Then there are the drilling fluids contaminating the seafloor near the wellhead. Euphemistically called muds, these heavy fluids are pumped into wells to keep the highly pressurized oil and gas from exploding upward. BP's drilling muds have been pouring out of the wellhead, along with 30,000 barrels added in its failed "top kill" and other efforts to plug the leak. Along with oil, methane, methanol, and Corexit, drilling fluids add their own frightening recipe to the disaster: arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, barite, fluoride, chrome lignosulfonate, vanadium, copper, aluminum, chromium, zinc, radionuclides, and other heavy metals. Relief wells require pumping thousands more barrels of drilling fluid into the reservoir, with all the same risks of explosion attending the original well. The EPA estimates these drilling fluids will pose a threat to the seafloor and surrounding waters for up to 40 years. Plus a recent study finds that oil spills create a whole new pathway for arsenic (pdf) pollution in the sea. The oil prevents seafloor sediments from bonding with and burying arsenic that naturally occurs in the ocean. This shutdown of the natural filtration system allows arsenic levels to rise from the deep water to the surface, disrupting photosynthesis in phytoplankton, increasing birth defects and triggering behavioral changes in marine life, and killing animals that feed on poisoned prey.
The rules of life are different in the gassy depths, where life capitalizes on the same fossil fuels we're drilling for.
Never before in human history has the vast food web of the ocean—rooted in the dark, and flowering at the surface—come under so many assaults from below, above, and within the water column: marine warfare masquerading as a cleanup.
"WE DOVE DOWN in clear water but came up 30 minutes later through oil," says Nancy Rabalais, director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON), a research station tucked deep in the marshes of southern Louisiana in the village of Cocodrie. A few weeks after the spill, during her summer research surveys 10 miles offshore, Rabalais personally encountered BP's plumes, which will probably affect her research far into the future. "It was horrible," she says, grimacing. "We were covered. Our gear was covered. We were breathing fumes and tasting oil."
The last time I saw Rabalais, after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, LUMCON was trashed: the station evacuated, the marshes littered with drowned trees, broken boats, unroofed houses. The area is ruined in a whole new way today. Along with the oil, dispersant, benzene, and everything else creeping into the bayous, Cocodrie has become a staging point for BP—complete with Louisiana National Guard troops, workers recruited from all over the South, and fishermen hired away from their extinct jobs. These men are cashing in their lunch chits at the Coco Marina restaurant, where Rabalais, Ed Chesney—LUMCON's fisheries biologist—and I are grabbing a meal. We watch every manner of boat known to Louisiana speed up the narrow channels to the marina, their white hulls stained BP brown, their wakes slapping the cordgrass flat. The boats offload hundreds of hungry men.
Containment boom and fiddler crab covered with oil, Barataria Bay, Louisiana.
Rabalais is worried about the species already under enormous stress from a host of other environmental problems in the Gulf: dead zones, overfishing, chronic oil pollution, seismic testing for oil and natural gas, coastal erosion (see "Fate of the Ocean," March/April 2006 issue). "Brown pelicans just came off the endangered species list," she says, "and now some of their most important breeding rookeries are getting hit with oil." She's concerned about critically endangered Kemp's Ridley sea turtles, the rarest on Earth, a species that faced mortal threat from the 140 million-gallon spill (pdf) at the Ixtoc I drilling platform in the Gulf in 1979 (see a map of the world's biggest spills here
Click on the image to expand to full size.). Kemp's Ridleys breed almost exclusively in the Gulf, with virtually every female returning to lay her eggs on a stretch of beach south of the Texas border.
In the wake of the BP spill, there's been a spike in sea turtle deaths, the majority of them Kemp's Ridleys. The number is certain to rise, since some sea turtles feed in the DSL, and most enjoy a meal of jellyfish. Sadly, they also eat blobs of oil they mistake for jellyfish. According to some reports, sea turtles have been roasted alive in the surface-oil patches burning offshore. Hundreds more have drowned since the disaster began. One shrimp fisherman privately admits that panicky colleagues fished hard in the weeks after the spill, knowing that the fishery would soon be closed, and some tied shut the mandatory turtle-excluder devices, which save turtles from drowning but reduce the efficiency of their nets.
Rabalais and others also worry about the Gulf's sperm whales, which feed on squid living in the deep scattering layer. An estimated 1,665 sperm whales inhabit (and perhaps never leave) the northern waters of the Gulf. A recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) assessment calculated that even three additional deaths (by other than natural causes) could endanger the entire sperm whale population, since the whales breed infrequently and only in midlife. The whales favor the deep waters of Mississippi Canyon—the location of the Deepwater Horizon wellhead. On numerous occasions, they've been seen swimming through thick oil in that region. And it's not only sperm whales. The Gulf is home to 29 species of cetaceans, many of which feed on the DSL, including spinner dolphins, spotted dolphins, pilot whales, killer whales, and many secretive deep divers such as beaked and bottlenose whales. The filter-feeding whales—including the Gulf's tiny isolated population of Bryde's whales, plus humpbacks, fins, minkes, and sei, many of which are DSL feeders—are vulnerable a whole different way, since oil fouls their baleen (sievelike teeth), dooming them to starvation.
