The first decade of scientific insights from the Deepwater Horizon oil release

Abstract

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster remains the largest single accidental release of oil and gas into the ocean. During the 87-day release, scientists used oceanographic tools to collect wellhead oil and gas samples, interrogate microbial community shifts and activities, and track the chemical composition of dissolved oil in the ocean’s interior. In the decade since the disaster, field and laboratory investigations studied the physics and chemistry of irrupted oil and gas at high pressure and low temperature, the role of chemical dispersants in oil composition and microbial hydrocarbon degradation, and the impact of combined oil, gas and dispersants on the flora and fauna of coastal and deep-sea environments. The multi-faceted, multidisciplinary scientific response to the released oil, gas and dispersants culminated in a better understanding of the environmental factors that influence the short-term and long-term fate and transport of oil in marine settings. In this Review, we summarize the unique aspects of the Deepwater Horizon release and highlight the advances in oil chemistry and microbiology that resulted from novel applications of emerging technologies. We end with an outlook on the applicability of these findings to possible oil releases in future deep-sea drilling locations and newly-opened high-latitude shipping lanes.

Key points

  • The Deepwater Horizon (DWH) disaster was the largest single accidental release of oil and gas to the ocean. Over 87 days, oil, gas and dispersants impacted 11,000 km2 of ocean surface and 2,000 km of coastline.

  • The application of subsurface dispersants was unique to the DWH disaster. Empirical observations, laboratory data and modelling efforts offer conflicting conclusions as to whether dispersants reduced the sea surface expression of released oil.

  • The DWH disaster was the first wide-scale environmental application of emerging systems biology tools based on microbial gene analysis. These tools provided unprecedented insights into the identity, structure, growth dynamics, succession and overall response of microbial communities to oil, gas and dispersant release to marine ecosystems.

  • Advanced analytical chemistry technologies provided novel information regarding source oil composition, biodegradation, photochemical oxidation, water-column processes, accurate measurements of biomarkers and identification of oil weathering products.

  • The Gulf of Mexico coastline and deep ocean were contaminated with oil, gas and dispersants to differing degrees. In many cases, coastal ecosystems recovered as predicted based on previous oil release studies, whereas, in others, the disaster combined with other stressors to deleterious effect. Examination of the disaster’s impacts on the deep sea, and its ongoing recovery, continue.

  • Insights from the first decade of DWH-related research underscore the need for integrated analytical platforms and data synthesis to understand the complexities of the environmental responses to oil, gas and dispersant release. The spill science community must be ready to work collaboratively across academia, industry and government during possible future oil releases in the deep sea and high latitudes.

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Fig. 1: Oil and gas release in the Gulf of Mexico during the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
Fig. 2: Integration of technologies used in Deepwater Horizon oil spill response.
Fig. 3: Distribution of Deepwater Horizon hydrocarbons in three primary reservoirs in the Gulf of Mexico.
Fig. 4: Schematic of subsurface intrusion, microbial succession and flocculent material.
Fig. 5: Analysis of Deepwater Horizon oil and field sample chemical compositions.
Fig. 6: Comparison of marine ecosystems.

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Acknowledgements

The authors thank DWH-related funding for establishing collaborations and conversations that enabled this manuscript (the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative to E.B.K., R.P.R., C.M.R. and H.K.W.; a Henry Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award to H.K.W.; an Early Career Research Fellowship and a Collaborators Grant from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine Gulf Research Program to JCT; the National Science Foundation to E.B.K. (OCE-1045811), CMR (OCE-1634478 and OCE-1756242), and DLV (OCE-1756947 and OCE-1635562)). Work performed at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory ICR User Facility is supported by the National Science Foundation Division of Chemistry through Cooperative Agreement DMR-1644779, and the State of Florida. The authors thank their research groups and collaborators for spirited discussions and constructive comments on the paper, and Dr Christoph Aeppli for constructive discussions and assistance with conceptualization of figures.

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Glossary

Dispersants

Chemical mixtures used during oil spill response to break up and decrease the size of oil slicks or oil droplets so that they more easily mix with water.

Amphiphilic

A chemical compound that has both hydrophilic and hydrophobic properties.

Photo-oxidation

A chemical modification reaction resulting from the absorption of light in the presence of oxygen.

Metagenomics

The study of the genes (DNA) present in a mixed community, which provides an assessment of metabolic potential in that community.

Metatranscriptomics

The study of the transcripts (RNA) present in a community, which provides a snapshot of the genes being expressed at the time of sampling.

Stable isotope probing

(SIP). A technique to trace the microbial consumption of a substrate through the examination of the stable isotopic composition of the substrate and the resulting biomass of the consumer.

Flocs

Masses of loosely-associated particles formed from the aggregation of minerals and organic particles suspended in water.

Saturated hydrocarbons

Chemical compounds that are comprised of carbon and hydrogen (hydrocarbons) in which all carbon–carbon bonds are single bonds.

Denitrification

A multistep microbial process that reduces nitrate to molecular nitrogen.

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Kujawinski, E.B., Reddy, C.M., Rodgers, R.P. et al. The first decade of scientific insights from the Deepwater Horizon oil release. Nat Rev Earth Environ 1, 237–250 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43017-020-0046-x

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