Deepwater Horizon Research

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon-Macondo Well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico sent forth an unprecedented quantity of oil and gas into the deep ocean. Dr. Joye has served as a leader in the independent scientific effort to document and track the ecosystem impacts of the blowout. Joye was part of the group reporting the discovery of underwater hydrocarbon-rich plumes thousands of feet below the Gulf’s surface during a NOAA-supported expedition aboard the R/V Pelican in May, 2010.

In late May to early June, 2010, Dr. Joye and her team set out on a scientific mission to characterize and visualize the underwater plumes.  This NSF-funded expedition aboard the R/V F. G. Walton Smith included UGA marine scientists and researchers from the University of Southern Mississippi, the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, and the University of California – Santa Barbara.

Dr. Joye returned to the Gulf in August, 2010, for a month-long expedition on board the R/V Oceanus, along with colleagues from a number of other institutions. During November/December, 2010, aboard the R/V Atlantis, she led another expedition that included seafloor exploration using the deep submergence vehicle Alvin. On that cruise, hundreds of sediment samples were collected over a large (>1000 square miles) area of the Gulf, including near the Macondo well site.

In July, 2011, cruises on the R/V Endeavor and R/V Hatteras continued the Joye group time-series water column and sediment sampling of sites near and far field relative to the Macondo Wellhead.

Research cruises are continuing in 2012, with six currently scheduled. Five of these are part of a research consortium (ECOGIG—Ecosystem Impacts of Oil and Gas Inputs into the Gulf) funded by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GRI) and include collaboration with the University of Mississippi, University of Southern Mississippi, Florida State University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Temple University , Oregon State University, Pennsylvania State University, Columbia University, University of Maryland, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of California at Santa Barbara, and University of Texas at Austin, J. Craig Venter Institute.

Following is a summary of the ECOGIG research plans. Dr. Joye's Group will be performing microbiology and biogeochemistry analyses. Findings from these cruises will be published in scientific journals and will be made available on this site.


Joy Battles (MSc student)

Ryan Sibert (PhD student)

Matt Saxton (Post Doctoral Researcher)

Lindsey Fields (Post Docoral Researcher)


Joye, S.B., and I.R. MacDonald, 2010. Offshore oceanic impacts from the BP oil spill. Nature Geoscience, 3:446, doi:10.1038/ngeo902.

Diercks, A.R., R.C. Highsmith, V.L. Asper, D. Joung, L. Guo, Z. Zhou, A.M. Shiller, S.B. Joye, A.P. Teske, and S.E. Lohrenz, 2010. Characterization of subsurface polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons at the Deepwater Horizon site. Geophysical Research Letters, 37, L20602, doi:10.1029/2010GL045046.

Joye, S.B., I.R. MacDonald, I. Leifer, and V. Asper, 2011. Magnitude and oxidation potential of hydrocarbon gases released from the BP blowout. Nature Geoscience, 4: 160-164 (doi:10.1038/ngeo1067).

Joye, S. B., I. Leifer, I. R. MacDonald, J. P. Chanton, C. D. Meile, A. P. Teske, J. E. Kostka, L. Chistoserdova, R. Coffin, D. Hollander, M. Kastner, J. P. Montoya, G. Rehder, E. Solomon, T. Treude and T. A. Villareal, 2011.  Technical Comment on “A Persistent Oxygen Anomaly Reveals the Fate of Spilled Methane in the Deep Gulf of Mexico” by Kessler et al. Science, 27 May 2011, 1033. DOI:10.1126/science.1203307.

Wade, T.L., S.T. Sweet, J.L. Sericano, N.L. Guinasso, A.R. Diercks, R.C. Highsmith, V.L. Asper, D. Joung, A.M. Shiller, S.E. Lorehnz, and S.B. Joye, 2011. Analyses of water samples from the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Documentation of the Sub-Surface Plume. Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans, Geophysical Monograph Series 195: 77-82.

