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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 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 Anonymous Coward on Sunday May 16, 2010 @01:54PM (#32228620)

    As an immigrant from a 3rd world, and after watching American and British and lately chinese interests eat away resources such as forests and minerals, and watching western oil companies pollute and then using economic blackmail to suppress voices, I personally feel this is a positive thing.

    Crap close to home seems to be the only way Americans learn - so some pollution close by is always good.

  • 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 TubeSteak (669689) on Sunday May 16, 2010 @02:02PM (#32228686) Journal

    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 roman_mir (125474) on Sunday May 16, 2010 @02:07PM (#32228712) Homepage Journal

    There is a possibility, but the current oil collecting ships like this one from the German Navy [wikipedia.org] collect water by opening a wide 'mouth' on the ship from the top of the water, I wonder if they could install a pump and a long hose to do what you are proposing.

  • 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.
  • by maxume (22995) on Sunday May 16, 2010 @02:22PM (#32228828)

    Only because history has been relatively boring.

    The human impact of the 1918 flu will almost certainly be much larger than the human impact of this thing.

  • by pablo_max (626328) on Sunday May 16, 2010 @02:26PM (#32228858)

    Seriously. You can mod this a troll if you feel better. But I would much rather there be a small area of radiation from a tactical nuclear explosion, than the entire gulf coast destroyed the biggest oil spill in the history of mankind and one that will just keep on going and keep getting worse.
    I know folks have bad feeling about nukes, but for fucks sake..it worked 4 out of 5 times for the Russians. It's time to do it before it's too late!
    http://www.thefirstpost.co.uk/62992,news-comment,news-politics,deepwater-horizon-gulf-mexico-oil-spill-should-bp-nuke-the-leak-like-the-russians [thefirstpost.co.uk]

  • by curmudgeon99 (1040054) <curmudgeon99@noSPam.gmail.com> on Sunday May 16, 2010 @02:26PM (#32228864)
    That would work! They just need to repurpose something--say the Top Hat--into a "plume" of oil and drink it all up into a ship. Remember, doing a "Junk shot" is still considered a serious solution to this spill...
  • 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 Beelzebud (1361137) on Sunday May 16, 2010 @02:34PM (#32228938)
    These idiots used DRILL BABY DRILL as a campaign slogan. Now they want to forget that ever happened.
  • 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?

  • 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 HiThere (15173) <charleshixsn&earthlink,net> on Sunday May 16, 2010 @02:47PM (#32229044)

    It's a bit worse than that, though not substantially worse. (Depending, of course, on just how much oil is released.) This may be enough additional stress to convert the entire gulf into a dead zone, rather than the partial dead zone that we've dealt with previously.

    If enough oil is released it could also spread a dead zone up the Gulf Stream, though I feel this is doubtful. OTOH, the ocean off-shore the coast is already home to many dead zones, so it might not require that much additional stress.

    This could be a disaster to the fishing industries, which are already nearing collapse due to over-fishing and improper fishing. (Again, just adding a bit more stress to something that's already overstressed.) This, of course, will cause other food prices to rise, which they were already doing due to the increases in the price of oil.

    Nothing here looks like a disaster to the Earth, but it's a pretty big disaster to the humans that happen to live near the area...and to some that don't live that near, but were already under near limiting stress. Also to some species. Some have probably already been wiped out. More probably will be. These were generally species that had already been pushed near extinction, and this will have been just the final blow. Others only live/d in a restricted area, and when that area is rendered uninhabitable, they die.

    Just to put things in perspective, a nuclear war that killed off all humans and most other mammals wouldn't be a disaster to the Earth. Only to the people. But as a person, I would find it a major disaster. (Presuming that I lived long enough. Quite unlikely as I live in a major metropolitan area.) Saying that something isn't a major disaster just because it isn't a disaster to the Earth is stupidly unreasonable. Only the collision that split off the moon has counted as a major disaster to the Earth. Even the incident that killed off 90% of all species (genera?) wasn't a major disaster to the Earth.

  • by Bing Tsher E (943915) on Sunday May 16, 2010 @02:56PM (#32229102) Journal

    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 WrongMonkey (1027334) on Sunday May 16, 2010 @02:56PM (#32229104)
    He also was the prime recipient of millions of dollars from BP. http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0510/36783.html [politico.com] The pattern is more than a bit disturbing.
  • by jmtpi (17834) on Sunday May 16, 2010 @03:02PM (#32229146) Homepage

    NPR got some experts to use various techniques to analyze the flow. They came up with numbers around a factor of 10 higher than the 5000 bpd estimate.
    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=126809525 [npr.org]

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday May 16, 2010 @03:31PM (#32229342)

    "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 cleanup/well control effort, "no you can't study the ocean floor" near the site is the right answer. If someone else were to take charge of the cleanup/well control effort, the correct answer would still be "no you can't study the ocean floor". The gear involved with trying to stop or collect the flow has priority for obvious reasons.

