In the latest issue of Mother Jones, Julia Whitty has a great story on how the BP oil spill is likely to affect the complex ecology of the Gulf for years to come. The piece is too hard to summarize, and is well worth reading in full (she covers possible affects on a wide range of different habitats and species), but this section in particular—on tubeworms of all things—underscored how little we know about what all that dispersed and dissolved oil will do to the region:
Least certain of all is what's happening to the life at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. Take the life that congregates around cold methane seeps, the first of which ever discovered was found in the Gulf in 1984. Since then, 50 more sites have been located in these waters, some close to the Deepwater Horizon, with hundreds more likely out there—all home to otherworldly collections of crustaceans, snails, bacterial filaments, and tubeworms. The rules of life are different in the gassy depths, where life capitalizes on the same fossil fuels we're drilling for. Some cold-seep tubeworms have lifespans of 250 years. Others recently found in the deepest seeps may live to 500 or 600 years.
Though some of these creatures feed on methane, that doesn't mean they can survive the spill. "The quantity of oil and the added effects of dispersants are likely to harm these communities," says Lisa Levin, a biological oceanographer and cold-seeps specialist from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Oil could smother the animals' feeding apparatus or suffocate the bacteria at the base of the food chain, she adds. "The tubeworms and other seep organisms, including perhaps deepwater corals, are so slow-growing that damage will likely be long lasting." Levin envisions a host of long-term chronic problems throughout the deep Gulf that might not even show up for decades.
Now that the well's capped, though, none of these problems are likely to get much press attention in the decades ahead.