The Wednesday Post 16/6/10

Oil Spil off the coast of New Orleans, the state that always seems to cop it. Get ready for hurricane season NO!!! (http://www.google.com/crisisresponse/oilspill/)

So, its now been 8 weeks since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico and oil started leaking at a rate now estimated to be 35,000 – 60,000 barrels a day, roughly 1,225,000 and 2,100,000 L every day. Those numbers aren’t even comprehendible anymore. If we assume an Olympic swimming pool contains two and a half million litres that means between 0.5 and 1 Olympic sized swimming pool, of oil, is leaking into the gulf every day!!!

Let’s be clear. This is no good. The benefits for any individual organism do not outweigh the costs incurred by the ecosystem. Having said that, guess who’s thriving…

According to a recent article in The Scientist evidence is mounting that surrounding the oil plumes, bacteria populations are gearing up for big boom. As awful as crude oil is for pelicans, bacteria (or at least those that can utilise it) view oil and hydrocarbon chains as tasty, tasty food. Whilst no direct evidence exists as yet for a bacteria population explosion (i.e. as far as I’m aware nobody has done a count) what has been detected is a drop in soluble oxygen within and around the oil plumes, arguably representative of bacterial respiration and growth.

Whilst this may seem awesome for the bacteria it throws up some very interesting problems. Traditionally bacteria occupy the lowest trophic level (lowest point in the food chain) in the environment. They are heavily involved in the decay and recycling of dead matter back into the food chain by consuming it themselves then being eaten by organisms higher up the food chain. But the bacteria have to pass through more ‘links’ in the food chain to reach the ‘higher’ animals than other resident of these low trophic levels. As only 10% (roughly) of the energy consumed by one link in the food chain is transferred to the next link in the chain this represents an enormous drop in the quality of the food for the ecosystem in the Gulf. Poor food quality requires increased consumption and often the loss of many species in the process.

The phytoplankton that normally fill the role of ‘bottom of the food chain’ can’t photosynthesise as efficiently in the oily water and so it’s expected that their numbers will drop, which is a major problem.

So what does this mean? Without the phytoplankton almost all the organisms in the Gulf will have no food.

However, one organism is expected to thrive alongside the bacteria. Jellyfish.

Jellyfish can feed directly off the bacteria and the bacteria can feed directly off the mucous secretions of the Jellyfish. Although it’s an outside possibility, if things get worse (and there’s every indication that they will) the ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico could be forever altered and a new ecosystem that largely circumnavigates photosynthetic phytoplankton could be established. How this change could impact on higher members of the food chain (fish, water and predatory birds in particular) remains to be seen.

JB, taking it down a notch this Wednesday morning for ya…

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3 Comments

Filed under James' Corner

3 responses to “The Wednesday Post 16/6/10

  1. “The phytoplankton that normally fill the role of ‘bottom of the food chain’ can’t photosynthesise as efficiently in the oily water and so it’s expected that their numbers will drop, which is a major problem.”

    Ergo:

    “what has been detected is a drop in soluble oxygen within and around the oil plumes, arguably representative of bacterial respiration and growth.”

    Thoughts/comments? Seems as though the decline of phytoplankton is likely to be responsible for the lower oxygen content, rather than the rise of bacteria? That’s not to say that anaerobic bacteria won’t now arise in the absence of oxygen. What beget what is the issue at play.

    Just sayin’

    • This is what happens with the limitations of a self imposed word limit.

      “the decline of phytoplankton is likely to be responsible for the lower oxygen content, rather than the rise of bacteria?”

      You’re absolutely correct. However the disparity is developing very quickly, too quickly for phytoplankton death alone to explain it. Also the oxygen depletion is occurring not just within the plumes but also in the vicinity of the plumes where oil is not obscuring direct sunlight.

      “That’s not to say that anaerobic bacteria won’t now arise in the absence of oxygen”

      I haven’t seen any reports of anaerobe populations changing but I would expect that they would rise alongside all these other effects in the absence of oxygen.

      As always Lumpy, your on the ball 🙂

  2. And it gets worse still…
    I just read a story about how the Gulf of Mexico is a perfect area for multiple algae to grow alongside each other. What does that mean, the algae produce antibiotics to kill each other and potentially other compounds of medicinal benefit. Oil = bye bye algae.
    read all about it here
    http://futurity.org/earth-environment/rush-to-sample-algae-as-gulf-oil-spill-grows/

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