How the Deepwater Horizon Disaster Gave One Scientist New Direction

Corals are fascinating animals. Just like there would be no forests without trees, there would be no coral reefs without corals.

(From The Conversation  / by Iliana B Baums) — Even in the dark, cold waters of the deep sea, corals thrive and a myriad of other organisms live in, on and around their branches. No matter where they are found, corals grow slowly and some species get very, very old.

The Redwood of the deep ocean is the black coral, Leiopathes glabberima (pictured right). Some colonies have been found to be over 4,000 years old. Yet, these deep-water corals are increasingly exposed to human activity associated with mining for oil and minerals. The five-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the largest spill in history, is a stark reminder of that.

In the aftermath of the oil spill, I was among the army of scientists who conducted experiments and surveys to document the impact of the spill and monitored the Gulf for signs of recovery (see in BioScience). However, I began my research career studying how tropical, shallow water corals react to a warming ocean. Field work consisted of scuba diving in breathtakingly beautiful coral forests.

The contrast to the deep Gulf of Mexico couldn’t be starker and this contrast was partly what fascinated me about the deep sea. How do corals thrive in the dark and cold?

Defining moment

The oil spill gave my research a new direction. I shifted my focus to study how corals respond to chemical stressors such as oil and the dispersant Corexit, which was used to turn the oil into smaller droplets in the aftermath of the spill.

Working with my colleague Erik Cordes at Temple University and our students, we found that in laboratory experiments corals were more sensitive to dispersant and dispersed oil than oil alone. These findings were just published in a special issue of Deep Sea Research II.

We sampled corals from the vicinity of the oil spill site in the Gulf of Mexico with a remotely operated vehicle and exposed them to a range of concentrations of crude oil from the spill site. We also exposed them to the dispersant Corexit 9600 used during the oil spill clean-up and mixtures of oil and dispersant.

Note: Iliana B Baums receives funding from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative’s “Ecosystem Impacts of Oil and Gas Inputs to the Gulf” (ECOGIG) program.

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