Peak Oil is You

Donate Bitcoins ;-) or Paypal :-)

Page added on March 26, 2014

Bookmark and Share

3 Surprising Sources of Oil Pollution in the Ocean

3 Surprising Sources of Oil Pollution in the Ocean thumbnail


The Texas spill is obvious, but automobile oil is a bigger contributor.

Seeping oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

An iridescent sheen spreads from a drop of crude oil on top of the water in the Gulf of Mexico.

Obvious oil spills, like the 168,000 gallons (635,000 liters) of oil that leaked into Galveston Bay on Saturday, usually make national news, accompanied by pictures of oil-blackened wildlife.

But such publicized events account for only a small part of the total amount of oil pollution in the oceans—and many of the other sources, such as automobile oil, go largely unnoticed, scientists say.

In fact, of the tens of millions of gallons of oil that enter North American oceans each year due to human activities, only 8 percent comes from tanker or oil pipeline spills, according to the 2003 book Oil in the Sea III by the U.S. National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, which is still considered the authority on oil-spill data.

Most oil pollution is “different than the pictures you see of beaches covered with tar and ducks getting stuck in it,” said David Valentine, a biogeochemist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. (Read more about how pollution harms the oceans.)

Here are three little-reported sources of oil that contribute to oil pollution in North American oceans.

1. Natural Seeps

Natural seeps of oil underneath the Earth’s surface account for 60 percent of the estimated total load in North American waters and 40 percent worldwide, according to the National Academy of Sciences.

These leakages occur when oil—which is lighter than water—escapes into the water column from highly pressurized seafloor rock. (Read about Gulf of Mexico seeps.)

Off Santa Barbara, California, some 20 to 25 tons of oil flows from seafloor cracks daily—making it one of the world’s largest seeps.

Valentine, who studies the Santa Barbara seep, noted that much of the natural oil is consumed by ocean bacteria that have evolved to eat certain oil molecules. (Read about how nature tackles oil spills.)

But in “places which don’t have natural oil seeps and you come along with an oil spill or a sewer pipe that delivers [oil pollution], organisms have not had an opportunity to adapt and are going to respond differently,” said John Farrington, dean emeritus and marine geochemist with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

2. Cars and Other Land Vehicles

A “pretty big issue,” Valentine said, is the oil on roads and other surfaces that’s flushed into the sea during rainstorms.

Most cars drip oil onto the ground, usually on impermeable concrete or asphalt, and that oil ends up trickling into the ocean. In drier places like California, the oil builds up on the asphalt and, when it finally rains, the water shuttles large amounts of oil into the ocean.

“We’re doing a much better job than 40 or 50 years ago of recycling motor oil,” Woods Hole’s Farrington said. “You can find storm sewers around the nation that have stencils on them that say ‘don’t dump, it goes to the sea.’ So there’s less input in that regard.”

But he notes that there are still a lot of cars and trucks contributing to the “dribble, dribble, dribble” effect of slow leaks that end up on asphalt and contribute to runoff pollution.

Not surprisingly, this sort of invisible pollution is more subtle than the Galveston Bay spill, which is much more localized and visible, Valentine noted.

Oil runoff from land is “complex in that it can hang around [in the ocean] and move between water and sediment, [which] makes it difficult to effectively track.”

A hotly debated topic, he added, is what these constant pulses of oil are doing to the environment and its inhabitants. Scientists know that animals directly exposed to oil suffer health problems, but what’s unknown is the impact of low, chronic oil exposures on wildlife, he said. (Related: “On 25th Exxon Valdez Anniversary, Oil Still Clings to Beaches.”)

3. Recreational Boats

People operating recreational craft, such as Jet Skis and boats, sometimes spill oil into the ocean.

“It’s usually operational error, human error or unpreparedness, [or] lack of education. A lot of time mostly it’s just negligence,” said Aaron Barnett, a boating program specialist at Washington Sea Grant, a state-federal partnership aimed at marine research and outreach across Washington State.

“It’s just not on [boaters’] radar scope. They’re there to have fun, it’s leisure, it’s recreation. … That means that certain things don’t get dealt with, like proper engine maintenance.”

Barnett added that boat owners will top off their fuel tanks as they would a car, and on a hot day the fuel expands and escapes through a vent.

