Scientists warn of unseen deepwater oil disaster

May 31, 2010 By MATTHEW BROWN , Associated Press Writer
This undated image from video provided by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, received from British Petroleum (BP PLC) shows oil gushing from the blown well in the Gulf of Mexico, where the Deepwater Horizon rig sank last month. Questions remained about just how much oil is spilling from the well. The impatient nation isn't getting answers fast enough in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster. What exactly went wrong? Who messed up? How much oil is actually pouring into the Gulf? Can the oil get to Florida and even up the Atlantic coast? What will the environmental and economic consequences be? (AP Photo/Senate Environment and Public Works Committee)

(AP) -- Independent scientists and government officials say there's a disaster we can't see in the Gulf of Mexico's mysterious depths, the ruin of a world inhabited by enormous sperm whales and tiny, invisible plankton.

Researchers have said they have found at least two massive underwater plumes of what appears to be oil, each hundreds of feet deep and stretching for miles. Yet the chief executive of BP PLC - which has for weeks downplayed everything from the amount of oil spewing into the Gulf to the environmental impact - said there is "no evidence" that huge amounts of oil are suspended undersea.

BP CEO Tony Hayward said the oil naturally gravitates to the surface - and any oil below was just making its way up. However, researchers say the disaster in waters where light doesn't shine through could ripple across the food chain.

"Every fish and invertebrate contacting the oil is probably dying. I have no doubt about that," said Prosanta Chakrabarty, a Louisiana State University fish biologist.

On the surface, a 24-hour camera fixed on the spewing, blown-out well and the images of dead, oil-soaked birds have been evidence of the calamity. At least 20 million gallons of oil and possibly 43 million gallons have spilled since the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded and sank in April.

That has far eclipsed the 11 millions gallons released during the off Alaska's coast in 1989. But there is no camera to capture what happens in the rest of the vast Gulf, which sprawls across 600,000 square miles and reaches more than 14,000 feet at its deepest point.

Every night, the denizens of the deep make forays to shallower depths to eat - and be eaten by - other fish, according to marine scientists who describe it as the largest migration on earth.

In turn, several species closest to the surface - including red snapper, shrimp and menhaden - help drive the Gulf Coast . Others such as marlin, cobia and yellowfin tuna sit atop the food chain and are chased by the Gulf's charter fishing fleet.

Many of those species are now in their annual spawning seasons. Eggs exposed to oil would quickly perish. Those that survived to hatch could starve if the at the base of the food chain suffer. Larger fish are more resilient, but not immune to the toxic effects of oil.

The Gulf's largest spill was in 1979, when the Ixtoc I platform off Mexico's Yucatan peninsula blew up and released 140 million gallons of oil. But that was in relatively shallow waters - about 160 feet deep - and much of the oil stayed on the surface where it broke down and became less toxic by the time it reached the Texas coast.

But last week, a team from the University of South Florida reported a plume was headed toward the continental shelf off the Alabama coastline, waters thick with fish and other marine life.

The researchers said oil in the plumes had dissolved into the water, possibly a result of chemical dispersants used to break up the spill. That makes it more dangerous to fish larvae and creatures that are filter feeders.

Responding to Hayward's assertion, one researcher noted that scientists from several different universities have come to similar conclusions about the plumes after doing separate testing.

No major fish kills have been reported, but federal officials said the impacts could take years to unfold.

"This is just a giant experiment going on and we're trying to understand scientifically what this means," said Roger Helm, a senior official with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In 2009, LSU's Chakrabarty discovered two new species of bottom-dwelling pancake batfish about 30 miles off the Louisiana coastline - right in line with the pathway of the spill caused when the Deepwater Horizon burned and sank April 24.

By the time an article in the Journal of Fish Biology detailing the discovery appears in the August edition, Chakrabarty said, the two species - which pull themselves along the seafloor with feet-like fins - could be gone or in serious decline.

"There are species out there that haven't been described, and they're going to disappear," he said.

Recent discoveries of endangered sea turtles soaked in oil and 22 dolphins found dead in the spill zone only hint at the scope of a potential calamity that could last years and unravel the Gulf's food web.

