The massive oil slick that is making its way to the Gulf Coast bit by bit has thrown politicians, fishermen, scientists and foodies alike into a frenzy for fear that the true extent of the damage is far, far worse than imagined. The constant talk of tar balls, oil plumes and gas gushing from the bowels of the Gulf of Mexico, have led to speculation that BP isn’t showing all its cards. For scientists, the findings are troubling as previous estimates of how much oil is leaking and when it will reach the coast are proving dead wrong.
Few days ago BP said it successfully inserted a 6 inch pipe under a 21 inch pipe 5000 feet below the surface and hoped to suck nearly 85 percent of the leaking oil.
Scientists from several universities including the University of Georgia, have formed a joint research effort to study the giant oil spill. On board the research vessel, Pelican, marine science professor Samantha Joye reports that the oil runs deep and thick.
“There’s a tremendous amount of oil in multiple layers, three or four or five layers deep in the water column,” remarked Dr. Joye. She added, “The plumes are abundant throughout the region. I would say they’ve become characteristic of this environment.”
The Pelican departed from Cocodrie, La., on May 3, and has been taking ocean samples to gather more exact evidence of how much oil really is leaking and its impact on the Gulf’s fragile ecosystem. Thus far, the U.S. government has been relying on surface images from a satellite, which helped scientists come up with a leak estimate of 5,000 barrels a day. The oil plumes and other evidence gathered by the Pelican, however, shows the flow rate could range from 25,000 upwards to 80,000 barrels a day.
Such a massive quantity of oil could create large swathes of uninhabitable ocean space. Fear that the oil spill could deplete oxygen levels so much that any creature is doomed, essentially creating a “dead zone,” are no longer a mere seed waiting to water. The threat is real.
The discovery of the oil plumes, which are as big as 10 miles long and as deep as 4,200 feet, may explain the difference in flow estimates. Subsea chemical dispersants used by BP to break up and contain the oil may have caused the oil to linger on the ocean, instead of rising up to the surface, where flow rates are calculated. The overall and long-term effects of such dispersants are not currently known.
Essentially, the Gulf of Mexico has now become a giant lab full of chemicals, oil plumes, and unknown consequences. Critics have already placed blame on everything from BP’s lack of concern, to Washington’s oversight deficiency to God. What the future holds for the Gulf of Mexico is uncertain, however, currently this future is looking grim.
BP has turned down requests to have researchers use special equipment to measure the actual amount of oil being hurled throughout the Gulf.
Written by Lani Shadduck