Oil Spill: Here’s the Inside Scoop

The Gulf oil spill is much worse than originally believed.

As the Christian Science Monitor writes:

It’s now likely that the actual amount of the oil spill dwarfs the Coast Guard’s figure of 5,000 barrels, or 210,000 gallons, a day.
Independent scientists estimate that the renegade wellhead at the bottom of the Gulf could be spewing up to 25,000 barrels a day. If chokeholds on the riser pipe break down further, up to 50,000 barrels a day could be released, according to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration memo obtained by the Mobile, Ala., Press-Register.

CNN quotes the lead government official responding to the spill – the commandant of the Coast Guard, Admiral Thad Allen – as stating:

If we lost a total well head, it could be 100,000 barrels or more a day.

Indeed, an environmental document filed by the company running the oil drilling rig – BP – estimates the maximum as 162,000 barrels a day:

In an exploration plan and environmental impact analysis filed with the federal government in February 2009, BP said it had the capability to handle a “worst-case scenario” at the Deepwater Horizon site, which the document described as a leak of 162,000 barrels per day from an uncontrolled blowout — 6.8 million gallons each day.

Best-Case Scenario
BP is trying to perform a difficult task of capping the leak by using robotic submarines to trigger a "blowout preventer" 5,000 feet below the surface of the ocean. Here’s a photo of the robot trying to activate the switch on April 22nd:

If successful, the leak could be stopped any day. Everyone is rooting for the engineers, so that they may successfully cap the leak.
Already, however, the spill is worse than the Exxon Valdez, and will cause enormous and very costly destruction to the shrimping, fishing and tourism industries along the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Florida. It will be years before good estimates on the number of dead fish, turtles, birds and other animals can be made.
The Backup Plan
If the blowout preventer can’t be triggered, the backup plan is to drill another well to relieve pressure from the leaking well.
Here’s a drawing prepared by BP showing the plan (the drilling rig on the left will take months to drill down and relieve pressure from the leaking rig):

Here’s a graphic from the Times-Picayune showing the same thing (and accurately showing that there are currently 3 leaking oil plumes):

BP will also attempt to drop concrete and metal "cages" over the leak sites, to try to buy time by collecting oil in the cages, and then draining oil away in a safer manner. As AP writes:

BP PLC was preparing a system never tried before at such depths to siphon away the geyser of crude from a blown-out well a mile under Gulf of Mexico waters. However, the plan to lower 74-ton, concrete-and-metal boxes being built to capture the oil and siphon it to a barge waiting at the surface will need at least another six to eight days to get it in place.

In addition, BP is using chemical disperents to try to break up the oil plumes as they arise (the dispersants are highly toxic).

Worst-Case Scenario

As the Associated Press notes:

Experts warned that an uncontrolled gusher could create a nightmare scenario if the Gulf Stream carries it toward the Atlantic.

This would, in fact, be very bad, as it would carry oil far up the Eastern seaboard.
Specifically, as the red arrows at the left of the following drawing show, the Gulf Stream runs from Florida up the Eastern Coast of the United States:

[Click here for full image.]
How could the oil get all the way from Louisiana to Florida, where the Gulf Stream flows?
As Discovery explains:

Many ocean scientists are now raising concerns that a powerful current could spread the still-bubbling slick from the Florida Keys all the way to Cape Hatteras off North Carolina.

These oceanographers are carefully watching the Gulf Loop Current, a clockwise swirl of warm water that sets up in the Gulf of Mexico each spring and summer. If the spill meets the loop — the disaster becomes a runaway.

"It could make it from Louisiana all the way to Miami in a week, maybe less." said Eric Chassignet, director of the Center for Ocean Atmospheric Prediction Studies at Florida State University. "It is pretty fast."

Right now, some computer models show the spill 30 to 50 miles north of the loop current. If the onshore winds turn around and push the oil further south: "That would be a nightmare," said Yonggang Liu, research associate at the University of South Florida who models the current. "Hopefully we are lucky, but who knows. The winds are changing and difficult to predict."

Imagine the loop current as an ocean-going highway, transporting tiny plankton, fish and other marine life along a watery conveyor belt. Sometimes it even picks up a slug of freshwater from the Mississippi River — sending it on a wandering journey up to North Carolina.

