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Gulf Oil Leaks Could Gush for Years

May 20th, 2010 No comments

“We don’t have any idea how to stop this,” expert says.

Photograph by Gerald Herbert, AP

Christine Dell’Amore

National Geographic News

Published May 13, 2010

If efforts fail to cap the leaking Deepwater Horizon wellhead in the Gulf of Mexico (map), oil could gush for years—poisoning coastal habitats for decades, experts say.

(See satellite pictures of the Gulf oil spill’s evolution.)

Last week the joint federal-industry task force charged with managing the spill tried unsuccessfully to lower a 93-ton containment dome (pictures) over one of three ruptures in the rig’s downed pipe.

Crystals of methane hydrates in the freezing depths clogged an opening on the box, preventing it from funneling the spouting oil up to a waiting ship.

Watch video of the failed attempt to cap the leaking pipe.

Yesterday a smaller dome was laid on the seafloor near the faulty well, and officials will attempt to install the structure later this week.

But such recovery operations have never been done before in the extreme deep-sea environment around the wellhead, noted Matthew Simmons, retired chair of the energy-industry investment banking firm Simmons & Company International.

For instance, at the depth of the gushing wellhead—5,000 feet (about 1,500 meters)—containment technologies have to withstand extremely high pressures.

Also, slant drilling—a technique used to relieve pressure near the leak—is difficult at these depths, because the relief well has to tap into the original pipe, a tiny target at about 7 inches (18 centimeters) wide, Simmons noted.

“We don’t have any idea how to stop this,” Simmons said of the Gulf leak. Some of the proposed strategies—such as temporarily plugging the leaking pipe with a jet of golf balls and other material—are a “joke,” he added.

“We really are in unprecedented waters.”

Gulf Oil Reservoir Bleeding Dry

If the oil can’t be stopped, the underground reservoir may continue bleeding until it’s dry, Simmons suggested.

The most recent estimates are that the leaking wellhead has been spewing 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons, or 795,000 liters) of oil a day.

And the oil is still flowing robustly, which suggests that the reserve “would take years to deplete,” said David Rensink, incoming president of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists.

“You’re talking about a reservoir that could have tens of millions of barrels in it.”

At that rate, it’s possible the Gulf oil spill’s damage to the environment will have lingering effects akin to those of the largest oil spill in history, which happened in Saudi Arabia in 1991, said Miles Hayes, co-founder of the science-and-technology consulting firm Research Planning, Inc., based in South Carolina.

During the Gulf War, the Iraqi military intentionally spilled up to 336 million gallons (about 1.3 billion liters) of oil into the Persian Gulf (map) to slow U.S. troop advances, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Hayes was part of a team that later studied the environmental impacts of the spill, which impacted about 500 miles (800 kilometers) of Saudi Arabian coastline.

The scientists discovered a “tremendous” amount of oiled sediment remained on the Saudi coast 12 years after the spill—about 3 million cubic feet (856,000 cubic meters). (See “Exxon Valdez Anniversary: 20 Years Later, Oil Remains.”)

Oil Spills Create Toxic Marshes

Perhaps most sobering for the marsh-covered U.S. Gulf Coast, the 2003 report found that the Saudi oil spill was most toxic to the region’s marshes and mud flats.

Up to 89 percent of the Saudi marshes and 71 percent of the mud flats had not bounced back after 12 years, the team discovered. (See pictures of freshwater plants and animals.)

“It was amazing to stand there and look across what used to be a salt marsh and it was all dead—not even a live crab,” Hayes said.

Saudi and U.S. Gulf Coast marshes aren’t exactly the same—Saudi marshes sit in saltier waters, and the Middle Eastern climate is more arid, for example. “But to some extent they serve the same ecological function, which is extremely important,” he said.

As the nurseries for much of the sea life in the Gulf of Mexico, coastal marshes are vital to the ecosystem and the U.S. seafood industry.

It’s also much harder to remove oil from coastal marshes, since some management techniques—such as controlled burns—are more challenging in those environments, said Texas Tech University ecotoxicologist Ron Kendall.

“Once it gets in there, we’re not getting it out,” he said. (See pictures of ten animals threatened by the Gulf oil spill.)

Gulf Coast Should “Plan for the Worst”

Depth isn’t the only factor that can stymie attempts to plug an oil leak.