Concerns about damage to the fishery already is turning away potential customers for charter boat captains such as Troy Wetzel of Venice. To get to waters unaffected by the spill, Wetzel said he would have to take his boat 100 miles or more into the Gulf - jacking up his fuel costs to where only the wealthiest clients could afford to go fishing.

Significant amounts of crude oil seep naturally from thousands of small rifts in the Gulf's floor - as much as two Exxon Valdez spills every year, according to a 2000 report from government and academic researchers. Microbes that live in the water break down the oil.

The number of microbes that grow in response to the more concentrated BP spill could tip that system out of balance, LSU oceanographer Mark Benfield said.

Too many microbes in the sea could suck oxygen from the water, creating an uninhabitable hypoxic area, or "dead zone."

Preliminary evidence of increased hypoxia in the Gulf was seen during an early May cruise aboard the R/V Pelican, carrying researchers from the University of Georgia, the University of Mississippi and the University of Southern Mississippi.

An estimated 910,000 gallons of dispersants - enough to fill more than 100 tanker trucks - are contributing a new toxin to the mix. Containing petroleum distillates and propylene glycol, the dispersants' effects on marine life are still unknown.

What is known is that by breaking down oil into smaller droplets, dispersants reduce the oil's buoyancy, slowing or stalling the crude's rise to the surface and making it harder to track the spill.

Dispersing the oil lower into the water column protects beaches, but also keeps it in cooler waters where oil does not break down as fast. That could prolong the oil's potential to poison fish, said Larry McKinney, director of the Harte Research Institute at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.

"There's a school of thought that says we've made it worse because of the dispersants," he said.

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ormondotvos
5 / 5 (4) May 31, 2010
Let's see, the government imposes a fine of $4200 for each barrel spilled, so it is very much in Tony Hayward's interest to minimize and deprecate the amount of the spill. Therefore, no one should be surprised that the video feed had to be pried loose by Obama edict, and that the dispersant, which hides the oil (see above) would be immediately released at the hidden site of the leak.

In court, uncertainties are dismissed as unreal in the absence of solid evidence, which will have to be obtained from researchers, who are notorious for their equivocation (as scientists are wont to do.)

So BP corporate America is as busy lying about the spill size as the technicians are busy at trying to stop it.

I predict bankruptcy proceedings by BP America division, to insulate BP Britain from financial disaster. BP is the biggest corporation in England.

This is going to go on for two, maybe five years, judging from the size and intensity of the plume. Current samples of the plume stink of oil.
randolmj
1 / 5 (1) May 31, 2010
Big Spill in Big Gulf

The spill's impact could be miminized it it were dispersed. With the reported spill (20 million gallons total) and area (15,000 sq. miles), the oil layer averages 0.1 thosands inch thick. If the spill were dispersed into 70 feet of water, oil would be 0.1 mg./L, below the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection drinking water standard.
KBK
5 / 5 (5) May 31, 2010
Corexit was the choice of dispersants for more than a few reasons.

The biggest reason being that corexit causes 95% of any oil spill to not be seen on the surface and to do exactly what it is doing in the gulf.

With two seconds of thought when looking at the pipe and the speed which it is spewing by and the size of the pipe, and then add in other leaks, you end up with a volumetric throughput number that exceeds the size of the Exxon Valdez disaster, EACH AND EVERY DAY.

They know this.

They also know that hurricane season will shut down or damage any attempt to fix this and they know they'll have a BRUTAL problem one the hurricane season picks this up and turns it into toxic rain.

This whole thing was so 'seemingly' ineptly handled that one is forced to consider that these things were done with a specific purpose in mind. A purpose we have yet to see the shape of.
irjsiq
1.5 / 5 (2) May 31, 2010
ormondotvos

Take a moment's break with your 'Throwing rocks at BP'!
Our current system operates on Fossil Fuels; You use Fossil Fuels Yourself!
Cease the 'Rock Throwing' and think about
what You can suggest for mitigating this Disaster, which IS harming US ALL!

