Hidden Menace in the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill's Real Threat Lies Beneath the Surface
Part 2: An Underwater World in Peril
The scientists lowered highly sensitive measuring devices from on board their research ship, the Weatherbird II, and took water samples from various depths. Their results suggest that the cloud is drifting toward the DeSoto Canyon, which is near the coast, on the edge of the continental shelf. There, nutrient-rich water rises from the depths and supports an enchanting underwater world. Fishermen catch meter-long red tuna, shimmering kingfish and grouper. Magical gardens of intricately branched corals flourish on the sea floor. Green brittle stars, glass-rope sponges and fish like the splendid alfonsino and the blackbelly rosefish populate the reefs.
"Unfortunately, the depth at which the oil is coming out of the well is home to the greatest diversity of species in the entire Gulf region," explains Thomas Shirley of the Harte Research Institute. Biologists have counted more than 1,000 species at that depth, and they can only guess at what the oil and chemicals are doing to them.
Scientists are already collecting the first signs of the damage. Biologists John Dindo and Andrea Kroetz are bent over their catch at Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama. They have just returned from a scientific haul. Atlantic sharpnose sharks, marked with yellow plastic bands, have been placed on ice in boxes, next to valuable red snappers with sharp teeth.
The scientists, who spent 22 hours at sea, are working under high pressure. "We are experiencing these things for the first time," says Dindo. "We have to collect as much data as possible so that we can study the effects of the oil on the animals." The fish look normal, but laboratory analyses must now be performed to determine whether the pollutants have already affected their tissue.
Bathed in Oil
Dindo has been working at the Sea Lab on Dauphin Island for 37 years. The island off the Alabama coast lies directly in the path of the oil. The first reddish-brown lumps of oil washed up on the region's beaches last week. The military has built a wall to protect the island's sand bars.
But Dindo is more concerned about the open sea than the beaches. "The spawning season for many fish has just started. What happens when fish eggs and larvae are bathed in oil?" the 61-year-old scientist asks. An entire year's worth of young fish could be lost.
The scientists are worried about acute poisoning, as well as genetic damage and later deformities. "The oil impairs the organ functions of the marine creatures," says toxicologist Joe Griffitt of the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory in Ocean Springs. This, he adds, will impair fertility and larval development. Oil components could also become concentrated in the food chain.
The oil is suspended in the water in tiny, barely visible droplets, which the scientists call "rosebuds." The emulsion develops directly at the well head, deep beneath the surface, says Griffitt. When the hot oil shoots out of the ocean floor and comes into contact with very cold water under high pressure, methane gas is released, which then atomizes the oil.
The Dead Zone
The toxicologist fears that the chemicals that BP are using to fight the oil are actually promoting the formation of oil clouds. The company has already used about 3.8 million liters of the chemicals, about a quarter of which they released into the water directly at the wellhead.
"The oil alone would slowly rise to the surface," says Griffitt, "but when it becomes mixed with the dispersants, it remains in the water column." Although bacteria attack the emulsion there and gradually destroy the oil, the microorganisms consume much of the oxygen dissolved in the water in the process. The result could be that fish and zooplankton die off on a large scale due to the creation of an oxygen-deficient "dead zone." "The chemistry of the sea water is being completely turned around, and we have no idea what happens next," says Griffitt.
In fact, scientists know very little about the effects of oil deep in the ocean. Neither BP nor the US scientific authorities have attached much importance to the issue until now. For the first time, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has now dispatched a ship, the Gordon Gunter, to study the phenomenon. The scientists on board are using various devices, including heavy-duty sonar equipment and an underwater robot named "Gulper."
- Part 1: Oil Spill's Real Threat Lies Beneath the Surface
- Part 2: An Underwater World in Peril
- Part 3: Waiting for Research Funding