This website is no longer actively maintained
Some material and features may be unavailable

Despite mounting evidence, BP doubts underwater oil plumes

BP says that more evidence is needed to prove scientists’ claims that oil is collecting in underwater plumes, according to the Associated Press. Over the weekend, BP CEO Tony Hayward said there is “no evidence” that oil is suspended beneath the surface, arguing that oil rises in water.

This contradicts observations from three different teams of researchers over the last few weeks identifying several large oil plumes in the Gulf, each miles wide and hundreds or thousands of feet deep. The plumes contain tiny droplets of oil — from the size of a thumbnail to the size of a golf ball, the Washington Post reported — that has dissolved into the water, perhaps due to the effect of chemical dispersants.

The government posted a map this week showing the location of one of the underwater plumes, according to the New York Times Wednesday. “This would seem to be the most detailed confirmation yet by a federal agency that the undersea plumes are real,” reported the Times.

But how could oil get trapped undersea in the first place — shouldn’t it float to the top, as Hayward argues?

Visualize salad dressing, said the Times Green Blog:

The usual expectation is that oil of any kind floats on water. But anybody who has ever shaken a vinegar-and-oil salad dressing knows it is not quite so simple. In the right conditions, oil droplets can get suspended in water. What’s happening in the Gulf of Mexico right now might turn out to be the mother of all salad dressings.

Fluid dynamics researchers at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill posted this video to demonstrate how differently oil can behave in water (via NYT). From the video caption:

“We’ve been thinking that the recent news about underwater oil plumes is very reminiscent of these jet experiments, in which the effect of the strong turbulence is creating an emulsion which can lead to an underwater trapping,” McLaughlin said. “In videos of the actual oil leak in the Gulf, the turbulent oil jet looks quite similar to our alcohol jet.” He added that with the addition of dispersants, the effect would be further amplified.

But the salad dressing analogy only goes so far, according to scientist David Hollander at the University of South Florida. He found one plume that “is clear, with the oil entirely dissolved. ” From the Post:

“Here is a situation where, unless you’re looking at the chemical fingerprints, [the oil] is absolutely not visible,” Hollander said. “It’s not some Italian vinaigrette or anything like that. It’s absolutely, perfectly clear.”

Plumes would have a unique role in devastating marine life. The low levels of dissolved oxygen in and around the plumes could literally choke fish and other life. Dissolved oil could also accumulate in fish larvae and filter feeding creatures — which would then pass the toxin up the food chain to fish that include commercially important species like red snapper.

Underwater plumes could also be yet another reason BP and the government have underestimated volume of the spill.

According to the New York Times:

The undersea plumes may go a long way toward explaining the discrepancy between the flow estimates, suggesting that much of the oil emerging from the well could be lingering far below the sea surface.

  • Differing views on fracking's impact
    Studies conducted on the counties above the Marcellus and Barnett Shale for example — where extensive drilling has already taken place — present mixed economic results.
  • thumb
    Too much solar energy?
    The proliferation of privately owned solar has large power companies in Germany worried.
  • thumb
    Nominee has industry ties
    Energy secretary nominee had deep connections to industry, including as a paid adviser to BP until 2011.


  • A. W. Parks

    Think about a water well. When you drill a water well, you put a “screen” or perforated pipe in your well, keeping sand from filling up your well. The same thing applies to oil wells. This well has nothing to stop the flow of sand and other sediment from flowing out of the well along with the oil/gas. The plumes in my opinion are predominantly sand and other small particles of other minerals etc. Offshore oil wells are required to have a sand pack with an electronic well log run by an impartial 3rd party company like Schlumberger or Halliburton services, required by law to prove/verify that companies are following this requirement.

    I believe that BP is making a huge PR mistake by not being more forthcoming with the general public. If you compare an offshore drilling barge or platform to a wheel, the barge would be the hub of the wheel with wells drilled directionally like the spokes of a wheel in all directions from a central point. There can be another 10 to 20 wells drilled from this same central location.

    The debate over whether or not to us a nuclear weapon to seal this well would be more understandable if the public knew small details like how many additional wells and pipe lines are in close proximity that could be damaged in the blast. The best protection a company has is through honesty and complete transparency with the public.

