A team of scientists led by biogeochemist Samantha Joye of the University of Georgia said that the vast underwater oil plumes that BP's runaway blowout well have created are "unlike anything else that has ever been seen anywhere, certainly in human history," and "threaten to wreak havoc on marine life," the New York Times reported late Tuesday.[1]  --  Because bacteria are breaking down the oil,  a "microorganism feeding frenzy" has "sent oxygen levels plunging close to what is considered 'dead zone' conditions, at which most marine life are smothered for a lack of dissolved oxygen," Paul Quinlan and Josh Vorhees said.  --  Also unprecedented are "extremely high levels of methane."  --  Joye said that "It's impossible to know what the impacts are going to be," and that these impacts may not be known for years.  --  One plume the scientists identified is 15 miles wide, 3 miles long, and about 600 feet thick.  --  A report on the oil plumes by Time magazine was less alarmist, and focused on the failure of BP's efforts to deny that such plumes exist.[2]  --  According to Ian MacDonald of Florida State University both BP and the U.S. Coast Guard have been "derelict in their duty" in failing to gauge the pressure of the leaking oil, Bloomberg Businessweek said.[3]  --  The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Samantha Joye, who has frequently appeared on media (see here for her appearance on MSNBC's Rachel Maddow), "has become the face of scientists trying to get to the bottom of the spill as BP continues efforts to plug or slow the flow from the Deepwater Horizon well."[4]  --  Joye said researchers "cannot predict which way the plumes will move or how fast.  'But they’re already in the loop current' . . . She told the *AJC* that scientists have also discovered an 'eddy' of oil that 'has either broken off or is about to break off' from the main spill and is headed for the Dry Tortugas . . . Joye's greatest fear is hurricane season and how that would churn the gulf, bring that deep water oil to the surface, and push the surface oil ashore, far beyond the capabilities of work crews to corral it and disperse it with chemicals.  'God forbid if we had something like Katrina,' she said." ...



Energy & environment


By Paul Quinlan and Josh Vorhees of Greenwire

New York Times

June 9, 2010 (posted Jun. 8)


Vast underwater concentrations of oil sprawling for miles in the Gulf of Mexico from the damaged, crude-belching BP PLC well are unprecedented in "human history" and threaten to wreak havoc on marine life, a team of scientists said today, a finding confirmed for the first time by federal officials.

Researchers aboard the F.G. Walton Smith vessel briefed reporters on a two-week cruise in which they traced an underwater oil plume 15 miles wide, 3 miles long and about 600 feet thick. The plume's core is 1,100 to 1,300 meters below the surface, they said.

"It's an infusion of oil and gas unlike anything else that has ever been seen anywhere, certainly in human history," said Samantha Joye of the University of Georgia, the expedition leader.

Bacteria are breaking down the oil's hydrocarbons in a massive, microorganism feeding frenzy that has sent oxygen levels plunging close to what is considered "dead zone" conditions, at which most marine life are smothered for a lack of dissolved oxygen.

Such low-oxygen conditions were noticed farther from the spill site, although Joye said she did not think the process would immediately produce a dead zone, since low nutrient concentrations in the water would limit the rate of the bacterial consumption.

Joye said her team also measured extremely high levels of methane, which is also spewing from the gushing BP well at up to 10,000 times background levels in Gulf waters.

"I've been working in the Gulf of Mexico for 15 years," Joye said. "I've never seen methane concentration this high anywhere in the water."

Less clear to researchers like Joye are what role the unprecedented deployment of oil-dispersing chemicals are having on the undersea gathering of oil.  She said dispersants likely played a role in keeping the oil underwater but that they are "certainly not required" to produce such an effect, given the deep-water -- as opposed to surface -- injection of oil and gas.

Also still unclear, she said, are the long-term effects of oil and dispersant use on fisheries.

"The primary producers -- the base of the food web in the ocean -- is going to be altered.  There's no doubt about that," Joye said.  "We have no idea what dispersants are going to do to microorganisms.  We know they are toxic to many larvae.  It's impossible to know what the impacts are going to be."

