Dolphins off the bow!"
I race to the front of the WeatherBird II, a research vessel owned by the University of South Florida. There they are, doing their sleek silvery thing, weaving between translucent waves, disappearing under the boat, reappearing in perfect formation on the other side.
After taking my fill of phone video (and very pleased not to have dropped the device into the Gulf of Mexico), I bump into Gregory Ellis, one of the junior scientists aboard.
"Did you see them?" I ask excitedly.
"You mean the charismatic megafauna?" he sneers. "I'll pass."
Ouch. Here I was thinking everyone loves dolphins, especially oceanographers. But it turns out that these particular marine scientists have issues with dolphins. And sea turtles. And pelicans. It's not that they don't like them (a few of the grad students took Flipper pictures of their own). It's just that the charismatic megafauna tend to upstage the decidedly less charismatic creatures under their microscopes. Like the bacteria and phytoplankton that live in the water column, for instance, or 500-year-old coral and the tube worms that burrow next to them, or impossibly small squid the size of a child's fingernail.
Normally these academics would be fine without our fascination. They weren't looking for glory when they decided to study organisms most people either can't see or wish they hadn't. But when the Deepwater Horizon exploded in April 2010, our collective bias toward cute big creatures started to matter a great deal. That's because the instant the spill-cam was switched off and it became clear that there would be no immediate mass die-offs among dolphins and pelicans, at least not on the scale of the Exxon Valdez spill deaths, most of us were pretty much on to the next telegenic disaster. (Chilean miners down a hole — and they've got video diaries? Tell us more!)
It didn't help that the government seemed determined to help move us along. Just three weeks after the wellhead was capped, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) came out with its notorious "oil budget," which prompted White House energy czar Carol Browner to erroneously claim that "the vast majority of the oil is gone." The White House corrected the error (the fate of much of that oil is simply unknown), but the budget nonetheless inspired a flood of stories about how "doom-mongers" had exaggerated the spill's danger and, as the BritishDaily Mail tabloid indignantly put it, unfairly wronged "one of Britain's greatest companies."
More recently, in mid-December, Unified Area Command, the joint government-BP body formed to oversee the spill response, came out with a fat report that seemed expressly designed to close the book on the disaster. Mike Utsler, BP's Unified Area Commander, summed up its findings like this: "The beaches are safe, the water is safe, and the seafood is safe." Never mind that just four days earlier, more than 8,000 pounds of tar balls were collected on Florida's beaches — and that was an average day. Or that gulf residents and cleanup workers continue to report serious health problems that many scientists believe are linked to dispersant and crude oil exposure.
By the end of the year, investors were celebrating BP's stock rebound, and the company was feeling so emboldened that it revealed plans to challenge the official estimates of how much oil gushed out of its broken wellhead, claiming that the figures are as much as 50 percent too high. If BP succeeds, it could save the company as much as $10.5 billion in damages. The Obama administration, meanwhile, has just given the go-ahead for sixteen deepwater projects to resume in the gulf, well before the Oil Spill Commission's safety recommendations have a hope of being implemented.
For the scientists aboard the WeatherBird II, the recasting of the Deepwater Horizon spill as a good-news story about a disaster averted has not been easy to watch. Over the past seven months, they, along with a small group of similarly focused oceanographers from other universities, have logged dozens of weeks at sea in cramped research vessels, carefully measuring and monitoring the spill's impact on the delicate and little-understood ecology of the deep ocean. And these veteran scientists have seen things that they describe as unprecedented. Among their most striking findings are graveyards of recently deceased coral, oiled crab larvae, evidence of bizarre sickness in the phytoplankton and bacterial communities, and a mysterious brown liquid coating large swaths of the ocean floor, snuffing out life underneath. All are worrying signs that the toxins that invaded these waters are not finished wreaking havoc and could, in the months and years to come, lead to consequences as severe as commercial fishery collapses and even species extinction.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the most outspoken scientists doing this research come from Florida and Georgia, coastal states that have so far managed to avoid offshore drilling. Their universities are far less beholden to Big Oil than, say, Louisiana State University, which has received tens of millions from the oil giants. Again and again these scientists have used their independence to correct the official record about how much oil is actually out there, and what it is doing under the waves.
