Scientists alarmed by discovery of massive plumes of oil in Gulf of Mexico

The New York Times reports of new concerns with the spill deep in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The amount of oil visible on the surface of the water apparently pales in comparison to what scientists have found far below the surface. This discovery suggests two important points. First, those estimating the volume of oil leaking to be much greater than those original reports are correct. Second, efforts to use dispersants to break up the spill deep below the surface are not working as hoped, increasing the potential for damage to the life above and on the seafloor.

Scientists are finding enormous oil plumes in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, including one as large as 10 miles long, 3 miles wide and 300 feet thick in spots. The discovery is fresh evidence that the leak from the broken undersea well could be substantially worse than estimates that the government and BP have given.

BP continues to deny scientists requests for access to the ocean floor near the spill to get better measurements of the oil spill. They are also taking advantage of the discrepancy between what can be seen at the surface and what can't be seen at greater depths.

BP said Saturday at a briefing in Robert, La., that it had resumed undersea application of dispersants, after winning Environmental Protection Agency approval the day before.

“It appears that the application of the subsea dispersant is actually working,” Doug Suttles, BP’s chief operating officer for exploration and production, said Saturday. “The oil in the immediate vicinity of the well and the ships and rigs working in the area is diminished from previous observations.”

Many scientists had hoped the dispersants would cause oil droplets to spread so widely that they would be less of a problem in any one place. If it turns out that is not happening, the strategy could come under greater scrutiny. Dispersants have never been used in an oil leak of this size a mile under the ocean, and their effects at such depth are largely unknown.

BP's choice to limit access and their lack of cooperation with the scientific community continues to increase the cost, in both monetary and environmental terms. And we are missing prime opportunities to learn important information for spills in the future.

The plumes are depleting the oxygen dissolved in the gulf, worrying scientists, who fear that the oxygen level could eventually fall so low as to kill off much of the sea life near the plumes.

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“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 said. “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.”

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