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95 Percent of Gulf Gases Are Methane: Disaster is Inevitable

Too few research resources, rapidly depleting oxygen, high levels of gas and a looming future as the next Black Sea. Those are some of the highlights of a teleconference today about conditions in the area of the Deep Horizon oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico.

The teleconference was hosted by the University of Georgia, which has taken the lead in academic research on the British Petroleum disaster in the Gulf. UGA marine scientist Samantha Joye repeatedly stressed that oxygen is rapidly being depleted in the Gulf thanks to “tremendous” amounts of gas—about 95 percent of which is methane. To break it down, tiny microbes eat it, but they require nutrients to do so. To eat up all the gases, the microbes would need nearly five times as much oxygen as there presently is in the water.

“Once the gas is dissolved in the water there isn’t much we can do about it,” says Joye, who adds that natural diffusing and spreading will help some.

Joye is examining the layer of water 1,000 to 1,300 meters down. The layer is so oxygen-poor and gas rich, she says, that if it intersected with a shelf that supports life, it would cause problems for "the communities there and higher animals wouldn’t be happy either.”

Already, the fact that so many nutrients are needed for the microbes to break down the gas at that depth raises the danger that the living things that need them higher up, like shrimp, won’t be getting them.

“Any nutrient they [the microbes] sequester in the deep water, won’t be regenerated to the surface,” says Joye.

Water bereft of oxygen is called anoxic. What’s an example of an anoxic body of water?

“The bottom of the Black Sea,” says Joye.

She points out that when oil and gas come out of the pipe at BP’s well head and rise to the surface, when the gases are burned off, the substance left behind coagulates and sinks to the bottom. What effect will that gunk likely have?

“I don’t think we have a handle at all on the…material that is sedimenting,” says Joye. The UGA research boat has been collecting samples from other boats, but while there is willingness to share information there is a paucity of research resources in general.

At present there is a shortage of “resources, ship availability, people availability,” she says.

And while Joye praises NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) for putting so many of its resources into the Gulf, she notes “I have read the reports from NOAA and I have yet to see methane measurements.”

She says one of “the biggest holes [in research on the disaster] is the lack of gas data.”

But more is known about what the gases are doing to the water than is known about what they are doing to the air.

Joye says the amount of methane that’s getting into the air is unknown because only one ship has actually done any ocean-to-air flux measurements. [Joye clarified on June 30 that only one group among those in the Gulf has taken such measurements.]

“BP affirms that it [methane] has seeped into the atmosphere, as if it doesn’t matter,” says Joye. “But it’s a potent greenhouse gas. We don’t have enough data right now.”

She continues “There is an under-appreciation of how much gas is coming out of this well…Methane is a huge fraction of what is coming out of this well.”

Joye, whose background is in chemistry, says when she and her colleagues got out their calculators and started casually looking at the measures of gas produced by the ruptured BP well-head, “the numbers we came up with are just startlingly high.”

Joye and her team have submitted a paper on the issue for publication. She says she plans to share it with the unified command assigned to oversee the clean-up.


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