Image: Lophelia II 2010, NOAA OER and BOEMRE
If BP was hoping that "out of sight, out of mind" would help memories of the Deepwater Horizon gulf oil spill disaster fade, news from an ongoing NOAA exploration of coral communities in the deep gulf sea floor could dash their hopes. The findings of a team led by Penn State Biologist Charles Fisher could also dash hopes that the large quantities of oil and chemicals released in the depths of the Gulf of Mexico left local flora and fauna largely unharmed. Fisher's team has found the first evidence of widespread coral death in the cold depths.It may be difficult to conclusively link the dead coral to the oil spill, but Fisher is quoted in an AP report on the NOAA expedition: "There is an abundance of circumstantial data that suggests that what happened is related to the recent oil spill." The dead coral was found at 4600 feet deep and south of the BP well head, the direction in which most of the spilled oil is believed to have dissipated.
An example of dead coral photographed by underwater robots at the head of this article shows colorless coral coated in a brown gunk. When coral is threatened, it releases a mucus coating that collects stuff in the water around the coral. Perhaps scientists can analyze this brown goo to see if any "fingerprints" of the deepwater oil spill are found.
The photo also shows a starfish, with tentacles wrapped around the coral. The starfish are symbiotic with the coral, and are commonly seen intertwined like this. Normally, the starfish would be gently waving its arms in the dance of life. But the white color of the starfish tentacles are evidence that the starfish also has died.
The vast area potentially impacted by the oil spill and the slow progress which researchers can make investigating in such deep waters virtually ensures that the full extent of damage to the sea floor will never be known. But the NOAA Ocean Explorers have an added advantage. Their project started several years before the oil spill, so teams can revisit areas that have already been mapped to investigate changes in the post-spill environment.
More on the BP Gulf Oil Spill:
BP Gulf Oil Spill Cheat Sheet: A Timeline of Unfortunate Events
The BP Gulf Oil Spill By the Numbers
Breaking: BP Spill is Over, Oil is Gone, Problem Solved
The 7 Stupidest Statements Made About the BP Gulf Oil Spill