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The legacy of Deepwater Horizon: What researchers learned about oil spills

The legacy of Deepwater Horizon: What researchers learned about oil spills thumbnail

The explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in 2010 caused an environmental disaster. But an oil spill like that could happen again, scientists say. Will they be able to prevent worse in the future?

Blazing remnants of the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon in April 2010 (Reuters) 21 April 2010: Fireboats battling the blazing remnants of the oil rig

The search for crude oil has become increasingly desperate. As easily-accessible sources run dry, more challenging oil springs are being sought out – including ultra-deep wells in the ocean.

But what if something goes wrong?

The Deepwater Horizon disaster was a terrible example of the environmental devastation that can be caused through deepwater drilling.

On 20 April 2010, BP’s mobile offshore drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, 41 miles off the Louisiana coast. It resulted in a massive offshore oil spill.

Until the well could be sealed five months later, 780 million liters (210 million gallons) of crude oil leaked into the gulf, polluting ocean and coastal ecosystems and killing marine mammals, fish and seabirds in large numbers.

“It was a seminal event that changed our thinking forever about drilling,” said Nancy Kinner, director of the Coastal Response Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, speaking in Boston.

Louisina coast: Oil of Deepwater Horizon on top of the water (Getty Images) Oil from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead washes up at the coast of Louisiana in May 2010

Researchers had come together at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) to discuss what they had learned from the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

“We are going to leave a legacy of science that is useful for the next time – and there will be a next time,” said Steven Murawski, of the College of Marine Science at the University of South Florida.

Scientists agreed that accidents and oil spills will occur as long as we continue to drill for crude oil under such difficult conditions. But the question was, how can we contain the worst effects of such an incident?

Oil spread

Nearly $1 billion has been invested into scientific research covering the Deepwater Horizon accident and its consequences, coordinated by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative.

“Even though we might not be able to prevent such accidents in the future, we will be able to have a better response strategy,” chemical engineer Michael Schlüter, of the Hamburg University of Technology, told DW. “This way, we will be able to prevent worse next time.”

When the rig exploded in 2010, it was drilling at a water depth of about 1,500 meters ( 5,000 feet). Nobody knew at that time how the leaking oil would spread and where it would end up, Schlüter explains.

Experiments with leaking oil underwater (TUHH/M.Schlüter) Oil spilling under water in the lab

Now, Schlüter and his colleagues have developed models to quickly calculate exactly that.

“We can predict how the oil spreads, if it will dispose in the sediment of the ocean floor, or if it will float to the surface, and on which coast it might be washed up,” he said.

Scientists will only need a few data to feed into their model, for example, the type of crude oil, the water depth of the leakage, pressure loss at the vent and how much natural gas the crude oil contains.

Schlüter points out that oil companies should be forced by law to keep track of those data and release them as soon as possible if an accident occurs, so that scientists can get to work. Up-to-date data on ocean currents, which are also needed to be fed into the model, are already recorded and published.

Protecting the coast

Keeping such detailed data, means that scientists might even be able to change the course of events at a future oil spill, Schlüter claims. By knowing how the crude oil behaves in the water, they could apply measures to change that behavior.

For example, they could get the oil to collect at different water layers, which will transport the pollutant away from coasts, wetlands and other sensitive ecosystems.

“It is like riding a balloon,” explained Schlüter. “You are not able to steer but you bring your balloon in the airspace which has the right wind direction.”

Scientists can also make the crude oil sink to the ocean floor – the preferred option given that natural bacteria are then able to degrade the oil quickly.

The secret to changing the oil’s behaviour and its route in the ocean is the size of the oil droplets and the amount of natural gas which is dissolved in the crude oil. With this information, together with data on the water depth, they are able to determine the oil’s density and thus, how fast it will rise to the ocean surface.

In contrast, when particles from dead plants or marine organisms stick to the oil, it sinks.

Crude oil escaping from Deepwater Horizon oil well (picture-alliance/dpa) A live video showed how huge amounts of crude oil spilled into the ocean

Dispersing the problem

After the Deepwater Horizon explosion, 7 million liters (1.84 million US gallons) of Corexit oil dispersant was applied in the Gulf of Mexico.

Dispersant emulsifies oil into tiny droplets, making it sink or preventing it from floating to the surface in the first place. However, if applied without need, those substances simply add to the chemicals distributed into the ocean.

