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Environmental News of the BP Oil Spill

The Great Unknowns in Gulf Oil Spill

May 24, 2010, 2:49 pm

Newsweek Web Exclusive
By Ian Yarett

The deep water of the ocean is the largest habitat on earth but it's also the least understood, making the effects of this deep-sea spill without precedent.

As a result, scientists say, the impacts of this spill are likely to go far beyond the oiled birds and dead sea turtles, spoiled beaches and wetlands that we think of when we think "oil spill." A substantial piece of the total impact is likely occurring under the sea, invisible (for now at least) but no less ominous than the more traditional shoreline effects. Far below the sea, the spill threatens organisms of all kinds and, indirectly, the ecosystem at large, though the extent of the danger is still obscured.

Oil on the surface of the ocean is a known quantity, says Ed Overton, an oil-spill expert at the Louisiana State University who is analyzing water, sediment, and other samples for NOAA's scientific-support team. "It's going to cause very substantial and noticeable damage—but it won't take very long to find the marsh loss and coastal erosion and impact on fisheries," he says. The effects of oil in the water column and at the sea floor, on the other hand, remains a mystery.

The first scientific mission to assess deepwater impacts of the Deepwater Horizon blowout, conducted from the research ship Pelican and funded by NOAA, discovered massive plumes of dispersed oil up to 30 miles long by seven miles wide and hundreds of feet thick. Though the data collected by the Pelican was criticized by NOAA as being too preliminary to draw conclusions from, scientists say the finding is not surprising and is in line with the results of previous studies.

One such study, a 2003 report by the National Research Council, considered what the effects of a deepwater well blowout might be and predicted that such an event, particularly of a reservoir rich in gas (as the Deepwater Horizon reservoir appears to be) would generate diffuse underwater plumes of microaerosolized oil much like what the Pelican scientists found.

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