bp oil spillThe BP (BP) Deepwater Horizon oil spill created a massive 22-mile long plume of oily soup at the bottom of the ocean, scientists said in a report released Thursday.

The 1.2-mile-wide, 650-foot-high plume of trapped oils sitting 3,000 feet below the surface provides some clues to where all the oil has gone as surface slicks shrink and disappear.

"These results indicate that efforts to book-keep where the oil went must now include this plume" in the Gulf, said Christopher Reddy, a Woods Hole Oceanographic oil spill expert and one of the authors of the report, which appears in Thursday's issue of the journal Science.

Meanwhile, in an appearance before Congress today, Bill Lehr, a senior scientist at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said "most of [the oil] is still in the environment." His statements appeared to contradict the government's official report from two weeks ago that he wrote, which suggested that 74% of the oil from the spill had been captured or broken down.

Persistent Plume

Using underwater vehicles, the scientists were able to distinguish the petroleum hydrocarbons in this underwater cloud came from the Apr. 20 oil rig disaster and not from a natural occurrence.

They also found that the ocean's microbes are only slowly eating away at the underwater slick, which is thousands of times more concentrated than other naturally occurring oil leaks on the ocean's floor. This slow pace of degradation makes the plume potentially deadly to marine life.

The monitoring has shown that the oil already "is persisting for longer periods than we would have expected," said Woods Hole scientist Richard Camilli. "Many people speculated that subsurface oil droplets were being easily biodegraded. Well, we didn't find that. We found it was still there."

Stretching for 22 Miles

The scientists found that the plume sits near the blowout, offering conclusive evidence it came from the well, which gushed unabated for 87 days until it was temporarily capped on July 15. The plume moved very slowly from the source of the blowout and now stretches out about 22 miles.

It's not clear why the oil hasn't risen to the surface, scientists said.

Scientist in the study predicted that the plume will last for a year or more, but that's still speculation. Another group of scientists from the University of Georgia is going to take over where Woods Hole left off and continue tracking the slick.

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