ECOGIG Research Overview

The multiple corer coming back on deck, full of Gulf of Mexico mud. (c) ECOGIG

The ECOGIG (Ecosystem Impacts of Oil and Gas Inputs to the Gulf) research consortium brings together 29 oceanographers, marine biologists and biogeochemists from 15 research institutions.

Our ultimate research goals are to:

Quantify the impacts, fates and dynamics of natural hydrocarbon inputs, and of anthropogenic discharges such as deepwater oil/gas releases


Evaluate specific biological responses and adaptations to hydrocarbon exposure and to perturbations, both natural and anthropogenic.

Cold seeps, distributed globally along continental margins, are inputs of hydrocarbons to seabed sediments and benthic (seafloor) communities and the overlying water column. Approximately 22,000 natural seeps have been identified from seismic data in the Gulf of Mexico, and 1000 of these generate perennial oil slicks that are visible from space. Learn more about cold seeps.

Our overarching research concept is that the Gulf ecosystem is preconditioned by natural seeps to mitigate what would otherwise be even more substantial and widespread damage from hydrocarbon discharges through either natural or anthropogenic (human-caused) activity.

We hypothesize that exposure to hydrocarbons through seepage selects for diverse microbial capabilities and for organisms able to endure – or even thrive on – extreme hydrocarbon exposures. Variability in such exposure, whether through natural changes in methane gas hydrate (solid frozen methane gas) formation and dissolution, changes in the strength and direction of bottom currents, passage of tropical storms and hurricanes, or earthquakes resulting from salt tectonics, further contributes to the development of adaptive strategies at multiple levels of the Gulf ecosystem.

We aim to quantify how key members of the benthic (at/on the seafloor) and pelagic (open water, less than 200 m deep) ecosystem respond to natural and anthropogenic perturbations of hydrocarbon fluxes. To do this, we must determine the zone of influence of a natural seep. The rate of hydrocarbon release at natural seeps varies through time, so the zone of influence of a specific natural seep also varies. We are documenting the zone of influence at different natural seeps through our studies. This idea, and the pre-conditioning that seeps impart on the local biological communities, provide the conceptual foundations of the ECOGIG-2 program.

Because pelagic and benthic communities are connected differently to seep zones of influence, their responses to abrupt hydrocarbon inputs likely differ. Deepwater corals are sentinel species that depend on the successful processing and detoxification of hydrocarbons. We are investigating whether non-seep communities respond to hydrocarbon releases in the same way as their pre-conditioned seep counterparts. Additionally, we continue to track impacts and recovery in benthic environments affected by the DWH spill using state-of-the-art technologies. Our research is critical for evaluating the ecosystem impacts of natural hydrocarbon inputs as well as anthropogenic perturbations such as deepwater oil/gas releases, and specific biological responses and adaptations to hydrocarbon exposure.

ECOGIG’s integrated multidisciplinary research program will employ cutting-edge technologies extending from space to the seafloor to address four broad research areas:

1. Elucidate the biogeochemical dynamics, processes, and ecosystem impacts of natural hydrocarbon seepage in the Gulf ecosystem.

2. Quantify how hydrocarbons are incorporated into marine oil snow and evaluate its formation, dynamics and fate in the Gulf.

3. Determine the impact of natural perturbations on hydrocarbon fluxes.

4. Quantify the biological impacts of anthropogenic perturbations (hydrocarbon discharges and dispersant application). 

Our team is working at scales ranging from molecules to ecosystems, and considering fluxes from point source inputs to basin- wide hydrocarbon dispersal. We employ satellites, airborne platforms, autonomous vehicles in the water, deep-sea moorings, in situ cameras, towed optical systems, ROVs, underwater gliders and state-of-the-art in situ instruments developed by our team to attain a holistic and unprecedented understanding of the linkages between hydrocarbon fluxes, processing, fate, and impact in the Gulf environment.

To learn more about our different research themes and how they fit into the four broad research areas of ECOGIG, please visit the links in the research theme sidebar.


Research components of the ECOGIG-2 program

ECOGIG is Supported by

Our Partner Institutions