The Gulf Loop Current acts like a jet of warm water that squirts in from the Caribbean basin and sloshes around the Gulf of Mexico before being squeezed out the Florida Strait, where it joins the larger and more powerful Gulf Stream current.

***

Oceanographer George Maul worries that the current could push the oil slick right through the Florida Keys and its 6,000 coral reefs.

"I looked at some recent satellite imagery and it looks like some of the oil may be shifted to the south," said Maul, a professor at Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, Fla. "If it gets entrained in the loop, it could spread throughout much of the Atlantic."

In fact, new animation from a consortium of Florida institutions and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, predicts a slight southward shift in the oil over the next few days.

A graphic from the Discovery article shows what the Gulf loop current looks like:

loop current
The Gulf Loop Current enters from the Caribbean basin,
moves around the Gulf of Mexico and
exits out the Florida Strait, where it joins
the more powerful Gulf Stream current.
Naval Oceanographic Office

According to ROFFS, the oil spill is getting close to the loop current:

In a worst-case scenario – if the oil leak continued for a very long period of time – the oil could conceivably be carried from the Gulf Stream into world-wide ocean currents (see drawing above).
I do not believe this will happen. Even with the staggering quantity of oil being released, I don’t think it’s enough to make its way into other ocean currents. I think that either engineers will figure out how to cap the leak, or the oil deposits will simply run out. It might get into the Gulf loop current, and some might get into the Gulf Stream. But I don’t believe the apocalyptic scenarios where oil is carried world-wide by teh Gulf Stream or other ocean currents.

Changing the Climate

There is an even more dramatic – but even less likely – scenario.

Specifically, global warming activists have warned for years that warming could cause the "great conveyor belt" of warm ocean water to shut down. They say that such a shut down could – in turn – cause the climate to abruptly change, and a new ice age to begin. (This essay neither tries to endorse or refute global warming or global cooling in general: I am focusing solely on the oil spill.)

The drawing above shows the worldwide "great conveyer belt" of ocean currents, which are largely driven by the interaction of normal ocean water with colder andsaltier ocean currents.

Conceivably – if the oil spill continued for years – the greater thickness or "viscosity" of the oil in comparison to ocean water, or the different ability of oil and seawater to hold warmth (called "specific heat"), could interfere with the normal temperature and salinity processes which drive the ocean currents, and thus shut down the ocean currents and change the world’s climate.

However, while this is an interesting theory (and could make for a good novel or movie), it simply will not happen.

Why not?

Because there simply is not enough oil in the leaking oil pocket to interfere with global ocean currents. And even if this turns out to be a much bigger oil pocket than geologists predict, some smart engineer will figure out how to cap the leak well before any doomsday scenario could possibly happen.

 

 

 

Hurricane vs. Oil SlickWhat would happen if a tropical storm hit the oil floating in the Gulf?

By Chris MooneyPosted Friday, May 21, 2010, at 5:24 PM ET

Gulf oil spill. Click image to expand.

Gulf oil spill BP claims to be capturing 5,000 barrels of oil a day from the leaking well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, but more continues to gush into the water. Meanwhile, the annual hurricane season begins on June 1, and some scientists are predicting an above-average year with 15 named storms and eight hurricanes (PDF). It sounds like a deadly combination—but what would actually happen if a storm like Katrina tracked across the spill in the Gulf?

It could make things even worse. At least one forecast team puts the chance of a strong hurricane hammering some part of the Gulf Coast this year at 44 percent, and any such storm would threaten to disrupt ongoing containment or environmental protection measures. In an absolute worst-case scenario, powerful hurricane winds might drive the oil slick towards land and push some of it ashore with the ensuing storm surge.

Much depends on the angle at which the storm crosses the slick. In the Northern Hemisphere, hurricanes rotate counterclockwise, with the largeststorm surge occurring where the winds blow in the direction the storm as a whole is traveling—that’s in front of the eye and off to the right. (Meteorologists worry over a hurricane’s dangerous "right-front quadrant.") So if a powerful storm approached the slick from the southwest, say, its most potent winds would push the oil forward, instead of sweeping it off to the side and out of the storm’s path. If the storm then plowed into the Gulf Coast, you’d expect an oily landfall.