One of the most prominent scientists on the BP beat is David Hollander, a marine geochemist at the University of South Florida. Hollander's team was among the first to discover the underwater plumes in May and the first to trace the oil definitively to BP's well. In August, amid the claims that the oil had magically disappeared, Hollander and his colleagues came back from a cruise with samples proving that oil was still out there and still toxic to many marine organisms, just invisible to the human eye. This research, combined with his willingness to bluntly contradict federal agencies, has made Hollander something of a media darling. When he is not at sea, there is a good chance he is in front of a TV camera. In early December, he agreed to combine the two, allowing me and filmmaker Jacqueline Soohen to tag along on a research expedition in the northern Gulf of Mexico, east of the wellhead.
Let's go fishing for oil," Hollander says with a broad smile as we get on the boat. A surfer and competitive bike racer in his youth, he is still something of a scrappy daredevil at 52. On the last cruise Hollander slipped and seriously injured his shoulder, and he has been ordered to take it easy this time. But within seconds of being on deck he is hauling equipment and lashing down gear. This is a particularly important task today because a distinctly un-Floridian cold front has descended and winds are whipping up ten-foot swells in the gulf. Getting to our first research station is supposed to take twenty-four hours, but it takes thirty instead. The entire time, the 115-foot WeatherBird II dips and heaves, and so do a few members of the eleven-person scientific team (and yeah, OK, me too).
Luckily, just as we arrive at our destination, about ninety nautical miles from the wellhead, the clouds part and the sea calms. A frenzy of floating science instantly erupts. First to be lowered overboard is the rosette, a cluster of four-foot-high metal canisters that collect water samples from different depths. When the rosette clangs back on deck, the crew swarms around its nozzles, filling up dozens of sample bottles. It looks like they are milking a metal cow. Carefully labeled bottles in tow, they are off to the makeshift laboratory to run the water through an assembly line of tests. Is it showing signs of hydrocarbons? Does it fluoresce under UV light? Does it carry the chemical signature of petroleum? Is it toxic to bacteria and phytoplankton?
A few hours later it's time for the multi-corer. When the instrument, twelve feet high and hoisted by a powerful winch, hits the ocean floor, eight clear cylinders shoot down into the sediment, filling up with sand and mud. The samples are examined under microscopes and UV lights, or spun with centrifugal force, then tested for signs of oil and dispersant. This routine will be repeated at nine more locations before the cruise is done. Each stop takes an average of ten hours, and the scientists are able to sneak in only a couple of hours of sleep between stations.
The WeatherBird II is returning to the precise coordinates where University of South Florida researchers found toxic water and sediment in May and August. At the second stop, Mary Abercrombie, who is testing the water under UV light in a device called a spectrofluorometer, sees something that looks like hydrocarbons from a sample collected seventy meters down — shallow enough to be worrying. But the other tests don't find much of anything. Hollander speculates that this may be because we are still in relatively shallow water and the recent storms have mixed everything up. "We'll probably see more when we go deeper."
Being out in the open gulf today, I find it is impossible not to be awed by nature's capacity to cleanse and renew itself. At the height of the disaster, I had looked down at these waters from a Coast Guard aircraft. What I saw changed me. I realized that I had always counted on the ocean to be a kind of outer space on earth, too mysterious and vast to be fundamentally altered by human activity, no matter how reckless. Now it was covered to the horizon in gassy puddles like the floor of an auto repair shop. Shouting over the roaring engines, a fresh-faced Coast Guard spokesman assured the journalists on board that within months, all the oil would be gone, broken down by dispersants into bite-size morsels for oil-eating microbes, which would, after their petroleum feast, promptly and efficiently disappear — no negative side effects foreseen.
At the time I couldn't believe he could feed us this line with a straight face. Yet here that body of water is, six months later: velvety smooth and, according to the tests conducted on the WeatherBird II, pretty clean, at least so far. Maybe the ocean really is the world's most powerful washing machine: throw in enough dispersant (the petrochemical industry's version of Tide), churn it around in the waves for long enough, and it can get even the toughest oil spills out.
"I despise that message — it's blindly simplified," says Ian MacDonald, a celebrated oceanographer at Florida State University. "The gulf is not all better now. We don't know what we've done to it."