  • Re:Big Plug (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Stickybombs (1805046) on Sunday May 16, 2010 @03:51PM (#32229466)
    Actually, a 5' DIAMETER hole, would have a 30 inch radius, and therefore an area of 2827 in^2 2827*150000 = 424 million pounds of pressure. However, it is actually an 18 inch drill hole with a pressure differential of around 13,000 psi (see various calculations in comments for this post http://hardware.slashdot.org/comments.pl?sid=1651510 [slashdot.org]), which puts you at just over a million pounds of pressure. The blowout preventer that didn't work properly was a 450-ton device. It isn't much of a stretch beyond that to get a 500 or 600-ton block of something down there to just plug it up.
  • by sznupi (719324) on Sunday May 16, 2010 @04:34PM (#32229764) Homepage

    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 imbaczek (690596) <imbaczekNO@SPAMpoczta.fm> on Sunday May 16, 2010 @04:36PM (#32229778) Journal
    it's not all oil, it's also water and natural gas.
  • by toadlife (301863) on Sunday May 16, 2010 @04:38PM (#32229806) Journal

    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 jimicus (737525) on Sunday May 16, 2010 @04:47PM (#32229892)

    Crap close to home seems to be the only way Americans learn - so some pollution close by is always good.

    It's the only way anyone learns - to borrow an IT analogy, there are two types of people in this world. Those who take backups and those who have never lost any data.

  • by phantomfive (622387) on Sunday May 16, 2010 @04:48PM (#32229898) Journal
    Strangely, you sound more like an apologetic, somewhat ignorant first world American than the immigrants (and citizens) from the developing world that I've talked to.
  • by RobertM1968 (951074) on Sunday May 16, 2010 @04:57PM (#32229950) Homepage Journal

    There is a possibility, but the current oil collecting ships like this one from the German Navy [wikipedia.org] collect water by opening a wide 'mouth' on the ship from the top of the water, I wonder if they could install a pump and a long hose to do what you are proposing.

    While possibly a valid idea, there are the economics to consider. The "leak" is spewing over 210 million gallons a day, while an average to large oil tanker can store about 62 million gallons (assuming my math guesstimate is correct). That means (at 100% efficiency, inotherwords, 100% oil collection 0% water/sediment/etc collection) it would take almost four tankers a day to collect the spewing oil to prevent an increase in the amount of uncontained oil from increasing.

    It would also take an equivalent amount (of gallons) worth of storage and/or processing facilities to deal with the "dirty oil" that was collected. None of this takes into account whatever percentage of the liquid they collect is not oil (ie: say, using such a collection method results in a 60/40% oil/water ratio) - which increases the cost (number of tankers, size of storage/processing facilities, etc).

    While I think that BP and those other companies involved should be put on the hook for whatever it takes to prevent this catastrophe from growing any further, the simple fact is that no one at BP is going to even consider or "think up" a method of dealing with this situation in a manner that so adversely affects their bottom line. I also seriously doubt that the government, who is dependent on BP's revenue for taxation, is going to think up such a scenario as well. That is where the economics involved come into play.

    Sometimes (often maybe?) the economics of such a situation prevent the better methods of dealing with the environmental aspects from even being considered. Sadly, the reality of human greed of those in power usually trumps environmental needs or the needs of the "not so rich" who get adversely affected by situations such as these. It's far cheaper for them do to nothing, or spend lotsa time "analyzing" the situation to come up with lame-brained but cheap solutions than to actually do something to fix it if the economics are not favorable to the "powers that be" involved in the crisis.

  • by nedlohs (1335013) on Sunday May 16, 2010 @05:08PM (#32230048)

    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.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday May 16, 2010 @05:14PM (#32230082)

    "Only after the last tree has been cut down,
      only after the last river has been poisoned,
      only after the last fish has been caught,
      only then will you find, that money cannot be eaten."