The strength, movement, and size of the storm would also make a difference. Fortunately, the height of the Atlantic hurricane season, featuring the strongest storms, doesn’t arrive until August. We might reasonably hope to have cleaned up the oil by that point.

So the storm could move the slick. Could the slick affect the storm? Hurricanes draw their energy from the evaporation of warm seawater—that’s why they occur over the summer and into the fall. Given that fact, you might think that oil on the surface of the ocean would interfere with a hurricane’s access to its power source. Indeed, some have proposed to combat hurricanes by coating the ocean surface with an oily substance (not crude oil, of course) in order to reduce evaporation and quench a storm’s strength.

Alas, this scheme probably wouldn’t work, nor should we expect the oil spill to slow down any hurricanes very much this season. The first problem is that most hurricanes span an enormous area of the ocean. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the typical storm is 300 miles wide, dwarfing even this large spill. Even if a hurricane passed directly over the slick, the oil would cover just a fraction of the relevant sea surface.

What’s more, by the time winds reach hurricane force (greater than 74 mph), they cause so much ocean mixing that any oil slick on the surface would be driven down into the depths and generally broken up. MIT hurricane expert Kerry Emanuel has tested the phenomenon on a small scale using an enclosed tank, half filled with water, with an air rotor at the top capable of generating hurricane force winds. When the rotor turned at high speeds, the surface of the water was torn apart, and the scientists observed no difference in the amount of evaporation that occurred with or without an oily surface film.

It’s even possible that an oil slick could make a powerful hurricane a little stronger. Oil is darker than water, and so it absorbs more sunlight while also blocking evaporation from the sea surface. That means the spill could be trapping heat in one part of the ocean. If a storm passed over and churned up the surface of the water, that potential hurricane energy might then be released.

There is a small silver lining here: A hurricane of sufficient force might cause enough ocean mixing to help disperse and "weather" the oil slick, which could in turn speed up the process of biodegradation.

 

 

 

Hurricane plus oil equals more problems

By Lauren Russell, CNN

May 27, 2010 9:36 p.m. EDT

Hurricane Katrina cut a swath of destruction in 2005. Hurricane season adds another wrinkle to the massive Gulf oil spill.

Hurricane Katrina cut a swath of destruction in 2005. Hurricane season adds another wrinkle to the massive Gulf oil spill.

STORY HIGHLIGHTS

  • Hurricanes would pile on to problems of oil spill, Haiti quake survivors
  • Storm surge could force oil from shore miles inland, forecaster says
  • It’s hard to predict how oil slick would affect a hurricane, experts say
  • Oil could slow the storm’s growth, or make it stronger

(CNN) — A predicted busy hurricane season this summer is on a collision course with an unprecedented oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and the results are anyone’s guess, weather experts say.

"The problem is that this is a man-made experiment we wish we hadn’t made," said Jenni Evans, a professor of meteorology at Penn State University.

Scientists on Thursday said as much as 19,000 barrels of oil have been spewing every day from the BP well in the Gulf, making it the largest oil spill in U.S. history. Most of the oily water lies off the coast of Louisiana, where marshes and wildlife have been coated and the state’s fishing and tourism industries have taken direct hits.

Not only is it hard to track how contaminants would be redistributed by a hurricane, but it’s also hard to predict how the slick would affect the storm, NOAA Public Affairs Officer Dennis Feltgen and Evans agreed.

Evans said the storm could either move the oil along the water’s surface or it could mix the oil with the water and cause it to sink. If the oil moved horizontally, the shoreline would be polluted, she said. If it moved vertically, the marine life under the surface would suffer.

The oil could slow the storm’s growth, Feltgen said. Evaporated ocean water fuels hurricanes, and the oil forming a film across the Gulf could buffer the water from the air, preventing the ocean water from feeding the hurricane, he said.

But other scientists say the storms could be stronger than usual because the black oil would heat the water faster and accelerate formation of hurricanes, which rely on warm waters for their development, Evans said.

CNN meteorologist Chad Meyers said there was another threat from the volatile mix of hurricanes and oil: storm surge.

"All the winds would be coming here," he said, indicating the coast on a map, "and there would be storm surge here. All the winds would be going this way, and there would be scouring and cleaning of the beaches on this side. But the storm surge that could make its way up and bring the oil miles inland could be completely contaminating the oil inland."

