– originally published on “The Recovery Room” 25 May 2010

Those of you that have been following my blogging since the beginning are aware that I promised a post about the mystery subject of “blobs” some time ago. Sorry for the time lag. Without further delay, here it is.

Tar ball? What, pray tell, is a tar ball? A tar balls is the bi-product of oil, time, and weather. Tar balls are what washed ashore at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park in Key West, Florida last Monday. From whence did these tar balls come? One explanation is that they are artifacts of some earlier incident or even natural crude seepage, as tar balls can persist in the marine environment for decades. That’s the prognosis published by Coast Guard officials anyhow. Another plausible explanation for their existence at that particular time, as far out as Key West, is the linkage of two bits of controversial oil spill information – underwater oil plumes and oil in the loop current.

On May 12 researchers with the National Institute for Undersea Science and Technology (NIUST) on the research vessel Pelican started discovering the presence of underwater oil plumes. “There’s a shocking amount of oil in the deep water, relative to what you see in the surface water,” says biogeochemist Samantha Joye of the University of Georgia in Athens, who works with the NIUST team and will be analyzing the plume water samples. “There’s a tremendous amount of oil in multiple layers, three or four or five layers deep in the water column.”

It’s unclear whether NOAA is supportive of these findings. Although they are partners with NUIST the LA Times says NOAA is skeptical, where an article in the NY Times says NOAA is supportive.

Joye says that there’s a possibility that the use of dispersant under water may be linked to the presence of these sub-surface plumes.

Currently, tar balls positively linked to the Deepwater Horizon spill have been found in Louisiana as far west as Vermillion Bay and as far east as Long Beach, Mississippi.
As for the Florida tar ball mystery, Jane Lubchenco told PBS that oil would take four to five days to reach it’s shores and, “any oil that would be reaching (the) Florida Strait might be in the form of tar balls, for example, and whether it ever comes ashore or not would be a function of onshore winds.”

Several days preceding the tar ball incident the Gulf was riddles with storms and high winds that kept crews from their recovery efforts. Storm system from the SW created currents that could have contributed to oil washing ashore.

In comes the second bit. The loop current is a fast moving (about 1.8 miles per hour) current that comes up through the Yucatan Channel, up into the Gulf of Mexico then back down the Florida coast to meet up with the Gulf Stream.

William Hogarth, dean of the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science, said a computer model showed that surface oil had already entered the loop current upon finding the Florida tar balls, while a second showed the oil was still 3 miles from it. The models are based on weather, ocean current and spill data from the U.S. Navy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, among other sources.

We have no way of knowing how the underwater oil plumes are traveling since researchers just discovered their presence last week. The R/V Pelican is leaving on another research voyage tomorrow to gather more data on the situation.

These underwater plumes may also be part of the reason that BP has seemed flummoxed about putting a figure on the amount of oil actually escaping. They may also be pleading ignorance as to not allow scientists to discover just how much sludge they have unleashed into the ecosystem, thus foiling linkages between this disaster and any long-term damage that might ensue.

These findings are making it increasingly apparent that the oil we can see on top of the water is just the tip of the iceberg as far as the Gulf of Mexico and all of the creatures that depend on its function are concerned.


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