A full understanding and the full impact to the Gulf's fishery may be years away, she said.

"It's a very, very complicated problem, and there are a lot of people doing fisheries work to try to get a handle on this, but it's going to be months or years probably before we realize the full consequences of this spill," Joye said.

Asked to react to BP officials earlier assertions that the Gulf of Mexico was a large enough body of water to absorb the impact of an oil spill under way, Joye bristled.

"The solution to pollution is not dilution," she said.  "It's an excuse, and it's arm-waving, and it takes away from the important things that we should be thinking about," she said, such as measuring the scope of the spill and its effects.


Federal officials for the first time today confirmed the researchers' findings, although Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who is leading the federal response to the spill, questioned the use of the term "plume" to describe that underwater oil.

"The term 'plume' has been used for quite awhile, [but] I think what we are talking about are concentrations," he said.  "'Cloud' is a better term."

Joye's team's results echo the findings of a University of South Florida team aboard the Weatherbird II vessel.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief Jane Lubchenco said her agency had finished testing water samples collected by the USF team that confirmed the presence of the oil.

"The bottom line is, yes there is oil in the water columns," she told reporters.  "That's confirmed for the sites we've done the analyses."

BP CEO Tony Hayward had disputed the presence of plumes, saying on June 6 that there was "no evidence" of their existence.  BP spokesman John Pack said today they would be paying attention to the data that is coming in.

"We will obviously listen to what they have to say," Pack said.

Lubchenco said the test confirms the presence of subsurface oil, which she said federal scientists suspected was present.

Lubchenco said that oil was found in "very low concentrations" in the range of less than 0.5 parts per million.  NOAA tested samples from three collection sites, confirming the presence of subsea oil 40 nautical miles northeast of the well. She said samples from a site 42 nautical miles northeast were inconclusive and that samples from a site 142 miles southeast "were not consistent with the oil spill."

"That does not mean it doesn't have significant impact.  A more complete picture will require additional information, and we're in the process of getting that," Lubchenco said.

"We remain concerned about the location of oil on the surface and under the sea," Lubchenco said.  "We are attacking it aggressively to mitigate the harm and understand the impact."

Lubchenco said "there is definitely oil subsurface" and that NOAA would continue to analyze water samples as they were collected.

"We will continue to do research to understand where it is and in what concentrations and what are its impacts," she said.

--For more news on energy and the environment, visit www.greenwire.com.
Greenwire is published by Environment & Energy Publishing.



By Jeffrey Kluger


June 8, 2010


Give the image makers at BP credit for knowing how to stick to a story.  If you had (a) been spilling oil into the Gulf of Mexico at a rate of up to 25,000 bbls. per day since April 20, and (b) been spraying dispersants on it to keep much of it from floating to the surface, you'd find it hard to say "who me?" if scientists began finding huge plumes of oil drifting in underwater currents.

But that's been BP's position.  Not only has the oil giant not been willing to take the blame for the toxic clouds below the waves, it's denied they even exist.  Today, however, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that they had found the smoking gun that most everyone else believed was there in the first place.

It was on May 30 that Tony Hayward, BP's CEO and in-house gaffe machine, first went on the record denying that any hidden oil plumes were swirling through the Gulf.  "The oil is on the surface," he said.  "There aren't any plumes."  But that could be true only if some basic rules of chemistry and arithmetic had been repealed.

As of last week, BP had sprayed 830,000 gal. of the dispersant Corexit on the surface of the Gulf and into the busted wellhead.  The chemical causes oil to break apart and drop to mid-depths, where it's free to float where the currents carry it.  Given the rate at which oil has been spilling since April 20, the 250,000 bbl. estimated to be on the surface of the Gulf cannot possibly account for all that's been leaked, even if you include what's been burned off or has evaporated away on its own.

