An independent scientific effort, funded by NOAA, has discovered "shocking" amounts of oil underwater, huge plumes that range up to three miles by ten miles wide, and about 300 feet deep, within many columns of the water in the Gulf of Mexico.

Scientists are finding enormous oil plumes in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, including one as large as 10 miles long, 3 miles wide and 300 feet thick. The discovery is fresh evidence that the leak from the broken undersea well could be substantially worse than estimates that the government and BP have given.

Is anyone surprised that an independent investigation is the first to reveal these enormous plumes of water, probably kept from the surface by dumping chemical dispersants at the source of the oil gusher?

The plumes are depleting the oxygen dissolved in the gulf, worrying scientists, who fear that the oxygen level could eventually fall so low as to kill off much of the sea life near the plumes.

Dr. Joye said the oxygen had already dropped 30 percent near some of the plumes in the month that the broken oil well had been flowing. “If you keep those kinds of rates up, you could draw the oxygen down to very low levels that are dangerous to animals in a couple of months,” she said Saturday. “That is alarming.”

Because previous estimates of the volume of oil gushing from the wellhead are based upon study of only the surface appearance of the oilslick, this new data may help understand the vast discrepancies between daily volume:

Scientists studying video of the gushing oil well have tentatively calculated that it could be flowing at a rate of 25,000 to 80,000 barrels of oil a day. But the government, working from satellite images of the ocean surface, has calculated a flow rate of only 5,000 barrels a day.

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

The scientists involved in the Pelican mission, which is backed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agency that monitors the health of the oceans, are not certain why that would be. They say they suspect the heavy use of chemical dispersants, which BP has injected directly into the stream of oil emerging from the well, may have broken the oil up into droplets too small to rise rapidly.

Perhaps it’s time to revisit the presumed safety of the dispersants:

Many scientists had hoped the dispersants would cause oil droplets to spread so widely that they would be less of a problem in any one place. If it turns out that is not happening, the strategy of using the chemicals could come under greater scrutiny. Dispersants have never been used in an oil leak of this magnitude a mile under the ocean, and their effects at such depth are largely unknown.

Of course, BP has an easy way to shut down this indepedent investigation. The company just needs to be sure the NOAA funding doesn’t get extended; the current project only lasts until tomorrow:

Dr. Joye is serving as a coordinator of the mission from her laboratory in Athens, Ga. Researchers from the University of Mississippi and the University of Southern Mississippi are aboard the boat taking samples and running instruments.

Dr. Joye said the findings about declining oxygen levels were especially worrisome, since oxygen is so slow to move from the surface of the ocean to the bottom. She suspects that oil-eating bacteria are consuming the oxygen at a feverish clip as they work to break down the undersea plumes.

While the oxygen depletion so far is not enough to kill off sea life, the possibility looms that oxygen levels could fall so low as to create large dead zones, especially at the seafloor. “That’s the big worry,” said Ray Highsmith, head of the Mississippi center that sponsored the mission, known as the National Institute for Undersea Science and Technology.

The Pelican mission is due to end Sunday, but the scientists are seeking federal support to resume it soon.

“This is a new type of event, and it’s critically important that we really understand it, because of the incredible number of oil platforms not only in the Gulf of Mexico but all over the world now,” Dr. Highsmith said. “We need to know what these events are like, and what their outcomes can be, and what can be done to deal with the next one.”

It seems like the dispersants may have accomplished one possible objective: keeping the oil out of public view, below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. At least until now. And perhaps the project that revealed that discovery will end tomorrow.

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