Oceanography The Official Magazine of
The Oceanography Society
Volume 29 Issue 03

View Issue TOC
Volume 29, No. 3
Pages 118 - 125


Marine Snow Sedimented Oil Released During the Deepwater Horizon Spill

Uta Passow Kai Ziervogel
Article Abstract

During and after the Deepwater Horizon (DWH) spill in the northern Gulf of Mexico, a massive amount of oil compounds and marine particles, termed floc, accumulated on the seafloor. It is now well established that sedimentation of oil following the DWH spill occurred largely in association with marine oil snow (MOS), a term that became accepted as describing marine snow that incorporates oil. A significant amount of the spilled oil made its way to the seafloor as MOS, appreciably affecting the distribution of oil within the ocean. This article summarizes current knowledge of the different types of MOS that sank, and the underlying processes that led to MOS formation as well as to the sedimentation and deposition of oil on the seafloor during and after the DWH spill. 


Passow, U., and K. Ziervogel. 2016. Marine snow sedimented oil released during the Deepwater Horizon spill. Oceanography 29(3):118–125, https://doi.org/10.5670/oceanog.2016.76.


Arnosti, C., K. Ziervogel, T. Yang, and A. Teske. 2016. Oil-derived marine aggregates—hot spots of polysacchride degradation by specialized bacterial communities. Deep Sea Research Part II 129:179–186, https://doi.org/10.1016/​j.dsr2.2014.12.008.

Atlas, R.M., and T.C. Hazen. 2011. Oil biodegradation and bioremediation: A tale of the two worst spills in US history. Environmental Science & Technology 45(16):6,709–6,715, https://doi.org/10.1021/es2013227.

Baelum, J., S. Borglin, R. Chakraborty, J. Fortney, R. Lamendella, O. Mason, M. Auer, M. Zemla, M. Bill, M. Conrad, and others. 2012. Deep-sea bacteria enriched by oil and dispersant from the Deepwater Horizon spill. Environmental Microbiology 14(9):2,405–2,416, https://doi.org/​10.1111/j.1462-2920.2012.02780.x.

Brooks, G.R., R.A. Larson, P.T. Schwing, I. Romero, C. Moore, G.-J. Reichart, T. Jilbert, J.P. Chanton, D.W. Hastings, W.A. Overholt, and others. 2015. Sedimentation pulse in the NE Gulf of Mexico following the 2010 DWH blowout. PLoS ONE 10(7), e0132341, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0132341.

Buesseler, K.O., C.H. Lamborg, P.W. Boyd, P.J. Lam, T.W. Trull, R.R. Bidigare, J.K.B. Bishop, K.L. Casciotti, F. Dehairs, M. Elskens, and others. 2007. Revisiting carbon flux through the ocean’s twilight zone. Science 316:567–570, https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1137959.

Chanton, J., T. Zhao, B.E. Rosenheim, S. Joye, S. Bosman, C. Brunner, K.M. Yeager, A.R. Diercks, and D. Hollander. 2014. Using natural abundance radiocarbon to trace the flux of petrocarbon to the seafloor following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Environmental Science & Technology 49(2):847–854, https://doi.org/​10.1021/es5046524.

Conover, R.J. 1971. Some relations between zooplankton and Bunker C oil in Chedabucto Bay following the wreck of the tanker Arrow. Journal of the Fisheries Research Board of Canada 28(9):1,327–1,330, https://doi.org/10.1139/f71-202.

D’souza, N.A., A. Subramaniam, A.R. Juhl, M. Hafez, A. Chekalyuk, S. Phan, B. Yan, I.R. Macdonald, S.C. Weber, and J.P. Montoya. 2016. Elevated surface chlorophyll associated with natural oil seeps in the Gulf of Mexico. Nature Geoscience 9(3):215–218, https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2631.

Daly, K.L., U. Passow, J. Chanton, and D. Hollander. 2016. Assessing the impacts of oil-associated marine snow formation and sedimentation during and after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Anthropocene, 13:18–33, https://doi.org/10.1016/​j.ancene.2016.01.006.