    (Cree prophecy)

  • by reformedengineer (1631509) on Sunday May 16, 2010 @05:16PM (#32230094)
    Supposedly, the Saudis already successfully deployed super tankers in conjunction with something like the oil collecting ships mentioned above to deal with an absolutely massive spill that happened there in the 90's. The guy in the article claims they were able to recover 85% of ~800 million gallons that were spilled. http://www.aolnews.com/nation/article/could-cleanup-fix-for-gulf-oil-spill-lie-in-secret-saudi-disaster/19476863 [aolnews.com] Could this work on the gulf, or is the oil too widely dispersed for it to be effective? Or is is just too expensive?
  • by Crowspiracy Theorist (1555365) on Sunday May 16, 2010 @05:20PM (#32230128)
    I agree with this sentiment. Oil companies rarely take into account the negative externalities they create by drilling for oil. It would be nice to see this oil spill become such a huge disaster that the entire market changes the way they do business. However, the pessimist in me thinks that regardless of how bad this looks for BP, it will not affect the status quo.
  • Re:Man! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by justin12345 (846440) on Sunday May 16, 2010 @06:04PM (#32230504)
    Knows about what? The oil spill? I'm pretty sure everyone knows that there is a really bad oil spill in the gulf by now.

    Mobilization has begun. There are already crews attempting to stop the leak, and crews attempting clean up.

    Perhaps you should go donate blood to the red cross. It'll make you feel better.
  • by AK Marc (707885) on Sunday May 16, 2010 @06:46PM (#32230838)
    So the fix is to pump O2 into the wellhead?
  • by Trepidity (597) <delirium-slashdot AT hackish DOT org> on Sunday May 16, 2010 @06:53PM (#32230920)

    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.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday May 16, 2010 @07:44PM (#32231288)

    Imagine you have a very very slow leak in one of your tires, that allows you to keep driving for another few weeks, let's say until your next paycheck. That would be the "naturally occurring" oil seepage.

    Now imagine you're driving behind a pickup truck carrying a load of badly secured bricks.

    Well, the driver also happens to be on his cellphone, swerves, knocking some bricks off the truck, bouncing off the highway at an angle that smashes through the windshield and hits you right in the fucking mouth while you're scratching your chin, leaving you unable to ever post to slashdot again.

    Get the point now?

  • Re:i LOL (Score:3, Interesting)

    by QRDeNameland (873957) on Sunday May 16, 2010 @08:06PM (#32231412)

    No large company is anchored too heavily to its country of origin.

    Tell me about it. A few weeks ago, I was posting on another forum about banking, and was recounting how a bank account that I've had for years started out as a regional S&L, and through about 4 or 5 mergers finally ended up being with Bank of America. While researching Bank of America's history in order to get my facts straight, I saw this gem on the Bank of America wiki page [wikipedia.org].

    Bank of America's history dates to 1904, when Amadeo Giannini founded the Bank of Italy in San Francisco....

    Somehow I don't see them playing that bit of their history up what with their Stars and Stripes logo and all.

  • by the eric conspiracy (20178) on Sunday May 16, 2010 @08:56PM (#32231736)

    A barrel of oil corresponds to 5.6 cu ft. I also saw it reported that BP was removing gas to oil at a ratio of 3000:1 from this well before the explosion.

    Since the pressure at 1 mil is about 160 atm that means about 20 cu ft of gas per cu ft of oil at depth. So right there the naive estimate of 80,000 is cut by a factor of 20.

    In other words about 4000 bbl/day.

    And that doesn't take into account the fact that the pipe is not just cut off and open to the ocean. The leak is through something akin to an orifice.

  • by michael_cain (66650) on Sunday May 16, 2010 @10:02PM (#32232172) Journal

    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.

  • 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.

  • by WindBourne (631190) on Sunday May 16, 2010 @10:27PM (#32232316) Journal
    While I have mod points, I feel the need to comment here (I wish that the AC had had some courage).
    The AC's point was that America does not care when it is out of sight, out of mind. AC is 100% correct.
    The problem is that AC limits it to just America. That is a mistake. It absolutely should include EU as well as Russia, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Canada, and most of all, China. Basically, it is the industrial nations that are doing this. Now, most of the west has cleaned up OUT nations, but a big part of that was done by outsourcing. It is hypocritical on our part to do that. It needs to change. That is why I keep speaking out against the EU approach on Climate: that is for the west to tax ONLY our goods. That is the dead wrong approach. Instead, every nation should be taxing ALL goods based on the pollution (start with CO2) that is in the area for the good as well as the largest sub-component. After time, change the CO2 to include Mercury, and other pollutants. THis approach is the ONLY way to clean up the world.
  • Re:Man! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by michaelhood (667393) on Monday May 17, 2010 @01:07AM (#32233650)

    executives get in trouble for failing to meet fiduciary responsibility if they don't do everything in their power to increase value for shareholders.

    I hear this a lot in rants about capitalism, but do you have any examples of this actually happening? I'm familiar with fiduciary duty. I just want to see some example(s) of this occurring in a public company. thanks.

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