NYT: Oil slick on gulf surface disappearing rapidly on its own

ABC actually beat them to the punch on this story, reporting yesterday that clean-up crews are having trouble even finding the spill (“experts say an astonishing amount has disappeared, reabsorbed into the environment”), but only now that the Times is on it will it really break big.

It’s not that the oil’s all gone, of course. But a lot of it is. And the rest is … hiding.

Scientists said the rapid dissipation of the surface oil was probably due to a combination of factors. The gulf has an immense natural capacity to break down oil, which leaks into it at a steady rate from thousands of natural seeps. Though none of the seeps is anywhere near the size of the Deepwater Horizon leak, they do mean that the gulf is swarming with bacteria that can eat oil.

The winds from two storms that blew through the gulf in recent weeks, including a storm over the weekend that disintegrated before making landfall, also appear to have contributed to a rapid dispersion of the oil. Then there was the response mounted by BP and the government, the largest in history, involving more than 4,000 boats attacking the oil with skimming equipment, controlled surface burns and other tactics.

Some of the compounds in the oil evaporate, reducing their impact on the environment. Jeffrey W. Short, a former government scientist who studied oil spills and now works for the environmental advocacy group Oceana, said that as much as 40 percent of the oil in the gulf might have simply evaporated once it reached the surface.

An unknown percentage of the oil would have been eaten by bacteria, essentially rendering the compounds harmless and incorporating them into the food chain. But other components of the oil have most likely turned into floating tar balls that could continue to gum up beaches and marshes, and may represent a continuing threat to some sea life. A three-mile by four-mile band of tar balls was discovered off the Louisiana coast on Tuesday.

Less surface oil means fewer dead animals and, presumably, less of a chance that a hurricane’s going to blow in and paint the coast black. As for the oil below the waves and what it’s doing to marine life, oxygen levels, etc., the feds will have to get back to you on that. So far, so good, though: The Times notes that two early assessments have found relatively low concentrations of toxic compounds in the deep sea.

Exit question: Now that they’re probably going to start scaling back the clean-up, will The One also relent on the drilling moratorium he seems to wants so badly?

Update: Says Karl, “I’d bet that you could search the NYT coverage of the Exxon Valdez and not find a story like that.”