Oil from BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster spread over a larger area than previously thought: scientists

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BP oil spill USF Gulf of Mexico
Bill Nelson shows where oil had spread from the Deepwater Horizon disaster as of 7 May 2010. By Matthew Cimitile / WMNF News.

A new study led by scientists in Florida finds that oil from BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster spread over a much larger area than previously thought. The research was published yesterday in the journal Science Advances.

Steve Murawski is a professor at the University of South Florida College of Marine Science in St. Petersburg and a co-author of the study.

“One of the issues that we were confronted with early on in Deepwater Horizon is to close areas around Deepwater where there was surface oil. With the idea of closing things like fisheries so people would not be harmed by tainted seafood.

“What we found out about Deepwater is since it started at the ocean bottom, the ocean currents actually distributed this oil far beyond where they were expressed at the surface using satellites and aircraft.

“So what this study did was model the underwater distribution of the oil which extended rather far from the boundaries of the closed areas that were determined from surface vehicles.”

So, in other words, it went a lot further than we thought at the time, including as far as the West Florida Shelf. So give our listeners in the Tampa Bay area an idea of where in our area that might have been.

“Well if you look at the paper itself the oil that was dissolved or in the underwater layers was distributed rather widely on the West Florida Shelf at relatively low concentrations. This new study helps to resolve some of the ambiguities that we saw in terms of actually sampling in the sediments and the biota as opposed to just looking where the surface slicks actually went. And so, it was fairly distributed widely on the West Florida Shelf but at low concentrations.”

This has implications for environmental health during future oil spills. How can you use this to predict what might happen during future spills?

“One of the major trends in the marine oil industry is that the rigs are going deeper and deeper into the very deepest parts of, in this case, the Gulf of Mexico, but also other oceanic realms. And so, the next large blow-ups are likely to be similar to Deepwater in that they start at the sea bottom.

“So we think these tools would be very valuable and they’re exportable to different locations. So that in tracking the potential environmental effects of the next underwater blow-out using these, what we call 4-dimensional tools. As opposed to simply looking at the transport of surface slicks is going to be a really important advance in the technology for responding to these deep oil spills.”

Is there anything else that people should know about what we know more now about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill?

“Well you know this is the tenth anniversary of Deepwater Horizon and I think there’s been a huge body of knowledge looking back at that oil spill. But also trying to set both the policy and the specific studies that we need in advance of the next one. And that’s really important because we can be much more prepared than we were back then.”

Any specific recommendations?

“Well we have a number of them. Number 1, we really need environmental baselines before a spill. There was lots of work that was done after Deepwater Horizon, but we didn’t really know how contaminated the sediments, the water and the biota were the day before. Now, we do have somewhat of a baseline, but honestly, these kinds of things should be monitored carefully and frequently by the oil companies and the government.”

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