Towering flames illuminated the pre-dawn darkness, casting shadows on the ship Ocean Intervention III as it floated over the sunken remains of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. The resonant hum of helicopters fused with the roar of fires on either side of the ship, and Chris Reddy could feel the heat on his face.
The night of June 21, 2010, Reddy and colleagues from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution were whisked off their research vessel Endeavor to collect samples directly from the blown Macondo well, which had been spewing oil and natural gas into the Gulf of Mexico for two months. They had 12 hours to do something that had never been done before: Use a robot arm to stick a special bottle directly into the hot hydrocarbons. Now, a year later, their analysis explains just what came out of the well, and sheds more light on what happened to it.
There's been a lot of rather vague back and forth regarding the magnitude of the Gulf oil leak -- it's worse than the Exxon Valdez, but not as bad as 1979's Ixtoc I leak, but worse than the Pittsburgh Pirates, etc. etc. Now researchers have qualified the spill in terms that don't leave a lot of room for semantic quibbling, confirming the existence of huge concentrations of oil spreading for miles beneath the surface of the Gulf – the "plumes" previously denied by BP and federal officials – and calling the disaster unprecedented in "human history." Moreover, for the first time federal officials are backing up that assertion.