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Images: Scientists Solve a Deepwater Horizon Mystery

Two weeks after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, marine scientist Monty Graham and colleagues at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab saw a 6-mile-long line of small pieces of mysterious white material floating in the Gulf of Mexico. The material was hard but porous and uniformly embedded with black spheres less than a half-inch in diameter. (Tom Kleindinst, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

To help determine what the mysterious floatsam was, Graham contacted Chris Reddy, a marine chemist at WHOI, and gave him samples of it. He and research assistant Catherine Carmichael (above) visited Graham while they were scouring beaches in the Gulf collecting samples of oil from Deepwater Horizon. (Photo by Chris Reddy, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Back in their lab at WHOI, the scientists analyzed the oil on the debris using comprehensive two-dimensional gas chromatography, a technique that can identify the thousands of individual chemical compounds that comprise different oils from different reservoirs. The chemical “fingerprints” of the oil on the debris and the oil from Deepwater Horizon matched. Still, the researchers did not know what the material was or where it came from. (Courtesy of Bob Nelson, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

WHOI researcher sCatherine Carmichael and Chris Reddy saw larger pieces of the honeycomb debris (including this one coated with barnacles) on the Chandeleur Islands off Louisiana. Cleanup teams and officials told them the material was from the Deepwater Horizon, but that evidence was anecdotal. (Photo by Chris Reddy, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

The WHOI researchers took a close look at photos they had taken of the debris on the Chandeleur Islands and found this weathered sticker, which proved to be the "smoking gun" that cracked the case. (Catherine Carmichael, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Officials used a model that incorporated currents and wind speeds, along with data from planes and satellites, to predict a trajectory of the oil slick spreading from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. Shaded area represents the predicted trajectory on May 7, 2010. But predictions are not exact; the dotted line represents the degree of uncertainty for the prediction. The mysterious debris was found about 6.2 miles ahead of the projected trajectory of the spreading slick. (Map adapted from NOAA/NOS/OR&R Trajectory Forecast Mississippi Canyon 252) (Illustration by Jack Cook, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)