The Center for the Integrated Modeling and Analysis of the Gulf Ecosystem

A tale of two Gulf spills: A research consortium of 19 institutions from 5 countries studying the impacts of oil spills on the Gulf of Mexico.

Using natural abundance radiocarbon to trace the flux of petrocarbon to the seafloor following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill

  • Tuesday, 07 July 2015

In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon accident released 4.6–6.0 × 1011 grams or 4.1 to 4.6 million barrels of fossil petroleum derived carbon (petrocarbon) as oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Natural abundance radiocarbon measurements on surface sediment organic matter in a 2.4 × 1010 m2 deep-water region surrounding the spill site indicate the deposition of a fossil-carbon containing layer that included 1.6 to 2.6 × 1010 grams of oil-derived carbon. This quantity represents between 0.5 to 9.1% of the released petrocarbon, with a best estimate of 3.0–4.9%. These values may be lower limit estimates of the fraction of the oil that was deposited on the seafloor because they focus on a limited mostly deep-water area of the Gulf, include a conservative estimate of thickness of the depositional layer, and use an average background or prespill radiocarbon value for sedimentary organic carbon that produces a conservative value. A similar approach using hopane tracer estimated that 4–31% of 2 million barrels of oil that stayed in the deep sea settled on the bottom. Converting that to a percentage of the total oil that entered into the environment (to which we normalized our estimate) converts this range to 1.8 to 14.4%. Although extrapolated over a larger area, our independent estimate produced similar values.

Ref: Chanton, J., Zhao, T., Rosenheim, B., Joye, S., Bosman, S., Brunner, C., Yeager, K., Diercks, A., Hollander, D. (2015) Using natural abundance radiocarbon to trace the flux of petrocarbon to the seafloor following the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. Environmental Science and Technology, 2015(49), 847-854.

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