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article imageMassive oil plumes discovered in Gulf's deep waters

By Lynn Herrmann     May 16, 2010 in Environment
New research by scientists reports the BP oil spill is far greater than government and BP reports suggest, with enormous undersea oil plumes as long as 10 miles situated in the Gulf of Mexico’s deep waters.
Multiple layers of oil are being discovered in the water column, with one as large as 10 miles long, 3 miles wide and 300 feet thick in spots. These discoveries are providing fresh evidence that the leak from the Deepwater undersea well is much worse than official reports by the British oil giant or the US government.
Samantha Joye, a University of Georgia researcher involved with one of the first scientific missions related to the environmental catastrophe, said: “There’s a shocking amount of oil in the deep water, relative to what you see in the surface water,” according to the New York Times.
“There’s a tremendous amount of oil in multiple layers, three or four or five layers deep in the water column,” she added.
The oil plumes are depleting oxygen levels near these plumes, raising fears that much of the sea life near them will be killed off.
Dr. Joye said the levels had already dropped as much as 30 percent near some of the plumes during the first month of the spill. “If you keep those kinds of rates up, you could draw the oxygen down to very low levels that are dangerous to animals in a couple of months,” Joye said on Saturday. “That is alarming.”
Scientists from several universities aboard the research vessel Pelican have been gathering extensive samples and information on the calamity in the gulf. The ship sailed from Cocodrie, LA on May 3.
While government estimates put the leaking oil at a flow rate of 5,000 barrels per day and are based on ocean surface images by satellite, scientists studying the video released by BP have offered information suggesting that number as being far too low low, with a more realistic number somewhere between 25,000 to 80,000 barrels of oil a day.
Scientists have asked BP for permission to use sophisticated instruments at the leak site on the ocean floor that would give a far more accurate measurement of the actual flow of oil from the site. BP has declined.
“The answer is no to that,” said Tom Mueller, a BP spokesman, on Saturday. “We’re not going to take any extra efforts now to calculate flow there at this point. It’s not relevant to the response effort, and it might even detract from the response effort.”
The new data suggests much of the leaking oil is lingering far below the water surface and could offer an explanation about the large discrepancies over flow estimates.
Scientists aboard the Pelican mission, which is backed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, are not certain why the oil is lingering far below the surface. They suspect the heavy use of chemical dispersants may be breaking the oil into droplets too small to rise rapidly.
BP resumed injecting dispersants into the stream of oil gushing from the well on Saturday after the Environmental Protection Agency gave approval the day before.
Doug Suttles, BP’s chief operating officer, said on Saturday: “It appears that the application of the subsea dispersant is actually working.”
Some scientists had hoped the use of dispersants would cause the oil droplets to spread over a wide area, causing less of a problem in any one place. Chemical dispersants have never been used a mile under the ocean surface. Their deep water effects on oil leaks are largely unknown.
“The oil in the immediate vicinity of the well and the ships and rigs working in the area is diminished from previous observations” Suttles added.
On NBC’s Today Show on Friday, Suttles declined an offer to apologize for BP’s involvement in the environmental disaster.
While much of the disaster’s situation below the water remains unknown, the scientists aboard the Pelican stress their results are preliminary.
Interviewed by satellite phone on Saturday, Vernon Asper of the University of Mississippi said the shallowest plume detected so far is at a depth of 2,300 feet, while the deepest was near the sea floor at 4,200 feet.
“We’re trying to map them, but it’s a tedious process,” Dr. Asper said from aboard the Pelican. “Right now it looks like the oil is moving southwest, not all that rapidly.”
The researchers, using several types of instruments to detect the plumes, are unsure of their density or their exact dimensions.
Due to their large sizes, the scientists say the plumes cannot consist of pure oil, rather they are more likely to consist of oil droplets suspended in a far greater quantity of water. Dr. Joye said the plumes might be the consistency of a thin salad dressing.
Dr. Joye, serving as coordinator of the mission from her laboratory in Athens, GA, said the findings on declining oxygen levels are worrisome because of oxygen’s slow movement from surface to ocean bottom.
Although the oxygen depletion levels have not yet killed off sea life, the possibility looms that levels may fall so low they could create large dead zones.
Ray Highsmith is head of the National Institute for Undersea Science and Technology, sponsor of the mission. He fears dead zones may be the latest result from the massive spill. “That’s the big worry,” he said.
“This is a new type of event, and it’s critically important that we really understand it, because of the incredible number of oil platforms not only in the Gulf of Mexico but all over the world now,” Dr. Highsmith stated. “We need to know what these events are like, and what their outcomes can be, and what can be done to deal with the next one.”
The Pelican mission is scheduled to end today, but scientists are seeking federal funds to continue the research.
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