Investigating the effect of oil spills
on the environment and public health.
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Funding Source: Year One Block Grant - The Northern Gulf Institute

Project Overview

Does the 'Priming Effect' Caused by the DWH Oil-spill Result in Increased Microbial and Zooplankton Consumption of Labile and Refractory Dissolved Organic Carbon? Phase II

Principal Investigator
Dauphin Island Sea Lab (DISL)
University Programs
Member Institutions
Auburn University, Dauphin Island Sea Lab (DISL), Mediterranean Institute for Advanced Studies, Skidaway Institute of Oceanography, University of Quebec at Montreal, University of South Alabama, University of Southern Mississippi


The Deepwater Horizon (DwH) oil spill was unprecedented in the magnitude and extent of oil released into the water column.  Regular two-week monitoring by the Fisheries Oceanography of Coastal Alabama (FOCAL) program as part of BP NGI Phase I funding, documented marked changes in labile carbon (C) pools, and in microbial and zooplanktonic processes in response to the presence of oil in coastal waters of Alabama. In particular, isotopically light C signatures in the micro-and meso-zooplankton fractions suggest that oil-derived C entered the planktonic food web on short time-scales, and that this shift was likely mediated by microbial metabolic processes.  However, dissolved organic C (DOC) stocks remained very low (150µM), despite huge amounts of oil-derived C and high freshwater (humic) inputs into coastal waters. 

One possible explanation for sustained low DOC concentrations is the 'priming effect' hypothesis in which increased bioavailability of labile C sources will promote microbial diversity and cell activity, which in turn will stimulate high update of refractory DOM (e.g., humics, high fractionated components of crude oil). Assuming this effect occurred during the DwH oil spill, there are important implications of the priming effect for ecosystem functioning, including increased C bioavailability for planktonic food webs from both oil- and refractory/freshwater organic sources, which has consequences for fisheries production. 

In Phase 2 of NGI funding, we request funds to build on our knowledge base and specifically examine the priming effect hypothesis and its implications for planktonic food web processes and fisheries production.  We will conduct a series of controlled laboratory experiments between February and August 2011 using radio- and stable-isotopes, chromophoric dissolved organic matter (CDOM) spectra and other oceanographic techniques to measure microbial metabolism of oil (labile) and humic (refractory) material under various conditions and also how changes in microbial processes relates to changes in planktonic food webs. 

Experimental results will be compared to a six-years of historical baseline information generated by FOCAL to evaluate the relative interannual and seasonal variability of the priming effect under pre- and post-spill conditions.  Statistical analyses will include Parallel Factor Analyses (PARAFAC), in which the main environmental variables driving changes in DCOM pools will be modeled.  The major implication of our study is that it will allow us to observe and understand source-sink dynamics of oil and dispersant and how this relates to microbial and planktonic food web processes.  In addition, results from this study may be used as a model for other aquatic systems exhibiting similar changes in ecosystem baselines.

This research was made possible by a grant from BP/The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative.