Thursday, June 24, 2010

Prescient or Pessimistic? Scientists debate possible oil spill tsunamis

Might the Gulf have its own way of wrapping up the BP oil spill? According to the Huffington Post, geologists speculate that this man-made disaster could result in a natural catastrophe far worse than what we've seen so far.

Until now, the methane gas leaking from BP's damaged oil well has been overshadowed by the more overtly damaging oil leak. However, every barrel of oil that leaks is accompanied by close to 3000 cubic feet of natural gas, which is 75-90% methane. Methane is already a notorious gas. Whiel it is highly useful for heating homes and powering the occasional school bus, it is also a potent greenhouse gas. When released into the atmosphere, it is 20 times more detrimental to the ozone layer than carbon dioxide.

When released into water, it's not much better. As the oil-gas mixture spews into the waters of the Gulf, ocean microbes gobble it up. However, as they feast, they also consume massive amounts of oxygen - like ketchup on their hotdogs. In the areas tainted by the BP oil spill, this feeding frenzy is using up all the available oxygen, resulting in dead zones of water. These lifeless expanses, where no sea life can grow and no further oil can be broken down, could persist for years to come.

While methane is inevitably released during oil drilling, it is typically released in controlled "kicks," or spurts. Apparently, more than a year ago geologists advised BP executives against the location of its ill-fated Macondo well. Seismic data from that area indicated a massive methane deposit in that area. Perhaps, then, the uncontrolled methane kick that sank the Deepwater Horizon platform on April 20 was not entirely unexpected.

But that's just the beginning of the potential disasters. The Huffington Post reports that new fissures or cracks in the ocean floor would be the first sign that methane trapped below the surface might be leaking. And indeed, as mitigation efforts continue, BP robotic submarines and live video feeds report new plumes, fissures, and cracks in the area surrounding the damaged rig.

If the gas did erupt, the disaster thus far would like like a day in the park in comparison. A gigantic bubble of flammable gas under rocketing skyward under massive pressure could cause an impressive array of disasters. Tsunamis could wreak havoc from Texas to Georgia, due to the force of the eruption or the subsequent vaporization of ocean water flooding the recently vacated cavity. Ships and other oil rigs could also sink, due to the loss of buoyancy.

Will this happen? It's hard to say whether such predictions are realistic or over the top. If I lived on the Gulf shores, though, I'd have my suitcase packed.

- Sadie Kneidel

1 comment:

Just ME in T said...

More than a year ago, geologists expressed alarm in regard to BP and Transocean putting their exploratory rig directly over this massive underground reservoir of methane. Warnings were raised before the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe that the area of seabed chosen might be unstable and inherently dangerous.

Methane and Poison Gas Bubble: The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found high concentrations of gases in the Gulf of Mexico area. The escape of other poisonous gases associated with an underground methane bubble -- such as hydrogen sulfide, benzene and methylene chloride -- have also been found. Recently, the EPA measured hydrogen sulfide at more than 1,000 parts per billion (ppb) -- well above the normal 5 to 10 ppb. Some benzene levels were measured near the Gulf of Mexico in the range of 3,000 to 4,000 ppb -- up from the normal 0 to 4 ppb. Benzene gas is water soluble and is a carcinogen at levels of 1,000 ppb according to the EPA. Upon using a GPS and depth finder system, experts have discovered a large gas bubble, 15 to 20 miles wide and tens of feet high, under the ocean floor. These bubbles are common.