Hidden Menace in the Gulf of Mexico: Oil Spill's Real Threat Lies Beneath the Surface

By Philip Bethge

The Gulf of Mexico spill is vastly larger than the Exxon Valdez accident in 1989, but where is all the oil? While efforts to protect coastlines have been making the headlines, the real ecological catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico is unfolding deep beneath the water's surface.

Photo Gallery: 'Out of Sight, Out of Mind' Photos
AP

Samantha Joye was sure she was right. Somewhere down there, the toxic clouds were sure to exist. And now she was holding the evidence in her hands. A thin film of oil glistened in one of the small sample bottles Joye had filled with water taken from more than 1 kilometer (3,300 feet) beneath the surface.

"You could see it. Everybody saw it," Joye, a professor of marine sciences at the University of Georgia, wrote on her blog. Besides, the sample taken from the Gulf of Mexico smelled as if it had come directly from a gas station.

Joye made this important discovery a few days ago on board the research ship Walton Smith, near the location where the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig went up in flames on April 20.

The scientists are now referring to the site as "Ground Zero." They have spotted oddly shaped "pancakes of oil" floating on the surface there, Joye reports, as well as "bizarre orange and black stringers, as deep in the water column as you could see."

The scientist lowered her sample container into this toxic soup. The preliminary lab results show what many had already feared: Massive amounts of oil are billowing beneath the water's surface in the Gulf of Mexico. Several teams of scientists have spotted clouds containing oil in the depths of the ocean, a number of which are several hundred meters thick and extend for several kilometers.

The discoveries have added a new dimension to the fight to contain the oil spill. While thousands of workers and volunteers are currently defending the coastlines of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida against the reddish-brown scourge, what could be a far greater ecological catastrophe is taking shape out in the ocean.

Where's the Oil?

According to new estimates, more than twice as much oil has flowed into the Gulf of Mexico in the last 50 days than was spilled from the oil tanker Exxon Valdez into Alaska's Prince William Sound in 1989.

But where has all the oil gone?

Relatively little has reached the coasts so far, leading scientists to fear that much of it is still lurking underwater. And in addition to the oil, the water is contaminated with massive amounts of chemicals that BP workers have been spraying for weeks to disperse the oil. "In my opinion, the situation is comparable to that of a hurricane that's building up off the coast and gaining in strength," warns Larry McKinney of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies in Corpus Christi, Texas.

Majestic whale sharks and rare Kemp's Ridley sea turtles are now swimming through the oily water. Sperm whales and thousands of dolphins are forced to breathe the toxic fumes on the ocean surface. A myriad of plankton organisms migrate, in a day-and-night rhythm, up and down through a water column contaminated with oil. Finally, ancient reefs on the ocean floor are suffering beneath the toxic soup.

'There Aren't Any Plumes'

"We are now entering a different phase of this disaster," Samantha Joye, the marine biologist, told the news agency Bloomberg in an interview. "Everybody has been focusing on the surface impacts, which is normal. But now we've got to switch gears and start thinking about the deep water."

For Joye, it's also a matter of her reputation as a scientist. Her team discovered the first signs of the monstrous oil clouds in mid-May. But BP CEO Tony Hayward disputes that the clouds even exist. "The oil is on the surface," he said. "There aren't any plumes." He argues that, because oil is lighter than water, it will always float to the surface. BP scientists, at any rate, have found "no evidence" of underwater oil clouds.

The oil executive is trying to prevent the environmental damage from becoming more and more apparent. The US's entire Gulf fishing industry could be shut down for years if the scientists' fears turn out to be true. In the end, the overall damage will determine how much BP will be expected to pay in compensation.

Despite BP's claims, the evidence of submarine pollution is now overwhelming. Scientists at the University of South Florida also recently discovered an enormous amount of oil at about 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) beneath the surface. The cloud of finely dispersed oil particles extends for 35 kilometers, billowing to the northeast of the Deepwater Horizon accident site. It's one of the most species-rich regions of the Gulf of Mexico.

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