Gulf Hit with Dirty Blizzard After Oil Spill

Oceanographers are trying to solve a Deepwater Horizon oil spill mystery. ->

A federal trial to determine responsibility and how much oil actually spilled from the Deepwater Horizon rig continues in New Orleans. While executives testify, scientists are trying to solve a mystery: Where millions of gallons of oil actually went.

Photos: Devastating Oil Spill Disasters

In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 crew members and spilled more than 200 million gallons of oil. Oceanographers think much of that was processed by microbes, but government assessments couldn't show exactly where all the oil went.

Florida State University oceanography professor Jeff Chanton recently presented a hypothesis at the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill and Ecosystem Science Conference. He suggested that the oil spill acted like a catalyst, causing plankton and other materials on the ocean surface to bind together and fall to the sea floor en masse. Chanton and his colleagues called this massive sedimentation a "dirty blizzard."

The dirty blizzard could explain why ocean water that would normally be clouded with plankton strangely appeared clean during the oil spill. Those suspensions had instead turned to streams that were falling to the ocean floor. Scientists presenting at the conference in New Orleans think the dirty blizzard helped the oil mix with seafloor sediments, potentially accounting for about a third of the spilled oil.

Photos: Alarming Images of Oil-Drenched Gulf

Chanton and his fellow ocean scientists say they will continue their research to determine how much oil ended up on the seafloor. While they do, the federal trial continues in New Orleans. The trial's first phase will determine responsibility and the second will focus on how much oil spilled, the New York Times reported. Earlier this week, the CEO of Transocean, the company that leased the rig to BP testified that the crew could have done more to prevent the spill.

Determining blame may end up being just as hard as tracking down all the oil. When it comes to spills, everything tends to get slippery.

Photo: Day 30 of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. Credit: Green Fire Productions.