The 1979 Ixtoc oil spill, also in the Gulf of Mexico, took nine months to cap. During that time the well spewed 140 million gallons (530 million liters) of oil—and the Ixtoc well was only about 160 feet (49 meters) deep, noted retired energy investment banker Simmons.

Efforts to contain the Ixtoc leak were complicated by poor visibility in the water and debris from the wrecked rig on the seafloor.

Also, the high pressure of oil in the well ruptured valves in the blowout preventer, a device designed to automatically cap an out-of-control-well. Recovery workers had to drill relief wells nearby before divers could cap the leak.

(See “Rig Explosion Shows Risks in Key Oil Frontier.”)

In general, Simmons added, officials scrambling to cap the Deepwater Horizon well should be working just as hard to protect the shorelines in what could become a protracted event.

“We have to hope for the best,” he said, “but plan for the worst.”

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Status and strategies

May 20th, 2010 No comments

Latest offshore surface oil forecast from NOAA has region of non-contiguous sheens and scattered tarballs extending to the Southeast  from the incident location.  This is surrounded by a large uncertainty boundary located between the Loop Current in deepwater and the shallow water of the continental shelf.  This region between the Loop Current and the shelf is a difficult region to forecasts because of the many mesoscale eddies that are present.  On the Shelf, the HF radar surface currents  (shown here in dark green) provide a  assimilation data for the models in a region where winds play an even stronger role.

The image below is the 1-day composite Sea Surface Temperature map.  It shows a large excursion of the Loop Current in the process of breaking off into a large scale Loop Current Eddy with a warm core.

Data from the satellite altimeter shown below also indicate that the large amplitude Loop Current intrusion into the Gulf is in the process of breaking off into a clockwise rotating eddy around a high (red) in the sea surface height.

Below is the Navy’s HyCOM forecast that assimilates sea surface temperature and satellite altimetry.  It also shows the developing closed circulation around the sea surface high (red).   Also in this model run is a jet of water moving south between 85W and 86 W from the incident site and into the Loop Current.

This jet in the Hycom forecast is in good agreement with today’s sea surface temperature map, showing the warm water in the SST corresponds to the location of the jet.

The Altimetry also is in agreement with this feature that appears in the model.  This gives us confidence that the assimilation scheme is doing a relatively good job of incorporating the data into the forecast.

It also highlights an area of uncertainty.  This region in the deepwater between the Loop Current and the shelf break is difficult to forecast.  The Loop Current and the Potential Loop Current Eddy are well resolved by the altimeter, and the models do a good job assimilating this data and getting the features in the right locations.  The shelf is more wind driven, so assimilation of HF Radar surface currents provides a very good starting point for the models in this region.  The intermediate deep water, however, has smaller eddies, not always captured by the spacing of the altimeter.  And the flow depends on the highly variable 3-d structure of the temperature and salinity fields.  This intermediate region is the region where the gliders will be most effective in improving the forecasts.  This is the region we are targeting as a priority for gliders, and is one reason why RU21 has its waypoint set for 27 N, 85 W at the northeast corner of the developing Loop Current Eddy and crossing through the region just inshore of the Eddy.

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Glider data reveals subsurface structures as we head offshore

May 20th, 2010 2 comments

We are making good progress heading offshore.  The glider should reach the edge of the eddy/loop current in 4-5 days.  We are passing the 40 m isobath and with luck will continue to make good progress.

We are beginning to some structure in the water column physical properties.  At about the 30m isobath we see “cooler” bottom water (~5-7 degrees colder than the surface water).  The temperature stratification is clearly evident and the thermocline is found at ~20m water depth.  The salinity shows more spatial variability, but generally the nearshore waters are less saline than the deeper offshore waters. There is about a 2 salinity unit difference between the nearshore and offshore waters.  The net result is the water column is stable with with the densest water found found in the bottom waters at ~30 m isobath.

