Remnants of the oil and gas plume from the Deepwater Horizon disaster have been discovered at depths of over 3000ft (1000m), some 300 miles (500km) from the wellhead by a team of independent scientists on board the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise during a ten-day voyage not funded by BP or the US government, but instead relying on donations from Greenpeace supporters.
The discovery was made by biogeochemist Dr Rainer Amon while the Arctic Sunrise carried out four transects of the Gulf of Mexico. The scientists and crew of the Greenpeace vessel deployed Amon’s sampling equipment to analyze the levels of dissolved oxygen in the water column – a clear marker for bacterial degradation of oil and gas, and to take seawater samples from several points in the water column.
“From the measurements we’ve taken,” said Dr Amon, “we see clear signs of oxygen deficiency on a large transect starting at the Macondo wellhead, all the way 300 miles to the west. How much of oil and gas components are still in the water is something that we need to now investigate in the laboratory”.
The levels of dissolved oxygen did not fall as low as Dr Amon would expect if a major portion of the oil and gas had been consumed in these waters, suggesting that the petrochemicals, have not “gone away” as has been claimed by the government, and that between three and four million barrels of oil still remain unaccounted for following the disaster.
“What we want to do,” explained Dr Amon, “is to come up with a mass balance of how much oil was put in the water column, the sediment surface. When we’ve analyzed all the samples we’ve collected for our work and that of our colleagues, we hope to come up with a pretty good estimate of how much of the oil and gas was put into the system – hopefully we can then come up with good ideas of where that missing oil and gas has gone.”
A colleague of Dr Amon’s also on board the Arctic Sunrise, benthic ecologist Cliff Nunnally, carried out a separate survey on the effects of the oil released into the benthic environment, by taking sediment samples from the ocean floor at depths of over 4300ft (1300m) just 4.5 nautical miles (8km) from the site of the disaster.
The samples retrieved – some of which contained visible amounts of oil with a strong odor – will be used to investigate the ecological status of the benthic environment and will be compared to base-line data collected by the scientists earlier this decade. This will provide a clear understanding of the effects of the massive quantities of oil released onto the benthos of the Gulf of Mexico.
Greenpeace has sent also sent a sample of this oily sediment to an independent lab for analysis, for fingerprinting to Deepwater Horizon disaster, and to check for presence of dispersants.
The Arctic Sunrise is on a three-month research expedition to investigate the environmental impacts of the Gulf oil spill, during which it has welcomed on board scientists from several US academic institutions in the Gulf of Mexico, and provided a platform for independent research.
“Despite everything that BP and the government would like us to think, the truth is, the oil spill’s impact is not ‘over’”, said Greenpeace US research director Kert Davies. “Scientists know better, fishermen know better, the people of the Gulf and certainly the clean up crews endlessly picking up tar balls know better. The government and BP need to be honest with everyone about the extent of the damage, admit what they do not know and prevent this from ever happening again.”
In October, the Arctic Sunrise will be working with Steve Ross of University of North Carolina Wilmington and Sandra Brooke of the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology and Marine Conservation Biology Institute using a submersible to dive to the floor the Gulf of Mexico, where they will study the effects of the oil disaster on coral reef habitats and marine communities.
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