BP oil spill
Friday, June 4, 2010; 1:00 PM
Synte Peacock, scientist and oceanographer at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, was online Friday, May 4, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the latest news regarding the oil spill in the gulf, including reports that the containment dome is successfully funneling oil and gas upward, plus recent surprising predictions about how far the oil may spread.
Synte Peacock: Hi, this is Synte Peacock from the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. I'm one of the three collaborators on the computer simulations.
The official press release can be found here: Ocean currents likely to carry oil along Atlantic coast (UCAR)
It explains many of the details of what we have done.
I will try and answer any questions about what we did and the results.
How bad can this get?: In a worst-case scenario, how bad can this oil gush get? What will happen if BP can NEVER get this fixed completely? Oil keeps coming up. Currents move the water. Oil covers all of the Gulf and then moves up the East Coast. Then the currents take the oil to other continents. Eventually our entire ecosystem is ruined, starting with all the oceans of the world. People die because of a ruined ecosystem. Is this possible, or have I just read too many science fiction books?
Synte Peacock: How bad it will get will depend on the total amount of oil released. It's unclear now how much this will be. Our results are formulated not to depend on this number. Instead, we report results in terms of a dilution factor. (see the NCAR URL for details: Ocean currents likely to carry oil along Atlantic coast (UCAR))
As far as the longer term impacts goes -- I don't think anyone has a handle on this right now, and to even begin to assess this we intend to run our simulations for much longer than we have so far. But these are computationally expensive simulations and take time...
Worried about the Keys: I have gone to the Florida Keys many times with my family, from here in the D.C. area. We tow our small center-console boat down and enjoy boating, fishing, and scuba diving, keeping the boat docked at our hotel. I love the Keys.
As you can imagine, I am now feeling very worried, sad, and anxious about what may happen to all the people down there, the reefs, and the fish, even though they are okay so far. How likely is it that the BP oil spill will damage this fun, beautiful, but delicate area, which includes the nation's only underwater national park and a lot of protected coral reefs? I know you don't have a crystal ball but I don't have any sense of the probabilities at this point.
Synte Peacock: If and when the oil gets caught in the Loop Current, and fed to the Florida Current, it is possible that the Keys will be affected. But the impact on reefs and fish and coastlines will depend both on local winds and ocean currents (that we can't predict more than a few days into the future -- as others are trying to do) and of course on the total amount of oil released.
What we have found is that there is a high probability that there will be oil in the vicinity of the Keys sometime in the next few months. This is a cause for concern.
Fairfax, Va.: People were saying on the news that some reports said the spill could reach Europe. Is this possible? How long would that take?
Synte Peacock: We have not yet run the simulations long enough to asses the possible impact on Europe. We do not anticipate that significant amounts will reach Europe; the ocean currents do not go directly to Europe, so a lot of mixing would need to occur in order for Europe to be affected.
Florida coast: I have vacation plans on the Panhandle in two weeks -- do you think I should cancel/resked?
Synte Peacock: Your decision should be based on a local forecast, which we have not done. Other groups are doing shorter-term regional forecasts.
Washington, D.C.: Over time, will the damage the oil causes reduce itself? In other words, will the oil become less dense, less thick and even out and not be such a danger to wildlife and the environment? Have you seen the pictures of pelicans this morning? It's really disturbing.
Synte Peacock: Our understanding that there will be significant dilution of the oil as time goes by, and this undoubtedly will help. How long it will take until the oil concentrations cease to be a danger to wildlife is something we do have an answer to at the moment.
The pelicans seem to be very affected by dense pockets of oil and yes, those photographs are very disturbing.
washingtonpost.com: Photo Gallery: Gulf oil spill's animal victims
Arlington, Va.: The conservative take on the spill has been that the sun and the surf will break down the oil fairly quickly and this won't be a problem in a few months -- is that really the case?
Synte Peacock: What we've shown with our simulations is that the currents can potentially move the oil very fast very fast, even out into the interior Atlantic within a few months.
So if it doesn't break down on this timescale, there could be widespread impacts.
It would really help to have firm numbers on the timescale over which this oil can break down, but we don't know that.
Surf won't decrease the amount of oil in the water, it will just mix it locally. Also, it will only act on the oil which has already reached the coast, where it can be most problematic to the environment.
washingtonpost.com: Live Spillcam
Washington, D.C.: I don't know if this is your area but let me ask. What's keeping the oil coming? Is there any chance it will stop on its own? Where is all the pressure coming from? And doesn't the fact that it's so far down in the ocean floor with so much water above pressing down, I can't imagine how much force the gushing has. Can you enlighten us?
Synte Peacock: This is a question for geologists. But you are right, it is internal pressures that are keeping it flowing.
Sorry we don't have the information to say how much pressure there is. Ask BP!
