Could oil seeping into the Gulf of Mexico actually be assisting the microbial life?

Oil and gas bubbles bring along nutrients from below the ocean floor.

On the surface, it would seem the seepage of natural oil or gas from the floor of the ocean would be causing harm to the life within the sea, but new research is saying that may not be exactly true, at least in small quantities.

UPI report says researchers from Columbia University’s Earth Institute have discovered that phytoplankton communities, the foundation for marine life, are thriving right above natural oil seeps in the gulf.  Natural gas and oil are trapped beneath the sediment of the ocean, and from time to time, the gas forces its way out from the bottom into the water.  This is noted all across the Gulf of Mexico, with the natural gas sometimes rising as much as a mile and forming bubbles on the surface of the water.

The research team has found the phytoplankton communities congregating near where the oil and gases are being released from the ground.  It seems the bubbles represent kind a call to dinner, as such, in that the bubbles bring with them the nutrients the phytoplankton feed on from below the sediment.

Ajit Subramaniam, an oceanographer at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, said in a press release, some microbes may be preconditioned to survive with oil, at least in lower concentrations.  He added it was clear to see the phytoplankton in this case were not being negatively affected by the low concentrations of oil.  He cautioned, however, this did not mean exposure to oil in large concentrations or for extended periods would not be harmful to the microbial communities.

The researchers stress that the oil itself is no benefit to the phytoplankton, but it is merely tolerated at low concentrations.  Study co-author Andy Juhl, an aquatic ecologist at Lamont, said the effect of oil is usually negative, but small amounts can be outweighed by the nutrients that are tagging along.

The researchers found the highest concentrations of phytoplankton were found just a few hundred feet below the surface of the gulf waters, where they could benefit from sunlight as well and the nutrients from the bubbles.

The findings were published in the journal Nature Geoscience.

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