Mexican Gulf oil spill may have precedent

When being faced with this disastrous pollution crisis it may be useful to step back and put it into perspective, to avoid overreacting. We don’t want the patient to die of the side effects of the medication, do we? It turns out that we might be able to learn something from a pre-historic event that was similar, or even worse, than this one.

The reports today (e.g., NYTimes) say that about 210,000 gallons of oil is leaking out per day. In more normal measurement units that equals 800 m3/day, or 0.01 m3/s. It’s a trickle, it’s not even a stream. A small river would typically have several, or several tens, of cubic meters per second in discharge. This is just 10 liters per second – but it is oil, not water, so it is 10 liters too much.

Where does it go? Because of its density, it ends up at the water surface, impeding the interchange of gases between the atmosphere and the ocean. With time, driven by winds and currents it reaches land and pollutes one of the most important natural environments on Earth; the coast. It dirties beaches, and destroys the conditions for creatures such as turtles who depend on them. I suppose one could include tourists in “creatures.”

Petroleum is a mixture of different hydrocarbon molecules. A portion of the oil spill is likely to sink after a while, when the lighter fractions have evaporated or been decomposed. It may become buried in the sediments again, with each drop of tar covered with sand grains. Incidentally, there is a new factory in Miami that produces instruments for monitoring this accumulation of sediments, the SediMeter.

When considering the long-term effect of the oil spill, one should keep in mind that petroleum is a natural product, unlike some other compounds that man emits to the environment. In certain parts of the world petroleum slowly seeps out of the ground – or used to, until man came around and drilled into the reservoir underneath.

However, a petroleum reservoir may have been breached naturally at the end of Pleistocene, as I argued last year in a scientific article in Geografiska Annaler, “A jökulhlaup from a Laurentian captured ice shelf to the Gulf of Mexico could have caused the Bølling warming.” From the Conclusions:

“The Gulf Coast contains vast petroleum reserves. It is arguably very likely that gas and oil was released when the Mississippi Canyon was formed. This might be the source of the increased atmospheric methane concentration recorded in the Greenland ice core at the start of Bølling and Holocene.

“This chain of events may have acted in a similar way at the end of each major Laurentian glaciation, and possibly also at D/O events. Geological data suggests that it has been repeated at least eight, possibly a hundred times, all in the Pleistocene. It may play a decisive role in bringing about the sudden climate changes that are so characteristic of the Quaternary period, as well as in creating the Mississippi Fan.”

These events took place 14,600 and 11,500 years ago, and possible a first event occurred already 15,500 years ago. It is related to the end of the Ice Age; a giant flood in the Missouri and Mississippi scourged the continental shelf off the present coastline, and eroded a canyon a mile deep. The same thing has happened once or twice at the end of every ice age, 8 times the past million years. The material was then deposited as the Mississippi Sub-Marine Fan, a mile-thick accumulation of sand and mud that has accumulated in a geological instant: A million years.

When these past oil spills hypothetically occurred, the sea level was, however, much lower than the present. Still, at that time there were coral reefs near the water surface from the southern tip of Florida and far up the east coast of Florida, just like today. The oil may have been brought to these reefs by the currents, causing severe harm to them. However, unlike today the reefs will not have been given much chance to recover, because after the megaflood in the Mississippi the world sea level would have risen dramatically. A small rise was caused by the flood itself, but instability in other inland ice sheets, and sudden global climate warming, gave rise to much more sea-level rise; many meters in total each time.

The Mississippi has a fantastic geologic history, and amazingly there is still more geologic research to be done in understanding how this all came about. The thing to keep in mind here is that (with the exception of completely new chemicals) almost nothing man does hasn’t been done already by nature itself. There is always a lesson to be learned by studying geology, and the natural variability of landscape and climate on our planet.

Path of the inferred megaflood, or jökulhlaup.
Path of the inferred megaflood, or jökulhlaup.

Finally, I wish media would listen less to the sensationalists and pay more attention to the scientific fields that have taken on a topic from the ground up, like geology, and not from the vintage point of a specific hypothesis, like global warming.