US Airforce planes sprayed Corexit onto the crude oil slick, while BP, for the first time ever, injected the chemical 1,500 meters underwater at the site of the leakage.

Researchers are still not sure if the Corexit did any good in dispersing the oil in the case of the Deepwater Horizon accident. “There are a lot of studies on that and they conflict with each other,” said Steven Murawski. “We still have to sift through all that dirt.”

Meanwhile, the damage to biodiversity itself, it seems, depends on the species. For some animals, the dispersant seems to have caused more harm than the oil itself.

Engineer Schlüter points out that according to their models, injecting huge amounts of Corexit was probably unnecessary: the oil droplets were already small enough. The scientists’ model might predict at future oil spills if applying dispersant would help or not.

Pelican covered with oil in Gulf of Mexico (AP) Pelicans were only one of the many species that suffered from the oil spill

Be careful where you drill

The Deepwater Horizon disaster might seem like the worst that could have happened – but actually it wasn’t, Schlüter says. Much of the crude oil sank to the ocean floor – a good thing. Plus, the bacteria biodegraded the oil much quicker than anticipated.

“There already is a lot of oil dispersed in the Gulf of Mexico from natural seeps and previous spills,” Schlüter explained. “That’s why there are already a lot of bacteria which live from decomposing oil and they grow even more quickly in the case of such an accident.”

This, however, will probably not be the case in other regions of the world. So, an accident like at Deepwater Horizon might have an even worse impact on the environment if it happens elsewhere – in the Arctic, for example.

Scientists and their computer models might be able to prevent the worst at future oil spills. But it might be even better to think more carefully about where drilling should be allowed in the first place

Deutsche Welle

28 Comments on "The legacy of Deepwater Horizon: What researchers learned about oil spills"

  1. coffeeguyzz on Sat, 25th Feb 2017 11:13 am 

    Recent studies of the Aliso Canyon leak revealed a new microbe appeared to consume the newly-introduced methane/methane in the surrounding soil.
    Somewhat similar to the microbes that bloomed near the DW Horizon tragedy, these microbes neutralize the hydrocarbons.

    There is a flurry of research underway to better understand and utilize this approach in containment scenarios regarding hydrocarbons.

  2. Go Speed Racer on Sat, 25th Feb 2017 12:12 pm 

    What the researchers learned about oil

    The punishment is inversely proportional
    to the size of the spill.

    So the guy who dumps 4 quarts of old motor oil into the ravine? Oh, 10 years busting rocks in the federal pen.

    But Deepwater Horizon, a premeditated disaster
    visible from outer space?
    The punishment is pricey hookers, cocaine, and
    unlimited free money from the federal government.

    Oh and the two guys most responsible, they get promoted to the board of directors, so that they can
    drive home about $300 million a year
    in an unmarked cargo van.

    But if you split open an old milk jug with a gallon of used oil, Pow out go the lights you are in prison.

    That’s what the researchers learned. If ya gonna
    pollute, do it on a grand scale.

  3. Anonymous on Sat, 25th Feb 2017 1:05 pm 

    Researchers also learned, ‘Crime really does pay’.*

    This story, about magical oil-eating microbes is just that, a story. Junk science, bought and brought to you by, guess who? BP and friends. Its what they pay all those ‘scientists’ for after all.

    “The Deepwater Horizon disaster might seem like the worst that could have happened – but actually it wasn’t, Schlüter says. Much of the crude oil sank to the ocean floor – a good thing. Plus, the bacteria biodegraded the oil much quicker than anticipated.”

    This line alone, and all the others as well, show this clearly is a load of BS.

    REAL scientists will tell you crude settling on the ocean bottom is bad, very bad. Nor is there the slightest evidence anything like magic micros eating all that oil up has ever occurred. REAL scientists again, tell us a lot of that oil, what didn’t settle on the bottom, is suspended in the water column.

    Regardless where it ends up, the GoM disaster will be the gift that keeps on giving.

    As an aside, assume for a second, BPs magic microbes exist and are eating all that crude.

    What will these microbes excrete? , ya crude

    What happens when these microbes die? You’ll get all the oil they ‘magically absorbed’ back again. If nature worked the way corporate oils ‘scientists’ tell us, problem solved. But nature works the way nature wants, not corporate oils PR dept.

