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Methane's hidden impact in Gulf oil spill

Large quantities of methane released by BP's oil blowout aren't fouling beaches like the Gulf oil spill is, but could endanger a key link in the undersea food chain.

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Oil escaping from the remains of the Deepwater Horizon oil well, shown in this image from Tuesday, has taken center stage. But methane being released by the well presents another set of challenges.

BP/AP

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The BP oil blowout, now into its 11th week, is releasing large quantities of methane into the ocean, most of which is remaining dissolved in the waters deep beneath the surface.

The gas represents an under-appreciated pollutant in a drill-rig disaster that has pumped as much as 60,000 barrels (2.5 million gallons) of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico, researchers say.

Unlike the oil, the methane isn't coating birds or fouling beaches and wetlands. But it has the potential to wreak havoc on important links in the undersea food chain, researchers say.

By volume, some 40 percent of the hydrocarbons in the reservoir the Deepwater Horizon tapped is gas, of which 95 percent is methane, notes Samantha Joye, a marine scientist at the University of Georgia who has been gathering data at sea on the methane plumes.

By weight, she and her colleagues estimate, for every ton of oil spewing from the broken riser pipe, a half a ton of gas is blasting upward as well. "That's a tremendous amount of gas coming into the water column," she says.

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