MacDonald is arguably the scientist most responsible for pressuring the government to dramatically increase its estimates of how much oil was coming out of BP's well. He points to the massive quantity of toxins that gushed into these waters in a span of three months (by current estimates, at least 4.1 million barrels of oil and 1.8 million gallons of dispersants). It takes time for the ocean to break down that amount of poison, and before that could happen, those toxins came into direct contact with all kinds of life-forms. Most of the larger animals — adult fish, dolphins, whales — appear to have survived the encounter relatively unharmed. But there is mounting evidence that many smaller creatures — bacteria, phytoplankton, zooplankton, multiple species of larvae, as well as larger bottom dwellers — were not so lucky. These organisms form the base of the ocean's food chain, providing sustenance for the larger animals, and some grow up to be the commercial fishing stocks of tomorrow. One thing is certain: if there is trouble at the base, it won't stay there for long.
According to experiments performed by scientists at the University of South Florida, there is good reason for alarm. When it was out in the gulf in August, the WeatherBird II collected water samples from multiple locations. Back at the university lab, John Paul, a professor of biological oceanography, introduced healthy bacteria and phytoplankton to those water samples and watched what happened. What he found shocked him. In water from almost half of the locations, the responses of the organisms "were genotoxic or mutagenic" — which means the oil and dispersants were not only toxic to these organisms but caused changes to their genetic makeup. Changes like these could manifest in a number of ways: tumors and cancers, inability to reproduce, a general weakness that would make these organisms more susceptible to prey — or something way weirder.
Before we left on the cruise, I interviewed Paul in his lab; he explained that what was so "scary" about these results is that such genetic damage is "heritable," meaning the mutations can be passed on. "It's something that can stand around for a very long time in the Gulf of Mexico," Paul said. "You may be genetically altering populations of fish, or zooplankton, or shrimp, or commercially important organisms.... Is the turtle population going to have more tumors on them? We really don't know. And it'll take three to five years to actually get a handle on that."
The big fear is a recurrence of what happened in Prince William Sound after the Exxon Valdez spill. Some pink salmon, likely exposed to oil in their larval stage, started showing serious abnormalities, including "rare mutations that caused salmon to grow an extra fin or an enlarged heart sac," according to a report in Nature. And then there were the herring. For three years after the spill, herring stocks were robust. But in the fourth year, populations plummeted by almost two-thirds in Prince William Sound and many were "afflicted by a mysterious sickness, characterised by red lesions and superficial bleeding," as Reuters reported at the time. The next year, there were so few fish, and they were so sick, that the herring fishery in Prince William Sound was closed; stocks have yet to recover fully. Since Alaskan herring live for an average of eight years, many scientists were convinced that the crash of the herring stocks was the result of herring eggs and larvae being exposed to oil and toxins years earlier, with the full effects manifesting themselves only when those generations of herring matured (or failed to mature).
Could a similar time bomb be ticking in the gulf? Ian MacDonald at Florida State is convinced that the disturbances beginning to register at the bottom of the food chain are "almost certain to ripple up through other species."
Here is what we know so far. When researchers from Oregon State University tested the waters off Grand Isle, Louisiana, in June, they found that the presence of carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) had increased fortyfold in just one month. Kim Anderson, the toxicologist leading the study, described the discovery as "the largest PAH change I've seen in over a decade of doing this." June is spawning season in the gulf — the period, beginning in April, when enormous quantities of eggs and larvae drift in nearly invisible clouds in the open waters: shrimp, crabs, grouper, bluefin tuna, snapper, mackerel, swordfish. For western Atlantic bluefin, which finish spawning in June and are fished as far away as Prince Edward Island, these are the primary spawning grounds.
John Lamkin, a fisheries biologist for NOAA, has admitted that "any larvae that came into contact with the oil doesn't have a chance." So, if a cloud of bluefin eggs passed through a cloud of contaminated water, that one silent encounter could well help snuff out a species already on the brink. And tuna is not the only species at risk. In July Harriet Perry, a biologist at the University of Southern Mississippi, found oil droplets in blue crab larvae, saying that "in my forty-two years of studying crabs I've never seen this." Tellingly, this vulnerability of egg and larvae to oil does not appear to have been considered when the Macondo well was approved for drilling. In the initial exploration plan that BP submitted to the government, the company goes on at length about how adult fish and shellfish will be able to survive a spill by swimming away or by "metaboliz[ing] hydrocarbons." The words "eggs" and "larvae" are never mentioned.
