Back in mid-May, a team of scientists announced that they had discovered enormous underwater plumes of oil in the Gulf of Mexico, presumably due to the BP oil spill. While BP steadfastly maintained that almost all of the oil spewing from a partially blown well was flowing directly to the surface, where it showed up as massive slicks, the academic researchers said that at least some of the crude—possibly due to the application of chemical dispersants underwater—was spreading out beneath the sea, where it could deplete underwater oxygen levels and do untold damage to sensitive underwater life. But despite direct observation of the plumes, federal officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) were initially skeptical, waiting for their own research vessels to study the situation.
Doubt no longer: today NOAA released the results of a second peer-reviewed report, and found evidence of concentrations of subsurface oil thanks to the BP spill. Taking preliminary data from 227 sampling stations extending from one to 52 km away from the Deepwater Horizon site, the report indicates that oil plumes can be seen extending away from the site of the spill, gradually becoming less concentrated. It’s notable that so far NOAA hasn’t found evidence of severe oxygen depletion in the areas affected by the spill. (Scientists worry that as oil-eating bacteria break down the crude and then die, they could serious deplete marine oxygen levels—with devastating consequences for sealife.) But the reality is that no one knows what impact the underwater oil plumes will have on the deep regions of the Gulf, which haven’t been very well studied, and no one really knows what concentrations of chemical dispersants will do either. In the words of a great New Scientist piece on the spill, the Gulf has become an “accidental laboratory.”
But while scientists will study the effects of the spill for years after the well is finally closed, we already know it probably won’t be good—as Jeff Goodell makes clear in his new Rolling Stone piece on the oil, the dispersants and the aftermath:
Crude oil contains hundreds, perhaps thousands, of chemical compounds, many of which are lethal in high concentrations. As soon as oil began erupting out of BP’s well and into the water, the compounds in the oil began to separate, some drifting up to the surface, others remaining near the bottom, where they will inevitably spread a toxic brew into the cellular structure of virtually every plant and animal in the Gulf, from microscopic plankton all the way up to sperm whales. Even worse, BP has responded to the disaster by pumping nearly 2 million gallons of toxic chemicals into the Gulf in an effort to break up the oil into smaller, camera-friendly slicks. The cleanup operation, in effect, has turned the Gulf into a vast science experiment, one whose consequences – untested and unforeseeable – are likely to haunt the planet for decades to come.