251.4 million years ago, the Permian extinction event destroyed the atmosphere, wiped out almost all life on the planet, and was generally a bad time. This BP oil leak is reminding scientists of the conditions of that event just a bit too much.
There was another mass extinction event 55 million years after that, referred to as the Late Paleocene Thermal Maximum, which lasted 100,000 years and was caused by an exploding methane bubble. Guess where it all went down? The ancient waters around where we now call the Gulf of Mexico.
The science behind the oceanic methane eruptions is theorized by Northwestern University's Gregory Ryskin, who postulates that oceans periodically (like millions of years periodically) produce a methane buildup of world-ending magnitude.
Scientists now worry that much more than oil is leaking out at dangerous levels, including a massive amount of methane, and the BP-imposed blackout that is keeping scientists and reporters away from the leak is only escalating fears.
Texas A&M University's Dr. John Kessler, an oil industry expert, theorizes that the leak at the ruptured well could be 40%, and with the volume that's going into the water, that's a lot of methane. As if that wasn't bad enough, a huge gash has been discovered not 10 miles from the BP leak, which itself could be adding more oil and methane to the mix.
So, what happens? Well, if the methane concentration in the Gulf — which Kessler and his team have said is "one million times the normal level" — erupts, it could create tsunamis, dead zone areas devoid of oxygen, poisonous rainfall and even collapse the sea floor.
No one will probably know for sure just how awful this is until BP gets the leak contained and the site is opened up to scrutiny. Is it as simple as capping the well? The company would like to think so, but not any more — there are even reports that there could be additional damage done by the well below the sea floor.
Scary stuff, to be sure, but here's crossing our fingers nothing happens. (And that Hollywood makes an awesome sci-fi movie out of it.)