Natural Oil Vents Help Tiny Phytoplankton To Flourish

  • Mary Nichols , Design & Trend Contributor
  • Jan, 27, 2016, 02:53 AM
Tags : science
Oil Seeps
(Photo : Getty Images/Mario Tama) A new study suggests that natural oil vents present in the sea floor could be beneficial to living organisms.

A new study suggests that natural oil vents present in the sea floor could be beneficial to living organisms.

The vents release hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico each year, but the study questions whether oil can benefit life, writes Christian Science Monitor.

The researchers also looked at the environmental impact of oil spilled in 2010 by the Deepwater Horizon.

When the Deepwater Horizon or BP oil spill occurred, 4.3 million barrels of oil was released into the Gulf of Mexico. This was much higher than the natural rate of oil seepage, which equalled 160,000 to 600,000 barrels of oil per year.

Lead author Nigel D'Souza, then a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University, was sailing over the Gulf of Mexico when he spotted chlorophyll fluorescence, which is typical of a certain species of phytoplankton.

He found that phytoplankton seemed to be abundant in the areas of ocean directly about natural oil leaks -describing his observations as "a eureka moment".

The researchers found that these phytoplankton populations were double that of populations found a short distance away.

"This is the beginning of evidence that some microbes in the Gulf may be preconditioned to survive with oil, at least at lower concentrations," Ajit Subramaniam, an oceanographer at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and coauthor of the study, said in a news release.

While it could be assumed that oil is reason behind the increase in phytoplankton numbers - researchers believe there is another explanation.

The very depths of the ocean are loaded with nutrients that are impossible to reach for creatures that spend most of their lives near the surface. However, oil seeps create bubbles that rise up from the sea floor - stirring and carrying the nutrients towards the surface.

It is the nutrient rich waters that allow the phytoplankton to create exist in such large populations.

"In this case, we clearly see these phytoplankton are not negatively affected at low concentrations of oil, and there is an accompanying process that helps them thrive. This does not mean that exposure to oil at all concentrations for prolonged lengths of time is good for phytoplankton," Subramaniam said in a news release.

The study was published in the journal Nature Geoscience.

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