Scientists Study Oil Spill Effects on Deep Sea Ecosystems

  • Research & Development

Scientists from the University of Aberdeen are due to sail to the North Atlantic to test research equipment that will help improve the understanding of how deep ocean ecosystems function and respond to an oil spill.

The multi-autoclave-coring and experimentation unit (MAC-EXP), which has been developed at the University’s Oceanlab facility and funded through a £500,000 grant from the National Environmental Research Council, will enable researchers to test the ability of organisms found in deep water environments to deal with the effects of a spill.

The experiments will take place aboard the deep-sea research vessel RRS Discovery, which will sail to the North Atlantic continental margins on May 13th.

Professor Ursula Witte, who is leading the research, said: “The Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico was a stark reminder of the risks attached to human activity in largely unknown extreme environments, and it was estimated that up to 1.1 million barrels of leaked oil may have accumulated in the sediment, contaminating a massive area of the sea floor.

“With oil and gas exploration taking place in deeper waters there is an urgent need to improve our understanding of deep-sea ecosystems to assess the potential impact and implications of these activities, to ensure the adequate management of deep-sea biodiversity and natural resources.

“Most deep-sea organisms live in the so-called piezosphere, the volume of the deep sea that is over 1000 metres in depth and at pressures of 10MPa or more, and it is the combination of inaccessibility as well as the sensitivity of organisms to depressurisation that account for our limited knowledge of the deep ocean ecosystem. MAC-EXP will help to improve our understanding.”

Dr. Stewart Chalmers, technical director of Oceanlab, added: “MAC-EXP is a unique system that is designed to enable us to capture accurate data on the ability of organisms to recover from major spills, by allowing us to remove sediment from the sea floor and keep it under the same conditions through an uninterrupted pressure chain that allows tests to be carried out at realistic environmental conditions.

“Our hope is that the system will mark a major step forward in our ability to understand the ability of organisms found in deep ocean environments to recover from a major spill.”

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