BP oil spill: an unexpected laboratory for deep-sea disaster
The BP oil spill is a unique event, so scientists are converging on the Gulf to try to understand how best to combat deep-sea oil spills and what effects they have on the environment.
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"That's a good thing," says Lisa Levin, a marine ecologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif. Since "there's actually some baseline information" on these habitats, scientists can conducting before-and-after comparisons.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Louisiana oil spill
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Food for many of these creatures drifts down from the surface – as would heavily weathered oil droplets. One research cruise a week ago found what could be oil spreading horizontally at depths of 2,300 and 4,200 feet.
But the full dimensions of what appears to be plumes remain unclear, as does the composition of the compounds present. The samples still need to be analyzed, according to Vernon Asper, one of the scientists who took part in the cruise.
Each unanswered question is a kaleidoscope for scores of others. Plankton and larvae move up and down the water column and make contact with oil droplets. Could that affect them directly, as well as fish that feed on them? Might dispersants, too, impact these ecosystems?
"It's clear that we still don't know about the effects and efficacy of dispersants," says Mark Greeley, another scientist at Oak Ridge and a participant in a 2005 National Research Council report on the subject.
Such work is crucial, environmentalists acknowledge, but should have come much sooner.
"It's a bad time to be starting the research when the oil's hitting the marshes," says Karla Raettig, the national campaign director for coastal Louisiana restoration at the National Wildlife Federation. "It needs to be done now for future impacts, but it should have been done previously" ahead of the permit process.
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