Is it true that the BP oil leak is much more of an environmental threat than previous spills from tankers, and if so why?
—Nathan Gore, Pawtucket, RI
No one knows for sure how the ongoing oil catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico will affect the deep sea ecosystem, but scientists are not optimistic. Oil from what is now considered the nation’s second largest spill, 1989’s Exxon Valdez mishap, slicked 11,000 square miles of ocean surface and 1,300 miles of pristine Alaskan coastline while killing hundreds of thousands of birds and marine mammals and untold numbers of fish and fish eggs. But the impacts of the ongoing Deepwater Horizon leak in the Gulf may be far worse given that much of the loose oil is actually in the water column, not on the surface. In fact, researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently detected huge deepwater plumes of dispersed oil up to 30 miles long, seven miles wide and hundreds of feet thick.
Why would an undersea spill be worse? One outcome could be the expansion in size and extension in time of a seasonal “dead zone” that already plagues the Gulf of Mexico as a result of industrial pollutants and agricultural run-off from the Mississippi River. While huge Gulf of Mexico algae blooms help to naturally clean up the Midwest’s factory emissions and wasted fertilizer, such a process doesn’t come without a cost to the ecosystem. Every spring, in a condition known as hypoxia, this fast growing algae depletes large sections of the Gulf’s water column of the oxygen crucial for other life forms to survive there. The BP oil spill is likely to exacerbate this problem, as natural oil-eating microbes swarming over undersea oil plumes could cause or add to hypoxic conditions in otherwise teeming swaths of the Gulf.