Seafloor Samples Show Troubling Effects Of Oil Spill

Core sample from the seafloor showing oil and a dead worm. i i

A core sample from the seafloor of the Gulf of Mexico contains oily debris and dead organisms, including this worm. Richard Harris/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Richard Harris/NPR
Core sample from the seafloor showing oil and a dead worm.

A core sample from the seafloor of the Gulf of Mexico contains oily debris and dead organisms, including this worm.

Richard Harris/NPR

Second of a two-part series. Read Part 1

Scientists trying to determine the fate of the oil from the BP blowout recently dived in a mini-sub to look for it at the sea floor. And they found it — or I should say we found it, since I was along on the dive.

  • The Alvin submarine is launched earlier this month from the research vessel Atlantis, a ship operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Scientists on the expedition were exploring unusual biological ecosystems in the Gulf of Mexico and are trying to understand the effects of the BP oil spill.
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    The Alvin submarine is launched earlier this month from the research vessel Atlantis, a ship operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Scientists on the expedition were exploring unusual biological ecosystems in the Gulf of Mexico and are trying to understand the effects of the BP oil spill.
    Richard Harris/NPR
  • Once the deep-sea sub is in the water, swimmers Jerry Graham (left) and Kami Bucholz make final preparations for a dive. Alvin has made more than 4,600 dives around the world.
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    Once the deep-sea sub is in the water, swimmers Jerry Graham (left) and Kami Bucholz make final preparations for a dive. Alvin has made more than 4,600 dives around the world.
    Richard Harris/NPR
  • Samantha Joye, a professor of marine sciences at the University of Georgia, records data while aboard the Alvin. On this dive, about 10 miles from BP's Macondo well, she collected samples of sediment on the seafloor.
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    Samantha Joye, a professor of marine sciences at the University of Georgia, records data while aboard the Alvin. On this dive, about 10 miles from BP's Macondo well, she collected samples of sediment on the seafloor.
    Richard Harris/NPR
  • Bruce Strickrott is in charge of Alvin's operations. Here, he monitors a dive from Alvin's control center aboard Atlantis.
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    Bruce Strickrott is in charge of Alvin's operations. Here, he monitors a dive from Alvin's control center aboard Atlantis.
    Richard Harris/NPR
  • At the bottom of the Gulf, Alvin explores a wall of methane ice where crabs feed on small worms that live in the nooks in the ice. The two red laser spots are about four inches apart.
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    At the bottom of the Gulf, Alvin explores a wall of methane ice where crabs feed on small worms that live in the nooks in the ice. The two red laser spots are about four inches apart.
    Courtesy of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution/NPR
  • Scientists pull a discolored crab from the bottom of the ocean that may have been harmed by the oil spill.
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    Scientists pull a discolored crab from the bottom of the ocean that may have been harmed by the oil spill.
    Richard Harris/NPR
  • Joye (center in red) and other researchers examine core samples brought up from the seafloor. The team uses the cores to study the oily sediment that coats the bottom of the ocean.
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    Joye (center in red) and other researchers examine core samples brought up from the seafloor. The team uses the cores to study the oily sediment that coats the bottom of the ocean.
    Richard Harris/NPR
  • Many of the core samples studied so far have a dark top layer that scientists say is a mixture of oil and oil that has been digested by marine life and bacteria.
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    Many of the core samples studied so far have a dark top layer that scientists say is a mixture of oil and oil that has been digested by marine life and bacteria.
    Richard Harris/NPR
  • Verena Heuer, a researcher at the University of Bremen in Germany, holds a core sample that was collected about two miles from the Macondo well. A thick layer of brown coats the top of the usually gray mud.
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    Verena Heuer, a researcher at the University of Bremen in Germany, holds a core sample that was collected about two miles from the Macondo well. A thick layer of brown coats the top of the usually gray mud.
    Richard Harris/NPR
  • Pockets of viscous brown material seep from mud taken from a core sample near the well site.
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    Pockets of viscous brown material seep from mud taken from a core sample near the well site.
    Courtesy of Laura Beer/NPR
  • Development Driller III, an oil rig, maintains an existing well in the Gulf of Mexico, just eight miles from where it drilled the first relief well for the Macondo well. The area remains active for oil and gas extraction.
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    Development Driller III, an oil rig, maintains an existing well in the Gulf of Mexico, just eight miles from where it drilled the first relief well for the Macondo well. The area remains active for oil and gas extraction.
    Richard Harris/NPR

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To start our trip to the seafloor, three of us scrunched into the titanium hull of a submarine named Alvin, on the rear deck of the research vessel Atlantis, from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

The descent through half a mile of inky black water was gentle, almost meditative. And when the sub's lights finally illuminated the bottom, the scene was serene — fish and shrimp paddled around near the seafloor, going about their business, and crabs scuttled along the bottom.