Fu, J., Y. Gong, X. Zhao, S.E. O’Reilly, and D. Zhao. 2014. Effects of oil and dispersant on formation of marine oil snow and transport of oil hydrocarbons. Environmental Science & Technology 48(24):14,392–14,399, https://doi.org/10.1021/es5042157.

Gutierrez, T., D. Berry, T. Yang, S. Mishamandani, L. McKay, A. Teske, and M. Aitken. 2013. Role of bacterial exopolysaccharides (EPS) in the fate of the oil released during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. PLoS ONE 8 (6), e67717, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0067717.

Hsing, P.-Y., B. Fu, E.A. Larcom, S.B. Berlet, T.M. Shank, A.F. Govindarajan, A.J. Lukasiewicz, P.M. Dixon, and C.R. Fisher. 2013. Evidence of lasting impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on a deep Gulf of Mexico coral community. Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene, https://doi.org/10.12952/journal.elementa.000012.

Hu, C.M., R.H. Weisberg, Y.G. Liu, L.Y. Zheng, K.L. Daly, D.C. English, J. Zhao, and G.A. Vargo. 2011. Did the northeastern Gulf of Mexico become greener after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill? Geophysical Research Letters 38, L09601, https://doi.org/10.1029/2011GL047184.

Iversen, M.H., and H. Ploug. 2013. Temperature effects on carbon-specific respiration rate and sinking velocity of diatom aggregates—Potential implications for deep ocean export processes. Biogeosciences 10(6):4,073–4,085, https://doi.org/10.5194/bg-10-4073-2013.

John, V., C. Arnosti, J. Field, E. Kujawinski, and A. McCormick. 2016. The role of dispersants in oil spill remediation: Fundamental concepts, rationale for use, fate, and transport issues. Oceanography 29(3):108–117, https://doi.org/10.5670/oceanog.2016.75.

Joye, S.B., A.P. Teske, and J.E. Kostka. 2014. Microbial dynamics following the Macondo oil well blowout across Gulf of Mexico environments. BioScience 64(9):766–777, https://doi.org/​10.1093/biosci/biu121.

Khelifa, A., and P.S. Hill. 2006. Models for effective density and settling velocity of flocs. Journal of Hydraulic Research 44(3):390–401, https://doi.org/10.1080/00221686.2006.9521690.

Kimes, N.E., A.V. Callaghan, D.F. Aktas, W.L. Smith, J. Sunner, B.T. Golding, M. Drozdowska, T.C. Hazen, J.M. Suflita, and P.J. Morris. 2013. Metagenomic analysis and metabolite profiling of deep-sea sediments from the Gulf of Mexico following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Frontiers in Microbiology 4:50, https://doi.org/10.3389/fmicb.2013.00050.

Kiørboe, T., and G.A. Jackson. 2001. Marine snow, organic solute plumes, and optimal chemosensory behavior of bacteria. Limnology and Oceanography 46(6):1,309–1,318, https://doi.org/10.4319/lo.2001.46.6.1309.

Kleindienst, S., M. Seidel, K. Ziervogel, S. Grim, K. Loftis, S. Harrison, S.Y. Malkin, M.J. Perkins, J. Field, M.L. Sogin, and others. 2015. Chemical dispersants can suppress the activity of natural oil-degrading microorganisms. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 112(48):14,900–14,905, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1507380112.

Kowalewska, G. 1999. Phytoplankton: The main factor responsible for transport of polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons from water to sediments in the southern Baltic ecosystem. ICES Journal of Marine Science 56 (supplement):219–222.

Kowalewska, G., and J. Konat. 1997. The role of phytoplankton in the transport and distribution of polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in the southern Baltic environment. Oceanologia 39(3):267–277.

Le Floch, S.P., J. Guyomarch, F.O.-X. Merlin, P. Stoffyn-Egli, J. Dixon, and K. Lee. 2002. The influence of salinity on oil-mineral aggregate formation. Spill Science & Technology Bulletin 8(1):65–71, https://doi.org/10.1016/S1353-2561(02)00124-X.

