As bad as the photos of the oil on the water in Gulf are, the size of the oil spill cannot be understood until you consider what is under the surface.
As the Christian Science Monitor notes:
The oil that can be seen from the surface is apparently just a fraction of the oil that has spilled into the Gulf of Mexico since April 20, according to an assessment the National Institute for Undersea Science and Technology.
As the New York Times points out today:
Scientists are finding enormous oil plumes in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, including one as large as 10 miles long, 3 miles wide and 300 feet thick in spots. The discovery is fresh evidence that the leak from the broken undersea well could be substantially worse than estimates that the government and BP have given.
“There’s a shocking amount of oil in the deep water, relative to what you see in the surface water,” said Samantha Joye, a researcher at the University of Georgia who is involved in one of the first scientific missions to gather details about what is happening in the gulf. “There’s a tremendous amount of oil in multiple layers, three or four or five layers deep in the water column.”
The plumes are depleting the oxygen dissolved in the gulf, worrying scientists, who fear that the oxygen level could eventually fall so low as to kill off much of the sea life near the plumes.
As I pointed out on May 2nd:
The Gulf oil spill is much worse than originally believed.
As the Christian Science Monitor writes:
It’s now likely that the actual amount of the oil spill dwarfs the Coast Guard’s figure of 5,000 barrels, or 210,000 gallons, a day.
Independent scientists estimate that the renegade wellhead at the bottom of the Gulf could be spewing up to 25,000 barrels a day. If chokeholds on the riser pipe break down further, up to 50,000 barrels a day could be released, according to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration memo obtained by the Mobile, Ala., Press-Register.
CNN quotes the lead government official responding to the spill – the commandant of the Coast Guard, Admiral Thad Allen – as stating:
If we lost a total well head, it could be 100,000 barrels or more a day.
Indeed, an environmental document filed by the company running the oil drilling rig – BP – estimates the maximum as 162,000 barrels a day:
In an exploration plan and environmental impact analysis filed with the federal government in February 2009, BP said it had the capability to handle a “worst-case scenario” at the Deepwater Horizon site, which the document described as a leak of 162,000 barrels per day from an uncontrolled blowout — 6.8 million gallons each day.
Update: Scientists have found a second giant plume deep under the water. The plume is 22 miles long and 6 miles wide.