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Giant Plumes of Oil Forming Below the Gulf's Surface 483

Posted by Soulskill
from the we-are-bad-at-this dept.
An anonymous reader sends in a NY Times article about the spread of oil from the BP gusher in the Gulf of Mexico. Quoting: "Scientists are finding enormous oil plumes in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, including one as large as 10 miles long, 3 miles wide, and 300 feet thick in spots. The discovery is fresh evidence that the leak from the broken undersea well could be substantially worse than estimates that the government and BP have given. ... The plumes are depleting the oxygen dissolved in the gulf, worrying scientists, who fear that the oxygen level could eventually fall so low as to kill off much of the sea life near the plumes. Dr. Joye said the oxygen had already dropped 30 percent near some of the plumes in the month that the broken oil well had been flowing. ... [Scientists on the Pelican mission] suspect the heavy use of chemical dispersants, which BP has injected into the stream of oil emerging from the well, may have broken the oil up into droplets too small to rise rapidly. ... Dr. Joye said the findings about declining oxygen levels were especially worrisome, since oxygen is so slow to move from the surface of the ocean to the bottom. She suspects that oil-eating bacteria are consuming the oxygen at a feverish clip as they work to break down the plumes."
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Giant Plumes of Oil Forming Below the Gulf's Surface

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  • by Joe The Dragon (967727) on Sunday May 16, 2010 @01:41PM (#32228504)

    We should call BP big polluter now!

    • by $RANDOMLUSER (804576) on Sunday May 16, 2010 @02:27PM (#32228868)
      In other news, the chairman of Goldman Sachs sent the chairman of BP a nice thank-you-note.
  • by MyLongNickName (822545) on Sunday May 16, 2010 @01:47PM (#32228550) Journal

    I've been reading a little about oil dispersants. I understand that basically they help to break down oil so that microorganisms can do their thing and use the oil as food. Maybe an oversimplification, but that is what I got out of it.

    So now if you use oil dispersants, do you end up exacerbating the oxygen problem? If the microorganisms go nuts on the food supply, does this kill off even more of the ecosystem?

    • by Mindcontrolled (1388007) on Sunday May 16, 2010 @01:56PM (#32228640)

      I don't know the exact composition of the dispersants. But in all likelihood, they are just tensids - they do not "break down" the oil, they just help with forming an emulsion of tiny droplets rather than an oil slick on the surface. Out of sight, out of mind...

      If that is indeed the main mechanism, I fail to see how they would help with bacterial breakdown of the oil. Sure, the emulsion presents a larger surface, but that surface is not actually oil, but a monolayer of the dispersant molecules encapsulating the oil droplets. If the bacterial breakdown still works, the consequences depend on the nature of the bacteria at question. If they are aerobic, i.e. oxygen breathing, your scenario might actually be a problem - eutrophy, oxygen depletion, formation of death zones. The gulf has enough of those already anyway fed by the runoff of the Mississippi.

      • by roman_mir (125474) on Sunday May 16, 2010 @02:30PM (#32228902) Homepage Journal

        What you are saying is correct, it is truly an 'out of sight out of mind' situation with dispersant solution being used at that depth and at that volume of flow, the BP should NOT have used it but let the oil come up instead where it could have been collected easier (there are machines that can collect it, like this one [wikipedia.org], but for BP at least it is all about making it look better, well, less worse than it really is.

        If people are mad right now, thinking it is 5000 barrels a day, wait until the truth actually comes out. That's why BP was spewing pure nonsense that it is not important to know the actual volume of the flow and did not allow the scientists with measuring equipment to approach the area.

        • by Mindcontrolled (1388007) on Sunday May 16, 2010 @02:46PM (#32229032)
          The guys over at The Oil Drum forums have done some back-of-the-envelope calculations based on a frame-by-frame analysis of the videos that have been released, basically trying to judge the outflow velocity of the oil from the leak. Most of them end up in the 20k-30k barrel per day range. For some reason, I trust them more than the official figures. Most of the more vocal posters there are petro engineers themselves and know what they are talking about.