Peterson, C.H., Anderson, S., G. Cherr, R. Ambrose, S. Anghera, S. Bay, M. Blum, R. Condon, T. A. Dean, M. Graham, M. Guzy, S. Hampton, S.B. Joye, J. Lambrinos, B. Mate, D. Meffert, S. P. Powers, C. Reddy, P. Somasundaran, R. B. Spies, C. Taylor, and R. Tjeerdema, 2011. A Tale of Two Spills. BioScience, 62:461-469.

Mendelssohn, I.A., G. Anderson, D. Baltz, R. Caffey, K. Carman, J. Fleegar, S.B. Joye, E. Maltby, E. Overton, and L. Rozas, 2012. Oil impacts to coastal wetland systems: Implications for the Mississippi River Delta Plain Ecosystem after the Deepwater Horizon Oil Discharge. BioScience, 62: 562-574.

Rivers, A.A., S. Sharma, S. Tringe, J. Martin, S.B. Joye, and M.A. Moran, 2013. Transcriptional response of bathypelagic marine bacteria to the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. The ISME Journal, doi:10.1038/ismej.2013.129.

Crespo-Medina, M., C.D. Meile, K.S. Hunter, P. Tavormina, A.R. Diercks, V. Asper, J.P. Chanton, A.M Shiller, D.J. Joung, J.J. Battles, J. Montoya, T. Villareal, M. Wood, R. Amon, and S.B. Joye. The rise and fall of methanotrophy following a deepwater oil-well blowout. (revised and resubmitted; in review).

Yang, T., N. Nigro, T. Gutierrez, S.B. Joye, R. Highsmith, and A.P. Teske. Bacterial community signatures of the Deepwater Horizon Oil spill reflect inherent metabolic potential and rapid physiological adaptability. Deep Sea Research. (in review).

Ziervogel, K., S.B. Joye, and C. Arnosti. Microbial enzymatic activity and secondary production in sediments affected by the sedimentation pulse following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Deep Sea Research (in review).


NSF Chemical and Biological Oceanography/Rapid Response

National Institute for Undersea Science and Technology (NIUST)

Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI)

ECOGIG Research

The Gulf of Mexico is an oceanic basin characterized by extensive hydrocarbon reserves. The western and central portions of the Gulf's continental slope are subject to natural seepage of oil and gas into overlying sediments and waters. The daily dose of hydrocarbon from these sources is at most 3% of the daily discharge from the recent Macondo well blowout. Natural seeps provide valuable laboratories for studying how chemical and biological processes respond to hydrocarbon inputs. These seeps provide modest inputs of oil and gas over hundreds to thousands of years of ecological integration. In contrast, the Macondo blowout injected massive quantities of oil and gas into a focused area, impacting Gulf of Mexico deep waters and sediments, as well as coastal ecosystems. An integrated project will compare the impacts of natural seepage and Macondo blowout hydrocarbon releases on foodwebs, biological signatures, and carbon and sulfur cycling at natural seeps near the Macondo wellhead, and at sites impacted directly by the Macondo blowout. The findings of this project will be compared with results from prior studies of Gulf sites not impacted by either natural or Macondo hydrocarbon releases. At natural seeps, experimental studies will include amendments of water column and sediment samples with various oil/gas/dispersant mixtures to document the response of microbial communities to hydrocarbon inputs and to dispersants. The investigator group is uniquely positioned to evaluate both impacts and ecosystem recovery trajectory of Macondo-impacted sites because of an extensive post-Macondo time- series data set (May 2010 through July 2011, so far, via re-direction of previously scheduled cruises) and through prior studies of hydrocarbon-rich sites throughout the northern Gulf over several preceding decades.

