Researchers from the University of Aberdeen have determined that sub-zero temperatures in the deep waters of the North Atlantic would affect the ability of oil-eating bacteria in an oil spill recovery.

The researchers have carried out a study and tested the potential of oil-degrading microorganisms found in deep water sediments west of Shetland, which houses various oil fields.

Microorganisms in the ocean played a crucial role in breaking up millions of gallons of oil, which spilled into the Gulf of Mexico due to Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010.

The warm waters, along with huge amount of oil-eating bacteria, are believed to have significantly helped in the recovery of oil.

Scientists have analysed samples from west of Shetland to better understand the oil-degrading abilities of microorganisms in colder waters.

They noticed that degradation was considerably lower at temperatures of 0 °C, which is similar in the deep waters of the North Atlantic and Arctic compared to 5 °C in the Gulf of Mexico.

In addition, the results demonstrated that the application of dispersant, a technique used to enable to clear major spills, had variable effects.

The results suggested that proper measures required to be taken when deciding whether to apply these chemicals as part of an oil spill response.

According to scientists, the study has provided evidence that the environmental consequences of a major spill in colder waters would last far longer than other deep water drilling environments.

The study senior author author professor Ursula Witte said: “Depleting oil reserves has forced the industry to explore progressively deeper waters, and the dramatic shrinking of Arctic sea ice means that previously inaccessible reserves are now considered for exploration.

“Understanding the environmental implications of an oil spill in the cold and deep ocean is therefore urgent to improve our response to a potential spill.”

Image: Scientists at the University of Aberdeen have tested the ability of oil-degrading microorganisms found in deep water sediments west of Shetland. Photo: courtesy of The University of Aberdeen.