Using Natural Abundance Radiocarbon To Trace the Flux of Petrocarbon to the Seafloor Following the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

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In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon accident released4.6−6.0×1011grams or 4.1 to 4.6 million barrels of fossil petroleum derived carbon (petrocarbon) as oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Natural abundance radiocarbon measurements on surface sediment organic matter in a 2.4×1010m2deep-water region surrounding the spill site indicate the deposition of a fossil-carboncontaining layer that included 1.6 to 2.6×1010grams of oil-derived carbon. This quantity represents between 0.5 to 9.1% of the released petrocarbon, with a best estimate of 3.0−4.9%. These values may be lower limit estimates of the fraction of the oil that was deposited on the seafloor because they focus on a limited mostly deep-water area of the Gulf, include a conservative estimate of thickness of the depositional layer, and use an average background or prespill radiocarbon value for sedimentary organic carbon that produces a conservative value. A similar approach using hopane tracer estimated that 4−31% of 2 million barrels of oil that stayed in the deep sea settled on the bottom. Converting that to a percentage of the total oil that entered into the environment (to which we normalized our estimate) converts this range to 1.8 to 14.4%. Although extrapolated over a larger area, our independent estimate produced similar values.

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American Chemical Society, v. 49, p. 847-854