          On a related note, why exactly does BP have a say in who gets to do what at the spill site? Why do we let them control this?

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Trepidity (597)

          I don't think it's purely to make it look better. Dispersants are usually used in large spills, on the theory that a lot of the damage we most want to avoid (and that costs most to clean up) is large oil slicks washing up on shores, and dispersing the oil is one way of preventing that.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        The other cool feature of the dispersants is that they are, themselves, strongly suspected of being quite toxic to certain oceanic species. Like, say, soft corals, of which there is a rather large collection in the vicinity.

        They are quite good for keeping the oil where it won't show up on satellite/aircraft photos, and possibly off the beaches where the press would otherwise have a field day taking pictures of oil-soaked baby animals; but they aren't something you do because you care about the marine eco
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by nedlohs (1335013)

        microbes also eat the dispersant chemicals. And yes the massive increase in accessible oil causes the ones that eat oil to go nuts and use up all the oxygen.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by TubeSteak (669689)

      So now if you use oil dispersants, do you end up exacerbating the oxygen problem? If the microorganisms go nuts on the food supply, does this kill off even more of the ecosystem?

      It's like an algae bloom, but with oil-eating bacteria.
      Might as well nuke the gulf, because a mid-ocean bloom is the organic equivalent.

      I think the problem is not so much that they used oil dispersants, but that they'd never really injected it 5,000 feet down and consequently didn't know what the oil would do.
      In any future deepwater disaster, I imagine they won't be injected oil dispersants right next to the well head.

    • by the eric conspiracy (20178) on Sunday May 16, 2010 @02:10PM (#32228736)

      The wee beasties consume oxygen while metabolizing the oil. It's called respiration.

      These "giant plumes" are total hyperbole. A few miles is NOTHING in the context of a body of water the size of the Gulf of Mexico.

      Of course the press doesn't sell advertising by putting things into perspective, so we see this sort of nonsense. Which would you rather have? Biodegradation of the oil, or the oil lying around as a permanently available toxin?

         

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Bing Tsher E (943915)

        Millions of gallons of oil leach into the Gulf every year through natural processes. There is a whole ecology of critters and flora down there that thrive on a certain amount of oil, which is a natural part of the ecosystem. This doesn't absolve BP at all for the huge volume of the leak they have created, but it also seldom gets mentioned by the 'any amount of oil is bad bad bad' crowd who seek to capitalize on the crisis. 'Never Let A Crisis Go To Waste' [youtube.com] after all.

        • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday May 16, 2010 @04:26PM (#32229708)

          What you fail to take into account is that natural seepage and massive release are on such opposite sides of the spectrum that "it happens naturally" is not going to make anyone but yourself feel better about this spill.

          Happens naturally: a woman's period.
          Massive release: getting shot.

          Get the point now?

        • by Vellmont (569020) on Sunday May 16, 2010 @05:32PM (#32230230)


          Millions of gallons of oil leach into the Gulf every year through natural processes.

          Really? Does that happen all in one spot, just off the coast of Louisiana over a short period of time, or is it spread out over the entire Gulf of Mexico over an entire year?


          but it also seldom gets mentioned by the 'any amount of oil is bad bad bad' crowd who seek to capitalize on the crisis.

          Maybe it doesn't get mentioned because it's a really terrible comparison to what's actually happening? I'm really getting tired of this continuing trend among some people to merely assume everyone is as bad as everyone else, as if everyone in the world has some seedy angle. Child labor laws? That's just a product of people who want to "capitalize" on a less available labor such as Unions and the like. Public libraries? Pushed through by "big learning" and educational institutions so they can get people hooked on learning, and then will need higher education.

          Not everything is a special interest. I object on a very basic level to your attempt to imagine some group of people and try to paint them as into a tiny, somehow relevant opinion. Who is this "any amount of oil is bad" crowd, and when did that one point become the over-riding opinion they hold? If they do indeed exist, do they really have any more relevance than the crazy guy down the street who worries about the government mind control rays?

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by budgenator (254554)

      Since the microorganisms use up oxygen to digest the oil the answer is yes and yes.