Oil in the Gulf coast isn’t the only worry for hurricane forecasters this year: In earthquake-devastated Haiti, roughly 1.5 million displaced people are at risk. They are living under tarps and in tents in makeshift camps.

In Haiti, aid agencies relocated about 20,000 people who were vulnerable to flooding and mudslides when the rainy season began. But it is impossible to hurricane-proof the congested tent cities that many are calling home right now, said Heather Paul, CEO of the aid program SOS Children’s Villages.

Paul’s program is working to provide permanent, stable homes to orphans in the form of polypropylene shelters. While her program’s anchored shelters have the greatest potential to withstand strong winds, the outlook appears grim for many Port-Au-Prince residents.

"It’s only short of a miracle to prepare these people for hurricane season," she said.

 

 

 

Hurricane vs. Oil SlickWhat would happen if a tropical storm hit the oil floating in the Gulf?

By Chris MooneyPosted Friday, May 21, 2010, at 5:24 PM ET

Gulf oil spill. Click image to expand.

Gulf oil spillBP claims to be capturing 5,000 barrels of oil a day from the leaking well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, but more continues to gush into the water. Meanwhile, the annual hurricane season begins on June 1, and some scientists are predicting an above-average year with 15 named storms and eight hurricanes (PDF). It sounds like a deadly combination—but what would actually happen if a storm like Katrina tracked across the spill in the Gulf?

It could make things even worse. At least one forecast team puts the chance of a strong hurricane hammering some part of the Gulf Coast this year at 44 percent, and any such storm would threaten to disrupt ongoing containment or environmental protection measures. In an absolute worst-case scenario, powerful hurricane winds might drive the oil slick towards land and push some of it ashore with the ensuing storm surge.

Much depends on the angle at which the storm crosses the slick. In the Northern Hemisphere, hurricanes rotate counterclockwise, with the largeststorm surge occurring where the winds blow in the direction the storm as a whole is traveling—that’s in front of the eye and off to the right. (Meteorologists worry over a hurricane’s dangerous "right-front quadrant.") So if a powerful storm approached the slick from the southwest, say, its most potent winds would push the oil forward, instead of sweeping it off to the side and out of the storm’s path. If the storm then plowed into the Gulf Coast, you’d expect an oily landfall.

The strength, movement, and size of the storm would also make a difference. Fortunately, the height of the Atlantic hurricane season, featuring the strongest storms, doesn’t arrive until August. We might reasonably hope to have cleaned up the oil by that point.

So the storm could move the slick. Could the slick affect the storm? Hurricanes draw their energy from the evaporation of warm seawater—that’s why they occur over the summer and into the fall. Given that fact, you might think that oil on the surface of the ocean would interfere with a hurricane’s access to its power source. Indeed, some have proposed to combat hurricanes by coating the ocean surface with an oily substance (not crude oil, of course) in order to reduce evaporation and quench a storm’s strength.

Alas, this scheme probably wouldn’t work, nor should we expect the oil spill to slow down any hurricanes very much this season. The first problem is that most hurricanes span an enormous area of the ocean. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the typical storm is 300 miles wide, dwarfing even this large spill. Even if a hurricane passed directly over the slick, the oil would cover just a fraction of the relevant sea surface.

What’s more, by the time winds reach hurricane force (greater than 74 mph), they cause so much ocean mixing that any oil slick on the surface would be driven down into the depths and generally broken up. MIT hurricane expert Kerry Emanuel has tested the phenomenon on a small scale using an enclosed tank, half filled with water, with an air rotor at the top capable of generating hurricane force winds. When the rotor turned at high speeds, the surface of the water was torn apart, and the scientists observed no difference in the amount of evaporation that occurred with or without an oily surface film.

It’s even possible that an oil slick could make a powerful hurricane a little stronger. Oil is darker than water, and so it absorbs more sunlight while also blocking evaporation from the sea surface. That means the spill could be trapping heat in one part of the ocean. If a storm passed over and churned up the surface of the water, that potential hurricane energy might then be released.

There is a small silver lining here: A hurricane of sufficient force might cause enough ocean mixing to help disperse and "weather" the oil slick, which could in turn speed up the process of biodegradation.

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