For weeks now, boffins examining the BP well-head videos with such techniques as particle image velocimetry have insisted that the rate of flow has been a good deal greater than the official estimates. Now the U.S. Geological Survey has joined them, saying that prior to the latest cap-and-suction manoeuvre the rate was probably in the order of 40,000 barrels (1,680,000 gallons) a day. That is a lot of oil. If this number is correct, then even with the cap in place the leakage is still over 20,000 barrels a day. (There is also a second, smaller leak that may be contributing another 20,000 barrels or so a day.)
I’m generally not given to doomsday-mongering (except when it comes to the downfall and decomposition of Western civilization, of course, which is already well under way) — but we are in, if you will forgive the metaphor, uncharted waters here. The world’s fisheries were already sorely stressed before this agony began, and it is impossible to imagine that bubbling over two million barrels of crude oil up from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico will not have widespread lethal effects far beyond the surface-level fouling we have already seen. That it is bubbling up from the sea-floor, rather than spreading across the surface like most spills, surely makes things far worse; it seems clear that there is already extensive underwater contamination as well.
We simply have never seen anything like this before, and nobody knows how bad it will get. The pocket of oil punctured by the well is so deep, and under such enormous pressure, that it may even turn out to be impossible to stop it with anything short of a nuclear explosion.
It is certainly at least plausible that this disaster might kill so much marine life as to ripple fatally across the food-system of the entire world ocean. If that happens, folks, things are going to get very nasty indeed.