Response management and damage assessment during and after environmental disasters such as the Deepwater Horizon (DWH) oil spill require an ecological baseline and a solid understanding of the main drivers of the ecosystem. During the DWH event, a large fraction of the spilled oil was transported to depth via sinking marine snow, a routing of spilled oil unexpected to emergency response planners. Because baseline knowledge of particle export in the Northern Gulf of Mexico and how it varies spatially and temporally was limited, we conducted a detailed assessment of the potential drivers of deep (~1400 m depth) particle fluxes during 2012–2016 using sediment traps at three contrasting sites in the Northern Gulf of Mexico: near the DWH site, at an active natural oil seep site, and at a site considered typical for background conditions. The DWH site, located ~70 km from the Mississippi River Delta, showed flux patterns that were strongly linked to the Mississippi nitrogen discharge and an annual subsequent surface bloom. Fluxes carried clear signals of combustion products, which likely originated from pyrogenic sources that were transported offshore via the Mississippi plume. The seep and reference sites were more strongly influenced by the open Gulf of Mexico, did not show a clear seasonal flux pattern, and their overall sedimentation rates were lower than those at the DWH site. At the seep site, based on polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon data, we observed indications of three different pathways for “natural” oiled-snow sedimentation: scavenging by sinking particles at depth, weathering at the surface before incorporation into sinking particles, and entry into the food web and subsequent sinking in form of detritus. Overall, sedimentation rates at the three sites were markedly different in quality and quantity owing to varying degrees of riverine and oceanic influences, including natural seepage and contamination by combustion products.
Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene
(2018). The Ecosystem Baseline for Particle Flux in the Northern Gulf of Mexico. Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene, 6(6).
Available at: https://aquila.usm.edu/fac_pubs/15390