The Hurricane-Oil Slick Story Makes the New York Times

By Chris Mooney | May 31, 2010 3:31 am

Kenneth Chang covers the same basic ground as my Slate piece, and comes to the same conclusions. A slick is not going to slow down a storm, but a storm could fling a slick everywhere. Of course, it all depends on the particular path of the storm, etc.

Granted, the story becomes more pressing now because of the failure of the “top kill” method of plugging the well. We’re on to Plan C now, followed by Plan D, but if they all fail then the relief wells won’t be finished (allegedly) til August. That’s right when the serious part of hurricane season begins–although, again, if we’re in for a mega year like 2005, then you can have an early forming Category 4 (like Dennis) in July.

I’m trying to find the bright side in all of this…but I’m really not seeing it.

Below, incidentally, is the track of Dennis in 2005. A storm along such a path might actually push oil away from land, given that it would be approaching the nearshore part of slick from the southeast. In this scenario, the winds over the bulk of the slick would (I believe, just by eyeballing it) be blowing back out to sea. That isn’t the worst case scenario, but such a storm would also surely shut down all clean up or well plugging efforts….


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Hurricanes

Comments (3)

  1. Nullius in Verba

    You do have some past experience of this. In the middle of the Ixtoc I blow-out that dumped 10-30,000 barrels per day into the Gulf of Mexico for a period of nine months, hurricane Frederick blew through. The contemporary reports of its effect were that it cleaned 95% of the oil off the beaches.

    If the wind blows the right way, a hurricane could do far more to disperse and clean up the slick and prevent environmental damage than anything mankind can do. Or then again, it might not. But if you really want to look on the bright side…

  2. Gaythia

    I think that we need to draw a very careful, scientifically informed line between human pleasing effects such as removing or keeping oil off beaches, or things that cause the damage to remain out of sight and out of mind; and both short and long term ecological effects. While dispersion and dilution are positive in many ways, they also spread the extent of the environnmental damage. Thus, they do not necessarily lessen the ecological impact.

  3. Nullius in Verba

    I am absolutely in favour of “scientifically informed”. And this is a subject well worth discussing.

    It’s mainly a matter of surface area to volume ratio. The bacteria and other life-forms that digest oil can only act at the surface, in the presence of oxygen. If the oil is in a big blob, it has a huge volume and a small surface area. It would take centuries to make any progress. If the oil flattens out on the surface into a foamy slick, the area increases massively. And if broken up until an emulsion of droplets, more still. Instead of just the oil at the surface of the blob being digested, it can all get processed simultaneously.

    In addition, Paracelsus’s dictum applies, the poison is in the dose. Low molecular-weight volatiles (which evaporate faster according to surface area) tend to be more biologically active, and big blobs release the toxins in high concentrations. The bugs cannot survive close enough to start eating it. Dilute it far enough, the concentrations become tolerable, and digestion can proceed. Think of it as like mixing curry powder into a curry – you couldn’t eat the chilli powder on its own, but the curry is nice.

    That’s why natural oil seeps don’t cause major environmental damage, even though they are very much comparable in scale. (And why people are wrong to claim that their existence means the Deepwater spill is not a disaster.) It is the concentration that is the problem.

    We also have to bear in mind that mankind is not the only source of damage to the environment. A lot of minerals and chemicals that we mine are out there, exposed, in the environment. Some of them are poisonous, and just as poisonous when they’re natural as when released by mankind. Many animals die simply from eating the wrong plant! Scientifically, molecules are molecules, and have no special marker to identify them as ‘artificial’ or ‘natural’. You have to assess the changes we make against the natural background level, which is higher than many are told.

    Like hurricanes, or cold weather. A lot of wildlife around the Gulf of Mexico died during the recent cold winter. And given the damage they do to people, do you think hurricanes and storms don’t kill wildlife too? Science tries to look at the world as it is, not as we want or expect it to be.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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