Just like land-based pollution, though, oil spills by recreational boats are “hard to track, because about 80 percent of oil spills go unreported, so there’s really no way to know” on what scale this is happening, Barnett said.

Overall, he said, the Environmental Protection Agency “looks at the small-oil-spill problem as sort of like death by a thousand cuts.”

Nat Geo

10 Comments on "3 Surprising Sources of Oil Pollution in the Ocean"

  1. Makati1 on Wed, 26th Mar 2014 2:25 am 

    No news here. We’ve been using the ocean as a sewer for centuries. Now it is beginning to stink and we wonder why.

  2. rollin on Wed, 26th Mar 2014 3:12 am 

    Oil escaping into the environment is a large environmental problem. However, destructive fishing practices, societal induced erosion, ocean heating and ocean acidification are all much more calamitous problems. Add to that the chemical runoff from modern farming practice and life on this planet is under a concerted attack.

  3. Keith_McClary on Wed, 26th Mar 2014 4:15 am 

    “In drier places like California, the oil builds up on the asphalt and, when it finally rains, the water shuttles large amounts of oil into the ocean.”

    The oily roads get really slippery when that rain hits.

  4. rollin on Wed, 26th Mar 2014 4:22 am 

    Since the earth is now fully lubricated maybe the spin will stop slowing down.

  5. DC on Wed, 26th Mar 2014 5:56 am 

    None of these are ‘suprising’. Maybe to provincial amerikans. To anyone remotely educated, not so. Many articles have been written about the effects of leaking cars and water craft. But like most things that collide with our gas-powered sense of entitlement, they have pretty well been ignored for the most part.

    Q/People operating recreational craft, such as Jet Skis and boats, sometimes spill oil into the ocean.

    Not ‘sometimes’ ALL the time. Boats leak gas and oil even when not in use-just like cars do. I tried to find information on the provinces lakes to learn how much gas and oil waste was present. Nothing. Seems the MoE doesn’t even monitor that(unless there is some big accident and the media gets involved)*, even for the big ‘recreational lakes’. Handy isnt it? I can find about about algae bloom counts from the gov’t-but nothing about how much gasoline and oil has been dumped into the lakes near me over the past 50+ years.

    * When this does happen, the MoE primary job seems to be to issue press releases, assuring everyone that spills did no real or lasting harm-sound familiar?

  6. Davy, Hermann, MO on Wed, 26th Mar 2014 11:28 am 

    DC, here in Missouri we take our water serious with the department of conservation and department of natural resources. There are many educational efforts at non-point pollution. We have almost every significant stream in the state adopted by groups for cleanup and monitoring. They are called stream teams. Our state has big tourism industry so we can’t let our water be ruined. Most cities now have decent water treatment. Why must The US always be a focus of your criticism within any discussion? I wonder what infraction America caused you or maybe it is you need a whipping boy for everything. You know like some unhappy man that beats the dog in the morning when he gets up out of bed. You act like your Quebec is God’s country or something. I have been there. A beautiful place but in no way an example for the rest of the world of zero exploitation of industrial man.

  7. bobinget on Wed, 26th Mar 2014 1:24 pm 

    As kids in Miami we would often get at dawn and walk the beach looking for ‘good stuff’ that had washed up there night before. Nazi U-Boats were sinking merchant ships almost nightly in 1942/43 in the Gulf Stream. Every third or forth night Germans would sink an oil tanker headed to Europe. Late into the 1970’s
    Beach life-guards always had a can of kerosene and rags for tourists to clean tar off their feet. Here’s the
    good part. Adults all knew why those tar balls were on the beach but never complained.. Stiff upper lips, ya know. (those lips and noses were covered with white stuff)

  8. baptised on Wed, 26th Mar 2014 5:41 pm 

    Barnett added that boat owners will top off their fuel tanks as they would a car, and on a hot day the fuel expands and escapes through a vent. Are you telling me modern boats can’t have a vent that goes upward. Duh.

  9. baptised on Wed, 26th Mar 2014 5:42 pm 

    Or a catch can.

  10. AWB on Wed, 26th Mar 2014 11:29 pm 

    Hey it wasn’t that long ago that New York City would put all its trash on a barge and tow it a hundred miles offshore, and then just dump it.

    There was a well known phrase in environmental studies several decades ago. “The solution to pollution is dilution.”

    God bless us, one and all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *