ST. PETERSBURG — Through a chemical fingerprinting process, University of South Florida researchers have definitively linked clouds of underwater oil in the northern Gulf of Mexico to BP’s runaway Deepwater Horizon well, officials said Friday.
It is the first direct scientific link between the subsurface oil clouds, commonly known as “plumes,” and the BP oil spill, according to USF officials.
Until now, scientists had circumstantial evidence, but lacked that definitive scientific link.
After gathering water samples during a May 22-28 cruise, scientists compared them to samples of oil provided by BP in June and found a match. USF credits chemical oceanographer David Hollander, along with biological oceanographer Ernst Peebles and geological oceanographer David Naar.
“What we have learned completely changes the idea of what an oil spill is,” Hollander said. “It has gone from a two-dimensional disaster to a three-dimensional catastrophe.”
The finding is important because oil that escaped from the mile-deep, blown-out well had been treated with dispersants, which broke the oil in the water column into tiny droplets, and therefore did not form an oil slick at the surface, said Richard H. Pierce, senior scientist and director of the Center for Ecotoxicology at Sarasota’s Mote Marine Laboratory.
“It’s more readily taken up and absorbed and ingested by marine animals,” he explained.
Although dispersed oil degrades more quickly over the long-run, in the short-term, it poses a more toxic threat to marine life, Pierce said.
“So, we’ve been very concerned, and it is critical USF has verified it,” he said.
The full report was not released Friday, but will be available sometime next week, USF spokeswoman Vickie Chachere said.
“We have only seen media reports, and have not yet seen the report and underlying data,” BP spokesman Phil Cochrane said in an e-mail to the Bradenton Herald. “Accordingly, we are not in a position to comment.”
USF scientists found microscopic droplets of biodegraded oil at varying depths beneath the Gulf’s surface, according to information from the university.
One layer was 100 feet thick; it was found 45 nautical miles north-northeast of the well site, officials said.
“Researchers were led to the clouds after models created by USF ocean circulation expert Robert Weisberg predicted subsurface oil from the Deepwater Horizon well would move toward the north-northeast,” USF stated in a press release. “The clouds were found near the DeSoto Canyon, a critical area that interacts with Florida’s spawning grounds.”
Also releasing a report Friday was the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which found dispersed oil at a relatively narrow depth range, from 3,300 to 4,300 feet, and moving to the southwest and a little to the northeast, according to Steven Murawski, chief scientist for NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service.
NOAA findings revealed a pattern of oil that started at the wellhead, and fell off at a distance, Murawksi noted, adding, “That’s a real smoking gun, as far as we’re concerned, it really is a flow.”
Most of the oil consisted of small droplets, and was moving to the southwest and a little to the northeast, Murawski said.
Tracking it has been difficult, since the well itself is a mile underwater, he said.
“This is like the dark side of the moon — we’re trying to figure this out with ships a mile above it,” he observed.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7031.