And then there are the 400 Florida manatees, a species classified as vulnerable to extinction, that migrate to Louisiana (pdf) waters each summer. This year they'll be feeding in oily water on oiled algae and cordgrass. "And it's not just the large fauna we worry about," says Rabalais. "The entire wetland is at risk. A marsh that's been heavily oiled becomes anaerobic at the roots. The next time a big storm comes through, those marshy islands will in all likelihood just break up and disappear." If so, they'll take the nursery grounds for marine life with them. Coastal Louisiana is already losing 24 square miles of wetlands a year, a football field every 30 minutes. These dwindling wetlands are crucial to the Louisiana economy, keeping people here afloat in businesses from fishing to tourism. "Now they're all out of work," says Rabalais. "And the revenues we were counting on to rebuild the coastal habitats to foster the birds, shrimp, fish, dolphins, turtles, whales, and people will be lost."
Least certain of all is what's happening to the life at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. Take the life that congregates around cold methane seeps, the first of which ever discovered was found in the Gulf in 1984. Since then, 50 more sites have been located in these waters, some close to the Deepwater Horizon, with hundreds more likely out there—all home to otherworldly collections of crustaceans, snails, bacterial filaments, and tubeworms. The rules of life are different in the gassy depths, where life capitalizes on the same fossil fuels we're drilling for. Some cold-seep tubeworms have lifespans of 250 years. Others recently found in the deepest seeps may live to 500 or 600 years.
Though some of these creatures feed on methane, that doesn't mean they can survive the spill. "The quantity of oil and the added effects of dispersants are likely to harm these communities," says Lisa Levin, a biological oceanographer and cold-seeps specialist from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Oil could smother the animals' feeding apparatus or suffocate the bacteria at the base of the food chain, she adds. "The tubeworms and other seep organisms, including perhaps deepwater corals, are so slow-growing that damage will likely be long lasting." Levin envisions a host of long-term chronic problems throughout the deep Gulf that might not even show up for decades.
Only 25 miles from the Deepwater Horizon blowout, a tremendously rich area known as the Pinnacles hosts deepwater corals 300 to 500 feet below the surface. One of the Gulf's invisible splendors, these ancient reefs line the outer continental shelf south of Mississippi and Alabama. During the last ice age, when today's continental shelves were dry land, the Pinnacles were living coral reefs near the shoreline. Nowadays the fossil reefs lie too deep and dark for most reef-building corals or phytoplankton to survive. Instead, they're largely fueled by zooplankton, which power rich deepwater communities of soft corals, sponges, feather stars, black corals, solitary hard corals, and predatory fish, including reef fish not found in shallow waters. The site is also a critical spawning habitat for commercially important species like grouper and snapper.
"We lack even a good picture of life in the deep Gulf," says Ed Chesney. "Now we may never know what's been done to it." It's the classic iceberg equation: a nine-tenths submerged hazard, lurking unseen in the darkness. The big question: Will it wreck the Gulf of Mexico? "The best thing that might happen now," says Chesney, a battle-scarred veteran of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav, and Ike, "is for one, two, three, or four hurricanes to blow through and bury all this pollution under layers of sediment."
His thinking is that the tons of silt accompanying storm surges would inter the contamination and prevent it from migrating further, while more silt stirred up offshore would provide particles for the emulsified oil droplets to adhere to and sink to the bottom. Huge offshore waves could also trigger subsurface landslides to bury some of the polluted seafloor under clean sediment: nature's dip to black.
Yet the potential benefits of hurricanes are accompanied by obvious risks. Hurricanes will drive pollution further inland. The 33,000 miles of pipeline in the Gulf's waters and marshes are critically vulnerable to hurricane-induced waves (see chart
Click on the image to expand to full size.). Seven weeks after the Deepwater Horizon spill, naval scientists released the results (pdf) of research conducted when Hurricane Ivan swept through the Gulf in 2004. It found these pipelines to be far more vulnerable than previously thought to deep storm currents, which slosh for up to a week with enough force to break pipelines 300 feet deep. Plus every hurricane in this storm-prone region threatens the cement seals on 50,000 holes punched into the floor of the Gulf: some wells in deep water, many in the shallows, 27,000 of them abandoned and unmonitored, 600 once run by BP. The passage of Katrina spilled 8 million gallons of oil from platforms, pipelines, ships, and storage tanks—three-quarters as much oil as was dumped by the Exxon Valdez.
All of which adds up to the realization that our collective "don't ask don't tell" attitude toward the deep ocean—mining it, drilling it, overfishing it, dumping in it (including nuclear waste), polluting it, and deafening and killing its life with lethal sounds produced by the drilling industry and the military—is a prescription for ruin. "It's not that we were totally unprepared for the possibility of the Deepwater Horizon," says Carl Safina, "but that we were so spectacularly unprepared for its inevitability."