  4. coffeeguyzz on Sat, 25th Feb 2017 2:22 pm 


    Ordinarily I would not respond to the ‘you’re a fucktard cuz I don’t agree’ tone that permeates (infests?) the comment section on this fine site, but your ‘contribution’ so succinctly displays the abysmal nature frequently shown by regular contributors, I feel I must reply …

    Caltech scientist, Victoria Orphan, is the one who stumbled across the Aliso Canyon microbes.
    These types of organisms have been known for years and, for those truly interested in bettering people’s lives, might pique some interest in forestalling environmental mishaps.

    Of course,to the rapidly diminishing circle of hardcore adherents posting to this site, jerking unwanted facts back and forth while extending hands of … support to their fellow doomsayers, positive actions are anathema when wholesale negativity is the pervasive tone.

    You, Anonymous, and your regular fellow posters, have become the laughingstock of internet readers of peak oil matters and the adolescent, toxic, venemous bile that seems to sustain you (collectively) provides little more than perverse entertainment.

  5. dissident on Sat, 25th Feb 2017 2:26 pm 

    Even though you are barking up the right tree, you make yourself look like a crank with that rambling, Anonymous.

    Consumption by microbes does not mean storage, it means chemical decomposition. So the oil hydrocarbons are broken down into H2O and CO2 to extract the chemical energy. The dead microbes are no more toxic than any other dead microbes and are part of the carbon sequestration process on the seafloor.
    However, it is true that not all hydrocarbon chemical species can be broken down all the way and we have the formation of humic substances (as in the natural system). These complex organic molecules are no longer digestible (labile) and are chemically more inert. Toxicity reflects chemical activity so biologically inert chemicals are not toxic as one would popularly consider toxicity.

    Real scientists do know that magic mutations do not happen like in scifi stories. So existing microbes will attack what fraction of the oil they can consume. The rest is “inert” but breaks down into more active chemicals (carcinogens) over time.

  6. Anonymous on Sat, 25th Feb 2017 5:09 pm 

    Looky here, we have a wallmart special on retards. Diss and some random drive-by shill.

    No matter what these two retards above are claiming, no magical organisms are naturally and organically scrubbing BPs mess from the ocean.

    Better luck next time, retards.

  7. Apneaman on Sat, 25th Feb 2017 5:49 pm 

    Michael Savage Says He Spent “Over An Hour Alone” With Trump And Urged Him To Continue Denying Human-Caused Climate Change

    Warmest February day ever for Worcester: 68 degrees

    One for the books: Boston breaks all-time warmest temperature record for February

    I hope both Cheeto and Savage live another 10 years. I want to see their faces as the AGW hammer comes down again and again and the deniers kids and wives bodies start piling up.

  8. Apneaman on Sat, 25th Feb 2017 6:15 pm 

    Trump’s Potential Science Adviser Will Happer: Carbon Dioxide Demonized Just Like “Poor Jews Under Hitler”

    ‘It Felt Like An Apocalypse’: Residents Return After Historic Flooding in San Jose

    About two-thirds of the 14,000 evacuated residents were being allowed to return home after Coyote Creek overflowed its banks then began to recede


    California governor plans to spend nearly $450 million on flood control but says more needed

    California Gov. Jerry Brown said Friday he wants to spend about $450 million for flood control but concedes billions more in water infrastructure spending is needed over the longer term.

    The heavy winter storms in California have stressed the state’s aging flood-control systems, ranging from significant erosion damage to spillways at Oroville Dam to flooding in major cities such as San Jose. Brown estimated “nearly $50 billion” of needs still remain in the state’s flood management infrastructure.

    “What’s required is to take some immediate action, which we’re doing,” Brown said during a press conference announcing his four-point plan, which is designed “to bolster dam safety and flood protection.”

    San Jose Flood Photos: Dramatic images of this week’s disaster

  9. Apneaman on Sat, 25th Feb 2017 6:21 pm 

    Daily CO2

    February 24, 2017: 408.28 ppm

    February 24, 2016: 404.20 ppm

    January CO2

    January 2017: 406.07 ppm

    January 2016: 402.64 ppm

    Tackling the harrowing devastation of flooding

    “This was the beginning of the devastating flooding that drenched Thailand’s 12 southern provinces over almost two months, and damaged or destroyed more than half a million homes, affecting nearly 2 million people. It washed away houses, caused bridges to collapse and contaminated water systems.”

