Post-wellcapping reports of "missing" oil contributed to message failure by giving the impression that Obama's administration simply wanted the oil to vanish from media attention, and was therefore declaring "Mission Accomplished." The White House certainly could have done better. Steadily-climbing spill estimates should have been avoided by coming up with two or three scenarios and publicly crossing fingers. Widespread reports of BP harrassing, intimidating, and banishing reporters from beaches invited all the wrong comparisons to Katrina and Bush.
It really wasn't a fair fight. BP has practiced this scenario many times in the global south: corporate message-makers deny, minimize, and suborn state agencies. The EPA is in such a state of deep capture after three decades of anti-government governance that it lacked power to stop BP from inserting a Corexit spout directly into the flow of oil. BP also had the tools, personnel, and resources to deal with the blowout, whereas the United States government did not. Without any real way to produce results in the Gulf, White House message-men took advantage of the Beltway preference for narrative over things like fluid dynamics and chemistry. The facts?! Who cares...
And so we all wonder about missing oil instead of learning anything. See how that works? Much more after the jump and this very non-metal video:
Mr. Noel spoke of the oil spill as a "volcano," and in fact that is an instructive example. Just as you can see volcano smoke rising into the atmosphere from Eyjafjallajökull ("the Iceland volcano," in popular parlance, as if there was only one), it's easier to visualize what was happening underwater if you imagine a column of oil rising up and diffusing into that 'anvil' shape defining the density of the atmosphere. In fact, the plumes are quite comparable even though the two mediums are in different states of matter. Just look:
As the oil poured into an 'atmosphere' of warm, salty, swirling water, chemical dispersants acted like the dish soap in your sink, promoting the separation of the oil in a water-column the same way refiners fractionalize it to produce products for market. It's not clear things would be any worse or better without the Corexit; the oil is already quite toxic and separates, diffuses, and fractionates all by its lonesome. In fact, dispersants seem pointless at 5000-foot depth and pressure. Here's a photo from space; note how the lightest dust rises highest and moves along a stream, while heavier dust stays low and spreads more diffusely:
Air currents are a lot more straightforward than water. The Gulf of Mexico roils from the most powerful current on Earth, producing elliptical countercurrents seen in the looping oil slick. The Gulf of Mexico is not unlike a giant, irregular toilet slowly flushing.
It's not like there's nobody studying what happens to oil under such conditions:
(I)magine 8 to 80 times the amount of oil spilled in the Exxon Valdez accident.
According to new research by scientists from UC Santa Barbara and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), that's how much oil has made its way into sediments offshore from petroleum seeps near Coal Oil Point in the Santa Barbara Channel. Their research, reported in an article being published in the May 15 issue of Environmental Science & Technology, documents how the oil is released by the seeps, carried to the surface along a meandering plume, and then deposited on the ocean floor in sediments that stretch for miles northwest of Coal Oil Point.
In addition, the research reveals that the oil is so degraded by the time it gets buried in the sea bed that it's a mere shell of the petroleum that initially bubbles up from the seeps. "These were spectacular findings," said Christopher Reddy, a marine chemist at WHOI and one of the co-authors of the new paper.
Graphic from UC Santa Barbara. Click here for an enlarged view.
That's a natural seep they studied, and it was far slower than this well-blowout. The mind rebels at what seems to be a violation of common wisdom -- 'oil floats!' -- but it seems nonetheless true that oil eventually sinks, given time and an environment full of things that stick to it. So this is no surprise to read (emphases mine):
Scientists on a research vessel in the Gulf of Mexico are finding a substantial layer of oily sediment stretching for dozens of miles in all directions. Their discovery suggests that a lot of oil from the Deepwater Horizon didn't simply evaporate or dissipate into the water -- it has settled to the seafloor.
"I've collected literally hundreds of sediment cores from the Gulf of Mexico, including around this area. And I've never seen anything like this," she said in an interview via satellite phone from the boat.
That's from a University of Georgia professor who took this core sample:
There's oil in that-there sea bed. It rose, separated, and fell in the water. It covered a great, big area of sea floor. What was habitat for the creatures that eat and reproduce at the bottom of the Gulf food chain is now soaked in petroleum. While there are things that eat the oil, this area is poison to other life until they do, and the things that do eat them use oxygen doing it. Thus the only living creatures that will inhabit this vast oil-lava zone for a while will be things that eat oil.
A temporary mono-ecology will take over; anything that was living in the sea-bed is now dead, like wildlife down-blast from Mt. St. Helens. As yet we have no idea how bad the damage really is, and won't until more a lot more core sample surveys are taken. In the meantime, this is not a road; it's a massive fish kill from oxygen-depleted water -- a sign the oil is being eaten by microbes at a furious rate.
On that note, a very short video actually banned in Germany: