Oil Spill Update – What I don’t know..

It is worse, much worse than I had imagined and there is no end in sight.

National Public Radio in the United States last night reported that the well is spewing up to 70,000 barrels of oil a day – the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez disaster every four days. Nearly 11 million barrels gallons of oil were spilled in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989 when the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground, oiling beaches and poisoning marine life for generations. NPR said scientific analysis of newly released video footage from the ocean floor suggested the gusher was 12 times more powerful than estimates offered so far by the Coast Guard or BP. (read more)

The environmental impact of any oil spill is much more complicated than it appears on the surface, but the fact that this is a deep sea leak seem to make it even more complex. I definitely do not know what will come from it, I just expect the worst. But when I try to find information that sheds some light on the real environmental impact, I find: Next to nothing. The only answer I get is: Noone else knows much either.

I tried to find out what would happen with the oil at deep sea level. Reports are saying plumes of the oil were hovering at deeper sea levels. And noone seems to know what it means.

“It doesn’t float right up on top as you would think,” Raymond Highsmith of the National Institute for Undersea Science and Technology tells AOL News. “Some of it floats right under the surface, and some of it now looks like it’s quite a ways down.”(read more)

So I tried looking for vertical exchange of deep sea water with surface waters and how long it takes until the oil still caught below will show up at the surface. And what would happen with all the particles made out of crude oil and that poisonous stuff they are spreading to dissolve the slick? I found this, but it definitely needs some serious dumbing down for me. What it seems to say is, particles from deep sea waters need ages to make it into the surface waters, nothing much happens in the deep sea environment:

The model was seeded below 2000 m with 19,105 inert particles that drift freely within the model domain in response to the velocity field. By tracking individual particles, it can be seen that the upward motion of particles from below 2000 m to above 1000 m occurs almost exclusively in the ring separation region in the eastern GOM. Individual particles are observed
to spiral upward with each separation of a new ring from the LC. An anticyclone-cyclone eddy pair develops in the deep eastern basin each time the LC reaches its northernmost extent and sheds a ring. The tracer particles are advected away from the Campeche Bank into the deep water of the eastern basin by the northward currents on the western side of the leading
anticyclone. A southward current associated with the western side of the trailing cyclonic eddy moves the particles back toward the Campeche Bank. The particles remain at nearly the same depth as they are advected away from the slope, but they move slightly upward in the water column as they are pushed back toward the slope. With each separation of a LC ring, the
particles experience a net upward motion.

What is does not say is, that particles never make it to the surface. Meaning, generations to come will have to do with what is currently issued into the gulf from this spill.

What I could not find either is: How will the ever present hurricanes (hurricane season starts in two weeks) in the gulf add to spreading the oil and the chemicals that are used to dissolve the spill. And mostly how deep, vertically, is the water affected by a major hurricane? Will the next big storm release another huge oil spill from the hovering plumes of oil?

What I don’t know is: How are temperatures and pressure affecting the chemical interaction between the oil and the chemicals that are used at deep sea levels to dissolve the spill. From my school years I remember that low temperatures are counteracting most chemical reactions like the ones desired here. High pressure may have a contrary effect.

There are microorganisms which are digesting naturally occuring oil seeps at deep sea level. They take how long? 50’000 years? I don’t know. Nature takes all the time she needs.

And, of course, I do not know: How long will it take for the oilfield to shed it’s entire lode into the gulf ? Because I don’t see any other end to it than that.

So, if I don’t know all this, this is hardly surprising. That BP didn’t know more is at least not surprising to me, they knew better than to ask. That drilling for oil in this environment is even allowed, judge for yourselves.

We don’t know a tiny fraction of what’s in store for the gulf and us from this but I do not expect anything less than the biggest man made environmental desaster next to Chernobyl.

You can find a series of heartbreaking and fascinating pictures of the oil spill here at the Boston Globe. And The Oildrum will be keeping you up to speed on all related developments. Yet more can be found at The NYT, The Examiner, Der Spiegel and if you can stomach it BP