There is variability in the optical features of the water column. The highest particle loads are found in the offshore dense bottom waters.  Backscatter signals are generally proportional to the particle load (note there are some caveats which make it difficult to convert the backscatter directly to a particle concentration).  The particle load is also high in the nearshore waters at almost all depths.  The surface backscatter values are high in the surface waters, but the absolute magnitude appears to be decreasing as the glider heads further offhshore. Chlorophyll fluorescence indicates the highest chlorophyll, and thus phytoplankton, is found at depth near the sea floor.  Surface values of phytoplankton are  low and there is no diel signal seen in the surface waters.  Not surprisingly the absolute concentrations of chlorophyll is low consistent with the clear oligotrophic conditions we expect in the Gulf. The glider is also measuring Colored Dissolved Organic Fluorescence (CDOM).  Generally the CDOM values are highest in the near-shore lower salinity waters and in the dense bottom waters offshore.  We hope to use CDOM signal as a proxy for hydrocarbon concentrations.  We will explore this concept in the coming days.

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ROFFS Oceanographic Analysis Oil Update 19 May 2010

May 20th, 2010 No comments

ROFFER’S OCEAN FISHING FORECASTING SERVICE, INC.

WWW.ROFFS.COM – (321) 723-5759 // EMAIL: FISH7@ROFFS.COM

ROFFS™ OCEANOGRAPHIC ANALYSIS FOR THE DEEPWATER HORIZON OIL SPILL AREA

UPDATED WEDNESDAY 19 MAY 2010 (17:00 HRS)

Today we did not receive any new synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imagery from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory or from the Envisat satellite (ASAR sensor). Yesterday we had received some dramatically clear imagery that clearly showed the oil is being pulled around the southern and southeastern side of the large counter-clockwise rotating eddy which was centered near 86°17′W & 27°27′N this afternoon. We have shown the observed oil from yesterday’s SAR imagery in an opaque olive green color on today’s analysis. Today, it appears that the majority of this oil, which was followed in our sequential image analysis, is being re-circulated around this counter-clockwise rotating eddy. It does appear as if some of the oil near 85°18′W & 27°30′N, 84°58′W & 27°30′N, and 85°00′W & 27°37′N may be moving east/southeastward and towards the east/northeastern side of the Loop Current and towards the area inshore of the 100 fathom depths offshore of Tampa, but at this point it remains to be seen how much oil will take this route and ride along the eastern edge of the Loop Current. The most recent SAR and RGB images showing the path of the oil can be viewed on our website at (http://www.roffs.com/deepwaterhorizon.html). We have included yesterday afternoon’s SAR image in today’s analysis just in case you did not receive it yesterday. We have annotated today’s SAR imagery so that you can see the oil. These images confirm again our water mass – sequential image analysis technique that we have been using since the initial accident back on April 21, 2010. See the analyses from last week on our website for other evidence of this. Obviously the oil has continues to move closer and closer to the Loop Current system than we had seen since last week using infrared, ocean color and visible (RGB and SAR) satellite data. This is mainly interaction of the large counter-clockwise eddy centered near 86°17′W & 27°25′N with the eastern edge of the Loop Current.

The question continues to be how fast and how much of this oil will be pulled towards the ride along the northeaster and eastern edge of the Loop Current. It remains to be seen how much of the oil visible in yesterday’s SAR imagery from 87°00′W & 27°30′N to 86°30′W & 27°05′N to 85°30′W & 27°30′N with be circulated north/northwestward back around and towards the core of the large counter-clockwise rotating eddy and how much will be pulled southeastward along the eastern side of the Loop Current. Although we were not able to observe this oil today in the visible (SAR and RGB) imagery due to lack of coverage and cloud cover/haze, it does appear from our sequential image analysis that more oil is being pulled towards the eddy than is being pulled towards the east/northeastern edge of the Loop Current. This large eddy has pushed the eastern edge of the Loop Current between 26°00′N to 27°30′N eastward 30 miles towards Tampa since Friday. The eastern edge of the Loop Current near 84°30′W & 27°00′N is now less than 100 miles offshore of Tampa and this feature now occurs very near to the 100 fathom depths. The other critical questions are what is below the slick and what is in the water masses we have been tracking since the original spill? What will we do to stop the impacts of this oil and the other oil moving along throughout the northern Gulf of Mexico?

Southward, we had observed the southwestern side of the elongating (now egg shaped) eddy centered near 85°00′W & 25°00′N yesterday. We were not able to observe this feature today due to cloud cover. The southwestern boundary of this feature was observed near 86°15′W & 24°30′N YESTERDAY and this feature appears to have been pulled approximately 25-30 miles southwestward since this past Friday. Yesterday we had continued to observe the western side of the eastern limb of the Loop Current approaching the eastern side of the western limb of the Loop Current, which is usually indicative of the formation of a large clockwise rotating Loop Current eddy. It remains to be seen if this motion will continue and if it will cause such an eddy to form.