The proposed studies will address GRI research themes 1 through 4 and will generate data to advance substantially the understanding of microbial as well as physical processing and redistribution of hydrocarbons in northern Gulf slope deepwater ecosystems. Such studies are highly relevant for quantifying the ecological impacts of the Macondo blowout while advancing scientific knowledge to help understand and predict the impacts of future hydrocarbon releases. Specific objectives include:

  1. elucidating the effects of biological activity and physical processes versus dispersant application on oil transfer between surface waters, deep water, and sediments;
  2. quantifying the impact of oil inputs on water column biological community composition, activity, carbon flow, and food webs;
  3. defining how sedimented oil influences benthic (microbial and invertebrate) and water column (microbial) community composition and performance;
  4. tracking recovery and documenting the controls on recovery for benthic and pelagic systems impacted by the Macondo Blowout; and,
  5. developing tools and techniques to track and characterize hydrocarbons as they are biologically processed.

This project brings together an interdisciplinary, highly qualified research team from fourteen institutions (Florida State University (FSU), Georgia Institute of Technology (GT), J Craig Venter Institute (JCVI), Columbia - Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO), Penn State University (PSU), University of Georgia (UGA), University of Mississippi (UM), University of North Carolina (UNC), Oregon State University (OSU), University of Southern Mississippi (USM), Temple University (TU), University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB), University of Maryland (UM-CBL) and University of Texas (UT); a detailed description of the institutional components and investigator expertise are provided in section 4c (Partnership Table) with expertise ranging from biology (GT, LEDO, UCSB, UT) to microbiology (JCVI, UGA, UNC) and molecular biology (JCVI, UGA, UNC) to analytical (LDEO, UGA, UNC, OSU) and isotopic (FSU, GT, UNC) chemistry and biogeochemistry (UGA, UNC) to megafauna (PSU, TU, UM), systems ecology (PSU, TU), numerical modeling (GT, UGA) and remote sensing (FSU, GT, LDEO, UNC, UM-CBL, USM). Cutting-edge techniques will be employed to quantify the fluxes of hydrocarbons and other chemical species from the seafloor through the water column, to constrain composition of biological communities and their functional response to these hydrocarbon inputs, and to understand the return flux of hydrocarbons, introduced into the water column, to the seafloor (e.g., "oil snow"). We will maintain a persistent observational presence on the seafloor using remote cameras, chemical sensor arrays, and in situ samplers deployed on benthic lander systems, lagrangian profilers in the water column, and satellite remote sensing of surface waters. These observations will provide the long term, continuous data sets needed to document the biological, chemical, and physical dynamics at natural seeps and at sites recovering from impacts of the Macondo Blowout.

By spanning a range of sites - from natural seeps and to areas impacted and influenced significantly by the Macondo blowout - this project will provide an unprecedented opportunity to characterize the biological response to hydrocarbon inputs across a range of depths, to elucidate the environmental parameters that regulate the growth and activity of hydrocarbon degrading microorganisms in nature, and to quantify the extent to which hydrocarbon-based production of energy and carbon impacts other organisms in the habitat. These efforts, which build up from microscale processes, will provide critical insights for understanding biogeochemical cycles at the macro scale, including the responses of rich marine ecosystems to any potential future oil release.

This novel and uniquely multidisciplinary effort quantifies the impacts of hydrocarbon seepage on biological processes through a comprehensive program of field and laboratory studies. A broad range of ongoing and planned studies of microbial biogeochemistry, biodiversity, and microbial hydrocarbon processing, will be integrated with the larger Northern Gulf marine ecosystem response to hydrocarbon inputs at different trophic levels in water column and sediment. For example, hard-ground megafaunal communities occur over a large region of the northern Gulf and this work will contribute to understanding resilience and responses in those communities. This integrated ecosystem trajectory, from microorganisms to megafauna, from pre- to post-Macondo blowout at multiple sites in the Northern Gulf, will be the major focus of education, training of postdoctoral fellows, graduate and undergraduate students and public outreach. Not limiting itself to retrospective understanding, the proposed work will generate predictive modeling capabilities to constrain hydrocarbon impacts on biological processes throughout the world ocean. Knowing the biogeochemical and biological consequences, feedback mechanisms, and geospatial dynamics of the Macondo blowout in its relation to the Northern Gulf of Mexico ecosystem will help better prepare the scientific community and emergency responders to delineate potential impacts of accidental hydrocarbon releases in the future.