The extent of the environmental damage in the Gulf of Mexico caused by the BP oil disaster is largely unknown to the public; much of the data remains sealed because of litigation. But now scientists at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi are shedding important new light on the subject. And the news is not good.
Dr. Paul Montagna works at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. He's the lead researcher on the study which found a 57 square mile swath of damage to animal life on the sea floor. Damage that could take decades to repair. When the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in flames on April 20, 2010 the photos were stunning. First the incredible flames and smoke – and then came the images of pelicans and sea turtles drenched in oil.
But the oil affected far less photogenic creatures too. Nematode worms and copepods – creatures that measure less than one-hundredth of an inch.
Small – but essential for the ecosystem, Montagna says.
They're very important indicators of environmental health. They're the canaries in the coal mine," Montagna told KUT News.
Since about 35 percent of the hydrocarbons stayed in "persistent deep sea plumes" decay of the oil at those depths is much slower. "It's about the same temperature as a refrigerator" Montagna explains, "and we put things in refrigerators so they'll keep." Because of that environment, Montagna says the oil could contaminate the sea bed for "decades."
The report, which will help determine how much BP will end up paying, drew criticism from the company.
"The paper provides no data to support a claim that it could take decades for these deep sea species to recover. In fact, the researchers acknowledge that little is known about recovery rates of these communities following an event such as this," BP said in a release. You can read the findings of Montagna's study here.