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International Team Studies Impacts of Oil and Gas Drilling on Cold-Water Corals in Norway

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Oil and gas exploration in the North Sea, as in the Gulf of Mexico, involves deep-sea drilling. Commonly, areas of interest for hydrocarbons overlap areas where cold-water corals (also called deep-sea corals) live. These corals do not have photosynthetic algal symbionts (zooxanthellae) like tropical corals, but they do create complex habitat for hundreds of other animals, including fishes, crabs, and shrimp. These cold-water coral reefs are centers of biodiversity in deep water. Regulations exist to keep drilling from occurring too close to the corals; however, drilling mud (a slurry of clays used to keep the drill lubricated) can form long plumes of particulates that may affect corals some distance from the drilling operation.

Schematic shows how drilling-mud discharge affects areas both near and far from the drilling platform.
Above: Schematic shows how drilling-mud discharge affects areas both near and far from the drilling platform. Inset photograph shows lush cold-water coral habitat with lots of Lophelia (white branching mounds) as well as other corals and sponges. Schematic courtesy of the International Research Institute of Stavanger (IRIS); photograph by Pål Mortensen, Institute of Marine Research, Bergen, Norway. [larger version]

In June 2011, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientist Christina Kellogg traveled to Norway to join an international team conducting research on the impacts of drilling mud on the cold-water coral Lophelia pertusa. Coordinated by the International Research Institute of Stavanger (IRIS) and funded by the Research Council of Norway, this project seeks to develop diagnostic tools to monitor nonlethal stress in these corals. Kellogg has worked on the microbial ecology of Lophelia in the Gulf of Mexico since 2004 and will lend her expertise to investigating microbial indicators of coral stress. Additionally, the team will conduct experiments that attempt to link diagnostic changes (such as shifts in the microbial community or changes in biomarkers in coral mucus) to specific effects on the coral (such as impairment in reproduction and growth). Data from controlled experiments conducted on corals maintained in aquaria will ultimately be incorporated into a physiological computer model that can be used to predict impacts. The ultimate goal is to determine what impacts drilling mud has on this cold-water coral and, on the basis of that information, to establish criteria for environmental-risk assessment in order to ensure that no harm comes to these deep-sea habitats.

piece of Lophelia researchers
Above left: Closeup of a piece of Lophelia being maintained in an aquarium, showing the coral's extended tentacles, which it uses to capture food. [larger version]

Above right: Project Chief Thierry Baussant (far left; IRIS) with visiting researchers (left to right) Dick van Oevelen (Netherlands Institute of Ecology), Sandra Brooke (Marine Conservation Institute), Johanna Jarnegren (Norwegian Institute for Natural Research), and Christina Kellogg (USGS). [larger version]


Related Sound Waves Stories
International Workshop on Cold-Water Corals Held in Norway
Oct. / Nov. 2010
Scientists Cruise Deep into Coral Ecosystems
December 2009

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Mapping Mid-Atlantic Canyons to Assess Tsunami Hazards

New System Measures Topography and Bathymetry Simultaneously

Final Beach-Erosion Survey Before Elwha River Dam Removal

Aerial Photos of Outer Banks Show Damage from Hurricane Irene

Manatee "Chessie" Sighted in Chesapeake Bay

International Team Studies Impacts of Oil and Gas Drilling on Cold-Water Corals

Natural Gas Resources Remain to Be Discovered in Cook Inlet, Alaska

Staff Interns Help Organize USGS and Map Collections in St. Petersburg, Florida

New Interns Join USGS Southeast Ecological Science Staff

Publications Publications Explain Elwha River Restoration

Microbiology of Deep-Water Mid-Atlantic Canyons

Sept. / Oct. 2011 Publications

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