Saturday, September 25, 2010
Sea snot? Really?
National Geographic News
Published September 23, 2010
SPECIAL SERIES | DEEP IMPACT
Deciphering the unseen, underwater effects of the Gulf oil spill.
The Gulf of Mexico oil spill sparked an explosion of sticky clumps of organic matter that scientists call sea snot, according to ongoing research.
The boom likely precipitated a sea-snot "blizzard" in Gulf (map) waters, researchers say. And as the clumps sank, they may have temporarily wiped out the base of the food chain in the spill region by scouring all small life from the water column.
In the weeks after the April 20 Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion, scientists surveying the surface near the drill site spotted relatively huge particles—several centimeters across—of sea snot.
These particularly slimy flakes of "marine snow" are made up of tiny dead and living organic matter, according to Uta Passow, a biological oceanographer at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Tiny plants in the ocean called phytoplankton produce a mucus-like substance when stressed, and it's possible that exposure to the Deepwater Horizon oil caused them to pump out more of the sticky stuff than usual.
This abundance of "mucus" made the naturally occurring marine-snow particles—usually about a few millimeters wide—even stickier.
"Everything they collide with in their path they collect and take with them," said project leader Passow, who's currently tracking marine snow aboard the research vessel Oceanus.
(Related: why the Gulf oil spill isn't going away.)
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