When millions of gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico four years ago, so did large volumes of methane, or natural gas. Researchers from two Florida universities have now confirmed that the methane has entered the Gulf’s food web.
“All this methane was released into the Gulf and then in a few months, it disappeared,” said Jeffrey Chanton, a professor at Florida State University. “What happened to it? It got absorbed by bacteria and that bacteria got incorporated into the food web.”
His study reports that 28 per cent to 43 per cent of the carbon found in the tiny floating particles which are ubiquitous in the Gulf is related to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and derived from the uptake of spill-methane by bacteria.
According to Chanton, the presence of methane is not cause for alarm because it has an overall benign impact on the food that makes it from the sea to people’s dinner tables.
Nevertheless, it is of importance to oceanographers and ecologists because the population of methane-eating bacteria bloomed when the oil and gas spill occurred and were very efficient in converting the gas into biomass. That energy efficient process is significant because it also provides for a symbiotic relationship between the bacteria and certain deep-sea creatures, particularly mussels.
This study was the first large-scale research done on the region, and there remains insufficient baseline data on the ecology of the Gulf. This makes it difficult to get a total picture of the damages resulting from the oil spill, explains Chanton.