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July 28, 2010

Where Has All The Oil Gone?

Perhaps some good news from the Deepwater Horizon spill...the oil seems to have dispersed on the surface faster than people thought it would.

The dissolution of the slick should reduce the risk of oil killing more animals or hitting shorelines. But it does not end the many problems and scientific uncertainties associated with the spill, and federal leaders emphasized this week that they had no intention of walking away from those problems any time soon.

...

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.

One of the things the story speculates on is that since oil has been leaking naturally into the Gulf more or less forever, there's a pre-existing supply of bacteria in the water which feeds on oil and breaks it up naturally.

While this is clearly good news, there are still concerns about the effect of the oil at depth.

It's almost as if the Earth and it's various ecosystems are large and complex things we don't fully understand. One might think that would lead scientists and policy makers to exercise a degree of humility when it comes to sweeping pronouncements and economy killing edicts of various kinds.


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posted by DrewM. at 10:36 AM

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