    Southern Hemisphere Is No Haven From Abrupt Climate Change

    “Did you hear that many (some?, half?) of the ultra-rich are preparing for abrupt climate change by buying spaces underground, and in spots like New Zealand. Sorry, but the Southern Hemisphere is NO haven from abrupt climate system mayhem.”

  10. BobInget on Sat, 25th Feb 2017 6:30 pm 

    Key West FL (average / Fahrenheit), 69, 70, 75, 78, 82, 85, 87, 87, 86, 82, 76, 72 ..
    A fine environment for oil munching microbes..

    Could those same bugs even exist in the Arctic?

    “Ok, so you know the Arctic is cold, right? But did you know that minimum temperatures of -90°Fahrenheit (-68° Celsius) can be reached in Greenland and northern Siberia during winter months?!? That’s pretty cold! Now it’s not that cold all the time all over the Arctic. The average Arctic winter temperature is -30° F (-34°C), while the average Arctic summer temperature is 37-54° F (3-12° C). “

  11. makati1 on Sat, 25th Feb 2017 6:38 pm 

    AP” I like your comment: “I hope both Cheeto and Savage live another 10 years. I want to see their faces as the AGW hammer comes down again and again and the deniers kids and wives bodies start piling up.”

    The problem is: most of the powers that are causing today’s problems are old farts who should have been dead years ago. They are proof of the saying that that only the good die young. Most are in their late 70s, 80s or even early 90s. 10 years will see them dead and decomposing, I hope. They have nothing to lose by taking the rest of us to extinction.

  12. BobInget on Sat, 25th Feb 2017 6:42 pm 

    Apneaman, Stop warning these men.
    It’s of no use. Dies have been cast. It’s too late.

    Progress will happen, one funeral at a time.

    Stay healthy if only to watch those coffins float by.

  13. onlooker on Sat, 25th Feb 2017 6:49 pm 

    Old farts still hanging around: Kissinger, the Queen of Britain, George Bush, Zhybrenski, George Soros, Rupert Murdoch, the Koch Bros, Rockfeller and Rothchilds, Dick Cheney

  14. James boags on Sat, 25th Feb 2017 9:52 pm 

    Hey speed how much time would I get if I burned my old mattress and couch?

  15. Apneaman on Sat, 25th Feb 2017 9:54 pm 

    Bob, it’s never too late for an individual to try and redeem themselves. Maybe one of the Koch’s will have a bedside conversion and he will, “will” his entire fortune to me, so I may expand the range of my enlightening project. I would give half to Paul Beckwith – one of the few scientists telling it straight. Sure Paul may appear a little odd to some, at first, but so what if he’s geeky, he has integrity and courage. How the others can continue to play it so cautious at this late hour is beyond me. I would have thought there would have been at least a half dozen more who would just tell it like it is.

  16. James boags on Sat, 25th Feb 2017 9:59 pm 

    If I throw a dozen old tyres i got out the back on the fire you might see that from space as well

  17. Apneaman on Sat, 25th Feb 2017 10:24 pm 

    February 19, 2017 @ 7:00 pm

    Resistance Radio – Dahr Jamail – 02.19.17

    Dahr Jamail is an award winning journalist and author who is a full-time staff reporter for He is currently working on a book about abrupt climate change, called The End of Ice.

  18. Go Speed Racer on Sun, 26th Feb 2017 12:58 am 

    Well hi James,
    before the election, burning mattresses
    and couches in your backyard and making
    your neighbors cough and sneeze, might have
    set you back 30 days in the local slammer,
    and a $10,000 fine for illegal outdoor burning.

    But that was under Obama. Now that Trump
    Is President, it’s now legal to burn anything you want,
    so long as it’s not nuclear and the flames are no higher
    than 42 feet in the air.

    Also your neighbors, so long as they voted
    for Trump, can come over, drink beer and
    add a few tires of their own.

    It’s great to be free of regulations, and an example
    how Trump is making America Great Again!

  19. Go Speed Racer on Sun, 26th Feb 2017 1:26 am 

    One of the most exciting possibilities for
    future human activities in Space, is now
    being studied by NASA.

    It’s remarkable, there are not many places where humans could setup a colony.