11 thoughts on “Mexican Gulf oil spill may have precedent”

  1. The oil disaster is crazy because the leak is so deep. I hope BP do all against the spread of the oil. The nature will be destroyed for a long time.

  2. Let me see if I get it right: Because a much bigger magnitude oil spill happened naturally in the past following a cataclysm, suddenly this smaller one created by engineering failures from a profit-driven company doesn’t matter as much?

    What a clever stance. Man, you’re a genius.

    1. If you want to freak out and leave reason behind, be my guest. I prefer to keep my head cool when dealing with events, putting things in perspective, and learning from the past.

    2. “…engineering failures from a profit-driven company ”

      So you’re saying that if a government-run oil company like Pemex or Citgo were responsible you could site back and relax because it was all done in the name of the proletariat?

      The thing to take away from this is that crude oil behaves differently than refined oil… and our gulf evolved with a constant influx of asphaltum (naturally seeped globs of crude) from the depths. While this is and will be devastating, there WILL BE recovery. We need to ensure that this doesn’t happen again, but we also need to remember that the sky is not falling so we shouldn’t do anything rash, like let our government assume control over more of the private sector in the name of knee-jerk politics.

  3. It’s a disaster, no doubt about it. You can point the finger forever. But I think it’s abundantly clear that in the last 70 years or so, the worst ecological disasters were in the former Soviet Bloc. Check out Ventspils, Latvia, or the Aral Sea. So, it’s clear that government control is no guarantee.

    Furthermore, the need for energy is fundamental. It is necessary for development. The consumption rate is rising much faster in the developing world. Do we want to thwart progress? Perhaps increase starvation?

    Risk is part of life. The problem will be resolved. The world will continue.

  4. The hole we humans drilled is one of many and is 40,000 feet below the bottom of the ocean. This is the part of the earth, where naturally speaking, things don’t just pop up. We have caused tremendous damage, and I belive we may as well kiss our asses goodbye. I predict that it will keep getting bigger and bigger, until it goes completely out of control. By 2012 we will be looking at a much different planet, one in which has lost it’s axis, and it dying very very quickly… That is if we don’t blow ourselves up with nuclear bombs first.

  5. I was listening to an engineer while going to work yesterday who said simply that nothing would stop this oil leak. BP really messed up here and the administration needs to focus on stopping this or the whole coastline will be lost. I doubt this top kill strategy will work but we’ll see. It has never been tried at these depths before. They’re just experimenting now.

  6. When I wrote the post the spill figure was low. I later saw images and thought it must be an order of magnitude higher than they claim. We now know it was. This spill has grown HUGE. It will create a LOT of damage.

    However, nature will recover. It will take time, but it will. Oil is a part of nature, formed from living things, and it will be broken down by bacteria. The dispersants is another story, I’m more concerned about them.

    When oil is on land the limiting factor for degradation is nitrogen fertilizer, I’ve been told. I don’t know what happened with the research project about it, though, initiated in response to the Exxon Valdez accident. When oil is in the water the oxygen may be the limiting factor, leading to anoxia.

    It will be worst for sea animals breathing air, sea fowls living on the surface, marshes, and anything else that depends on the air/water interface.

    News is that BP is suppressing information about the damage. This calls for all boaters to document and blog, so the info does not get lost. I will do that, too, from Miami, to where the oil might come one day though probably out at sea rather than to the beach. You see, the near-beach water here comes with a current from the north.

  7. i dont understand why, as a resident of the gulf coast, our state and local governments are arguing. the state has the power to act over the feds, and they argue like children. to the state: just do something

    1. Although I don’t know the laws on this, it would seem to me that in a state of emergency the Governors would have the power to order things done pretty much regardless of normal red tape.

  8. This whole catastrophe with BP is idiocy. The measure of petroleum leaking into the Gulf of Mexico sprung up by thousands of drums Wednesday right after an underwater robot ostensibly struck the containment cap that has been getting petroleum from BP’s Macondo well. I question how much destruction this entire disaster is going to cost the earth when it’s all said and done

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