Washington, D.C.: Will the oil eventually rinse out of the water? When you say "over time," how much time would it take?
Synte Peacock: I don't know what you mean by "rinse" in this case, could you clarify?
Rochester, N.Y.: What is the impact of dispersants on sea life, including plant life, plankton, algae, coral, manatees, dolphins, etc.?
Synte Peacock: Great question - lots of people out there (us included) would like to know the answer.
I'm not aware of anyone knows anything about the long-term effects of these chemical dispersants.
Crimping: Earlier this week, I think it was Bill Nye who mentioned that crimping and bending wasn't a viable option. The metal pipe is too brittle and would crack into pieces rather than crimp together.
Synte Peacock: Thanks very much!
Washington, D.C.: By rinse, I mean become diluted and therefore less harmful, poisonous.
Synte Peacock: Yes, with time the oil will become more diluted. We have modeled the effects of dilution due to ocean currents and stirring, and our simulations show that the oil becomes significantly more diluted as it is transported further from the source. By the time the oil reaches the interior Atlantic in our simulations, we estimate that it will be roughly 2000 more dilute than it is at the source.
We are not able to model chemical breakdown by bacteria etc.
Annandale, Va.: Can you explain how the tides affect the flow of oil? Is the gulf pretty calm? Is most of the oil staying there? How much of a threat is there that it will spread worldwide or at least way beyond the Gulf?
Synte Peacock: We find that it is very likely that on a timescale of months (not years), the oil will spread far beyond the Gulf.
Note that it is likely to be much more dilute than it is at the spill site by the time it reaches the Atlantic.
We have avoided trying to model near-shore processes such as tides and local winds because we don't know what the winds will be weeks to months from now.
By calm, do you mean winds or ocean? If the latter, the Gulf is relatively calm in the north and west; the action is where the loop current is (in the south). Once significant amounts of oil are in the Loop Current, it will enter the Atlantic in days to weeks.
San Diego, Calif.: They say they are now siphoning oil into tankers. How much will this impact the containment of the oil? Or is this just a thumb in the "Dutchman's dike wall"?
Synte Peacock: The more that is siphoned, the less will enter the Atlantic, and the less that has to be contained from hitting the coast.
We still do not know the total rate at which oil is being released, nor have we seen precise numbers on the amount that has been or will be contained.
Bel Air, Md.: Can you basically explain the Loop Current in simple terms and how it will affect the spread of the oil spill? Thank you.
Synte Peacock: Yes! The Loop Current is part of the persistent ocean Western boundary current system (which includes the Gulf Stream). But the Loop Current is unique because there is no coast between Yucatan and Florida, and so it forms a clockwise loop which protrudes into the Gulf.
The Loop Current is quite chaotic and unpredictable. For example, sometimes it extends all the way up to Louisiana, sometimes it hovers far to the south, sometimes it pinches off a "Loop eddy" which travels west, and then grows again.
The fastest way for oil to exit the Gulf is to catch a ride on the Loop Current. The Loop Current feeds the Gulf Stream. As soon as significant amounts of oil are in the Loop Current, it will be weeks, not months, before oil has entered the Atlantic.
McLean, Va: Could this impact the normal function of plate techtonics?
Synte Peacock: No!
Solomons, Md.: Your simulation did not show the oil entering the Chesapeake Bay. Can you comment on the probability of that happening?
Synte Peacock: Yes. The Gulf Stream is known to separate from the Eastern Coastline of the US at Cape Hatteras, N.C. and the model does this very well.
Therefore the currents themselves will not carry oil as far north as the Chesapeake Bay.
Silver Spring, Md.: Does your model take into account temperature fluctuations with depth and over the vast topography of the Gulf? Do you consider the changing current patterns that will come as a result of changing seasons and temperatures? Did you use the accepted macro and micro currents mapped by NOAA, or did you make generalizations?
Synte Peacock: Yes, our model has temperatures what vary with depth. We used an ocean model, and it was forced with "typical" weather conditions (no-one knows what the actual weather will be over the coming months). We didn't use any previous assumptions about currents from NOAA or anyone else; the model computes what the currents will be based on the physics, and on what the atmosphere is doing.
We did a number of scenarios, and each had different ocean currents carrying the oil in slightly different directions on different timescales. We cannot predict what will happen on a timescale of weeks to months, so instead we provide a range of possibilities of what might happen, based on typical wind conditions, and likely ocean currents.
Park Ridge, N.J.: Do you expect the oil to travel up the east coast? If so, how far up the eastern seaboard could it reach?
Synte Peacock: It is unlikely to go further than Cape Hatteras N.C.
Synte Peacock: I'm going to have to sign out now.
Thank you all for some great questions, and sorry I couldn't answer more.
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