Bio@Noon – Dr. Kersey Sturdivant – The untold story of recovery following the Deepwater Horizon incident: A worm’s eye view

Dr. Kersey Sturdivant, February 10, 2021

Title: The untold story of recovery following the Deepwater Horizon incident: A worm’s eye view

Abstract: Human understanding of the deep-sea benthic environment has always been limited by our ability to sample it, and as a result, deep-sea benthic ecology has a long history of mischaracterization (Edward Forbes’ azoic theory). In the past 3 decades studies of benthic community responses to oil exploration in the Gulf of Mexico have been carried out with various coring arrays, and samples have been sieved to a depth of 10 cm (based on “common knowledge” that few, if any, animals live below 5-7 cm in deep-sea sediments). Information publicly released about benthic community impacts to the Deepwater Horizon incident have been based on results obtained using the aforementioned coring and sieving approach. With the development of sediment profile imagery (SPI) it was recognized that traditional sediment sampling techniques can underestimate soft-bottom benthic communities. Application of SPI following Deepwater Horizon has led to drastically different results than those obtained by traditional benthic sampling. To assess the deep-seafloor following the Deepwater Horizon incident a series of radial transects were laid out surrounding the Macondo wellhead going out to 10 km. Three surveys were carried out between 2011 to 2014 using a combination of SPI and plan-view (PV) imaging.  SPI and PV images were analyzed from over 800 stations, providing an extensive spatial and temporal dataset. The response of the benthic community following the Deepwater Horizon incident has been dramatic yet predictable, because it mimicked the response and recovery pattern documented for similar quantum inputs of a utilizable food source (natural seeps, spreading seafloor ridges, falling whale carcasses) to what is normally an oligotrophic system (the deep-sea). Recovery surrounding the wellhead has been both dramatic and occurring faster than originally predicted. This study serves as a cautionary example for future deep-sea assessments, especially in areas impacted by anthropogenic activity.

Bio: Dr. Sturdivant is a marine ecologist who studies the effects of human disturbance on the seafloor, and develops marine technology to enhance human understanding of the ocean. Dr. Sturdivant received his BS in Environmental Science at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and obtained his PhD in Marine Science at the College of William & Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Following graduate school, he became the research coordinator of Cordell Bank National Sanctuary before moving to a faculty position at Duke University. In 2015, he helped start an environmental consulting company, INSPIRE Environmental, and transitioned his faculty position to adjunct. Presently he is a Principal Scientist at INSPIRE Environmental, Adjunct Assistant Professor at Duke University, Senior Correspondent at, and co-creator of Oceanography for Everyone (open-source oceanographic equipment: