The NYT reports that huge columns of oil are floating under the surface of the Gulf of Mexico - Giant Plumes of Oil Forming Under the Gulf.
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.
“There’s a shocking amount of oil in the deep water, relative to what you see in the surface water,” said Samantha Joye, a researcher at the University of Georgia who is involved in one of the first scientific missions to gather details about what is happening in the gulf. “There’s a tremendous amount of oil in multiple layers, three or four or five layers deep in the water column.”
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.
Dr. Joye said the oxygen had already dropped 30 percent near some of the plumes in the month that the broken oil well had been flowing. “If you keep those kinds of rates up, you could draw the oxygen down to very low levels that are dangerous to animals in a couple of months,” she said Saturday. “That is alarming.”
The plumes were discovered by scientists from several universities working aboard the research vessel Pelican, which sailed from Cocodrie, La., on May 3 and has gathered extensive samples and information about the disaster in the gulf.
Scientists studying video of the gushing oil well have tentatively calculated that it could be flowing at a rate of 25,000 to 80,000 barrels of oil a day. The latter figure would be 3.4 million gallons a day. But the government, working from satellite images of the ocean surface, has calculated a flow rate of only 5,000 barrels a day.
BP has resisted entreaties from scientists that they be allowed to use sophisticated instruments at the ocean floor that would give a far more accurate picture of how much oil is really gushing from the well.
“The answer is no to that,” a BP spokesman, Tom Mueller, said on Saturday. “We’re not going to take any extra efforts now to calculate flow there at this point. It’s not relevant to the response effort, and it might even detract from the response effort.”
The undersea plumes may go a long way toward explaining the discrepancy between the flow estimates, suggesting that much of the oil emerging from the well could be lingering far below the sea surface.
The scientists on the Pelican mission, which is backed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agency that monitors the health of the oceans, are not certain why that would be. They say they suspect the heavy use of chemical dispersants, which BP has injected into the stream of oil emerging from the well, may have broken the oil up into droplets too small to rise rapidly.