Published November 8, 2010
Over the course of the summer, scientists detected large plumes of oil droplets in the Gulf of Mexico, presumably from the BP oil spill that began in April. Are these plumes still a threat to the Gulf ecosystem?
© 2010 National Geographic; partially funded by NSF
Several weeks after the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill, researchers familiar with the Gulf revealed that their research team had detected a large plume made up of oil droplets and it was located more than 3000 feet under the water’s surface.
One of those researchers is University of Georgia marine scientist Samantha Joye.
The oil plume data collected by Joye and the other researchers working with her initially received a cool reception from officials in NOAA. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and oil company officials consistently backed away from confirming the findings of the scientists.
But by the end of the summer, other scientists had made similar public statements following their own research: giant plumes of oil did exist in the Gulf.
SOUNDBITE: Samantha Joye, University of Georgia Marine Scientist: “So, my concern regarding the Deepwater impact is the ultimate fate of the material that is in these plumes.”
Joye has been conducting research in the Gulf of Mexico for more than 15 years. In late May, she and her colleagues from several universities embarked on a long-planned research cruise in the Gulf. They made another excursion in August.
This video was taken aboard the research vessel F. G. Walton Smith, owned by the University of Miami.
SOUNDBITE: Samantha Joye, University of Georgia Marine Scientist: “My two biggest concerns – are one, the toxicity of the poly(cyclic) aromatic hydrocarbons – that’s limited to a really small area around the spill zone – 5 kilometers around the spill zone – that’s the most toxic types of hydrocarbons- the poly(cyclic) aromatic, the naphthalene, and toluene and things like that. The other concern that I have is just the sheer volume of the gas that
has been expelled from the well head - most is dissolved in the deepwater and
represents a large potential oxygen sink and how that is going to play out over
At 3600 feet below the surface , tiny, virtually invisible droplets of oil, formed a vast cloud that was 3 miles long. But, they are out of sight. And while cleanup appeared to focus on surface oil and oil reaching beaches and marshes, Joye says the plumes, and the oil that gets dispersed in the depths of the Gulf are no less of a threat to marine life.
SOUNDBITE: Samantha Joye, University of Georgia Marine Scientist: “Dispersed oil and dissolved oil is no less of a threat than surficial oil floating on the surface because that material still carries with it two potentially important biological effects: One is toxicity and that’s related to the concentration of oil in the environment. The other is oxygen demand and that’s related to the stimulation of biodegradation and oxygen consumption from the oil in the environment”
While there has been much talk about organisms breaking up the oil in the water, Joye says that’s not all good news.
SOUNDBITE: Samantha Joye, University of Georgia Marine Scientist: “Microbial consumption of oil and gas is actually a good thing, and if this was happening on the surface mix layer it would be a wonderful, wonderful thing with hardly any side effects. But it’s not happening on the surface mix layer. It is happening deep below the surface in isolated layers. And because it’s happening in these isolated layers, oxygen becomes a big problem because if these organisms in these layers consume oxygen faster than physical processes can replenish oxygen in these layers, you can have the generation of layers low oxygen water.”
That, she says, could lead to suffocation of animals living on the sea floor.
SOUNDBITE: Samantha Joye, University of Georgia Marine Scientist: “It’s a good thing, but it’s a complicated thing, because you’ve got this oxygen consumption that exceeds the system’s ability to replenish the oxygen.”
And Joye is concerned that little attention is being given to the other byproduct of the deepwater well.
SOUNDBITE: Samantha Joye, University of Georgia Marine Scientist: “The other aspect that there has not been much discussion about, and I’ll go back to this again and again, is the gases – 40% of flux from this well iwas gas: methane gas, ethane gas, propane gas. Nobody’s talking about the role of the gases. The gases weren’t included the oil budget, NOAA doesn’t measure gases on the cruises- the monitoring cruises. It’s like 40% of this spill is being sort of shoved into a corner and a rug thrown over it.”
She says that the effects of the oil, gas and dispersants will affect marine life for years to come. She also offers a final thought.
SOUNDBITE: Samantha Joye, University of Georgia Marine Scientist: “And we need to all take a look at ourselves and change our own individual ways as much as we can to have a smaller impact on the world because until the global appetite for oil and gas is decreased, oil producing companies will continue to drill in deepwater in the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Nigeria, in the Indian Ocean, you name it. This isn’t going to stop until the consumption stops and that starts with each of us. It doesn’t start with anybody else. It starts with an individual person. It starts with me and it starts with you.”
A computer simulation of America's worst day of tornadoes in decades finds a link to land-clearing fires in Central America.
"People find it instructive and helpful, but also kind of fun—in a macabre kind of way," says the American Alpine Club's executive editor.
A photographer caught the 130-pound monster on camera in November off the southern California coast.
The Future of Food
How do we feed nine billion people by 2050, and how do we do so sustainably?
We've made our magazine's best stories about the future of food available in a free iPad app.