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Abstract

The oil spill was the largest, longest-lasting, and deepest oil accident to date in US waters. As oil and natural gas jetted from release points at 1,500-m depth in the northern Gulf of Mexico, entrainment of the surrounding ocean water into a buoyant plume, rich in soluble hydrocarbons and dispersed microdroplets of oil, created a deep (1,000-m) intrusion layer. Larger droplets of liquid oil rose to the surface, forming a slick of mostly insoluble, hydrocarbon-type compounds. A variety of physical, chemical, and biological mechanisms helped to transform, remove, and redisperse the oil and gas that was released. Biodegradation removed up to 60% of the oil in the intrusion layer but was less efficient in the surface slick, due to nutrient limitation. Photochemical processes altered up to 50% (by mass) of the floating oil. The surface oil expression changed daily due to wind and currents, whereas the intrusion layer flowed southwestward. A portion of the weathered surface oil stranded along shorelines. Oil from both surface and intrusion layers were deposited onto the seafloor via sinking marine oil snow. The biodegradation rates of stranded or sedimented oil were low, with resuspension and redistribution transiently increasing biodegradation. The subsequent research efforts increased our understanding of the fate of spilled oil immensely, with novel insights focusing on the importance of photooxidation, the microbial communities driving biodegradation, and the formation of marine oil snow that transports oil to the seafloor.

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2021-01-03
2024-06-21
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