. . . changing what one can change,
accepting the things one cannot change, and the Wisdom to know the Difference? ? ?
The 'FLAW' in this writing IS:
The things 'one cannot change', are the things 'Most in Need of being Changed'!
Suggest: 'WE' Quit Bitching and Start 'Bailing'!
This IS 'Our Ship'!
'We' must put this Shipboard Fire out! There are no Life Rafts !
No 'Survival Capsules'!

Offer thoughts for the Families of the 11 Souls who Perished during the 'initial throes' of this Disaster . . . they were assuring Your 'Future Gasoline'!

Think about how to 'collect the Oil'.
'Bankrupt' or not, British Petroleum could use Our help!

Roy Stewart,
Phoenix AZ
AstrophysicsKid
5 / 5 (2) May 31, 2010
Quote: "Researchers have said they have found at least two massive underwater plumes of what appears to be oil, each hundreds of feet deep and stretching for miles. Yet the chief executive of BP PLC - which has for weeks downplayed everything from the amount of oil spewing into the Gulf to the environmental impact - said there is "no evidence" that huge amounts of oil are suspended undersea."

Remember, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
Canman
4 / 5 (5) May 31, 2010
This should be a eureka moment for all those who follow the debate about climate change. We are watching BP actively downplay, spin, misdirect, and lie about a known catastrophe. They have had only a little over a month to establish a propaganda strategy. But just watch. They are so good at finding ways to influence public opinion, that I predict that within one year, even unpaid and disinterested individuals from the general public will be lining up to defend BP's good name. Perhaps we will start to hear how BP is just another victim in all this. We will hear how the lives of those lost in the initial blast were sacrificed for the good of their families and the United States. We will hear about how the petrochemicals trapped in the Earth's crust, after all, are simply products of nature, and though troubling to us now, fall within the normal range of Earth's activity. We'll see infomercials on BP Gulf Coast social programs which are "changing lives for the better", etc, etc.
Canman
5 / 5 (3) May 31, 2010
By the way, BP can very easily pay three or four well rehearsed English Majors to hit all the blogs with different log in names to create the illusion of a pro-BP silent majority. So can Exxon, so can several other multibillion dollar oil companies.
otto1923
5 / 5 (2) May 31, 2010
This whole thing was so 'seemingly' ineptly handled that one is forced to consider that these things were done with a specific purpose in mind. A purpose we have yet to see the shape of.
The same reason the Titanic was sunk- to end an era. The only way to fix this will be with an engineered nuclear explosion. Our perceptions of both oil and nuclear explosives will be fundamentally revised.

Hitting the existing shaft with either of the relief wells has been compared to hitting a pie plate 2 miles underground. Many tries, many months, bad odds.
HaveYouConsidered
3.7 / 5 (3) May 31, 2010
BP has slyly understated every estimate of the situation, so when they claim that relief wells can be completed by August, it is logical to presume this also to be an understatement, and that they know it will take a lot longer to stem the flow.

They'll no doubt blame the delays on weather.

On the other hand, the hurricane season might be a blessing in that it will churn up the water surface and help disperse the oil more quickly than a calm surface does.

Also on the other hand, while I am not one to defend gulf drilling (vs. development of alternative energy), it is worth mentioning that two plumes a few hundred feet deep and a few miles long are truly tiny when compared to the volume of the gulf waters. Sure it's doing great ecological harm, but it will not be the end of life in the gulf, either.
HealingMindN
3 / 5 (1) Jun 01, 2010
What about the unseen disaster of a major earthquake from the sea floor collapsing? Can someone please tell me why the military is not stopping BP from using further chemical dispersant?

How will we memorialize what used to be the Gulf, all of the extinct denizens, and all the goodness that once came from it? Shall we hand over our lives to BP?