Lee, R.F., M. Köster, and G.A. Paffenhöfer. 2012. Ingestion and defecation of dispersed oil droplets by pelagic tunicates. Journal of Plankton Research 34:1,058–1,063, https://doi.org/10.1093/plankt/fbs065.

Lubecki, L., and G. Kowalewska. 2010. Distribution and fate of polycylic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in recent sediments from the Gulf of Gdansk (SE Baltic). Oceanologia 52(4):669–703.

Mason, O.U., N.M. Scott, A. Gonzalez, A. Robbins-Pianka, J. Balum, J. Kimbrel, N.J. Bouskill, E. Prestat, S. Borglin, D.C. Joyner, and others. 2014. Metagenomics reveals sediment microbial community response to Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The ISME Journal 8(7):1,464–1,475, https://doi.org/10.1038/ismej.2013.254.

McGenity, T., B.J. Folwell, B.A. McKew, and G.O. Sanni. 2012. Marine crude-oil biodegradation: A central role for interspecies interactions. Aquatic Biosystems 8:10, https://doi.org/10.1186/2046-9063-8-10.

Montagna, P.A., J.G. Baguley, C. Cooksey, I. Hartwell, L.J. Hyde, J.L. Hyland, R.D. Kalke, L.M. Kracher, M. Reuscher, and A.C.E. Rhodes. 2013. Deep-sea benthic footprint of the Deepwater Horizon blowout. PLoS ONE 8(8), e70540, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0070540.

Muschenheim, D.K., and K. Lee. 2002. Removal of oil from the sea surface through particulate interactions: Review and prospectus. Spill Science & Technology Bulletin 8(1):9–18, https://doi.org/10.1016/S1353-2561(02)00129-9.

NRDA (Natural Resource Damage Assessment). 2015. Injury to natural resources. Chapter 4 (685 pp.) in Draft Programmatic Damage Assessment and Restoration Plan and Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, Natural Resource Damage Assessment, National Ocean Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, http://www.Gulfspillrestoration.noaa.gov/wp-content/uploads/Chapter-4_Injury-to-Natural-Resources.pdf.

Ozhan, K., M.L. Parsons, and S. Bargu. 2014. How were phytoplankton affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill? BioScience 64(9):829–836, https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/biu117.

Parsons, M.L., R.E. Turner, and E.B. Overton. 2014. Sediment-preserved diatom assemblages can distinguish a petroleum activity signal separately from the nutrient signal of the Mississippi River in coastal Louisiana. Marine Pollution Bulletin 85(1):164–171, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpolbul.2014.05.057.

Passow, U. 2014. Formation of rapidly-sinking, oil-associated marine snow. Deep Sea Research Part II 129:232–240, https://doi.org/10.1016/​j.dsr2.2014.10.001.

Passow, U., K. Ziervogel, V. Asper, and A. Diercks. 2012. Marine snow formation in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Environmental Research Letters 7(3), https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/7/3/035301.

Patton, J., M. Rigler, P. Boehm, and D. Fiest. 1981. Ixtoc 1 oil spill: Flaking of surface mousse in the Gulf of Mexico. Nature 290:235–238, https://doi.org/10.1038/290235a0.

Rivkin, R.B., L. Legendre, D. Deibel, J.-É. Tremblay, B. Klein, K. Crocker, S. Roy, N. Silverberg, C. Lovejoy, F. Mesplé, and others. 1996. Vertical flux of biogenic carbon in the ocean: Is there food web control? Science 272:1,163–1,166, https://doi.org/10.1126/science.272.5265.1163.

Romero, I., P. Schwing, G. Brooks, R. Larson, D. Hastings, G. Ellis, E. Goddard, and D. Hollander. 2015. Hydrocarbons in deep-sea sediments following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout in the northeast Gulf of Mexico. PLoS ONE 10(5), e0128371, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0128371.

Smetacek, V.S. 1985. Role of sinking in diatom life-​history cycles: Ecological, evolutionary, and geological significance. Marine Biology 84:239–251, https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00392493.

