Deposition and Biodegradation of Submerged Oil from the Deepwater Horizon

Friday, 19 December 2014
Sarah Catherine Bagby1, Burch Fisher1, Christopher M Reddy2 and David L Valentine1, (1)University of California Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA, United States, (2)WHOI, Woods Hole, MA, United States
The 2010 sinking of the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico caused the release of ~5 million barrels of oil to the deep ocean. Roughly half of this oil, ~2 million barrels, is believed to have been trapped ~1000-1300 m deep in the water column, in plumes comprising water-soluble hydrocarbons in the aqueous phase and water-insoluble oil particles in suspension. While the soluble fraction was subject to rapid biodegradation, the fate of the oil particles has remained unknown. Using 17α(H),21β(H)-hopane (hopane) as a conservative marker of water-insoluble crude oil, we have examined the sediment data collected in support of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process and identified a 3200-km2 depositional footprint surrounding the Macondo well. Under conservative assumptions, we estimate that this footprint accounts for ~12% of the suspended liquid oil. Monte Carlo modeling of the distribution of surficial hopane concentrations provides an initial estimate of the size distribution and spatial density of deposited particles, and suggests that the local spatial heterogeneity of particle deposition is likely to be extremely high, such that low-density sediment sampling is unlikely to capture the true extent of deposition. Thus, the 'missing' oil may be hiding in plain sight. Finally, we examined the spatial and temporal concentration distribution of >100 hydrocarbon compounds in relation to hopane, finding that, while there is clear evidence for biodegradation of many compounds, biodegradative efficiency appears to be impeded by high concentrations of oil, perhaps reflecting the low surface area to volume ratio of large oil particles.