If they wanted to destroy the Gulf and everything that goes with it, they sure planned it well...
PinkElephant
5 / 5 (2) Jun 01, 2010
You might all be interested in this masterful little piece by Rachel Maddow, recently aired (05/27):

http://maddowblog...ills-now

You know what? Having watched that, I now fully agree with otto1923. Just nuke the damned thing: it can't possibly make things any worse...
goldengod
not rated yet Jun 01, 2010
The only way this catastrophe will be stopped is if they fuse the earths crust at the location of the fissure they have created into the mohorovicic discontinuity.
Shaffer
not rated yet Jun 01, 2010
Let's see, the government imposes a fine of $4200 for each barrel spilled


You do know that there is a cap on liability for an oil spill like this... Only $75 Million... BP could pay the fine and just say 'screw it' and walk away. The US is trying to get it raised to $15 Bil but that's not going to help any.
Yellowdart
1 / 5 (1) Jun 01, 2010
So BP corporate America is as busy lying about the spill size as the technicians are busy at trying to stop it.

I predict bankruptcy proceedings by BP America division, to insulate BP Britain from financial disaster. BP is the biggest corporation in England.


That still wouldnt save them from fiscal responsibility for clean up. Liability would still extend to the parent company.

The only way they would get out of this, is by political help. The courts wont be helpful.
Yellowdart
1 / 5 (1) Jun 01, 2010
The article is alot of unknowns with alot of apocolyptic threats. We just dont know at this point what the subsurface impact is going to be.

Lack of oxygen wont be a problem. The reason the Dead Zone forms in the gulf is do largely to the MS River freshwater with all the nitrogen and phosphorous. It causes an overgrowth of algae and a lack of oxygen renewal in the saltwater. This is not the situation in deeper waters. YOu will not have an overgrowth of microbes because the nitrates/phosophorus is limited and it will run out long before the oxygen will. The current Dead Zone is a bigger problem than this oil spill so far.

Our dead animals are all surface impacts, which hopefully we will not see any subsurface marine life affected by this.

Until you plug the source though, any dispersent or plume clean up is like trying to mop up a lake at the bottom of a waterfall...its just futile.

Yellowdart
1 / 5 (1) Jun 01, 2010
BP sure looks like they are moving slow, but to make several various attempts over a month at slowing/closing the flow when dealing with the slowness of boats/oil rigs, Congress/President ridign your back (without any sort of help), and a depth of a mile almost, I'd say its at least an effort.

Its frustrating, but complaining and whining without offering a better solution on stopping the source (outside of a relief well or a nuke) just doesnt help anybody. As a company, you dont want this sort of disaster, and youd want it fixed and taken care of with as minimal damage as possible. There is no benefit in being slow or dragging one's feet. BP may downplay as good as our President, but at least they are attempting solution after solution to cut the source off.
Yellowdart
5 / 5 (1) Jun 01, 2010
Can someone please tell me why the military is
not stopping BP from using further chemical dispersant?


Because its not the military's responsibility to do so. It is EPAs. EPA has required a stoppage to the initial dispersant, but not to all dispersants. It took them several weeks to even rule on that, much like the Corp's ruling on Jindhal's request for berms to protect his freshwater. If you want someone slow and clumsly in response, the feds are just as bad as BP if not worse.
otto1923
5 / 5 (1) Jun 01, 2010
You might all be interested in this masterful little piece by Rachel Maddow, recently aired (05/27):

http://maddowblog...ills-now

You know what? Having watched that, I now fully agree with otto1923. Just nuke the damned thing: it can't possibly make things any worse...
Excellent... just in time for the 4th of July-
KBK
1 / 5 (1) Jun 06, 2010
"An estimated 910,000 gallons of dispersants - enough to fill more than 100 tanker trucks -"

My business partner tried to get a tankerload of a resin material shipped to him. He had planned and set up that purchase and delivery 3 months ahead.

When the time came for the delivery, it took an extra 1.5 weeks to get a truck.

The explanation from the trucking companies was that all and any tankers were hired and shipping corexit down into the gulf. Now, the important bit.

WE ARE IN CANADA.

This means all extra and available tanker trucks that can transport liquid/powder/etc were hired to move corexit down into the Gulf. At least the entire eastern seaboard! NOW, that equals ~ONE HELL~ of a lot more than 100 tankerloads, one would think.

This helps nail down the point that the spill is MUCH bigger than they are letting you know, and that the corexit, BTW, is BRUTALLY TOXIC to the nervous system of all living things. Makes aspartame look like a joke-it's via Monsanto, again, BTW.