatively affected at low concentrations of oil, and there is an accompanying process that helps them thrive. This does not mean that exposure to oil at all concentrations for prolonged lengths of time is good for phytoplankton.”