    A. W. Parks

  • A. W. Parks

    An interesting analogy is to compare wind in our atmosphere to water currents in the gulf or oceans. By watching the weather channel most of us are familiar with high and low pressure areas flowing north to south and east to west etc., where a high from one direction will flow over a low from another etc. We know that the wind flows in one direction at ground level and another direction up higher by watching the clouds. The same type of multiple directions of flow occur in the gulf adding to the problem of predicting flow direction/dispersal. I remember watching a plastic one gallon milk jug that had blown off the platform I was on disappear from sight in a couple minutes due to the speed of the surface currents while the fishing line I was using was being pulled in the other direction by the currents at 1,000ft of depth. This problem is more complicated than meets the eye.

  • Mark Mendenhall

    Re: Mr.Parks and “sand packs”
    Since all the video footage of yellowish oil everywhere down there,we KNOW there’s plenty of oil above the water. Are you suggesting that the scientists are merely seeing “sand plumes” underwater?

  • Gil

    BP has no integrity and is in severe denial trying to cover their a$$.
    Anybody can see that. One lie after another. Now one promise after another soon to be broken.
    Meanwhile oil continues to flow into the Gulf destroying the Ocean environment and killing sea life. We only see what washes up on shore.
    The destruction and killing continue.

    This contributes absolutely nothing to what we should be focusing on which is to stop that leak permanently and begin the long long process of cleaning up the mess. The Ocean can never be restored, the beautiful sea life lost can never be replaced. Nature cannot file a claim or lawsuit. Mother Earth needs our help.

    After reading about the fact that there are areas with NO cleanup workers working I feel more resolved than ever to help so I have chosen to partner with Global Green USA to help. Global Green USA is a proven entity and located an office in New Orleans to help rebuild after Katrina. They are well positioned to help with the Oil Spill now. So while BP makes empty promises about paying “Legitimate” claims Global Green USA needs our help to take action now. BP is not doing the job.
    A $5 contribution is all we’re asking and you get music in return (including the new song CNN is interested in called “Drill Baby Drill”). I am proud to donate to their effort and hope you can contribute:

    PS: Links to Global green USA (a 4 star charity) are included so you can see what they are about.

  • Clara Neves-Mireles

    Understand many many suggestions for stopping the BP leak are out there. Just learned of Inventor Dvorak’s (Houston, TX) S.Q.U.I.D. I am not an inventor, just a concerned individual. I have been thinking two or three days of a possible solution that is similar to S.Q.U.I.D. My thought is of a glove-type device made of durable plastic or vinyl. Having either 5 hoses coming out of base or 8 hoses (picture an octopus). Hoses from barges surrounding the spill would be connected to the hoses coming from the base which surrounds the spill at the ocean floor. It is time to get full containment of this disaster, a percentage. Can I get this message to BP or to whoever can consider it ASAP? /Clara

  • Jonathan Ripley

    @Clara Neves-Mireles: Interesting spin-off of the S.Q.U.I.D. idea – but if the hoses are a closed system, they won’t withstand the pressure down there. What makes the SQUID unique is that it is allowing sea water inside the plastic sheathing, allowing an equal-pressure environment as the gases and oil naturally flow upward through the sheath to the skimming pool on the surface where skimmers can separate the oil from the water.

  • On Setting Things Straight, Or, An Open Letter To The United Kingdom « advice from a fake consultant

    [...] You’ll love this, United Kingdom: BP continues to insist that there are no underwater “plumes” of oil in the Gulf, even though the people on the scene measuring them, and the US Government agency mapping them, say there are. [...]

  • In School Outreach, BP and NOAA ‘Dispel Myths’ About Dispersants, Subsurface Oil :

    [...] See, we’ve tested it.” (The oil-floats argument is also what then-BP CEO Tony Hayward said when first confronted [5] with evidence of underwater oil plumes this [...]

  • In School Outreach, BP and NOAA ‘Dispel Myths’ About Dispersants, Subsurface Oil | BattleHymn – Home of the Christian Patriot Movement

    [...] See, we’ve tested it.” (The oil-floats argument is also what then-BP CEO Tony Hayward said when first confronted [5] with evidence of underwater oil plumes this [...]

  • BP Conducts Demonstrations to Teach School Kids Chemical Dispersant is Safe

    [...] tested it.”(The oil-floats argument is also what then-BP CEO Tony Hayward said when first confronted with evidence of underwater oil plumes this [...]

  • In School Outreach, BP and NOAA ‘Dispel Myths’ About Dispersants, Subsurface Oil | SkyTitles

    [...] tested it.” (The oil-floats argument is also what then-BP CEO Tony Hayward said when first confronted with evidence of underwater oil plumes this [...]