Already there is evidence of at least one significant underwater die-off. In November Penn State biologist Charles Fisher led a NOAA-sponsored expedition that found colonies of ancient sea fans and other coral coated in brown sludge, 1,400 meters down. Nearly all the coral in the area was "dead or in the process of dying," Fisher told me. And he echoed something I heard from many other scientists: in a career of studying these creatures, he has never seen anything like this. There were no underwater pools of oil nearby, but the working theory is that subsea oil and dispersants must have passed through the area like some kind of angel of death.
We may never know what other organisms were trapped in a similarly lethal cloud, and that points to a broader problem: now that we are beyond the oil-covered-birds phase, establishing definitive links between the spill and whatever biogenetic or ecological disturbances are in store is only going to get harder. For instance, we know the coral died because of all the bodies: ghostly coral corpses litter the ocean floor near the wellhead, and Fisher is running tests to see if he can find a definitive chemical link to BP's oil. But that sort of forensics simply won't be possible for the much smaller life forms that are even more vulnerable to BP's toxic cocktail. When larval tuna or squid die, even in huge numbers, they leave virtually no trace. Hollander uses the phrase "cryptic mortality" to describe these phantom die-offs.
All this uncertainty will work in BP's favor if the worst-case scenarios eventually do materialize. Indeed, concerns about a future collapse may go some way toward explaining why BP (with the help of Kenneth Feinberg's Gulf Coast Claims Facility) has been in a mad rush to settle out of court with fishermen, offering much-needed cash now in exchange for giving up the right to sue later. If a significant species of fish like bluefin does crash three or even ten years from now (bluefin live for fifteen to twenty years), the people who took these deals will have no legal recourse. Even if a case did end up in court, beating BP would be tricky. As part of the damage assessment efforts, NOAA scientists are conducting studies that monitor the development of eggs and larvae exposed to contaminated water. But as Exxon's lawyers argued in the Valdez case, wild fish stocks are under a lot of pressure these days — without a direct chemical link to BP's oil, who's to say what dealt the fatal blow?
In a way, the lawyers will have a point, if a disingenuous one. As Ian MacDonald explains, it is precisely the multiple stresses on marine life that continue to make the spill so dangerous. "We don't appreciate the extent to which most populations are right on the edge of survival. It's very easy for populations to go extinct." He points to the sperm whales — there are only about 1,600 of them in the northern Gulf of Mexico, a small enough population that the unnatural death of just a few whales (which breed infrequently and later in life) can endanger the community's survival. Acoustic research has found that some sperm whales responded to the spill by leaving the area, a development that oceanographers find extremely worrying.
One of the things I am learning aboard the WeatherBird II, watching these scientists test for the effects of invisible oil on invisible organisms, is not to trust my eyes. For a few months last year, when BP's oil formed patterns on the surface of these waters that looked eerily like blood, industrial society's impact on the ocean was easy for all to see. But when the oil sank, it didn't disappear; it just joined so much else that the waves are hiding, so many other secrets we count on the ocean to keep. Like the 27,000 abandoned oil and gas wells in the Gulf of Mexico, and the network of unmonitored underwater pipelines that routinely corrode and leak. Like the sewage that cruise ships are entirely free to dump, under federal law, so long as they are more than three miles from shore. Like a dead zone the size of New Jersey. Scientists at Dalhousie University in Halifax predict that if we continue our rates of overfishing, every commercial fish stock in the world could crash by midcentury. And a study published in Nature in July found that global populations of phytoplankton have declined about 40 percent since 1950, linked with "increasing sea surface temperatures"; coral is bleaching and dying for the same reason. And on and on. The ocean's capacity to heal itself from our injuries is not limitless. Yet the primary lesson being extracted from the BP disaster seems to be that "mother nature" can take just about anything we throw at her.
