History & Mission

A natural oil seep in the Gulf of Mexico, as seen from the submersible ALVIN. (c) ECOGIG

History

The April 20, 2010 Macondo well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico resulted in the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform and the death of 11 rig workers. Nearly 5 million barrels (206 million gallons) of oil and between 1.55 and 3 million barrels (65–126 million gallons) of equivalent natural gas were discharged into the Gulf of Mexico at a depth of 5,000 feet. ECOGIG (Ecosystem Impacts of Oil and Gas Inputs to the Gulf) is one of several research consortia awarded grants by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI), a 20-member independent research board created to allocate the funds committed by BP for independent research programs following the accident.

The ECOGIG consortium brings together physical oceanographers, marine biologists, and biogeochemists from 15 research institutions in a holistic effort to understand the fate and impacts oil and gas on deepwater ecosystems in the Gulf, and to chart the long-term effects and mechanisms of ecosystem recovery.

ECOGIG is currently in its second three-year grant period (2015-2017).

Mission

Our mission is to understand the environmental impacts of natural and anthropogenic (human-caused) hydrocarbon inputs on deepwater ecosystems in the Gulf of Mexico. Specifically, our goals are to: 1) quantify the impacts, fates and dynamics of natural and anthropogenic oil and gas inputs, and 2) evaluate specific biological responses and adaptations to hydrocarbon exposure and to perturbations, both natural and anthropogenic.

ECOGIG-2 Partner Institutions:

University of Georgia (lead institution and administrative unit)
Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences
Florida State University
Georgia Institute of Technology
Harvard University
Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University Earth Institute
Oregon State University
Pennsylvania State University
Skidaway Institute of Oceanography
Temple University
University of California Santa Barbara
University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science & Chesapeake Biological Laboratory
University of New Hampshire
University of North Carolina Chapel Hill
University of Southern Mississippi
University of Texas Austin

ECOGIG-1 (2012-2014) Accomplishments:

In contrast to natural seeps, the Deepwater Horizon (DWH) blowout generated a suite of unexpected phenomena, many of which were discovered by ECOGIG researchers. We were the first to document the DWH-driven “deepwater plume” and to examine its effects on Gulf pelagic and benthic environments. Diverse deep-sea, cold adapted microorganisms responded within hours to hydrocarbon exposure, revealing a remarkable metabolic potential of rare members of the in situ community. Rare microbial species bloomed, the community shifted to one dominated by hydrocarbon oxidizers and hydrocarbon oxidation activity increased impacting the Gulf's particulate carbon cycle and planktonic food web. Evidence from laboratory experiments suggests that dispersants shaped, and perhaps limited and altered, the microbial response. We aim to continue this work into ECOGIG-2 to offer a definitive qualitative and quantitative description of microbial response.

ECOGIG researchers were also the first to document a unique layer that carpeted the seafloor near and some distance from the wellhead. The origin of this layer was likely due to rapidly sinking marine “oil snow” particles with size of 0.5 mm or larger, formed by the discharge of DWH oil. The Thorium-234 content of the layer indicates a large event was associated with the DWH discharge, which strongly suggests that the presence of extensive surface oil slicks led to extreme sedimentation. The lateral and vertical extension of the layer suggests that sedimentation accounted for a significant fraction of the hydrocarbons discharged into the environment, adding a new perspective to oil spill assessment and response planning. This phenomenon was unexpected, and thus was not included in the official Federal Government’s Oil Budget. The impact of deep hydrocarbon plumes and of extreme sedimentation events on deep-sea animals was severe and the ultimate fate of the impact communities is still unknown.

The ECOGIG program has pioneered cutting-edge technologies to investigate the Gulf system. We have developed surveillance techniques utilizing low-altitude overflights and digital photogrammetry for quantifying surface slicks with centimeter resolution. A time-lapse camera system to photograph aggregates was developed to document the temporal variability in particle settling velocities. This system also recorded a large resuspension event in September 2012, when benthic material was redistributed up to 400 m above the seafloor. An autonomous video time-lapse system perfected during ECOGIG was positioned at active oil and gas seeps; custom image processing generated precise time-series that allowed quantification of seepage rates. We utilized new landers to continuously measure methane, oxygen, currents and physical parameters at the seafloor for sustained periods. We pioneered oil degradation time-series experiments at the seafloor with the MIcrobial Methane Observatory for Seafloor Analysis (MIMOSA), by mimicking the depositional environment during the oil spill and tracking the fate of this carbon over time. MIMOSA has allowed ECOGIG to measure for the first time in-situ rates of carbon degradation in the presence of oil. We have worked with Webb Teledyne to achieve real-time programming, rapid profiling, and recovery of Lagrangian APEX profilers; we are currently developing data processing procedures for the DEEP-LISST to identify marine snow, oil and gas bubbles. Finally, we have developed novel two-way nesting algorithms coupled to tracer deployments in regional ocean model simulations of the Gulf to numerically investigate processes responsible for water column transport at the DWH and natural seep sites.

ECOGIG-2 builds upon this work.
 

 

ECOGIG is Supported by

Our Partner Institutions