Beauty Belies the Beast

Gulf of Mexico

Tomorrow I fly back to the Gulf, continue aerial documentation of the coast, check on old oil problems and follow leads on a couple new issues, but still I’m just scratching the surface of last April’s BP oil disaster.  Like most folks the surface is where I’m stranded, but it’s below the glistening Gulf that last year’s disaster is still making real news.

Getting to the problem is the trick.  Fortunately, a few of persistent souls have persevered and try desperately to share what they see.  Unfortunately, their voices are about as remote as their research.

This past weekend  was the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting (science conference) in Washington D. C.   On Saturday marine scientist Samantha Joye of the University of Georgia shared her and her team’s early results of December submarine dives around the BP Macondo disaster site.  During those dives Dr. Joye went to places she had visited in the summer of 2010 and anticipated oil hungry microbes would have finished off the oil and residue from the BP disaster – nada.

“There’s some sort of a bottleneck we have yet to identify for why this stuff doesn’t seem to be degrading,” Joye told those gathered at the AAAS meeting.  Not surprisingly, Dr. Joye’s underwater research and those of other researchers sharply contrasts that of other studies, especially BP solicited research, that show a more optimistic outlook about the health of the Gulf.

“The impact on the benthos was devastating,” she told BBC News. Continuing,

“Filter-feeding organisms, invertebrate worms, corals, sea fans – all of those were substantially impacted – and by impacted, I mean essentially killed.

“Another critical point is that detrital feeders like sea cucumbers, brittle stars that wander around the bottom, I didn’t see a living (sea cucumber) around on any of the wellhead dives. They’re typically everywhere, and we saw none.”

Beyond the oil, and the toxic dispersant (Corexit), remains the mystery of the methane gas.  Dr. Joye and three colleagues last week published a study in Nature Geoscience that said the amount of gas bubbling freely as oil spewed into the Gulf was the equivalent of between 1.5 and 3 million barrels of oil. From the study,

“The deep-sea hydrocarbon discharge resulting from the BP oil well blowout in the northern Gulf of Mexico released large quantities of oil and gaseous hydrocarbons such as methane into the deep ocean. So far, estimates of hydrocarbon discharge have focused on the oil released, and have overlooked the quantity, fate and environmental impact of the gas.

We estimate that the spill injected up to 500,000 t of gaseous hydrocarbons into the deep ocean and that these gaseous emissions comprised 40% of the total hydrocarbon discharge.”

The key word here is “overlooked”.  Much of the reason for overlooking is the PR and dollars cost to BP and the greater oil and gas industry for the continued spewing of bad news.  With media and government attention nearly as lifeless as the seafloor around the well site, it is likely we have decided to overlook the entire issue until some future disaster.  Sadly, we are losing a learning opportunity of Gulf-sized proportions.

Further thoughts: BBC – Gulf spill’s effects’ may not be seen for a decade and Green news – Scientist finds Gulf bottom still oily, dead

Above photo looking out across the Gulf of Mexico near the BP Macondo well site in December 2010 – special thanks to SouthWings.org and pilot Tom Hutchings.

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