Terry Hazen, a microbial ecologist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who published a groundbreaking study of microbial activity Tuesday in the online research journal Science Express, has had a team of researchers out in the Gulf since May 25 collecting water samples. They noticed a dramatic drop-off in the amount of oil in the Gulf immediately after the well was idled July 15, and now they can't find any oil in the ocean.
This is from an August 24 news story in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, "Microbes are breaking down Gulf of Mexico oil spill with unexpected speed, researcher says." The reporter is Rebecca Mowbray. This may be old news to many of you, but I just haven't seen much mention of it in the press since returning from my vacation. Whether it's old or new news, it's good news.
The news story contains even better news:
Camilli, the Woods Hole oceanographer, said that while his study and Hazen's were very different, both examined oxygen associated with the plume and corroborate the conclusion that the microbes are not using oxygen fast enough to contribute to the dead zone in the Gulf.
"Yes, the microbes are using the oxygen to biodegrade the hydrocarbons, but not at a rate that's significant enough to degrade the fisheries," Camilli said. "In both cases, our findings indicate that although there are hydrocarbons in the subsurface, the microbes aren't compounding the situation by creating a dead zone."
Think about what it means more generally. Here's a microbe that even scientists didn't seem to know much about and it comes along and saves the day. And yet many people would have us believe that we can predict the weather on Earth 100 years from now. This seems even more complicated than microbes which are only a few miles from shore because weather on Earth is determined not just by activity on Earth but also by things in outer space that we know little about. There's a lot of false certainty out there.
Interestingly, in the 7th paragraph of a 25-paragraph news story, the reporter states that the UC Berkeley-run Energy Biosciences Institute that funded the study is itself funded by a 10-year grant from BP. It's good that she tells us fairly early in the news piece and it's good that she doesn't use a sneering tone to undercut the study on that basis.