If you turned on the TV recently, there’s a good chance you saw Samantha Joye, Marine Sciences professor at the University of Georgia, doing interviews, from Rachel Maddow to Good Morning America to Congress itself.
With funds from a NOAA “Rapid Response Grant,” she and her research team aboard the Walton Smith found a huge plume of dispersed oil almost a mile deep, southwest of British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon well. As of this writing BP still denies the existence of the plume.
“This is an infusion of oil and gas unlike anything else that’s ever been seen anywhere, certainly in human history,” Joye said in a press conference at the University of Georgia. “When you see video of the leaking pipe, that doesn’t give you the appropriate feel for the scale and velocity of the expulsion from the wellhead.”
The main ecological problem with the plume — which is as long as 15 miles, as wide as five miles, and about 600 feet thick — is that the presence of so much oil and methane gas promotes the formation of huge colonies of bacteria, which stage a microbial feeding frenzy on the spill matter.
The bacteria in turn use so much oxygen in the feeding process that there’s little oxygen left for any other life, thus leading to the formation of the “dead zones” you might have heard about.
“These microorganisms are used to ‘seeing’ low quantities of oil and gas, which come from natural seepage,” Joye said. “This spill is different because a very large amount of oil and gas is being introduced into a focused area. The microbial response to this sudden infusion is likely to be dramatic,” she continued.
"I’ve been working in the Gulf of Mexico for 15 years, I’ve never seen concentrations of methane this high anywhere in the water column. It’s unprecedented, and that’s because this is an unprecedented event in terms of the magnitude of this spill.”
The plume primarily consists of dispersed droplets which sometimes arrange themselves in loose orange strings. The massive application of chemical dispersants by BP is likely a driving factor of the formation of plumes — an even larger one was discovered northeast of the well — as opposed to the more typical surface slick.
“They are being very effective,” she commented, somewhat wryly. “The point of that was to keep oil off the surface so it didn’t go on the beaches.”
As for the chemicals’ effect on wildlife, she says, “I don’t think even toxicologists know the impacts of these dispersants. We have no clue what these dispersants do to phytoplankton, to microorganisms. We know they’re toxic.”
Phytoplankton in oceans produce about half the planet’s oxygen, and are therefore a major bulwark against the buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere and the accompanying greenhouse effect.
So while it follows that the oil spill’s destruction of plankton would decrease planetary oxygen, UGA Marine Science Professor Charles Hopkinson says it’s more complicated than that.
“It is not biomass of phytoplankton that is the measure of their oxygen production, but their rate of primary production,” he says. “Certainly in those areas where oil concentrations are high, there is likely to be a marked reduction in production. But keep in mind that this is an extremely small surface area of the water surface that is likely to be impacted by the oil spill, so it is reasonable to assume that there will be no discernible global effects.”
Hopkinson adds that, as Joye’s mission proved, a high percentage of the oil is in deep waters where no light penetrates “and as such there is no light–driven primary production.”
As for fears of the oil reaching the Georgia coast, Hopkinson says if it does come here it will likely be in that underwater, dispersed form, not the more stereotypical oil spill effects such as those now suffered by Louisiana.
“At the very least, we can probably assume that only the oil dissolved in the water will be transported, not the surface floating material that tends to drift with surface currents and winds,” he says.
“There is tremendous dilution of water once it is entrained in the Loop Current and joins the Gulf Stream. If any of this water were to mix in with our shelf water, it would be diluted even further.”
Hopkinson says the oil spill probably won’t impact seasonal use of the waters off Georgia by right whales as a calving ground. “It’s unlikely that oil of sufficient concentration to impact whales or their food will reach our area.”
However, where the Gulf itself is concerned, Joye says dilution is no remedy.
“The solution to pollution is not dilution,” she said, reversing an old adage in the environmental sciences in answer to a question about BP CEO Tony Hayward’s recent claim that the Gulf was big enough to handle the spill.
“It’s an excuse and it’s arm–waving and it takes away from important things we should be thinking about.”
Joye said the sheer mass of material injected into the Gulf is tremendous, and is the key factor.
“To say it doesn’t matter because it’s a big system is just completely unacceptable,” she said. “It does matter and it’s having a clear impact. Look how much of the Gulf is closed to fishing right now — 30 percent. That’s an impact.”
Visit Samantha Joye’s Blog at gulfblog.uga.edu