As the WeatherBird II speeds off to the third research station, I find myself thinking about something New Orleans civil rights attorney Tracie Washington told me the last time I was on the Gulf Coast. "Stop calling me resilient," she said. "I'm not resilient. Because every time you say, 'Oh, they're resilient,' you can do something else to me." Washington was talking about the serial disasters that have battered New Orleans. But if the poisoned and perforated gulf could talk, I think it might say the same thing.
On day three of the cruise, things start to get interesting. We are now in the DeSoto Canyon, about thirty nautical miles from the wellhead. The ocean floor is 1,000 meters down, our deepest station yet. Another storm is rolling in, and as the team pulls up the multi-corer, waves swamp the deck. It's clear as soon as we see the mud that something is wrong. Rather than the usual gray with subtle gradations, the cylinders are gray and then, just below the top layer, abruptly turn chocolaty brown. The consistency of the top brown layer is sort of fluffy, what the scientists refer to as "flocculent."
A grad student splits one of the cores lengthwise and lays it out on deck. That's when we see it clearly: separating the gray and brown layers — and looking remarkably like chocolate parfait — is a thick line of black gunk. "That's not normal," Hollander declares. He grabs the mud samples and flags Charles Kovach, a senior scientist with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. They head to the darkest place on the boat — one of the tiny sleeping quarters crammed with bunk beds. In the pitch darkness they hold an ultraviolet light over the sample, and within seconds we are looking at silvery particles twinkling up from the mud. This is a good indication of oil traces. Hollander saw something similar on the August cruise and was able not only to identify hydrocarbons but to trace them to BP's Macondo well.
Sure enough, after the sediment is put through a battery of chemical tests, Hollander has his results. "Without question, it's petroleum hydrocarbons." The thick black layers are, he says, "rich in hydrocarbons," with the remains of plants and bacteria mixed in. The fluffy brown top layer has less oil and more plant particles, but the oil is definitely there. It will be weeks or even months before Hollander can trace the oil to BP's well, but since he has found BP's oil at this location in the DeSoto Canyon before, that confirmation is likely. If we are fishing for oil, as Hollander had joked, this is definitely a big one.
It strikes me that there is a satisfying irony in the fact that Hollander's cruise found oil that BP would have preferred to stay buried, given that the company indirectly financed the expedition. BP has pledged to spend $500 million on research as part of its spill response and made an early payout of $30 million. But in contrast to the company's much publicized attempts to buy off scientists with lucrative consulting contracts, BP agreed to hand this first tranche over to independent institutions in the gulf, like the Florida Institute of Oceanography, which could allocate it through a peer-review process — no strings attached. Hollander was one of the lucky recipients. This is a model for research in the gulf: paid for by the oil giants that profit so much from its oil and gas, but with no way for them to influence outcomes.
At several more research stations near the wellhead, the WeatherBird II finds the ocean floor coated in similar muck. The closer the boat gets to the wellhead, the more black matter there is in the sediment. And Hollander is disturbed. The abnormal layer of sediment is up to five times thicker than it was when he collected samples here in August. The oil's presence on the ocean floor didn't diminish with time; it grew. And, he points out, "the layer is distributed very widely," radiating far out from the wellhead.
But what concerns him even more are the thick black lines. "That black horizon doesn't happen," he says. "It's consistent with a snuff-out." Healthy sea-floor mud is porous and well oxygenated, with little critters constantly burrowing holes from the surface sand to the deeper mud, in the same way that worms are constantly turning over and oxygenating soil in our gardens. But the dark black lines in the sediment seemed to be acting as a sealant, preventing that flow of life. "Something caused an environmental and community change," Hollander explains. It could have been the sheer volume of matter falling to the bottom, triggering a suffocation effect, or perhaps it was "a toxic response" to oil and dispersants.
Whatever it was, Hollander isn't the only one observing the change. While we are at sea, Samantha Joye, an oceanographer at the University of Georgia, is leading a team of scientists on a monthlong cruise. When she gets back she reports seeing a remarkably similar puddinglike layer of sediment. And in trips to the ocean floor in a submersible, she saw dead crustaceans in the sediment and tube worms that had been "decimated." Ian MacDonald was one of the scientists on the trip. "There were miles of dead worms," he told me. "There was a zone of acute impact of at least eighty square miles. I saw dead sea fans, injured sea fans, brittle stars entangled in its branches. A very large area was severely impacted." More warning signs of a bottom-up disaster.
