The BP oil spill may be leading to an almost unimaginable disaster–an extinction event that could kill off a large swathe of marine life.

Methane gas can deplete oxygen in the water, leading to the kind of oxygen depletion that can create a fish-killing dead zone. While methane occurs naturally in ocean water, high concentrations of it can encourage the growth of microbes that consume the oxygen needed by marine life.

In, Maggie Fox quotes Oceanographer John Kessler, who spend 10 days near the Gulf researching the oil spill, as saying, “There is an incredible amount of methane in there” and the levels in some areas are “astonishingly high.” In some areas, he and his crew found concentrations a hundred thousand times higher than normal.” As the oil keeps leaking into the Gulf at an estimated rate of 60,000 barrels a day, Kessler asks, “What is it going to look like two months down the road, six months down the road, two years down the road?”

But Gulf oil spills are nothing new: A crater found in the floor of the Gulf of Mexico in 1989 suggests that a large oil spill took place there in 1906–this time due to natural causes.

Today’s spill is probably larger, but judging from the fact that the 1906 explosion left 2 million cubic meters of debris behind, it might have ejected a substantial amount of oil into the Gulf as well. Scientists are now revising their earlier conceptions of the bottom of the ocean as being a calm, quiet place.

The Bnet website reports that, using sonar, researcher David B. Prior found a huge crater in the Gulf. This area is known for its reservoirs of hydrocarbons, so over a hundred years ago, these substances must have built up under the ocean floor to the point that they exploded. They date the crater to 1906 because during that year, sailors in the Gulf reported seeing bubbling water, which may have come from the eruption. If oil gushes into the gulf periodically, why does marine life still exist there at all?

In 1977, oceanographers discovered strange ecosystems filled with clams, mussels and big tube worms. This life was all based on microbes that not only lived, but thrived, on the hot water coming up from volcanic cracks on the ocean floor. And these microbes fed on PETROCHEMICALS that were welling up from cracks in the ocean floor. Scientists think there are at least 100 areas in the gulf where thousands of clams, mussels and tube worms flourish in the Gulf’s deep, unexplored waters.

In the June 22nd edition of the New York Times, William J. Broad quotes oceanographer Ian R. MacDonald as saying, “It wouldn’t surprise me if there were 2,000 communities [of marine life], from suburbs to cities.”

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