Gulf Oil Spill the Size of the Entire Maine Coastline

So, I spent a few minutes in Google Earth and Photoshop during my lunch break today. It can be very difficult to imagine the true scale of the catastrophe happening down in the Gulf of Mexico, since generally the maps you see all are out over the open water with few geographic reference points that make sense to mere mortals. I thought it might be helpful to those of us up here in Maine to compare it to our local coastline. I was inspired by this cool tool built by Paul Rademacher, which unfortunately has not yet been updated with the most recent observational data available. So, I took the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill observation map from Google Earth, which was just updated yesterday (05/17/2010) with new observational data, and layered the oil spill size overtop of the same-scale map of Maine's coastline. Despite following the growth of of the oil slick fairly closely, I really wasn't prepared for what I found.

First, we have the map of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Slick itself:

And here we have the map of the coast of Maine:

Obviously, I rotated the graphic of the oil slick itself to line it up with the Maine coastline, but I didn't scale or transform the image in any other way.

Making matters even worse is the fact that this only really shows an estimate of the size of the surface oil slick (and probably a conservative one at that). With typical "shallow" oil spills, such as those from an oil tanker, most of the oil stays on the surface of the water. The oil glugs out of the containment system on the ship, and pretty quickly settles up to the surface of the sea. Everyone knows that oil floats on top of water! Unfortunately, the spill happening (and continuing) at a depth of 5,000ft changes the rules quite a bit due to currents, pressure, thermal layers in the ocean, and the hundreds of thousands of gallons of dispersants we've dumped into the ocean. As discussed in an article this weekend in the Christian Science Monitor, the "real" spill is actually quite likely below the surface of the water, and growing at an even more catastrophic rate.

The oil that can be seen from the surface is apparently just a fraction of the oil that has spilled into the Gulf of Mexico since April 20, according to an assessment the National Institute for Undersea Science and Technology. Significant amounts of oil are spreading at various levels throughout the water column, says the report, which was posted online a week ago but first published by The New York Times Saturday.

The research, combined with other emerging data, could fundamentally alter researchers’ understanding of the oil spill. It suggests that vastly more oil than previously reported could be spilling from the wellhead and the attached riser pipe that now lies crumpled on the seafloor like a kinked and leaking garden hose.

Moreover, it suggests that serious environmental degradation could take place in the open ocean, creating massive “dead zones” where no creature can live because of the lack of oxygen in the water. The spread of oil at all levels of the Gulf also could become a concern for shore communities in hurricanes, which stir up the water column as they come ashore.

Well, great. That map looked bad enough, but now it appears that even this doesn't fully capture the scale of the disaster. This undersea oil plume was apparently discovered by the National Institute for Undersea Science and Technology (NIUST), which has been maintaining a blog about their work with regular updates (via Jim White at FDL). As reported by the USA Today:

In the first on-site measurements of the oil spreading below the surface, researchers found the plume of crude stretches 15 to 20 miles southwest from the site of the damaged wellhead and is about 5 miles wide, said Vernon Asper, a University of Southern Mississippi marine scientist leading the research.

The plume is compact, much thicker than the lighter remnants reaching the surface and suspended in about 3,000 feet of ocean, he said. A deepwater current is dragging it out to sea. The underwater oil cloud is not connected to the surface slick — now the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined.

"This [underwater] plume is some of the heavier products of the oil that won't reach the surface," Asper said in a radio-telephone interview from aboard the R/V Pelican, a 116-foot research ship at the site of the spill. "We think this oil is going to stay down there. It doesn't look like it's coming to the surface."

It would seem that oil staying down under the surface might help matters a bit, but really we have no idea what the impacts of this might be. And then, at the surface, BP is dumping tons of surfactants on the oil that has reached the surface, in an effort to break it up and disperse it. As discussed over at FDL, these dispersants have already been shown to reduce the ability of water to absorb atmospheric oxygen. It is quite likely that this will have a tremendous and devastating effect on the oxygen levels underwater, perhaps creating a "dead zone" the likes of which the world has never seen. And, on top of it, we don't really know where this underwater column of oil will end up. The deepwater currents are pulling it out into the ocean, where it will likely get caught up in the complex ocean current system and dragged across the globe.

Driving home the point that we really aren't seeing the full size of the impact via these "size of such-and-such state" surface maps? The first tar balls washed ashore in Key West on Monday.

But don't worry. Transocean Ltd., the Swiss firm that owned and operated the oil rig, had a closed-door meeting on Friday where they announced they would be distributing approximately $1 billion in dividends to shareholders. More of the ongoing corporate strategy of privatizing gains and socializing losses!

Or, others would just call it what it really is: Looting.