Poison Gets Palatable

by Justin

The focus of the Gulf spill damage has understandably been upon the crude drifting on the surface – it takes no expertise to recognize the dying marine life and the swells of copper and black floating along or lashing the shores. The effects are immediately visible and visceral to communities of both people and local wildlife.  Statistics are always useful in gauging the scale of disaster, but the photographs of Deepwater Horizon’s wake have been especially stirring. There’s no lack of material, but the Boston Globe’s website killed it yesterday with its Big Picture account of recent events. The copper tendrils are really quite beautiful, if ultimately terrible, in photos like the one below – more painting than ecological catastrophe. Please follow the link. It’s incredible work.

Unreal. The amazing revelation today in the NY Times, however, is that the poison ballooning onto the surface may have the opposite effect in the abyss below. Most people are familiar with the deep sea thermal vents, famed for ancient tube worms and an ecosystem independent of the sun that thrives at volcanic temperatures – check the Blue Planet episode The Deep to get your brain shredded. Less well known and equally stunning are the sunless species at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, subsisting on petrochemicals and embracing the freeze: cold seep.

The world’s richest known concentration of these remarkable communities is in the Gulf of Mexico. The life forms include tube worms up to eight feet long. Some of the creatures appear old enough, scientists say, to predate the arrival of Columbus in the New World.

The scientists studying life down in the darkness aren’t sure how this thing will play out.

Seep researchers have voiced strong concern about the threat to the dark ecosystems. The spill is a concentrated surge, they note, in contrast to the slow, diffuse, chronic seepage of petrochemicals across much of the gulf’s northern slope. Many factors, like the density of oil in undersea plumes, the size of resulting oxygen drops and the potential toxicity of oil dispersants — all unknowns — could grow into threats that outweigh any possible benefits and damage or even destroy the dark ecosystems.

What’s miraculous and bizarre, though, is that most of the seep life comes preadapted to not only tolerate oil but to thrive in its presence. In theory, the density of BP’s leak could suffocate the chemosynthetic life that survives on methane and hydrogen sulfide or throw the community into collapse as oxygen levels fluctuate. But scientists don’t know, and won’t likely have an accurate assessment until deep-sea robots explore the ocean floor later this summer.

My uninformed inclination is to believe that the bizarre resilience of the animals down there will shrug off the apparent catastrophe. And maybe the brilliant specialists studying them will glean an understanding of how to process poisons and function in what may become a very inhospitable gulf. I love that the two ecosystems that thrive independent of the sun operate at the extremes of hot and cold – it’s like another planet down there.