When USF researchers aboard the research vessel R/V Weatherbird II announced that they had discovered an oil plume below the ocean surface, they thought that they had made a monumental discovery.
However, BP CEO Tony Hayward disputes their findings, denying that any such plumes exist.
According to the Associated Press, Hayward said the company’s samplings showed “no evidence” that oil was gathering underwater and that oil’s natural tendency is to rise to the surface. He did not elaborate on how this testing was completed.
“The oil is on the surface,” he said. “There aren’t any plumes.”
Members of the Oil Spill Academic Task Force (OSATF), a group of scientists and scholars from Florida investigating the effects of the oil spill, met Wednesday at the USF College of Marine Science in St. Petersburg to discuss the collaboration of research among state universities.
Ian MacDonald, professor of oceanography at Florida State University and member of OSATF, said research shows that the oil plumes would have formed regardless of the use of chemicals to break them up.
“The oil undergoes a pressure drop as it jets out of the well, and at those depths and temperatures, it has a very close buoyancy to that of water,” MacDonald said. “So, unlike what the CEO of BP said, the oil will remain at depth, and some of the ships at sea are confirming this.”
He said that it is important “to believe in science” and speak up “when we think things are true.”
“As scientists, we are ready to be wrong, but at the same time, we’re ready to put the information out there,” MacDonald said.
William Hogarth, dean of the USF College of Marine Science, said the task force needs money to complete it’s research and that it would probably end up coming from a multitude of sources, possibly including BP.
“BP has no influence on how we do things,” Hogarth said. “If we do end up getting money from BP to do research, it will come with no strings attached. We will do science based on science.”
Hogarth said the biggest struggle for researchers is that there are so many “unknowns” – questions that they hope to answer with more research.
The research team, comprised of USF scientists and members of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, discovered the plume while they were taking water samples in the DeSoto Canyon off the Florida Panhandle on May 25. The team estimates the plume to be 22 miles long and more than 1,000 feet below the ocean surface.
When the Deepwater Horizon petroleum well, owned by BP, exploded April 20, hundreds of gallons of oil began spewing into the Gulf of Mexico. George Maul, professor of oceanography at the Florida Institute of Oceanography, said the spill is now about 80,000 square kilometers, which is roughly the size of South Carolina.
Susan Bell, the chair of the Department of Integrative Biology at USF, agreed that the problems stemming from the oil spill are complex and that “there’s no telling how much damage will be done.”
One of her major concerns is that the spill spans such a large area that many organisms can’t move away from it.
“I’m not sure what’s going to happen to the ecosystems in the gulf,” Bell said. “Certain parts of the gulf may recover more quickly than others. It’s definitely a challenge.”
According to Hogarth, Florida has the “best fishery – particularly recreational – in the gulf” – drawing in an estimated “$6-9 billion a year in revenue for the state.” An oil epidemic on our coast could have economic repercussions as well, he said.
“It’s absolutely devastating to realize the potential for large scale destruction. It’s the type of thing you don’t know how to react to,” Bell said. “In fact, I’m not sure if I’ve actually fully reacted yet. I’ll know once I’m out on the water.”
She said that if oil were to make its way onto Florida’s shores, we could expect to see much of what the residents of Louisiana are currently experiencing.
“I would imagine things like birds coated in oil and coastal plants smothered by it,” she said. “It would all depend on the amount of oil and if there were clean-up projects.