Gulf oil spill
Jonathan Coddington is the head of research and collections at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History. He recently told (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129212121) National Public Radio's Guy Raz that the thousands of jars of specimens held by the museum — including marine specimens from the Gulf — are an invaluable resource for scientists. In the case of the Gulf oil spill disaster, they provide a comparison point: if a scientist needs to know how oil have affected crab larve after the spill, it helps to know the characteristics of crab larve before the spill, for example. Each specimen is a recording of the animal, its characteristics, its environment and other details at a particular moment in time. At the KU Biodiversity Institute, we have more than 8 million such research specimens and tissue samples preserved in jars, freezers and cabinets.
What a joy it was last fall when NOAA Ocean Explorer announced that researchers had discovered new coral reefs (http://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/explorations/09lophelia/logs/summary/summary.html) in the Gulf. These are not tropical reefs; they are in the cold, dark depths of the sea. They are comprised of Lophelia pertusa, a stony coral found in deep, dark near-freezing waters.
Sadly, as the New York Times reported today (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/02/us/02coral.html?ref=science), the reefs are a mere 20 miles northeast of the failed oil well that is spewing oil into the gulf. It's one of three deepwater reefs under the oil slick.
The oil is not so much the issue. It's the plumes of partly dissolved oil spreading through the water. A mixture of oil, dispersants and natural gas, it could prove toxic to these slow-growing reefs. "Both oil and dispersants, which chemically resemble dishwashing detergent, hamper the ability of corals to colonize and reproduce. And these effects are amplified when the two are mixed," the newspaper noted.
More research will be needed to determine how the spill will affect the reefs and other ocean organisms over the years to come.