Scientists Find Huge Oil Plumes In Gulf

Working on a research vessel called the Pelican, scientists have found enormous plumes of oil in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Some are more than 10 miles long and 300 feet deep. To find out why the oil is lurking below the surface, host Guy Raz talks with Vernon Asper, a professor of marine sciences at the University of Southern Mississippi, from aboard the boat.

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GUY RAZ, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

BP says it's now funneling crude oil from a well deep under the Gulf of Mexico into an oil tanker at the surface. Late last night, company engineers successfully attached a mile-long tube to the source of the leak. But ocean researchers are now starting to come back with initial data, and much of it is grim. Massive plumes of oil, some of them 10 miles long and 300 feet thick, are now suspended in the Gulf.

Vernon Asper, a professor of marine science at the University of Southern Mississippi, is part of a team of scientists collecting data and samples of the water from the research vessel Pelican. And he joins me on the line from the boat.

Vernon Asper, welcome.

Dr. VERNON ASPER (Professor of Marine Sciences, University of Southern Mississippi): Thank you. It's good to be here.

RAZ: Describe these plumes of oil that you're finding. How big are they? And what do they look like?

Dr. ASPER: We can't tell you what they look like because we haven't yet gotten a camera down there. That's one of our next immediate objectives, to see how big the particles are, what color they are and all of that. What I can tell you is what we know about their size and their extent. It looks like they are, at the most, four or five miles wide, and they are roughly 10 or 15 miles long.

The difference between these plumes at depth and the oil at the surface is the oil at the surface is pretty much two-dimensional. It has a length and a width, no depth, because it's floating right on the surface. These plumes at depth have a thickness, and many of them are more than 100 meters thick.

RAZ: Mm-hmm.

Dr. ASPER: And so, because of that, we're trying to map them in three dimensions, and that's a rather tedious process.

RAZ: Do you have a sense of how many of these plumes are out there?

Dr. ASPER: We've detected, at most places, three of them. One is at 700 meters, one's roughly 1,000, and one's down around 1,300 meters of depth, and that's way down there. So it's very possible that these plumes could drift around and actually impinge on the seafloor at some point.

RAZ: So they're like these sort of suspended islands inside of the ocean.

Dr. ASPER: That's right. And you can think of the plumes the same way you would think of the ash cloud from a volcano. It rises up off the seafloor, it reaches a level in the ocean where it's no longer buoyant, and then it spreads out, and it's simply carried by the prevailing wind this case, in the ocean, it's prevailing currents and they take them which way they're going. And it turns out in this case, the currents happen to be going to the Southwest.

RAZ: Now, you have taken some samples. I understand you have a jar of some of that material with you.

Dr. ASPER: I do. Right now, I'm looking at a used soft drink bottle that we got from the surface, and we just grabbed some water off the surface that had oil in it. At the top of it is about a centimeter of very, very dark oil. It just looks like the oil you drain out of your car. Below that is clear water. And then on the bottom of the bottle, there are very dark particles of something or other. And we don't know what those particles are. We're going to take a look at them. But what it illustrates is that some of the oil floats and some of it doesn't.

There's also sort of an unknown here, and that is the effect of the dispersants. We don't know what the dispersants are really doing to this deep oil. It's possible that they will affect the way these plumes act. And, in fact, these plumes could be the result of them adding dispersants already.

RAZ: We're reading that these plumes are depleting oxygen that's dissolved in the water and could quite possibly create dead zones inside the ocean. Have you seen any evidence of that yet?

Dr. ASPER: Well, they're definitely consuming the oxygen. We see low oxygen associated with the plumes. There's no question about that. Now, is this going to be critically low, low enough to impact the things that live down there? That's something we just can't answer.

RAZ: How do you get rid of these plumes?

Dr. ASPER: The very best thing probably is to let nature take its course. Aside from the effect of the dispersants, there are microbes in the deep sea that are designed to consume oil. That's what they do. That's what they rely on. Those microbes will find this oil, and they will decompose it.

RAZ: Vernon Asper, what will you and the scientists aboard the Pelican be looking at in the coming days and weeks?

Dr. ASPER: The first thing we're going to do is analyze our data and analyze the samples. And, of course, we're planning our next cruises. We're already making inquiries into finding ship time. It turns out that the limiting factor for studying this plume is the availability of research vessels.

The research fleet in the United States for academic purposes has been dwindling over the last few decades, and there just aren't ships available. So we're having a hard time getting access to vessels that can take us out there.

RAZ: That's Vernon Asper. He is a professor of marine sciences at the University of Southern Mississippi. We reached him aboard the research vessel Pelican.

Vernon Asper, thanks so much.

Dr. ASPER: Thank you. It's been a privilege.

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