Two days before Hayward's remark, scientists from the University of South Florida (USF), aboard the school's WeatherBird II survey ship, found a six-mi. (9.6 km) wide, 22-mi. (35.4 km) long plume 20 miles (32 km) northeast of the site of the wrecked oil rig. Just as the chemical models said dispersed oil should behave, the plume was floating 3,300 ft. (1 km) below the surface.  One other plume in another location had previously been spotted by other observers.  In an abundance of caution, the USF team would not say that the new formation definitely belonged to BP; there are an awful lot of messy rigs at work in the Gulf, after all.  It would say only that the plumes were not naturally occurring and chemical tests would have to be conducted to confirm their origins.  Now those tests are done.

When the WeatherBird II was at sea, USF scientists gathered water samples in one-liter, amber bottles at three different sites and six different depths.  Since then, they've been working with NOAA to subject the water to all manner of tests, including gas chromatography and mass spectrometry -- which produce a sort of chemical fingerprint of whatever substance is being analyzed.  They then compared those analyses to the fingerprint for oil known to come from the BP well.  That sealed the deal.  At one site 42 miles (68 km) northeast of the well head, the scientists confirmed a chemical match.  At a second one nearby, the concentrations of oil in the sample were too low to establish a connection.  Only at the third site, 142 mi. (229 km) southeast, did the results put BP in the clear.

"We have always known there is oil under the surface," said NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco in an apparent swipe at BP's intransigence.  "The questions we are exploring are where it is, in what concentrations, where it is going, and what are the consequences for the health of the marine environment."

The report is not entirely without some positive news.  For now at least, NOAA says the oil is in "very low concentrations," and with the exception of one sample at one site at a depth of about 1,000 ft (300 m), that concentration drops off the deeper the plume goes.  That makes it less likely that much oil can sweep down to the Gulf floor, and that could spare sensitive areas like the DeSoto Canyon, a nutrient-rich trench near the spill site that is a breeding and feeding ground for all manner of life forms.

NOAA plans to keep up its investigations, and even expand their scope.  One of the agency's survey vessels, the Thomas Jefferson, is currently conducting expeditions of its own, and another, the Gordon Gunter, has just returned.  In addition, a P-3 hurricane-hunting aircraft is flying regular sorties over the Gulf, using new equipment to monitor the loop current -- the subsurface flow of water that, it is feared, could catch the oil and carry it around Florida and up the East Coast.

All of this comes on a day that BP is rightly boasting of the nearly 15,000 bbl. of oil its new well cap has succeeded in siphoning up to the surface in just 24 hours, on top of the 11,000 bbls. that were collected the day before.  But it also comes at a time that government scientists are growing more convinced than ever that the 25,000 bbl. daily flow rate itself is a lowball figure.  Not only may the spill be more than that, they say, it may be "multiples" of that.

"I've said time and time again that nothing good happens when oil is on the water," incident commander Adm. Thad Allen repeated in a press conference on Monday.  If nothing else, there's now at least proof of just whose oil much of it is.



By Jessica Resnick-Ault

Bloomberg Businessweek
June 9, 2010


Undersea clouds of oil that kill marine life have spread for miles in the Gulf of Mexico from BP Plc’s leaking Macondo well, according to data released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration today.

Water samples collected by the R/V Weatherbird II vessel have confirmed biodegraded crude oil in two undersea layers as far as 40 nautical miles northeast of BP’s seabed leak, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco said at a press briefing.  The vessel’s samples show oil as deep as 3,300 feet in the water, Lubchenco said.

“The bottom line is that yes, there is oil in the water column, it’s at very low concentrations, and we will continue to release those data as soon as they are available,” Lubchenco said at a press conference held jointly with Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen.  “That doesn’t mean that it does not have significant impact.”

Researchers have said the oil slick washing ashore is a small portion of what has leaked and the undersea crude can wipe out marine life while remaining invisible from the surface.  Lubchenco said not enough data is available to determine the quantity of oil below the surface.  However, she said oil was found at volumes of 0.5 parts per million in the cloud to the northeast of the leak.


The tests are the second confirmation of the existence of oil plumes in the Gulf, which BP Chief Executive Officer Tony Hayward has disputed.  Research by Samantha Joye at the University of Georgia, and analyzed at Texas A&M University, also confirmed the presence of undersea oil.

