We are all aware of the devastation to wildlife happening in the Gulf of Mexico due to this monstrous oil spill. We know about the gentle sea turtles, the frolicking dolphins, the graceful birds, the giant whale shark and the majestic sperm whale but at the ocean floor, in places once thought to be devoid of life, there are teeming communities of clams, mussels and tube worms that we've only just discovered in recent years. We have not yet sent submersibles down to measure the impact on these amazing communities and I fear what we may find. There is more about these fascinating worlds below the jump.
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Cold, Dark and Teeming With Life
By WILLIAM J. BROAD
Published: June 21, 2010
The deep seabed was once considered a biological desert. Life, the logic went, was synonymous with light and photosynthesis. The sun powered the planet’s food chains, and only a few scavengers could ply the preternaturally dark abyss.
Then, in 1977, oceanographers working in the deep Pacific stumbled on bizarre ecosystems lush with clams, mussels and big tube worms — a cornucopia of abyssal life built on microbes that thrived in hot, mineral-rich waters welling up from volcanic cracks, feeding on the chemicals that leached into the seawater and serving as the basis for whole chains of life that got along just fine without sunlight.
In 1984, scientists found that the heat was not necessary. In exploring the depths of the Gulf of Mexico, they discovered sunless habitats powered by a new form of nourishment. The microbes that founded the food chain lived not on hot minerals but on cold petrochemicals seeping up from the icy seabed.
Today, scientists have identified roughly one hundred sites in the gulf where cold-seep communities of clams, mussels and tube worms flourish in the sunless depths. And they have accumulated evidence of many more — hundreds by some estimates, thousands by others — most especially in the gulf’s deep, unexplored waters.
Scientists are concerned about the possible impact of the oil spill on this dark deep sea world. From the same article:
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.
Last year, scientists discovered a community roughly five miles from where the BP well, a mile deep, subsequently blew out. Its inhabitants include mussels and tube worms. So it seems that researchers will have some answers sooner rather than later.
"There’s lots of uncertainty," said Charles R. Fisher, a professor of biology at Pennsylvania State University, who is leading a federal study of the dark habitats and who observed the nearby community. "Our best hope is that the impact is neutral or a minor problem."
The uncertainty of scientists about the possible impact is clear in the closing paragraphs of the article:
In exploring the gulf, Dr. Guinasso said, scientists are struggling to fathom the strengths and vulnerabilities of some of the planet’s oldest and most novel creatures. "People," he said, "are still learning."
We have no idea right now what is happening at the bottom of the sea. I think it's important to get submersibles down there as soon as possible to find out what impact this deep sea gash in the earth is having on these incredible communities.