Oil Leak: What Does the Discovery of Oil Plumes Mean?

  • Share
  • Read Later

Hans Deryk / Reuters

Scientists studying aboard a research ship in the gulf are discovering huge underwater oil plumes up to 10 miles long, a result of the April 20 oil rig explosion in the Gulf. But what do the plumes mean?

Experts already know that 210,000 gallons of oil have been spilling into the Gulf of Mexico a day for more than three weeks. This weekend, BP worked to insert a tube into the damaged oil pipe, with small degrees of success. But the newly-discovered oil plumes now alert experts to an greater problem: depth. The plumes drastically reduce oxygen levels, which can then kill wildlife at a high rate.

Researchers aboard the ship Pelican from the National Institute for Undersea Science and Technology discovered the plumes, the New York Times reported Saturday night. One plume was 10 miles long, three miles wide, and 300 feet thick.

So why does it matter that the oil is in a plume? “That means there’s a whole bunch of oil moving around in the system and nobody knows where it will wind up,” Ray Highsmith, the executive director of the Institute studying the spill, told TIME on Sunday. “There’s so much oil coming out of that leak. It could really drive an awful lot of microbial activity and resulting chemical reactions that result in oxygen depletion. That could go on for a long time.” Plumes typically move in mass, often with the current, and can become harder to detect over time, he said.

The plume discovery magnifies the oil spill’s worsening consequences. It’s clear that the government and BP don’t really know how much damage the spill has caused. While BP and the rig owner Horizon point fingers, scientists must cope with what could turn into a tragic loss of deep sea life.