Oil spill creates huge undersea 'dead zones'

Clouds of crude and chemical dispersants have formed in the Gulf of Mexico and oceanologists fear these could have devastating effects on the food chain

The world's most damaging oil spill – now in its 41st continuously gushing day – is creating huge unseen "dead zones" in the Gulf of Mexico, according to oceanologists and toxicologists. They say that if their fears are correct, then the sea's entire food chain could suffer years of devastation, with almost no marine life in the region escaping its effects.

While the sight of tar balls and oil-covered birds on Louisiana's shoreline has been the most visible sign of the spill's environmental destruction, many scientists now believe it is underwater contamination that will have the deadliest impact. At least two submerged clouds of noxious oil and chemical dispersants have been confirmed by research vessels, and scientists are seeing initial signs of several more. The largest is some 22 miles long, six miles wide and 3,300 feet deep – a volume that would take up half of Lake Erie. Another spans an area of 20 square miles.

More than 8,300 species of plants and animals are at risk. Some, such as the bluefin tuna, which come to the Gulf to spawn, could even face extinction. Scientists predict it will be many months – even years – before the true toll of the disaster will be known.

In previous spills, oil rose to the surface and was dealt with there, but due to the use of dispersants, as well as the weight of this particular crude oil and the pressure created by the depth of the leak, much of the oil has stayed submerged in clouds of tiny particles. At least 800,000 gallons of dispersants were sprayed at escaping oil in a frantic attempt to keep it offshore, but it now seems this preventative measure has created a worse disaster. The chemicals helped to keep the oil submerged and are toxic to marine life, resulting in unprecedented underwater damage to organisms in the Gulf.

Once these harmful substances enter the food chain, almost nothing will escape their effects. Forests of coral, sharks, dolphins, sea turtles, game fish and thousands of shellfish could all face destruction. What happens next to these underwater clouds – or plumes – depends largely on the currents. If they do eventually rise to the surface, they may end up on the shoreline months or years from now, causing a second wave of destruction.

The leak itself is far from over. With up to 40 million gallons of oil now in the sea, efforts to plug the hole (disgorging up to 19,000 barrels a day) have become frantic. Since Wednesday, BP has been trying to block the source by blasting it with mud and concrete. On Friday, things took a more desperate turn as BP added a dubious-sounding "junk shot" of shredded rubber and golf balls. BP's chief operating officer, Doug Suttles, said yesterday: "To date it hasn't yet stopped the flow. What I don't know is whether it ultimately will or not."

"It's the biggest environmental disaster of our time and it's not even over yet," said the marine toxicologist Dr Susan Shaw, director of the Marine Environmental Research Institute based in Maine. She has been diving among the damage and is horrified by the contamination caused by BP's continued use of dispersants. "They've been used at such a high volume that it's unprecedented. The worst of these – Corexit 9527 – is the one they've been using most. That ruptures red blood cells and causes fish to bleed. With 800,000 gallons of this, we can only imagine the death that will be caused."

According to Dr Shaw, plankton and smaller shrimps coated in these toxic chemicals will be eaten by larger fish, passing the deadly mix up the food chain. "This is dismantling the food web, piece by piece," she said. "We'll see dead bodies soon. Sharks, dolphins, sea turtles, whales: the impact on predators will be seen in a short time because the food web will be impacted from the bottom up."

The largest of the clouds, confirmed by a University of South Florida research ship last week, has gone deeper than the spill itself, defying BP's assurances that all oil would rise to the surface. It is now headed north-east of the rig, towards the DeSoto Canyon. This underwater trench could channel the noxious soup along the Florida coast, impacting on fisheries and coating 100-year-old coral forests. Tests on the toxicity of another chemical cloud, some 10 miles long and heading south-west of the site, are also being done by scientists from the University of Georgia.

Marine biologists say the timing of this underwater contamination could not be more catastrophic. "This is when all the animals are reproducing and hatching, so the damage at this depth will be much worse," said Dr Larry McKinney, director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies in Texas. "We're not talking about adults on the surface; it will impact on the young – and potentially a generational life cycle."

This could wipe out more precarious species. "Bluefin tuna spawn just south of the oil spill and they spawn only in the Gulf. If they were to go through the area at a critical time, that's one instance where a plume could destroy a whole species."

What happens next to these suspended clouds worries scientists. Nobody knows how long it will take them to reach the surface and come towards the shore (if they ever do).

Dr Peter Roopnarine, an invertebrate zoologist and geologist at the California Academy of Sciences, is conducting tests on molluscs. He fears a second wave of wetland damage from these sub-surface plumes. "The organisms we're working with are in shallow sub-tidal waters and in the salt marshes, so we won't get immediate results from a plume. But we could end up seeing two disasters on shore, because the plume will eventually work its way there."

With no confirmation that BP's attempts to stop the flow of oil have succeeded, the damage is likely to get worse. If this "top kill" method of plugging the hole with concrete and mud fails, then the only option left is a relief well, which will take until August at the earliest to become operational. In the meantime, the surrounding ocean will become deadlier every day that passes. And even if the plug works, it may well be too late. As Dr McKinney pointed out: "At the depth that these plumes are at, the sea will be toxic for God knows how long."

Additional reporting by Sarah Morrison

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Graduate Media Assistant

Competitive (DOE): Guru Careers: We are looking for an ambitious and adaptable...

Guru Careers: Solutions Consultant

£30 - 40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Solutions Consultan...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£30 - 35k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

Guru Careers: Software Engineer / Software Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software Engineer / Softw...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before