A week after Hollander returned from the cruise, Unified Area Command came out with its good news report on the state of the spill. Of thousands of water samples taken since August, the report stated, less than 1 percent met EPA definitions of toxicity. It also claimed that the deepwater sediment is largely free from BP's oil, except within about two miles of the wellhead. That certainly came as news to Hollander, who at that time was running tests of oiled sediment collected thirty nautical miles from the wellhead, in an area largely overlooked by the government scientists. Also, the government scientists measured only absolute concentrations of oil and dispersants in the water and sediment before declaring them healthy. The kinds of tests John Paul conducted on the toxicity of that water to microorganisms are simply absent.
Coast Guard Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft, whose name is on the cover of the report, told me of the omission, "That really is a limitation under the Clean Water Act and my authorities as the federal on-scene coordinator." When it comes to oil, "it's my job to remove it" — not to assess its impact on the broader ecosystem. He pointed me to the NOAA-led National Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) process, which is gathering much more sensitive scientific data to help it put a dollar amount on the overall impact of the spill and seek damages from BP and other responsible parties.
Unlike the individual and class-action lawsuits BP is rushing to settle, it will be years before a settlement is reached. That means more time to wait and see how fish stocks are affected by egg and larvae exposure. And according to Robert Haddad, who heads the NRDA process for NOAA, any settlement will have "reopener clauses" that allow the government to reopen the case should new impacts manifest themselves.
Still, it's not at all clear that NRDA is capable of addressing the dangers being exposed by Hollander and the other independent scientists. The federal damage assessment process is built on the concept of "ecosystem services," which measures the value of nature according to how it serves us. How many fish were fishermen unable to catch because of the disaster? And how many tourism dollars were lost when the oil hit the beaches? Yet when it comes to the place where most of the spill damage was done — the deep ocean — we are in no position to answer such questions. The deep ocean is so understudied that we simply don't know what "service" those dead tube worms and corals would have provided to us. All we know, says MacDonald, is that "the ecosystem depends on these kinds of organisms, and if you start wiping them out, you don't know what happens." He also points out, as many ecologists do, that the entire service model is flawed. Even if it turns out that those tube worms and brittle stars do nothing for us, "they have their own intrinsic value — it matters that these organisms are healthy or not healthy." The spill "is an opportunity for us to find a new way to look at ecological health."
It is more likely, however, that we will continue to assign value only to those parts of nature from which we directly profit. Anything that slips beyond the reach of those crude calculations, either because it is too mysterious or seemingly too trivial, will be considered of no value, its existence left out of environmental risk assessment reports, its death left out of damage assessment lawsuits. And this is what is most disturbing about the latest rush to declare the gulf healthy: we seem to be once again taking refuge in our ignorance, the same kind of willful blindness that caused the disaster in the first place. First came the fateful decision to drill in parts of the earth we do not understand, taking on risks that are beyond our ability to comprehend. Next, when disaster struck, came the decision to use dispersants to sink the oil rather than let it rise to the surface, saving what we do know (the coasts) by potentially sacrificing what we don't know (the depths). And now here we are, squeezing our eyes shut before the results are in, hoping, once again, that what we don't know can't hurt us.
Only about 5 percent of the deep ocean has been explored. The existence of the deep scattering layer — the huge sector of marine life that dwells in the deep but migrates every night toward the surface — was only confirmed by marine biologists in the 1940s. And the revelations are ongoing. Mysterious and otherworldly new species are being discovered all the time.
On board the WeatherBird II, I was constantly struck by the strange simultaneity of discovery and destruction, watching young scientists experiment on fouled sediment drawn up from places science had barely mapped. It's always distressing to witness a beautiful place destroyed by pollution. But there is something particularly harrowing about the realization that we are contaminating places we have never even seen in their natural state. As drilling pushes farther and farther into deep water, risking more disasters in the name of jobs and growth, marine scientists trained to discover the thrillingly unknown will once again be reduced to coroners of the deep, boldly discovering that which we have just destroyed.