More on the Scale of the Gulf Spill

By James Fallows

Several days ago I mentioned Paul Rademacher's very powerful application that lets you envision the size of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill (as of then) by mapping it against any urban area you choose. As a reminder, here is what it would do to the SF Bay area:

Thumbnail image for SFSpill.png

Below and after the jump, two informed reactions suggesting that even this imagery fails to get across the full enormity* of what is happening. [*Pedant alert update: Yes, I am 100% aware that "enormity" does not mean "enormousness." I am using the term deliberately, in the sense of "a monstrous wrong."] First, from a geologist, John Wellik:

I believe that people can attain a greater grasp of the scale of what is unfolding when they can relate it to their own backyard.

That said, I feel that I must point out some of the untold story of what is going on out there. I spent four years as an environmental geologist investigating and characterizing commercial and industrial sites impacted by unauthorized releases of various types of chemical pollutants (generally gasoline/diesel/motor oil spills). What is recognized as the extent of the spill today would be classified as "free phase" product, that which is still very close to its manufactured, or in this instance, natural state. There are several phases that a product like oil can take, as I said above, there is the free phase state, then there is the sorbed phase state where product comes into contact with a medium like soil (as when the spill reaches a beach) and adheres to soil particles and is released slowly through dissolution; there is the vapor phase state as the product comes into contact with a medium such as air and volatilizes; and then there is the dissolved phase state as the product comes into contact with water and a portion of it dissolves and is released into the water column.

The dissolved phase state is the one that will most likely travel the farthest, because in this phase it is incorporated into the water column and will travel almost nearly as fast as the water itself travels, so think about the currents of the Gulf, and where the water is likely to travel to next, as it is likely that the "invisible" dissolved phase has already reached that location along with the water and is impacting the ecosystem.
Also, in this state the chemicals will also be most easily ingested by marine life through normal respiration of water, thereby entering into the food chain to be passed along as each creature consumes the one beneath it in the chain. Think about that for a second, these chemicals will be able to be ingested into marine life by respiration and food consumption, eventually reaching us through the food chain, and correlate that to the known effects of mercury in "top of the food chain" species like tuna.

So while we are all focused on the admittedly horrible and graphic impact of the free phase oil that is prominently displayed on our televisions and the web, the untold story of the dissolved phase is still sitting out there ready to impact our food for years to come.
Another reader writes:
One thing I think needs to be added to it, however, is the concept of volume rather than two-dimensional overlays. Imagine that the spill not only lay on the ground in those locations, but drifted from ground level to 5000 feet in altitude--killing and sickening wildlife wherever the oil was encountered. Then we begin, I think, to grasp some of the horror of what is happening. Most of it is where we can't even see it right now.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2010/05/more-on-the-scale-of-the-gulf-spill/56583/