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Ten-mile oil plume found beneath surface of Gulf of Mexico

May 16, 2010

From The Guardian

Ocean scientists in the Gulf of Mexico have found giant plumes of oil coagulating at up to 1,300 metres below the surface, raising fears that the BP oil spill may be larger than had been thought and that it might create huge “dead zones”.

Experts from the National Institute for Undersea Science and Technology have been traversing the area around the scene of the Deepwater Horizon, the oil rig that exploded and sank on 20 April.

Using the latest sampling techniques, they have identified plumes up to 20 miles away from the Deepwater Horizon well head that continues to spew oil into the water at a rate of at least 790,000 litres a day. The largest plume found so far was 90 metres thick, three miles wide and 10 miles long.

Samantha Joyce, marine science professor at the University of Georgia, who is working on the project, told the Guardian: “The plumes are abundant throughout the region. I would say they’ve become characteristic of this environment.”

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The presence of huge strings of oil deep underwater has puzzled scientists on board the research vessel Pelican, which has returned to dock after almost two weeks at sea. The assumption had been that the oil would rise to the surface, but instead it has formed into multiple layers suspended in varying thicknesses deep down in the water.

There is speculation that the plumes, first reported by the New York Times, might be forming as a result of BP’s use of dispersants injected close to the source of the spillage at the sea floor.

The technique has never before been used, and scientists are now wondering whether the dispersants are causing the oil to coagulate into relatively large clumps which are then heavier than water and remain suspended below the surface.

One concern linked to the discovery of the plumes is that the oil will reduce oxygen levels in the water as micro-organisms work to decompose it. In some parts of the Gulf, oxygen levels are already almost one-third below normal. If they should fall below levels needed to support life, dead zones devoid of all marine creatures could be created.

From The Guardian

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