Hayward said June 6 that there was “no evidence” of the plumes in the Gulf of Mexico.  The company is waiting for confirmation from NOAA and the Environmental Protection Agency, Robert Wine, a BP spokesman in Houston, said in a telephone interview yesterday.

NOAA and the University of South Florida held a joint press conference this afternoon with more information on the undersea oil.  NOAA Chief Science Advisor Steve Murawski said the oil is not in continuous plumes, but is broken up in cloud-like patterns.


Ernst Peebles, a University of South Florida professor who was aboard the Weatherbird, said oil was found in the water across 22 nautical miles of sampling area.  While the oil was ‘invisible’ to the naked eye, it was detectible with analysis, he said.

The university’s scientists found oil in two layers of the ocean at 400 meters and 1,000 meters.  They tracked the plumes for tens of kilometers, starting 35 kilometers north-northeast of the well, said Vickie Chachere, a university spokeswoman.

BP didn’t immediately return a phone call seeking comment on NOAA’s confirmation of the new data.

The concentrations at more shallow depths were identified as having come from BP’s leaking well, Lubchenco said.  The scientists were not able to find conclusive evidence that the deeper concentrations came from the well, she said.  Water samples taken 142 nautical miles to the southeast of the well were not consistent with the spill, she said.

“These are huge volumes of oil, many kilometers of oil, and to have oil in many cubic kilometers of water suggests a very significant total amount,” said Ian MacDonald, an oceanographer at Florida State University in Tallahassee, who is doing separate research on the spill.


MacDonald estimates the well is leaking 26,500 barrels to 30,000 barrels a day, six times more than the figure that BP and the government used from April 28 to May 27.  The company has captured 14,842 barrels in the last 24 hours, Allen said today.

Additional data will allow researchers to produce images of slices of the ocean similar to those produced by magnetic resonance imaging machines used by doctors.  The data will allow the scientists to determine crude concentrations in the different slices, Lubchenco said.  The NOAA vessel Gordon Gunter has returned to shore and is analyzing its findings.  A second research ship, the Thomas Jefferson, is collecting additional samples, she said.

Hayward said June 6 oil naturally floats in water, and that crude seen deep in the water was in the process of making its way to the surface, according to reports in the Associated Press.


Scientists maintain that oil could have become trapped in the water due to the company’s unprecedented application of chemical dispersants, natural phenomenon, or a combination of the two.

BP has applied more than a million gallons of dispersant to the spill, and has almost another half-million gallons on hand to apply if needed, according to a statement from the Unified Command made up of BP and U.S. Coast Guard officials.  The dispersants have been applied to oil at the surface, as well as to crude gushing out of the well on the sea floor.

The dispersants may have caused the crude oil to sink more than it normally would have.

“There would be a threshold where putting dispersant in the oil would modify the viscosity,” said Nicholas Wienders, a professor in the oceanography department at Florida State University.  If the viscosity of the oil was changed, it could react differently to the ocean’s circulation, and behave in ways not normally expected, he said.


Natural density differences in water layers could also have trapped the oil, said Nancy Rabalais, executive director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium.

The pressure being applied to crude surging out of the well may also change its dispersion, said MacDonald of Florida State University.

As the oil is forced out of the broken pipe at hundreds of miles an hour, it hits the relatively lower-pressure area near the sea floor that breaks the oil into particles about the thickness of a human hair, MacDonald said.  Their small size, exposure to significant pressure, and cold temperatures near the sea floor may all contribute to oil sinking, he said.


“There is no scientific doubt about the processes that would form mid-water plumes,” he said.  BP and the Coast Guard haven’t gauged the pressure of the leaking oil, making it more difficult for scientists to predict and track plumes, said MacDonald. “It’s another example of both BP and the government being derelict in their duty,” he said.

Captain Brent “Hollywood” Shaver, 59, who operates a charter fishing boat in Florida and Alabama waters, laughed when asked about BP’s comment that there aren’t underwater oil plumes.

