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ECU Faculty, Students Reveal Impacts from 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in Recently Published Paper

Since the explosion on the BP Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010, scientists have been working to understand the impact that this disaster has had on the environment. For months, crude oil gushed into the water at a rate of approximately 53,000 barrels per day before the well was capped on July 15, 2010.

In a new study recently published by Geophysical Research Letters, ECU faculty and students, along with fellow colleagues at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, the Georgia Institute of Technology, Oregon State University and the United States Geological Survey, confirm that oil from the well made it into the ocean’s food chain through the tiniest of organisms, zooplankton. Zooplankton are a group of small (0.2-1 mm) marine animals that play a pivotal role in marine ecosystems because they form the base of the food chain.

Integrating financial support from the National Science Foundation, ECU biology graduate student, Ben McGlaughon; geological sciences graduate student, Kim Scalise; and undergraduate biology student, Jessica Snyder, worked alongside Dr. Siddhartha Mitra from the Department of Geological Sciences and Dr. David Kimmel from the Department of Biology and Institute for Coastal Sciences and Policy, to analyze samples of zooplankton extracted from the Gulf of Mexico during August and September of 2010.

Oil, which is a complex mixture of hydrocarbons and other chemicals, contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which can be used to fingerprint oil and determine its origin. By extracting PAHs from the samples, researchers were able to determine the extent to which oil and oil-derived pollutants had affected the ecosystems and surrounding airshed of the Gulf of Mexico.

“Our research helped to determine a ‘fingerprint’ of the DWH spill; something that other researchers interested the DWH spill may be able to use,” said Mitra. “Furthermore, our work demonstrated that zooplankton in the Northern Gulf of Mexico accumulated toxic compounds derived from the well.”

The team’s research indicates that the fingerprint of the Deepwater Horizozn oil spill could be found in some zooplankton in the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem at low levels, as much as a month after the leaking wellhead was capped. In addition, the extent of the contamination seemed to be patchy. Some zooplankton at certain locations far removed from the spill showed evidence of contamination, whereas zooplankton in other locations, sometimes near the spill, showed lower indications of exposure to the oil-derived pollutants.

The ECU students provided a great deal of support in researching and writing the recently published paper. McGlaughon helped collect the samples on a research cruise, while Snyder performed a majority of the extraction of zooplankton samples. Scalise assisted with the fingerprinting of the Deepwater Horizon oil. Snyder also assisted in the writing of the paper.

In continuing research efforts, all three ECU students, McGlaughon, Scalise and Snyder, as well as Mitra and Kimmel, are participating in a follow-up study to confirm if Deepwater Horizon oil compounds made it to the North Carolina coastline at any point after the 2010 release.

For additional information on the current findings, or for information about the follow-up study, contact Mitra at 252-328-6611 or mitras@ecu.edu.