How Nature is Helping Clean Up the Oil Spill

By David Bois, Tonic

As news reports have indicated, the initial efforts to contain and capture oil issuing from the still leaking well at the site of last month’s Deepwater Horizon disaster have sadly not panned out, and a second-draft fix remains an untold number of days away. But as Christine Dell’Amore reminds us in writing for National Geographic, natural processes are already hard at work on the critical task of blunting the potential harm posed by the leaked petroleum.

Oil that has escaped or overwhelmed efforts to absorb and contain it may be mitigated by a couple of different processes. The first is simple evaporation, which is most effective for the lighter chemical fractions of recently spilled product. The loss through evaporation of these lighter hydrocarbons is described as fortuitous, as these particular classes of aromatic hydrocarbons are more readily dissolved into the water were they not to evaporate, and pose the greatest toxicity risk to marine life. As Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution marine chemist states the matter for National Geographic, evaporation “is our friend right now.”

Once these lighter compounds are given off, what’s left behind still in or on top of the water is heavier, more viscous, and less able to evaporate. Cue the dinner bell for countless marine bacteria, for whom the heavier, more energy-packed fractions of the spilled oil are “like butter.” National Geographic indicates that, particularly in a warm and sunny climate such as that of the Gulf of Mexico, microbial activity and its capacity to mitigate spilled oil can be significant.

It may seem like insult to injury to have an environmental disaster such as this inflict harm on the natural world only to then have nature itself do a good bit of our heavy lifting with respect to cleaning up our mess. But the power and resilience of natural systems will prove to be indispensable in dressing its own wounds inflicted by the Gulf oil platform incident.

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Ioney W.
Ioney W6 years ago

We have a wonderful God.He created solutions to alot of problems,Sadly it is mankind that causes more and more problems.

Sue Matheson
Sue Matheson6 years ago

thanks for this article.

Laurita Walters
Laurita Walters6 years ago

I really love the Pollyanna attitude that if we just look the other way, Mother Nature will clean up our nasty behinds. Unfortunately, Mother Nature has more than her hands full with the messes we make, and the fact that we are destroying her efficient systems by trashing the place faster than Nature can keep up.

We do not need the oil. We need the oceans. Disallow any further drilling for oil in the oceans. Use the money to promote and produce environmentally friendly energy. It will only happen if we do not support the drilling!

We need to start looking, seeing and taking measure to stop pretending that it will get better without our active involvement.

Tom Sullivan
Tom C Sullivan7 years ago

I live In Gulf Shores Al. there is still oil & tar balls coming ashore, what bothers me the most is the dispersants. What will this do to the eco system, & the people that play in the water. Nature will clean some up, but come on the biggest spill so far. No it will take years to clean it up, now if we can also get people to quit throwing there trash on the beach.

mr Crowley
mr Crowley7 years ago

very interesting, thanks!

Louis F.
Louis Fournier7 years ago


The video at demonstrates what "Bioremediation" can do on the shore (in marsh grass in this case). Technically, the term "Biodegradation" embraces the collective biological degradation activities of all of nature's collection of bacteria, fungi, or any other microorganisms which might be present (termed "the natural consortia"). The natural consortia act together to degrade the thousands of organic compounds which naturally exist in crude oil, for example. In fact, you are correct, fungi are normally far more powerful than bacteria. They degrade compounds which are difficult for bacteria to handle. And everyone knows that fungi's are the favorites of fun-gals! Sorry. Couldn't resist. Mother nature is a wonder to behold! As you may have heard, some of the survivors of the rig explosion reported that the well was hissing, moaning, groaning, clanging, and howling for weeks before the BP fire -- so much so that, among the crew, the word was "This well doesn't want to be drilled. Somehow, we're abusing Mother Nature!" (Reference: Anderson Cooper 360 Interview of Survivors).

Citlalli Valles
Citlalli Valles7 years ago

Let's not forget the stuff that reaches the shores.

Micologist Paul Stamets has discovered that mycelium fungus can not only help treat oil-contaminated soil, but be used to make cheap ethanol as well - so cheap, in fact, he calls it "econol".
This is a natural solution - precisely the kind we should be looking for.

The things this mushroom can do are amazing - check the following link:

MICHELLE S7 years ago

Mother Earth shows us way too much kindness for what we have done!

Louis F.
Louis Fournier7 years ago

Kayla, evaporation plays a very small role in removing volatile chemicals from a contaminated site. Most organic components of petroleum are biodegraded by naturally-occurring bacteria to carbon dioxide and water (and cell mass). Bacteria eat the oil exactly like we eat food. We breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. They adsorb dissolved oxygen through their "skin" and release carbon dioxide in the same way. These chemicals may be harmful pollutants to us, but they're just food for bacteria. Bacteria are at the bottom of the food chain for all life forms including those which live in the ocean. Thus, as their population grows, they simply are eaten by other lifeforms.

Kayla Knadler
Kayla Knadler7 years ago

I'm not positive, but to me it seems that if nature is cleaning it's self up by evaporation then some of the oil will be taken out of the ocean. However, the oil is not going to just disappear it will be moved into our atmosphere...I just wonder if that is better or worse?