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Naomi Klein: Hunting the Ocean for BP's Missing Millions of Barrels of Oil

As the gulf is declared "safe," scientists look deep in the sea for evidence of lasting damage.

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A few hours later it's time for the multi-corer. When the instrument, twelve feet high and hoisted by a powerful winch, hits the ocean floor, eight clear cylinders shoot down into the sediment, filling up with sand and mud. The samples are examined under microscopes and UV lights, or spun with centrifugal force, then tested for signs of oil and dispersant. This routine will be repeated at nine more locations before the cruise is done. Each stop takes an average of ten hours, and the scientists are able to sneak in only a couple of hours of sleep between stations.

The WeatherBird II is returning to the precise coordinates where University of South Florida researchers found toxic water and sediment in May and August. At the second stop, Mary Abercrombie, who is testing the water under UV light in a device called a spectrofluorometer, sees something that looks like hydrocarbons from a sample collected seventy meters down—shallow enough to be worrying. But the other tests don't find much of anything. Hollander speculates that this may be because we are still in relatively shallow water and the recent storms have mixed everything up. "We'll probably see more when we go deeper."

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Being out in the open gulf today, I find it is impossible not to be awed by nature's capacity to cleanse and renew itself. At the height of the disaster, I had looked down at these waters from a Coast Guard aircraft. What I saw changed me. I realized that I had always counted on the ocean to be a kind of outer space on earth, too mysterious and vast to be fundamentally altered by human activity, no matter how reckless. Now it was covered to the horizon in gassy puddles like the floor of an auto repair shop. Shouting over the roaring engines, a fresh-faced Coast Guard spokesman assured the journalists on board that within months, all the oil would be gone, broken down by dispersants into bite-size morsels for oil-eating microbes, which would, after their petroleum feast, promptly and efficiently disappear—no negative side effects foreseen.

At the time I couldn't believe he could feed us this line with a straight face. Yet here that body of water is, six months later: velvety smooth and, according to the tests conducted on the WeatherBird II, pretty clean, at least so far. Maybe the ocean really is the world's most powerful washing machine: throw in enough dispersant (the petrochemical industry's version of Tide), churn it around in the waves for long enough, and it can get even the toughest oil spills out.

"I despise that message—it's blindly simplified," says Ian MacDonald, a celebrated oceanographer at Florida State University. "The gulf is not all better now. We don't know what we've done to it."

MacDonald is arguably the scientist most responsible for pressuring the government to dramatically increase its estimates of how much oil was coming out of BP's well. He points to the massive quantity of toxins that gushed into these waters in a span of three months (by current estimates, at least 4.1 million barrels of oil and 1.8 million gallons of dispersants). It takes time for the ocean to break down that amount of poison, and before that could happen, those toxins came into direct contact with all kinds of life-forms. Most of the larger animals—adult fish, dolphins, whales—appear to have survived the encounter relatively unharmed. But there is mounting evidence that many smaller creatures—bacteria, phytoplankton, zooplankton, multiple species of larvae, as well as larger bottom dwellers—were not so lucky. These organisms form the base of the ocean's food chain, providing sustenance for the larger animals, and some grow up to be the commercial fishing stocks of tomorrow. One thing is certain: if there is trouble at the base, it won't stay there for long.

 
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