  • Some Good News (Score:5, Informative)

    by value_added (719364) on Sunday May 16, 2010 @01:49PM (#32228570)

    As reported by the WSJ [wsj.com]

    BP PLC successfully inserted a tube into the broken pipe leaking oil into the Gulf of Mexico early Sunday, a person close to the containment operation said, increasing the chances that the company will be able to siphon off much of the oil now gushing into the sea. ...

    It's still unclear whether the new siphoning operation will work. Even in the best-case scenario, the tube won't capture all the leaking oil.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Bueller_007 (535588)

      Oh, thank goodness. They found a method of containing the leak that actually allows them to continue collecting the oil.

      I was very worried that all the precious oil might just go to waste.

  • by fahrbot-bot (874524) on Sunday May 16, 2010 @01:53PM (#32228608)
    From TFA:

    Scientists studying video of the gushing oil well have tentatively calculated that it could be flowing at a rate of 25,000 to 80,000 barrels of oil a day. The latter figure would be 3.4 million gallons a day. But the government, working from satellite images of the ocean surface, has calculated a flow rate of only 5,000 barrels a day.

    The government has "top men" working on this. Who? "Top men" [wikipedia.org].
    Besides, it's silly to think there could be oil elsewhere than the surface.

    BP has resisted entreaties from scientists that they be allowed to use sophisticated instruments at the ocean floor that would give a far more accurate picture of how much oil is really gushing from the well.

    "The answer is no to that," a BP spokesman, Tom Mueller, said on Saturday. "We're not going to take any extra efforts now to calculate flow there at this point. It's not relevant to the response effort, and it might even detract from the response effort."

    Yes, there's no value (to us) in trying to determine exactly how badly we've screwed things... It's not like a better estimate would be useful in calculating a level of effort for the cleanup, possibly quantity of cleanup materials, or potential ocean chemistry changes.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      Well I can tell you one thing - the oil flow rate is no where NEAR 80,000 bbl per day. Only 3% of the oil FIELDS in the world produce more than 100,000 bbl per day, and these fields have dozens to hundreds of wells. The average well in Saudi Arabia, with it's immense deposits of light oil produces 5,000 bbl per day. A new field with a productive capacity of 100,000 bbl per day would be very unusual, and this is only ONE well.

      The estimate of 5,000 bbl per day actually sounds high to me. This well is a mile d

      • by Gorobei (127755) on Sunday May 16, 2010 @02:45PM (#32229024)

        Hmm, given that

        1. BP used an inapplicable methodology for initial flow rate estimates
        2. BP is injecting tons of dispersants at depth (so the oil will not reach the surface for years)
        3. BP denied access to scientists wanting to do flow measurements,

        I'm guessing BP knows they are closer to 50Kbbl/day than 5Kbbl/day.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by sznupi (719324)

          I wonder what the end effects of such quantites & potential creation of much more vast (than they already are) "death zones" might be; after all, the prevalence of (particular type) of life tends to influence a lot of things...

          And for starters, this is an area where hurricanes get their last injection of energy. Or where Gulfstream largely originates.

          Hopefully bacteria won't reminds us just yet who is the real ruler of this planet.

      • by NixieBunny (859050) on Sunday May 16, 2010 @03:47PM (#32229450) Homepage

        That video of the leaking pipe shows stuff coming out of it at a rate of about two pipe diameters per second, if you just watch how fast the moving stuff moves. Some simple math puts that flow rate, for the 20 inch diameter pipe that it's said to be, at 80,000 bbl/day.

        The math: the pipe area is ~2 sq ft, the flow rate is ~3 ft/second, the volume per second is 6 cu ft, which is about 45 gallons or one barrel per second. That's ~80k bbl/day.

        If my math is wrong, please show me how it's wrong. It's the same math that the univ professors are using.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by imbaczek (690596)
          it's not all oil, it's also water and natural gas.
        • You can't assume that the column of oil is made of 100% oil. The oil might be dispersing into the water immediately upon exiting the pipe, making the column a mixture of oil and water.

          Think of faucet in your kitchen or bath. Many have aerators on the nozzle that serve to mix the water with air. These aerators increase the size of the column of water, making it appear that a larger volume of water is coming out of the faucet.

        • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday May 16, 2010 @05:06PM (#32230030)

          I work as a Petroleum Engineer. The thing about flow in oil and gas wells is that the natural gas has a density that varies with pressure. When the pressure decreases as the fluid flows up the pipe, it increases in velocity and the volume that the gas takes up increases. When the fluid exits the pipe there is going to be a large pressure drop and will give the appearance of a much larger flow rate with small droplets of oil. The flow of hte fluid out of the pipe in the video is not one continuous phase of oil. Gas to Oil ratios in producing wells commonly range from 500 scf/ BOPD through 50,000 scf / BOPD.

    • by Peach Rings (1782482) on Sunday May 16, 2010 @02:15PM (#32228780) Homepage

      I can't understand why:

      • BP still has the authority to say "no you can't study the ocean floor." BP is the worst possible entity to be in charge of cleanup since there's no conceivable reason to expect them to be honest about the extent of the damage. This is an emergency, the military should be all over it. How can a corporation say that anyway, like they own the ocean floor? They operate at the will of the government, who grants them access to public resources like the seafloor...
      • Anyone even bothers asking BP for comment. The article presents them as an authoritative source on the matter. You might as well cover a criminal trial by asking the defendant about details of the crime.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward

        "BP still has the authority to say "no you can't study the ocean floor.""

        Because if you've got half a dozen ROVs [wikipedia.org], each with their own umbilical cable down there trying to fix the problem, the last thing you want is scientists or fishermen trolling across the area as if there was no issue with them deploying their gear too. It's probably challenging enough to keep half a dozen surface ships/rigs on-site and a bunch of ROVs from bumping or tangling with each other.

        For as long as BP is in charge of the cleanu

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by michael_cain (66650)

          It's probably challenging enough to keep half a dozen surface ships/rigs on-site and a bunch of ROVs from bumping or tangling with each other.

          Indeed. According to reports, the first insertion of the siphon pipe was successful, but the siphon was subsequently knocked loose when two of the ROVs collided with each other, then with the siphon.

  • Call my a cynic... (Score:3, Informative)

    by Joce640k (829181) on Sunday May 16, 2010 @02:01PM (#32228678) Homepage

    }"substantially worse than estimates that the government and BP have given"

    Was there ever any doubt that it would be worse...?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday May 16, 2010 @02:05PM (#32228708)

    The free market will fix this. People will stop putting BP gas in their car and BP will go out of business. Leading others to clean up the spill, garner goodwill with the public, and have consumers put that company's gas in their car.

    Right?

    Right?....

  • Big Plug (Score:3, Interesting)

    by diakka (2281) on Sunday May 16, 2010 @02:47PM (#32229036)

    So maybe this is a stupid question, but why can't they just design a big plug and stick it in the pipe? Would that cause the pipe to rupture or something? Or try to reroute the oil by attaching a big to the pipe that's spewing oil?

  • by jeko (179919) on Sunday May 16, 2010 @10:07PM (#32232198)

    The dispersant Corexit is itself toxic [nytimes.com], which means BP is adding more poison to hide the first.

    The one great advantage of Corexit, however, is that it makes the oil sink below view [salon.com], so BP is literally hoping, like a naughty toddler, that out of sight means out of mind. A few weeks from now, when dead fish begin piling up on the shore and people ask "What's up with all the stinking fish?" you can depend on Pat Robertson to blame the homosexuals, Sarah Palin to blame the liberals and Fox news to report on the new terrorist attack on the Gulf.

    And we'll believe it.

    But, Dear God, I hope not. As much as I hate to say it, I think the previous vicious AC poster is right -- killing the Gulf of Mexico might be the only thing that gets our attention and forces us to make better choices.

  • Hmmm... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by danwesnor (896499) on Sunday May 16, 2010 @10:50PM (#32232564)
    Anyone else notice that BP's attempts to fix their mess all involve recovering the oil, and they've not tried anything that involves sealing off the well? Are they trying to prevent environmental disaster or are they trying to maximize profits?

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