    On Venus, there is possibility of a floating space ship, sort of like Hindenburg. But its impossible to land because of the high surface temperatures.

    The Moon yes, but no air and lethal radiation would raise costs and risk of
    having a space colony.

    Even Mars, no oxygen, almost a Vacuum, and during solar flares, lethal radiation.

    NASA scientists investigated that if we
    are to have sofa, mattress, and tire fires on Mars, we would need special equipment. Including lightweight gas cans, shatter-proof beer bottles, low density potato chips, and special oxygenated briquettes that release the oxygen into the mattress fire. Also special rocket shipments of old tires mattresses and garbage, sent from Earth. This would be a complex undertaking.

    Also the atmosphere, of much lower density than Earth, is unclear how the black clouds of smoke would dissipate on Mars.

    NASA concludes that such technical
    complexity of delivering the
    necessary supplies to remote colonies,
    suggests we are more capable as a species,
    of having backyard garbage fires only here on
    Earth, rather than on other planets.

  20. James boags on Sun, 26th Feb 2017 1:38 am 

    Sounds great speed . Mabey that’s what trump was on about making America great again. There would be at least 10million mattresses a year being thrown out in the scrap heap I wonder what the eroei on them would be not much I suspect seen as most would be at least 20 years old before being discarded and most would of been maufactured when energy was still cheap so that could make America great again for a couple of years .

  21. Go Speed Racer on Sun, 26th Feb 2017 2:06 am 

    If we make garbage fires legal again,
    there is enough energy burning garbage
    to power the whole
    country electric grid . Well it would have to
    be burned at waste to energy incinerators,
    not in your backyard.
    That takes some of the fun out of it,
    but everybody has to do their part.

  22. James boags on Sun, 26th Feb 2017 3:30 am 

    If only someone could come up with a viable mattress incinerator then mabey we don’t need to bother spending billions on nuclear fission energy .

  23. Midnight Oil on Sun, 26th Feb 2017 7:18 am 

    Thought the movie, ,”Deepwater Horizen” was well done, learned much.
    Can’t wait for another disaster flick,
    “Fukushima; A comedy of errors”
    Man, there is a trilogy there!

  24. Go Speed Racer on Sun, 26th Feb 2017 8:31 am 

    Ther is one huge falsehood presented in the movie
    Deepwater Horizon.

    In an early scene, a supervisor tells his subordinate
    some dental advice. Supervisor insists that teeth
    should be brushed and flossed in the morning.
    This is a big error, the most critical time to brush and
    flows teeth is before bedtime. Because you don’t want
    food particles between the teeth overnight.

    When people can’t even understand something like
    brushing their teeth, no wonder
    they blew up the rig.

    Hi James yeah I have been recommending for long time
    those Ruskin reactor projects take the Fusion reactor vessel and fill up with tires mattresses and tree
    stumps pour in gas and light on fire. Because you will
    get more heat that way than from fusion.
    Somebody this chat board pointed out the energy
    density of the plasma ball is a known constant and
    to get meaningful power output the fusion reactor
    would have to be bigger than the Empire State Building.

  25. Go Speed Racer on Sun, 26th Feb 2017 8:44 am 

    On an Apple iPhone, it has the stupidest shittiest
    keyboard on the entire planet. Type in Fusion and it
    puts out Ruskin, which is not even a word!!!

    Oh but they pay every one of thei East Indian PhD’s
    a quarter million dollars a year, while the rest of us get
    to suffer using the crappiest keyboard ever
    implemented in the history of the known universe.

    I mean think about it. Go get a mechanical typewriter
    from 110 years ago and it will type circles around the
    shitty iPhone keyboard.
    But ohhhh they are th most brilliant people in the universe… NOT!! Rule #1 everybody is insane,
    And Rule #2 no problem shall ever get solved
    And Rule #3 the richest 0.1% get to have more and
    more money, and the 99.9% get to have less and less.

    Fixing energy problems is not even on the list.
    Apple ships one million iPhones a day, and fixing their
    broken keyboard is not even on the list.

  26. diemos on Sun, 26th Feb 2017 8:56 am 

    The keyboard is fine. Your fingers are too big. 😉

  27. Go Speed Racer on Sun, 26th Feb 2017 2:54 pm 

    LOL if U say so.

  28. Hubert on Sun, 26th Feb 2017 5:22 pm 


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