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Scientists Use Canisters To Detect Spilled Oil

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Scientists Use Canisters To Detect Spilled Oil


Scientists Use Canisters To Detect Spilled Oil

Scientists Use Canisters To Detect Spilled Oil

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

BP has started capturing some of the oil leaking into the Gulf of Mexico. Not much of it has landed on shore yet. But a group of scientists returned from a two week voyage where they encountered huge amounts of oil.


I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Lynn Neary.

We have a pair of updates on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico this morning. In a few moments, we'll hear about the congressional investigations that are under way. But first, in the Gulf, BP is now capturing some of the oil from the blown-out oil well, but it's not clear how much. So far, not much of the oil has reached shore. But yesterday, a group of scientists returned after spending more than two weeks in the Gulf and raised concerns about what has already spilled.

NPR's Elizabeth Shogren talked to them as they packed up and unloaded their gear from the boat.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: Scientists aboard the Pelican research vessel were busy packing up their instruments and water and sediment samples, after 16 days of searching for oil.

How do you find out where oil is lurking in a vast sea? You capture it.

Engineer Arno Dirks(ph) sent open metal canisters down deep into the Gulf of Mexico.

Mr. ARNO DIRKS (Engineer): They close and take a certain amount of water at a certain depth, and uncontaminated. So we know that this water comes at the depth of where we triggered it.

SHOGREN: The canisters went overboard 35 times, to depths as great as a mile and quarter.

Vernon Asper is a marine science professor from the University of Southern Mississippi.

Professor VERNON ASPER (Marine Science Department, University of Southern Mississippi): And we found oil on the surface, of course. We found oil just below the surface. And we found these plumes down deep under the surface, hundreds of meters down, using this instrument.

SHOGREN: He's talking about a sensor that went down with the canisters, that uses light to measure organic materials in the water.

How big were the plumes?

Prof. ASPER: The largest was probably 15 or 20 miles long and maybe four or five miles wide.

SHOGREN: A researcher who's been analyzing Asper's data says the scale of these plumes are proof that BP has been underestimating the size of the spill. The researchers cannot yet quantify the concentration of oil in these plumes. First, they'll have to analyze the contents of those canisters but they believe it's enough to change the water quality.

Asper says inside the plumes, bacteria naturally found in the water are busy.

Prof. ASPER: The microbes are decomposing the oil and using up the oxygen. That low oxygen is going to have an impact on the other organisms down there that obviously need to breathe.

SHOGREN: Throughout their voyage, the researchers saw oil in all kinds of forms. They saw sheen...

Prof. ASPER: Which just looks like a different color on the surface; sometimes silver, sometimes gray, sometimes gold. In thicker oil you'll start to see these globs; they look like cotton candy underwater. The heaviest oil is just black oil. It just looks like somebody drained the oil out of their car and poured it on the surface.

SHOGREN: The pungent smell of all this, like asphalt or paint thinner, kept the researchers below deck. Still, they encountered surprisingly little dead marine life, except for small jellyfish, or Velella - also known as by-the-wind-sailor. They saw hundreds of the tiny translucent animals floating upside down, dead. Some of them were covered in gobs of oil.

But the researchers say it's still early to know the impact of the oil on marine life. BP officials say they are not aware of the researchers' findings, but they say they have no plans to clean up the deep water of the Gulf.

Mr. BOB DUDLEY (Managing Director, Americas and Asia, British Petroleum): Oil, by nature and its own specific gravity, isn't going to stay in a plume like that. It should rise to the surface and then we'll be able to attack the spill in that way.

SHOGREN: Bob Dudley is BP's managing director for the Americas and Asia. He says the company's two big priorities are to clean up the oil from the surface and to stop the well from spewing oil.

The company made some progress yesterday; it connected a new mile-long tube to intercept the oil flowing from the broken pipe.

Mr. DUDLEY: I'm hopeful we'll be able to capture 80 percent of it.

SHOGREN: Dudley says it's just a temporary fix, but BP hopes it will work while it comes up with a more permanent solution.

The Obama administration, last week, pressed BP to confirm that it will pay for the damage done. Dudley says BP will.

Mr. DUDLEY: But as we've said, we will take responsibility for the cleanup. We will clean this up.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. DAVID FIELDS: Well, you can't pay for, you know, the ecosystem.

SHOGREN: David Fields was at a concert in New Orleans yesterday. It's raising money for fishermen and other people hurt by the disaster.

Mr. FIELDS: I mean all the money in the world is not going to sop up 5,000 barrels of oil a day that's going into the Gulf. So, I hope they have money and I hope the fishermen get a lot, but Mother Nature is not going to be paid off.

SHOGREN: Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, New Orleans.

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