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Eckerd student's data show some Gulf areas may be recovering from the BP oil spill

 John Hilliard aboard the Research Vessel Weatherbird II in the Gulf of Mexico 2022.
John Hilliard
/
Courtesy
John Hilliard aboard the Research Vessel Weatherbird II in the Gulf of Mexico 2022.

An Eckerd College student has presented data showing the possibility that some areas of the Gulf of Mexico may be recovering from the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The results come from an excursion with the Scientist at Sea program in May.

John Hilliard, a sophomore at Eckerd studying marine chemistry, was on the Research Vessel Weatherbird II with fellow students and professors, taking samples of sediment at the bottom of the Gulf for a few days.

The BP oil spill caused a rapid increase in sedimentation in what's called a marine snow event.

"Microbes that are living in the water column don't want to be swimming in oil, they want to be swimming in nice clean water. And so, to protect themselves, they secrete a kind of mucus that surrounds themselves,” Hilliard said. “Once that oil subsides, they don't need that mucus around them anymore. And so, they will shed it."

Hilliard studied different sites and compared data to that from a decade ago to see whether certain chemical signatures of marine snow event were preserved in the geological record.

 View of the sun setting on the Gulf from the Research Vessel Weatherbird II in 2022.
John Hilliard
/
Courtesy
View of the sun setting on the Gulf from the Research Vessel Weatherbird II in 2022.

"At one site, if you looked at the profile taken immediately after the oil spill, you see this massive spike. But then 10 years later, when we looked at those profiles, it was like flatline. It was completely gone. It was as if it never happened,” he said. “But at different locations, it was more well preserved."

The absence of chemical signatures in some areas could indicate that repopulation is moving the water and sediment around, therefore suggesting a possible recovery, but Hilliard said he doesn't know that for sure and wants to dig further in hopes of one day publishing his research.

He said he wants to be careful, though, because his data can be easily misrepresented due to the financial interests within the oil and gas industry.

“Especially when it’s as consequential as looking at an oil spill, and multibillion-dollar restoration and recovery project and talking … about policy,” he said. “Especially right now with the realities of energy in the U.S. and continuously trying to move away from unsustainable and inequitable forms of energy to provide a more equitable and sustainable source of energy for everybody.”

Hilliard wanted to make sure his findings were clear and accessible to everyone, even keeping in mind people who are colorblind and dyslexic when designing his project poster.

His work won the Center for Academic Excellence Award during the Scientist at Sea Symposium in November.

"It was surreal,” he said. “It was hard to wrap my brain around that I was actually doing research. Throughout secondary education, and even to a degree in college, your experience with science is with stuff that's already been discovered, and you're supposed to learn it. And to actually be the person for, I guess, discovering something, even though it's nothing like crazy, but just to be doing something new, was a really rewarding experience."

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Jessica Meszaros is a reporter and host of Morning Edition at WUSF Public Media.