Wednesday, June 2, 2010

NOAA vessel joins the hunt for possible underwater oil plumes

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is sending its own research ship, the Gordon Gunter, to study reports of oil plumes suspended in the Gulf of Mexico.

NOAA’s Gunter was in the gulf already sampling plankton to establish baseline conditions for the deepwater oil spill off Louisiana. On May 28, NOAA expanded the Gunter’s mission to use its sonar equipment to define any underwater plumes.

Researchers from various universities have reported underwater oil plumes, and their findings need to be put into context. Some oceanographers suggest increased microbes are growing in response to the spill, which could tip the marine system out of balance. They warn that too many microbes robs oxygen from the seawater, creating an uninhabitable hypoxic area, or "dead zone" threatening marine life.

Still, documentation of these reported plumes has yet to be provided by the broad scientific community. BP PLC Group Executive Tony Hayward says there is “no evidence” of masses of oil suspended in seawater.

Meanwhile, NOAA scientist Charlie Henry told reporters weeks ago that a sample of water from these so-called plumes would look just like normal seawater. Hydrocarbons are present, but the oil is in tiny droplets.

“Layers of oil are totally untrue,” Henry said of some media reports regarding initial reports from university research vessels about underwater plumes of oil (OGJ Online, May 17, 2010).

If potential plumes are identified, the Gunter will deploy an underwater vehicle, Gulper, provided by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute “to take discrete water samples at various depths to allow precise characterization of any oil, dispersants, or other substances,” NOAA said.

Record volumes of chemical dispersants have been used on the spill, and any potential long-term dispersant effect on marine life remains unknown.

Threats to fisheries or marine life must be taken seriously, but first these reported underwater oil plumes have yet to be substantiated.

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