Scientists report they have "compelling evidence" that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill has impacted deep-sea corals. Their study, published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA ("Impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on a deep-water coral community in the Gulf of Mexico") utilized a wide range of underwater vehicles, including the submarine Alvin, to investigate the corals and comprehensive two-dimensional gas chromatography to determine precisely the source of petroleum hydrocarbons found.
The lead author of the study, Assistant Professor of Chemistry Helen White, was part of a diverse team of researchers, led by Charles Fisher from Penn State University, that included Erik Cordes from Temple University and Timothy Shank and Christopher German from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), which operates the Navy-owned submersible Alvin. Fisher, Cordes, Shank and German are co-authors of the study, along with 10 other scientists from WHOI, Penn State, Temple and the U.S. Geological Survey.
The study's findings are significant for a number of reasons, White says. "These biological communities in the deep Gulf of Mexico are separated from human activity at the surface by 4,000 feet of water. We would not expect deepwater corals to be impacted by a typical oil spill. But the sheer magnitude of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and its release at depth make it very different than a tanker running aground and spilling its contents. Because of the unprecedented nature of the spill, we have learned that its impacts are more far reaching than those arising from smaller spills that occur on the surface."
The study grew out of an initial research cruise to the Gulf led by Fisher in late October 2010approximately six months after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. This expedition was part of an ongoing study funded by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
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Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution