Gulf gusher is far and away the biggest U.S. spill

As cleanup efforts progress, scientists try to track oil roaming below the surface

The catastrophic explosion on April 20 of an offshore oil-exploration platform in the Gulf of Mexico sent oil slicks coasting toward shorelines from Louisiana to Florida. Now research vessels are tracking a more stealthy threat: huge clouds of diffuse, nearly invisible oil droplets hovering deep below the surface.

THE OIL YOU SEE For the first 50 days of the BP spill, responders focused on surface oil, like that hitting the beach here in the Grand Isle area of Louisiana. But emerging data have begun identifying huge, deep clouds of oil that are not surfacing. © BP p.l.c.

In late May, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute deployed a robotic submersible to study subsurface oil. Yanwu Zhang, copyright 2010 MBARI

New data indicate these invisible plumes form shifting strata that fan out in a host of directions from the gushing wellhead, more than 1.5 kilometers below the water’s surface. These clouds could substantially increase estimates of the total amount of oil spilled and could poison deep-dwelling critters that provide the base of the marine food web.

BP North America — the well’s owner — had claimed for weeks that daily spill rates likely peaked at about 5,000 barrels, or 210,000 gallons. But a new oil-collection system that the company set up on June 3 was hauling in just shy of 15,000 barrels of crude per day by June 8.

Federal officials recently charged several independent research teams with figuring out precisely how much crude oil and natural gas spewed directly into the water in the days following the explosion. Preliminary estimates suggest that more than 630,000 barrels of BP oil could already be sloshing around the gulf. That means this spill, dubbed the Deepwater Horizon for the name of the platform that sank, released more than twice the volume of the next biggest spill in U.S. waters, the 1989 grounding of the Exxon Valdez.

Because the oil-collection system now in place over the wellhead can’t remove all of the spewing oil, the well will continue to foul Gulf waters until it’s capped in late summer, said Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen at a June 7 White House briefing.

The big issue is where all of this oil is ending up, because much has still not floated to the surface. An experiment conducted in 2000 off Norway should offer Gulf analysts good clues, notes spill modeler Eric Adams of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Known as DeepSpill, the Norwegian experiment — sponsored by 23 oil companies and the U.S. Minerals Management Service — released methane or a mix of methane and oil into the Atlantic during four tests, none lasting more than two hours. In tests that let off 60 cubic meters of hydrocarbons, “only between 1 and 17 cubic meters (lower and upper bound estimates)” made it to the surface, according to a 2005 analysis by Adams and Scott Socolofsky, now at Texas A&M University in College Station.

Related experiments by teams at MIT and the University of Hawaii help explain the finding. If oil droplets are very small or if enough cold, dense water is mixed in with them, “you can get a mixture that could be neutrally buoyant,” Adams says, meaning it could hover below the surface. It’s not clear what role oil dispersants may have played in fostering these hovering mixtures.

These data may explain the deep, massive clouds of oil reported on June 8 by two independent research cruises plying the Gulf. Oil concentrations were too small to stain the water and so couldn’t be easily seen, both groups said, but could be detected chemically, acoustically or on filters.

In early June, Samantha Joye of the University of Georgia in Athens and her colleagues found diffuse oil plumes up to roughly 30 kilometers southwest of BP’s leaking wellhead. The team measured clouds roughly 3 to 5 kilometers wide. “The part of the water column most impacted was generally 1,100 to 1,300 meters below the surface,” Joye notes. “So it’s a pretty big patch of water.”

The plumes’ oil and methane concentrations diminished with distance from the accident site. And when BP slapped a hood on top of the well, a plume these researchers were tracking changed trajectory. That’s “pretty convincing evidence that it was linked to the wellhead and not some natural feature, like a [seabed hydrocarbon] seep,” Joye argues.

Deep, diffuse undersea plumes “were totally independent of surface slicks,” she notes. Plume distribution is probably influenced by bottom currents, she says, driven by differences in water density (due to temperature and salinity) and by varying seafloor topography.

As plumes hit these currents, portions “will shear off and whiz around here, there and yonder,” Joye quips, explaining why different research teams may find plumes shooting in different directions at different depths.

Scientists from the University of South Florida in Tampa and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration mapped oil-tainted strata northeast and southeast of the wellhead between May 23 and 26. On June 8, they reported finding oil in several undersea layers more than 70 kilometers from the spill site. Oil concentrations were low, peaking at just 500 parts per billion.

While big fish and porpoises might steer clear of oiled water, small or larval fish probably can’t, points out Wes Tunnell of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M’s campus in Corpus Christi. Plankton, tiny plants and animals that just float with the currents and serve as the base of the marine food web, also can’t evade oil. If oil doesn’t kill them outright, they risk sharing the pollutant with their predators, Tunnell says.

If there is any good news in the Gulf catastrophe, it’s that the environment often encounters oil from spills and natural seeps, Tunnell says. This history means that there are already plenty of oil-degrading bacteria present, which should help the environment heal throughout the next several years.


Back story: Spills at sea

The recent Gulf incident wasn’t the first to spew loads of oil into the ocean.

Spills at sea
Spills at sea

Torrey Canyon
The Torrey Canyon (in pieces at far left) was one of the first big oil tankers. She ran aground on Pollard Rock off the coast of England in 1967. More than 700,000 barrels of oil spilled into the sea, polluting the coasts of England and France.

Amoco Cadiz
More than 1.6 million barrels of oil drained into the water when the Amoco Cadiz (top right) split in two off the coast of Brittany, France, in 1978. Though the ship put out a distress call, the weather prevented several tugs from stopping the ship from running aground. Amoco Cadiz’s sister ship the M/T Haven spilled close to a million barrels after exploding off the coast of Italy in 1991.

Atlantic Empress
The Atlantic Empress collided with another tanker, the Aegean Captain, during a tropical storm off of Trinidad and Tobago in 1979. Though about 2 million barrels of oil leaked into the sea, very little made it to shore.

Ixtoc 1
A Mexican petroleum company was drilling an offshore well, dubbed Ixtoc 1, in 1979 when a blowout occurred (bottom). Before the well could be capped eight or nine months later, about 3.5 million barrels of oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico.

Gulf War
Iraqi forces dumped oil from several tankers into the Persian Gulf in 1991 to prevent American soldiers from landing there. Estimates vary, but some suggest that up to 13 million barrels were released.

Exxon Valdez
Though not among the largest international spills, with 260,000 or so barrels dumped, the Exxon Valdez (middle right) ran aground in 1989 in Alaska’s remote Prince William Sound, making response efforts difficult.

Credit: Clockwise from left, AP Photo; Spartaco Bodini/AP Photo; John Gaps III/AP Photo; NOAA

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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