Stout, A.S., and C.R. German. 2015. Characterization and Flux of Marine Oil Snow into the Visca Knoll (Lophelia Reef) Area due to the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. US Department of the Interior, Deepwater Horizon Response & Restoration, Administrative Record, 34 pp., https://pub-dwhdatadiver.orr.noaa.gov/dwh-ar-documents/946/DWH-AR0039084.pdf.

Stout, A.S., S. Rouhani, B. Liu, and J. Oehrig. 2015. Spatial Extent (“Footprint”) and Volume of Macondo Oil Found on the Deep-Sea Floor Following the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. US Department of the Interior, Deepwater Horizon Response & Restoration, Administrative Record, DWH-AR0260244, 29 pp., https://pub-dwhdatadiver.orr.noaa.gov/dwh-ar-documents/946/DWH-AR0260244.pdf.

Valentine, D.L., G.B. Fisher, S.C. Bagby, R.K. Nelson, C.M. Reddy, S.P. Sylva, and M.A. Woo. 2014. Fallout plume of submerged oil from Deepwater Horizon. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 111(45):15,906–15,911, https://doi.org/​10.1073/pnas.1414873111.

Wetz, M.S., M.C. Robbins, and H.W. Paerl. 2009. Transparent exopolymer particles (TEP) in a river-​dominated estuary: Spatial-temporal distributions and an assessment of controls upon TEP formation. Estuaries and Coasts 32(3):447–455, https://doi.org/10.1007/s12237-009-9143-2.

White, H.K., P.-Y. Hsing, W. Cho, T.M. Shank, E.E. Cordes, A.M. Quattrini, R.K. Nelson, R. Camilli, A.W.J. Demopoulos, C.R. German, and others. 2012. Impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on a deep-water coral community in the Gulf of Mexico. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 109(50):20,303–20,308, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1118029109.

Yan, B., U. Passow, J. Chanton, E.-M. Nöthig, V. Asper, J. Sweet, M. Pitiranggon, A. Diercks, and D. Pak. 2016. Sustained deposition of contaminants from the Deepwater Horizon spill. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America E3,332–E3,340, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1513156113.

Yang, T., L.M. Nigro, T. Gutierrez, L. D’Ambrosio, S.B. Joye, R. Highsmith, and A.P. Teske. 2014. Pulsed blooms and persistent oil-degrading bacterial populations in the water column during and after the Deepwater Horizon blowout. Deep Sea Research Part II 129:282–291, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dsr2.2014.01.014.

Ziervogel, K., C. Dike, V. Asper, J. Montoya, J. Battles, N. D’souza, U. Passow, A. Diercks, M. Esch, S. Joye, and others. 2015. Enhanced particle fluxes and heterotrophic bacterial activities in Gulf of Mexico bottom waters following storm-induced sediment resuspension. Deep Sea Research Part II 129:77–88, https://doi.org/10.1016/​j.dsr2.2015.06.017.

Ziervogel, K., N. D’souza, J. Sweet, B. Yan, and U. Passow. 2014a. Natural oil slicks fuel surface water microbial activities in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Frontiers in Microbiology 5:188, https://doi.org/10.3389/fmicb.2014.00188.

Ziervogel, K., S.B. Joye, and C. Arnosti. 2014b. Microbial enzymatic activity and secondary production in sediments affected by the sedimentation event of oily-particulate matter from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Deep Sea Research Part II 129:241–248, https://doi.org/10.1016/​j.dsr2.2014.04.003.

Ziervogel, K., L. McKay, B. Rhodes, C.L. Osburn, J. Dickson-Brown, C. Arnosti, and A. Teske. 2012. Microbial activities and dissolved organic matter dynamics in oil-contaminated surface seawater from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill site. PLoS ONE 7(4), https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0034816.

Copyright & Usage

This is an open access article made available under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution, and reproduction in any medium or format as long as users cite the materials appropriately, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate the changes that were made to the original content. Images, animations, videos, or other third-party material used in articles are included in the Creative Commons license unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If the material is not included in the article’s Creative Commons license, users will need to obtain permission directly from the license holder to reproduce the material.