As the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill moves into its third month, another alarming environmental contamination concern is beginning to materialize. This particular oil spill seems to include the release of a high percentage of methane gas along with the oil that, according to some scientists, may result in the suffocation of marine life and the creation of dead zones in the Gulf.
According to John Kessler, an oceanographer from Texas A&M University, the oil currently spilling into the Gulf contains about 40% methane, whereas most oil deposits only contain about 5% methane. In his opinion, the BP oil spill is "the most vigorous methane eruption in modern human history."
Since they began capturing oil from the spill, BP has burned off approximately 450 million cubic feet of methane, but it is not known how much of the gas has been dispersed throughout the water in the Gulf of Mexico. The increased levels of methane can create a number of problems. The microbes that feed off the oil and gas begin using more oxygen from the water in order to digest those materials, thus bringing down oxygen levels. The corresponding drop in oxygen levels can slow, or even stop, the breakdown of the oil in the water and make it impossible for the waters to support living organisms.
Scientists are still trying to measure the scope of the problem. One research team, headed by Samantha Joye of the Institute of Undersea Research and Technology at the University of Georgia, looked at a 15-mile-long section of the spill southwest of the original site and found methane concentrations up to 10,000 higher than normal and oxygen levels as much as 40% below normal. Such high levels of methane are thought to be very close to those needed to created dead zones -- areas that cannot support marine life such as shrimp, fish, crabs and other creatures important to the Gulf's ecosystem.
A representative for BP has disputed some of the findings of scientists saying that samples taken by BP and federal agencies have not shown underwater oil and methane spreading to the extent scientists claim.
As more data becomes available the true picture of the environmental damage will become more clear, but it is unlikely that we will know what long-term damage has been caused by the spill for quite some time.
Methane in Gulf spill adds new dimension to the catastrophe, raises unknown risks to ecosystem (Associated Press)