More Good News for the Gulf!

Oil slick from the Deepwater Horizon spill as seen by a NASA satellite (public domain image)

In September, I discussed some of the scientific findings regarding the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that spewed hundreds of millions of gallons of water into the Gulf of Mexico. Those findings were quite encouraging. They showed that the ocean’s natural “cleanup crew” was busy trying to mitigate the damage that we did to the gulf. They demonstrated that the populations of bacteria rose and fell depending on what kinds of hydrocarbons were present in the ocean. This demonstrated there was a good chance that bacteria could take care of most of the oil that was released into the Gulf.

There was one nagging problem, however. While many of the hydrocarbons that were released into the Gulf were being destroyed by bacteria, the lightest hydrocarbon (methane) seemed to be persisting stubbornly. A study of the lighter hydrocarbons in the Gulf, which was published in October of last year, showed that very little methane from the spill had been destroyed.1 In fact, one of the authors of the study said that the results indicated:

methane would persist for many, many years, if not almost a decade.2

Well, it turns out that this particular scientist (and those who agreed with him) just didn’t have enough faith in the ocean’s natural cleanup crew!

The same team revisited the Gulf just two months later, and the story had completely changed. They checked 200 different sites, and they found no methane from the oil spill. In fact, the amount of methane in the spill zone was actually lower than the levels of methane that are typical for the Gulf when no oil has been spilled!3 So not only has the Gulf’s natural cleanup crew taken care of the methane, they left that part of the Gulf cleaner than the rest of the Gulf, at least when it comes to methane!

Now think about that for a moment. Using our best knowledge of science and our best experimental techniques, it was determined that the methane from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill would persist in the Gulf for years, if not a decade. However, just two months after that analysis was made we can’t find any methane from the spill still in the Gulf!

What can explain this dramatic turnaround? The answer is quite simple. When a huge new bacterial food supply (like oil) enters a part of the ocean, the bacteria that can most effectively take advantage of it become the dominant population. So initially, the bacteria that digested large hydrocarbons thrived in the spilled oil. However, because the oil spill was eventually stopped, the amount of large hydrocarbons was finite. As time went on, then, the bacteria that digest large hydrocarbons ran out of food and died out, which allowed other bacteria to move in and digest other hydrocarbons. Eventually, we got to the point where methane was the main thing left, so the methane-digesting bacteria finally got to start on their part of the cleanup job.

I find two “take home messages” in this situation. First, when it comes to ecosystems, you have to be very skeptical when scientists make predictions about what will happen in the future. We just don’t know a lot about the dynamics of ecosystems. We know a lot about many of the individual members in an ecosystem, but most of the details regarding how they interact and adapt to changes are simply beyond us right now. Thus, while we certainly should continue to try to make predictions, we have to understand that the large gaps in our knowledge render such predictions to be nothing more than educated guesses, many of which will turn out to be horribly wrong.

The second “take home message” is more important: The earth is not fragile. There are far too many people out there trying to claim that earth’s ecosystems are fragile and easily damaged. The editors of Collins actually produced a book called The Fragile Earth. The journal Science published an article entitled, “Wounding Earth’s Fragile Skin,” which talked about how soil degradation could bring about all sorts of horrors.4 Encyclomedia has a video clip called “Earth’s Fragile Environment.” The list goes on.

Even though lots of people talk about how “fragile” earth and its ecosystems are, nothing could be further from the truth. The earth is a robust system with many negative feedback mechanisms and many “contingency plans,” because earth was designed by an incredible Designer who knew exactly what He was doing.


1. David L. Valentine, et al., “Propane Respiration Jump-Starts Microbial Response to a Deep Oil Spill,” Science 330:208-211, 2010.
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2. Janet Raloff, “BP Spill’s Methane Goes Missing,” Science News January 29, 2011, p. 11.
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3. John D. Kessler, et al., “A Persistent Oxygen Anomaly Reveals the Fate of Spilled Methane in the Deep Gulf of Mexico,” Science 331:312-315, 2011.
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4. Jocelyn Kaiser, “Wounding Earth’s Fragile Skin,” Science 304:1616-1618, 2004.
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  1. Josiah February 28, 2011 3:51 pm

    The earth is so intricately designed as to have both negative feedback and self-repair (The geek in me wants to call them repair nanobot) systems.

    Still the simple ability to fix itself does not imply that the earth and her inhabitants aren’t fragile, and the ecological casualties of such a disaster extends into millions of lifeforms. Some damage, such as repopulating endangered species, could take centuries to undo. Some, such as extinctions, are permanent.

    It certainly would not be acceptable to relax restrictions on leak safety on the understanding that the earth can clean herself up if something goes wrong; though the trunk of the earth and her ecosystem is resilient the intricacies of her petals remain fragile things.

    • jlwile February 28, 2011 4:51 pm

      I agree, Josiah. We can damage earth’s ecosystems to some degree, but as you so eloquently put it, only on the “petals” of earth’s “tree.” The trunk continues to remain strong. This, of course, is why you don’t think of a tree as fragile.

      Thus, just as we shouldn’t go around pulling petals off trees, we shouldn’t take ridiculous chances with the environment. At the same time, however, we should not be so worried about doing harm to the tree that we do not use its petals when we need them.

  2. Sherri February 28, 2011 5:24 pm

    These negative contingency plans make me think of all of the “spell check” mechanisms in DNA. The amount of “contingency plans” that scientists have discovered just in the duplication of bacterial DNA is absolutely amazing!
    Yes, we do have a responsibility to be good stewards of the world, but praise the Lord for sturdy ecosystems!

  3. Tonya Dieterlen March 1, 2011 8:40 pm

    Dr. Wile,
    Thank you so much for this post. It’s really encouraging to see what God has created, and that He has accounted for the past, present and future. I also agree that we need to be good stewards, but in a fallen world, it’s so reassuring to know that God has already provided, even for our mistakes.

    • jlwile March 2, 2011 8:00 am

      Thanks for your comment, Tonya. God is so good, even when we are not!