A new development has come out of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, adding to the tragedy that is currently unfolding as a result of BP’s drilling. Recent reports from an expedition by the National Institute for Undersea Science and Technology are that “giant” plumes of oil are pooling under the surface of the water.
Uncertainty over oil plume effects
There is a fair amount of uncertainty as to what effect this oil plume will have on the surrounding environment. According to a report in the Associated Press, though, some of the effects are already known.
The first effect will be from direct contact with the oil. As with seen in many spills, animals that come into contact with the oil, especially those that breathe underwater, as in fish, will be the first organisms at risk from this sort of contact. Additionally, the toxicity of the oil itself will bring other issues with these animals in the food chain.
The more catastrophic effect will be the impact on oxygen in the water. The oil has started to leech the water of its oxygen, and, as quoted in the AP story, has reduced oxygen in the water by 30%. Samantha Joye, a professor at the University of Georgia, stated that the dispersants may be speeding up the process by which microbes process oxygen.
Oxygen depletion could have ripple effects across the food chain
If the microbes are depleting the surrounding environment of oxygen, then that will kill off large amounts of sea life, which happens to be the food of other, larger, animals. It may help to explain the large number of dead sea life washing up on the shores of the Gulf Coast, but no agency has yet come to that conclusion publicly.
Plumes could be larger than oil at the surface
The latest official figure for the oil spill is that approximately 5,000 barrels a day have been spilling into the Gulf since the spill started. That number has come up for debate since a scientists saw footage of the oil gushing out of the pipe at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.
The current estimate of 5,000 barrels seems to hold true for the oil being seen on the surface, but the discovery of the plumes brings many estimates into doubt. It is thought that the chemical dispersant being injected into the oil stream is preventing the oil from reaching the surface. In one estimate, of one plume, it is thought that there is a 10-mile long by 3-mile wide plume leading away from the oil well.
If there are other plumes, the 5,000 barrel/day estimate will likely by modified, and that could be raised to as high as 48,000 barrels a day. Before any real estimates can be made, though, the density of these plumes must be measured. The easier way to measure the flow would be to allow scientists to monitor the actual flow from the well, but BP has refused to allow anyone outside of their organization in the vicinity of the well, citing concerns that the number is unnecessary and may hamper efforts to stem the flow.
With some estimating the 2010 hurricane season to be one of the most active seasons since 2005, which produced Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, it does not appear that this is a great year to be living on the coast.