Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Last Gasp

Oxygen Levels Depleted By >30% In Gulf

Many years ago I read a book by an obscure author named Trevor Hoyle called "The Last Gasp." It was written in the early '80s, and was a post-apocalyptic tale of global warming causing plankton in the ocean to die off, reducing the oxygen levels first in the ocean, then in the entire world. Also, the ozone hole widened until there was ozone layer left, and increased radiation exposure cause mutations until it came down to a band of scientists and soldiers fighting for survival in an underground base, them versus the mutants. It's quite a good novel, you can probably find it on eBay for 99 cents.

We're not talking about a global problem from oxygen depletion in the Gulf, at least not unless the well really does never stop spewing oil, as some people have predicted. But the problem is already trending towards grave in certain areas of the region.

Texas A&M University oceanography professor John Kessler, just back from a 10-day research expedition near the BP Plc (BP.L) oil spill in the gulf, says methane gas levels in some areas are "astonishingly high."

Kessler's crew took measurements of both surface and deep water within a 5-mile (8 kilometer) radius of BP's broken wellhead.

"There is an incredible amount of methane in there," Kessler told reporters in a telephone briefing.

In some areas, the crew of 12 scientists found concentrations that were 100,000 times higher than normal.

"We saw them approach a million times above background concentrations" in some areas, Kessler said.

I've already told you that methane is both toxic to animals and flammable. What I haven't really touched on before is that is also has the effect of lowering oxygen levels in the ocean, and according to this article, scientists are already measuring a drop in oxygen levels of 30% in some areas. And that deficit will rise as time goes on. At the peak of Mount Everest, where nothing lives and climbers must use oxygen tanks or die, there is about 67% less oxygen than present at sea level. So those areas of the Gulf of Mexico worst affected are already halfway up the mountain, as it were.

Sharks and large whales are already being spotted close to shores when normally they would only be seen in deep waters. Such as near Deepwater Horizon. But the oil and the poison Corexit BP is dumping into the ocean are, I believe only half of the reasons why the sea life are fleeing their normal habitats. The other problem is oxygen. Large animals are more susceptible to lack of oxygen than smaller ones are, but as the O2 level keeps dropping, more and more species will be forced to escape or die. Many will die, since the normal food chains will have been disrupted -- they will try to swim in random directions away from the oil and methane and dispersant, and if their usual cuisines do not happen to have chosen the same area of shelter, they will starve.

"The Last Gasp" scenario won't occur here -- plankton are plants, and as everyone knows they breathe CO2, not oxygen, but the possibilities are still scary. If enough vulnerable species die out or have their numbers thinned sufficiently, the entire food chain in the ocean could collapse. This would probably take years to occur, but if enough damage is done while the oil and methane are still spewing from the well and from the other vents, this is what could well happen. The media are already reporting that marine biologists think it will be years before certain species of lobster, shrimp and other crustaceans and shrimp come back to number that would allow farming to resume, and decades before they are back to their populations on April 19, 2010.

Any of you who enjoy good seafood should go have a nice meal tomorrow, because, depending on your menu preferences, you might not be able to get what you want the next day. Fox News reports that Red Lobster is no longer serving oysters in any of its restaurants across the entire nation (and I assume in other countries as well) due to the simple fact that there are no more edible oysters. They have to be the largest national seafood chain. Last Gasp, no. Last crawfish, probably. Scary stuff.

UPDATE: I found this in another article:

"Samantha Joye of the University of Georgia said Tuesday that water samples show oxygen concentrations within the plumes are dropping 1 percent to 2 percent each day. She said at that rate, it would take months for levels to become hazardous for fish and other animals."

I guess it will take longer than I supposed for the differential between the oxygen levels in the air above the water, the toxic cloud layer, and in the water to even out. But every day the air above is deficient in oxygen, O2 will diffuse out from the water and into the air, trying to reach equilibrium. So it might take longer, but at 1-2% less oxygen in the air per day, it doesn't take a Calculus teacher to tell you that the situation is alarming.

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