If you decide to use this analysis or the images contained within, please give credit to ROFFS™ and see more of our daily coverage here: (http://www.roffs.com/deepwaterhorizon.html).

EDITORS NOTE:

While we have been conducting these analyses as a civic duty and as an exercise in technology transfer, we would like to be contracted to do this to support cleanup, restoration, and litigation efforts. If you plan to use these reports including the graphics you must give ROFFS™ full credit for this work. ROFFS™ would be appreciative if you would copy this analysis to others who may be interested in our efforts. At ROFFS™ we have been mapping the distribution and movements of the oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill from satellites since the explosion. Basically we are using a host of U.S. (NOAA and NASA) and European (ESA) satellites with a variety of spectral (infrared, near infra-red, visible, RGB and synthetic aperture radar) and spatial resolutions (300 meter to 1 KM) to see the oil. The MODIS satellite data are being received from the University of South Florida IMaRS and the synthetic radar (SAR) imagery is being received from the CSTARS at the University of Miami and also from the NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. We manipulate and integrate these data at ROFFS™ and the analyses are ROFFS™ expert interpretations of the satellite imagery along with other data such as winds, sea surface temperature, currents, and in-situ reports. We routinely discuss our results with several academic and non-academic oceanographers.

We use a plethora of techniques to remove or reduce the effect of clouds and satellite angle, as well as, to manipulate the satellite data to understand the ocean circulation patterns associated with the oil’s motion. We focus our efforts on the offshore segment of the oil. Sequential image analysis allows us to visualize the motion. The red “X” indicates the site of the Deepwater Horizon spill area.
We have been deriving these analyses on a daily basis and posting them to our website. We have many years of conducting similar analyses. For example we mapped the plume coming from the New Orleans area after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

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HF Radar in the Gulf

May 20th, 2010 No comments

There are currently 6 HF Radars in the Gulf of Mexico.  Three are operated by the University of Southern Mississippi and three by the University of South Florida.  You can download the latest data in kml format here:

http://cordc.ucsd.edu/projects/mapping/deepwater-horizon-rtv.kml

HF radar measures surface currents by transmitting a radio wave and receiving the Doppler shifted return signal.

Here is a recent map of the surface currents.  The green tear drops indicate that the location of the radar site and the green shows that the station is up to date.

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National Weather Service Forecasts

May 20th, 2010 No comments

Here’s the link to the Decision Support Forecast page from the National Weather Service:
http://www.srh.noaa.gov/lix/?n=embriefing

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About DeepWater Portal

May 20th, 2010 1 comment

We are building a portal, one of many being developed by the country, to help consolidate the suite of data being collected around the Gulf of Mexico to respond to the tragic oil spill. This accident will impact local communities for many years, will impact our country’s effort to transition to self-sustaining strategy, and will for decades impact the Gulf’s ecosystems. Speaking for myself, having lived in the New Orleans and taken my young kids to play in the waters of the Gulf, this is personal issue.

Our goal is to collate the available data and therefore this site is truly a team effort. To this end, we are open to ALL comers to join our effort, so please reach out to the team, if interested. We also acknowledge this is just a portal to the true warriors who deploy, maintain, and synthesize the field results. Over the next week we will do our best to highlight the people in trenches. Finally, I hope this narrative becomes a community discussion rather then a limited set of voices, SO PLEASE JOIN DISCUSSION!

Ok, now to the ocean data and field teams. Dr. Gary Kirkpatrick and his SO COOL team from Mote Marine Laboratory coordinated field efforts to launch gliders in the Gulf to respond to the spill. The SO COOL team coordinated efforts to gather up a series of instruments. We are focusing on getting flourometers, which measure Colored Dissolved Organic Matter (CDOM). Hydrocarbons emit CDOM fluorescence, so we (Rutgers and Mote) have gathered up 3 sensors to be deployed in the Gulf this week. The full fleet of three gliders should be launched this week. We will send the gliders in a series of cross-shore transects. Much more to come, but for those interested please this community effort!

Scotscar

(aka Scott Glenn and Oscar Schofield)

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