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Fallout plume of submerged oil from Deepwater Horizon

David L. Valentine, G. Burch Fisher, Sarah C. Bagby, Robert K. Nelson, Christopher M. Reddy, Sean P. Sylva, and Mary A. Woo. Fallout plume of submerged oil from Deepwater HorizonPNAS 2014 : 1414873111v1-201414873.

“Following the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico an unprecedented quantity of oil irrupted into the ocean at a depth of 1.5 km. The novelty of this event makes the oil’s subsequent fate in the deep ocean difficult to predict. This work identifies a fallout plume of hydrocarbons from the Macondo Well contaminating the ocean floor over an area of 3,200 km2. Our analysis suggests the oil initially was suspended in deep waters and then settled to the underlying sea floor. The spatial distribution of contamination implicates accelerated settling as an important fate for suspended oil, supports a patchwork mosaic model of oil deposition, and frames ongoing attempts to determine the event’s impact on deep-ocean ecology.”

“The sinking of the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico led to uncontrolled emission of oil to the ocean, with an official government estimate of ∼5.0 million barrels released. Among the pressing uncertainties surrounding this event is the fate of ∼2 million barrels of submerged oil thought to have been trapped in deep-ocean intrusion layers at depths of ∼1,000–1,300 m. Here we use chemical distributions of hydrocarbons in >3,000 sediment samples from 534 locations to describe a footprint of oil deposited on the deep-ocean floor. Using a recalcitrant biomarker of crude oil, 17α(H),21β(H)-hopane (hopane), we have identified a 3,200-km2region around the Macondo Well contaminated by ∼1.8 ± 1.0 × 106 g of excess hopane. Based on spatial, chemical, oceanographic, and mass balance considerations, we calculate that this contamination represents 4–31% of the oil sequestered in the deep ocean. The pattern of contamination points to deep-ocean intrusion layers as the source and is most consistent with dual modes of deposition: a “bathtub ring” formed from an oil-rich layer of water impinging laterally upon the continental slope (at a depth of ∼900–1,300 m) and a higher-flux “fallout plume” where suspended oil particles sank to underlying sediment (at a depth of ∼1,300–1,700 m). We also suggest that a significant quantity of oil was deposited on the ocean floor outside this area but so far has evaded detection because of its heterogeneous spatial distribution.”

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