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Oil dispersant research

Marine Oil Snow from Faroe-Shetland Channel - Image: Heriot-Watt University

USING dispersants on an oil spill west of Shetland could result in a subsea “dirty blizzard” of marine oil snow, according to new research.

Dr Tony Gutierrez, associate professor of microbiology at Heriot-Watt University, said a spill in the Faroe-Shetland channel could be harder to combat than the 2010 Deepwater Horizon incident in the Gulf of Mexico.

New research published in Frontiers in Microbiology claims that using dispersants in the water west of Shetland could create similar conditions to the Deepwater Horizon spill and result in marine oil snow, which can carry oil to the seabed.

The snow is described as being comprised of “sticky, floating organic particles that are visible to the naked eye and contain oil droplets from spills” and it can make it look like oil has dispersed.

Gutierrez said there is a “pressing need for fundamental research” on using dispersants in the region.

“The Faroe-Shetland Channel is the ‘spaghetti junction’ of Icelandic, Norwegian and Atlantic currents and is much more hydrodynamic than the Gulf of Mexico, where the Deepwater Horizon spill occurred,” he said.

“The possibility of a deep sea spill in this area in the future cannot be discounted, so it’s vital we know how to respond.

“Our research is a first step to understanding the fate of oil in the event of a major spill in the Faroe Shetland channel.

“We don’t know exactly what happens when the marine oil snow arrives on the seabed, but given the fragility of sponge belts in the Faroe-Shetland channel and other sensitive benthic communities, it’s not likely to be good.”

Laura Duran Suja, a PhD student at Heriot-Watt, took surface seawater samples from the water mass known as the Modified North Atlantic Wester (MNAW) near to the Schiehallion field and incubated them with oil under conditions replicating the sea surface.

She studied the microbial response over six weeks, including of the oil-degrading bacterial communities, and observed the formation of marine oil snow in incubations treated with dispersant and/or nutrients.