There was no black goo on the bottom, about 10 miles from the Macondo well. But biologist Samantha Joye from the University of Georgia says she wasn't expecting anything quite so blatant.

Instead, we saw a brown haze covering the seafloor, and Joye started noticing things that weren't quite right.

A once-magnificent fan coral was covered with brown fuzz — dead.

We cruised along some more, with pilot Mike Skowronski guiding us past a feature called "Sleeping Dragon" — a mound of methane ice, the size of a school bus. It is home to creatures adapted to living near natural petroleum seeps.

A few minutes later, the texture of the seafloor changed from smooth brown to bumpy, like cottage cheese.

"It's not typical," Joye said, peering through a camera that looks straight down on the bottom. "It should be flat, boring gray, and it's brown, very porous looking, spongelike material."

Joye said it looks a lot like samples she collected in September.

A core sample taken from the seafloor of the Gulf of Mexico shows a 2-inch layer of oily material. i i

A core sample taken from the seafloor of the Gulf of Mexico shows a 2-inch layer of oily material at the top. Scientists say this layer contains oil digested by marine life as well as some dead animals. Richard Harris/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Richard Harris/NPR
A core sample taken from the seafloor of the Gulf of Mexico shows a 2-inch layer of oily material.

A core sample taken from the seafloor of the Gulf of Mexico shows a 2-inch layer of oily material at the top. Scientists say this layer contains oil digested by marine life as well as some dead animals.

Richard Harris/NPR

"That stuff contained a good bit of oil, so I think we're getting into the area where there's been substantial deposition of oil on the bottom," she said.

And the question foremost on her mind was: What's all this brown muck doing to life on the seafloor?

Oil 'Pudding' On The Seafloor

After nearly six hours of surveying the seafloor, the Alvin gently rose again to the surface.

Back onboard the Atlantis, the scientists went to work, examining many dozens of seafloor samples collected by Alvin and by a shipboard instrument called a multicorer.

The cylindrical samples of seafloor share a similar pattern: Those taken within a few miles of the Macondo well are covered with a 2-inch layer of muck that looks like chocolate pudding.

Laura Beer, a post-doc from Joye's lab, says you'd almost want to taste it — that is, until you notice it's full of dead worms and other sea life. We see almost no living creatures in these samples.

The biologists say they were either smothered by the brown gunk or poisoned by it. Joye needs lab tests to figure out its exact composition, but judging by previous samples, she knows what to expect.

"It's oil and mucus and marine debris and everything else that's pulled out through the water column when [the oil] came down," she says. "When you're this close in [to the Macondo well], you could also get some tar and asphalt just coming out of the well and rolling downslope."

Researcher Andreas Teske

Andreas Teske, a professor of marine sciences at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, says most of the brown layer that coats the normally gray seabed is oil that has passed through the digestive systems of marine animals. Richard Harris/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Richard Harris/NPR

Mud samples she tested from her previous trip contain far less than 1 percent oil, she says, but that's still 1,000 times more oil than you'd usually find in gulf mud.

Her colleague, Andreas Teske from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, says most of this "pudding" is probably oil from the BP well that has since passed through the digestive systems of all sorts of animals on its way to the seafloor. Teske says it reminds him a lot of the spring algae blooms that can choke coastal bays.

"We think something similar has happened here," he says. "It was not a spring bloom, but an 'oil bloom,' and we are looking right now at the remnants of this oil bloom."

'Years For The System To Recover'

Regardless of how it got there, Joye says this brown muck is killing life on the seafloor.

"It's going to take, I would suspect, years for the system to recover," she says. "And it's going to take more time for certain components of the system to recover."

Ian MacDonald from Florida State University says the dead fan coral was likely 500 years old when the brown muck came along to snuff it out.

"That really was one of the simple examples that really hit home to me, exactly what I have been concerned about," MacDonald says.

There are still government officials and scientists who want more proof before they are willing to say a lot of BP oil ended up at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, and MacDonald certainly respects that skepticism. After all, skepticism is a healthy element of science.

"At the same time, the evidence piles up, and after a while you say, 'Gee, there is oil on the bottom,' " MacDonald says. "And, as a simple statement at the end of this cruise, I have to say, 'Gee, there is oil on the bottom,' and that's too bad.' "

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