Scientists are finding oil plumes in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, including one as large as 10 miles long, 3 miles wide and 300 feet thick in spots.

“There’s a shocking amount of oil in the deep water, relative to what you see in the surface water,” said Samantha Joye, a researcher at the University of Georgia who is involved in one of the first scientific missions to gather details about what is happening in the Gulf. “There’s a tremendous amount of oil in multiple layers, three or four or five layers deep in the water column.”

Given their size, the plumes cannot possibly be made of pure oil, but more likely consist of fine droplets of oil suspended in a far greater quantity of water, Dr. Joye said. She added that in places, at least, the plumes might be the consistency of a thin salad dressing.

“There’s a shocking amount of oil in the deep water, relative to what you see in the surface water,” said Samantha Joye, from the University of Georgia, who is involved in one of the first scientific missions to gather information from the spill. “There’s a tremendous amount of oil in multiple layers, three or four or five layers deep in the water column.”

One researcher aboard the Pelican, Vernon Asper of the University of Southern Mississippi, said the shallowest oil plume the group had detected was at about 2,300 feet, while the deepest was near the seafloor at about 4,200 feet.

“We’re trying to map them, but it’s a tedious process,” Dr. Asper said. “Right now it looks like the oil is moving southwest, not all that rapidly.”

He said they had taken water samples from areas that oil had not yet reached, and would compare those with later samples to judge the impact on the chemistry and biology of the ocean.

While they have detected the plumes and their effects with several types of instruments, the researchers are still not sure about their density, nor do they have a very good fix on the dimensions.

After studying footage of the gushing oil scientists on board the research vessel Pelican, which is gathering samples and information about the spill, said that it could be flowing at a rate of 25,000 to 80,000 barrels of oil a day, or 3.4 million gallons a day. The flow rate is currently calculated at 5,000 barrels a day.

Many questions have arose as to why the oil is under the surface; since oil is lighter than water and would normally float on the top.  The only answer that has been given has pointed to the 9500 and 9527A dispersants as a factor. There have been no tests to conclude that the dispersant are the cause; however, speculation is running rampant.

Meanwhile, the vast amounts of oil pouring from the rig  is depleting the oxygen in the immediate area, raising fears that it could kill most of the sea life near the plumes. Oxygen levels have already dropped by 30 per cent near some of the plumes.

Dr. Joye states that the findings of declining oxygen levels were especially worrisome, since oxygen is so slow to move from the surface of the ocean to the bottom. She suspects that oil-eating bacteria are consuming the oxygen at a feverish clip as they work to break down the plumes.

While the oxygen depletion so far is not enough to kill off sea life, the possibility looms that oxygen levels could fall so low as to create large dead zones, especially at the seafloor. “That’s the big worry,” said Ray Highsmith of the National Institute for Undersea Science and Technology.

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