WASHINGTON — If the growing oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico isn't contained soon — and the latest efforts suggest that's unlikely — then the damage to the fragile region will intensify over the coming summer months as changing currents and the potential for hurricanes complicate the containment and cleanup efforts.
"It's all lose, lose, lose here," said Rick Steiner, a retired University of Alaska marine scientist who's familiar with both the current Gulf oil spill and the Exxon Valdez disaster two decades ago.
"The failure of the top kill really magnified this disaster exponentially," he said. "I think there's a realistic probability that this enormous amount of oil will keep coming out for a couple months. This disaster just got enormously worse."
As the federal government and BP try yet another strategy to curb the flow of oil from the blown well a mile below the surface of the Gulf — one that could increase the flow of oil by as much as 20 percent — scientists anticipate a range of disastrous effects, only some of which are well understood.
The damage to the shorelines of Gulf states such as Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida is literally only the surface of the problem: The damage to the sea floor could be extensive, and oil could also devastate marine life between the Gulf floor and its surface, as well as in coastal areas far from the leaking wellhead.
If none of the short-term solutions plugs the well, the only long-term fix _ drilling two relief wells to stem the flow of oil _ likely won't be completed until late July or August. President Barack Obama on Saturday called the news about the latest failed attempt "as enraging as it is heartbreaking."
"As I said yesterday, every day that this leak continues is an assault on the people of the Gulf Coast region, their livelihoods, and the natural bounty that belongs to all of us," he said in a White House statement.
Larry Crowder, a professor of marine biology at Duke University, said that if the spill continues for a couple more months, then oil almost certainly would get into the Loop Current that flows clockwise around the Gulf. It then would be a week to 10 days before it got to the Florida Keys, and a couple of weeks more before the Gulf Stream carried it to North Carolina.
If the leak had been stopped this weekend, the oil might have been diluted, but if there's two to three times the current amount by August, he said: "It could go anywhere."
"If you have enough oil, it can go a big distance," and some 100 million gallons could be spilled by this summer. "There's almost no place that's off-limits," Crowder said.
With summer approaching, hurricanes are the most obvious complication. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts an above-average hurricane season, and a hurricane getting into the Gulf and moving toward the Louisiana coast could force BP to halt its effort to drill the relief wells until the storm passed.
Hurricanes also could disperse the oil farther and wider _ or roil the waters so that oil at the surface plunges to great depths and poisons the deepwater ecosystem.
A hurricane and its accompanying storm surge also could drive oil onto land, even into the rice and sugarcane fields that aren't far from the coast in Louisiana, said James H. Cowan Jr., a biological oceanographer at Louisiana State University.
"It will probably get stranded if it gets to the upper estuary, and it's very difficult to clean there," he said.
Right now, a big eddy that's spun off the Loop Current is still blocking oil from entering it, and it has moved south _ away from the oil, Cowan said, but scientists say it's not possible to predict exactly where winds and currents will drive the oil.
Less is known about where the oil may already be going in the western part of the Gulf. Scientists don't know if there are any big plumes of oil under water to the west of the leaking well, although it's reasonable to suspect that there are some, Cowan said.
The oil already is spread along 100 miles of the Louisiana coast, and the coastal current could take it west toward Texas and an area where two deltas have been building since the 1970s. There, freshwater marshes would suffer even more damage than saltwater marshes do; freshwater plants could be devastated. Storms or other changes in the currents also could send oil toward sensitive saltmarshs, killing fisheries and other animal life.
"It's a nightmare that just won't quit," Cowan said. He's spent his career researching fisheries production and ecosystem management, but he now sees nothing ahead but studying what the oil is doing to the Gulf. "I'm 54, and I never expected I'd spend the rest of my career dealing with oil spill issues," he said.
Steiner, the Alaska scientist, said that while the shoreline has gotten the most attention, the damage from oil plumes under the Gulf's surface would be extensive.
"A lot of this oil has yet to surface, and so it's formed these huge sub-surface plumes," he said.
That oil will devastate marine life that’s sensitive to contaminants from the sea floor to the surface. The Gulf, he said, is a critical spawning habitat for many large fish species such as bluefin tuna and blue marlin. Eggs and larvae from such species probably already have been exposed to toxins in the oil and the chemicals BP has been using to disperse it.
"There is a lot of oil going into the sea there," he said. "It does degrade over time, but before it degrades it is toxic, and it wreaks havoc."
The dispersants also could have unintended long-term effects. They've never been used at such depths, and never in such huge amounts, said Crowder of Duke University.
The dispersants seem to be keeping most of the oil offshore, but they're driving much of it deep underwater. The chemicals have never been used in water as cold and under as much pressure as there is at this leak a mile below the surface, he said.
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