“They’re crazy,” he said in a June 7 interview. “You know, when you spill diesel fuel in the water they always tell you not to put dish soap on it because it just makes it sink.  That’s what is happening here.  It’s sinking.”

--With assistance from Kim Chipman in Pensacola, Florida. Editors: Kim Jordan, Susan Warren.

--To contact the reporter on this story: Jessica Resnick-Ault in New York at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

--To contact the editor responsible for this story: Susan Warren at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.



By Jeffry Scott

Atlanta Journal-Constitution

June 8, 2010


ATHENS -- A University of Georgia marine scientist plans to tell a congressional subcommittee Wednesday that it’s still impossible to estimate the damage from a BP well that continues to gush oil a mile beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico.

Samantha Joye said in an interview with the *Atlanta Journal-Constitution* that she will emphasize to Congress how important it is to find out exactly how much oil is pouring into the gulf, a figure that is still unclear seven weeks after the spill began.

“Frankly, I don’t want BP’s number.  I want an independent estimate because I think BP has financial incentives for not saying exactly how much oil is spilling into the gulf,” said Joye, a researcher based out of UGA's marine sciences lab who has coordinated the work done from boats in the gulf over the past six weeks by scientists from several universities and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Joye's team three weeks ago reported finding huge plumes of oil two-thirds of a mile beneath the surface of the gulf.  Joye says the plumes are as long as 15 miles, as wide as three miles, and, from top to bottom, 600 feet thick.

NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco said Tuesday that tests have confirmed plumes of oil in low concentrations as far as 3,300 feet below the surface and more than 40 miles northeast of the well site.

Since her team's announcement, Joye has become the face of scientists trying to get to the bottom of the spill as BP continues efforts to plug or slow the flow from the Deepwater Horizon well.

She has appeared on "Good Morning America," CNN and "The ABC Evening News," and she has given interviews to the BBC and NPR and dozens of newspapers, magazines and Web sites, talking about the gulf's ecosystem, which she has studied as a biogeochemist for 15 years.

For the past two weeks Joye has been on a boat in the gulf taking water samples as close as a quarter of a mile from the well.  She said oxygen levels of the water have been depleted by methane gas and the saturation of the oil.

Joye will appear Wednesday morning before the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment in Washington along with witnesses from the U.S. Coast Guard, NOAA and others.

Joye told reporters and an audience at a Tuesday morning news conference at UGA that BP had been “very cooperative” in letting the researchers take samples as close to the well as is safe.  But she said the researchers were frustrated that so far the company has not revealed the chemical makeup of dispersants it is putting in the oil to keep it from washing ashore.

“Since we don’t know what’s in the dispersants, it's difficult to find out how much is in the water samples,” said Joye, who has 200 1-liter bottles of oily gulf water in her UGA lab still awaiting analysis.  The vast majority of the samples were taken from more than 3,000 feet below the surface and contain readily identifiable oil, she said.

Other jars in her office contain oil collected on the surface.  “It’s really weird-looking stuff, orange, in long strings,” she said of the oil evidently treated with dispersants.  “When you put it in a jar, about two days later it turns gray and sinks to the bottom.”

She said she doesn’t know whether that’s happening in the gulf.  She said at the news conference that researchers cannot predict which way the plumes will move or how fast.  "But they’re already in the loop current,” which sweeps along the upper Gulf Coast, where oil blobs and slicks have started washing ashore, she said.

She told the AJC that scientists have also discovered an “eddy” of oil that “has either broken off or is about to break off” from the main spill and is headed for the Dry Tortugas, a group of islands about 70 miles west of Key West, Fla.

“I can’t say when it will get there,” she said.  “Days, weeks? I don’t know.”

Joye's greatest fear is hurricane season and how that would churn the gulf, bring that deep water oil to the surface, and push the surface oil ashore, far beyond the capabilities of work crews to corral it and disperse it with chemicals.

“God forbid if we had something like Katrina,” she said.