Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


A Push From the Mississippi Kept Deepwater Horizon Oil Slick Off Shore, Penn Research Shows

When the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded April 20, 2010, residents feared that their Gulf of Mexico shores would be inundated with oil. And while many wetland habitats and wildlife were oiled during the three-month leak, the environmental damage to coastal Louisiana was less than many expected, in part because much of the crude never made it to the coast.
Research by a trio of geoscientists, including the University of Pennsylvania’s Douglas Jerolmack, now offers an explanation for why some of the oil stayed out at sea. Using publicly available datasets, their study reveals that the force of the Mississippi River emptying into the Gulf of Mexico created mounds of freshwater which pushed the oil slick off shore.

“The idea is that, if the water surface is tilting a little bit, then maybe the oil will move downhill, sort of like a ball on a plate. If you tilt the plate, the ball will roll one way and then another,” Jerolmack said. “Surprisingly no one had really investigated the effect that the tilting of the water surface can have on the migration of oil.”

The finding, published in the journal PLoS ONE, could help make better predictions about where oil will make landfall in future oil spills, helping to direct efforts to spare fragile coastlines and wildlife.

Jerolmack, an assistant professor in Penn’s Department of Earth and Environmental Science, collaborated on the study with lead author Federico Falcini, a postdoctoral investigator in Jerolmack’s lab at the time. Bruno Buongiorno Nardelli of Italy’s Consiglio Nazionale delle Richerche also contributed to the work.

As the Deepwater Horizon disaster unfolded two years ago, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration used information from satellite data and helicopter flights over the Gulf to produce aerial images of the shifting coat of oil. NOAA also issued daily forecasts of where the oil slick might travel, using computer models based on ocean currents.

“We noticed that there was a big disconnect between the forecasts of where the oil was going to be the next day and where the oil actually was the next day,” Jerolmack said. “That maybe shouldn’t be a surprise, because these computer models were not generated to forecast the movement of oil, they were generated to forecast the movement of water.”

Clearly some force beyond the ocean’s current was acting to direct the oil’s movement. So the researchers turned their attention to the ocean’s topography.

They accessed interpreted data from the Colorado Center for Astrodynamics Research that provides real-time information about sea-surface levels. These measurements, gathered from radar bounced off the surface of the ocean from the Jason2 satellite, were considered unreliable near shore, where land could confuse the signals.

The researchers performed their own analyses on the Jason2's raw data to separate out this confounding effect and glean sea-surface-level information within a few kilometers of shore. Their results confirmed the existence of several mounds and troughs in the Gulf. One mound in particular drew their attention.

“We recognized that there was a very persistent mound, a bump or a bulge, in the elevation of the sea surface in the vicinity of the Mississippi Delta,” Jerolmack said.

The reason was that the oil spill coincided with the typical spring flood on the Mississippi, creating a larger-than-normal flow of water into the Delta. This powerful discharge of fresh water mounded on top of the denser salt water of the Gulf. The resulting bulge, which was approximately 10 centimeters higher than the surrounding ocean and 50-100 kilometers in diameter, was positioned so that oil from the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig ran “downhill” and away from the coast.

A mathematical model representing a two-layer fluid — comprised of oil on top and fresh water underneath — confirmed that the slope of the mound was sufficient to direct the oil’s movement.

“The model was able to predict the speed at which the oil moved away from this fresh-water mound and how long it took for the oil to move away from the mound,” Jerolmack said.

Despite this correlation, mound formation was just one of many competing forces driving the drift of the Gulf oil slick, Jerolmack noted.

“A mound can only form if the river discharge is relatively high and the ocean is relatively calm.”

Indeed, as the Mississippi flood waters subsided and the river’s discharge lessened, the bulge disappeared and the oil slick moved back toward shore. The winds of Hurricane Alex, which formed in late June 2010, also resulted in a decline in mound formation and the oil slick being pushed toward land.

Still, factoring in mound formation will help produce more accurate forecasts of oil spills around the Mississippi Delta — and perhaps predict other dispersion events as well.

“This feature is likely important not only for the oil spill, but also for the dispersal of nutrients, sediments and pollution into the Gulf,” Jerolmack said.

The study was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Katherine Unger Baillie | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Ecology, The Environment and Conservation:

nachricht Invasive Insects Cost the World Billions Per Year
04.10.2016 | University of Adelaide

nachricht Malaysia's unique freshwater mussels in danger
27.09.2016 | The University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus

All articles from Ecology, The Environment and Conservation >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

Im Focus: New Products - Highlights of COMPAMED 2016

COMPAMED has become the leading international marketplace for suppliers of medical manufacturing. The trade fair, which takes place every November and is co-located to MEDICA in Dusseldorf, has been steadily growing over the past years and shows that medical technology remains a rapidly growing market.

In 2016, the joint pavilion by the IVAM Microtechnology Network, the Product Market “High-tech for Medical Devices”, will be located in Hall 8a again and will...

Im Focus: Ultra-thin ferroelectric material for next-generation electronics

'Ferroelectric' materials can switch between different states of electrical polarization in response to an external electric field. This flexibility means they show promise for many applications, for example in electronic devices and computer memory. Current ferroelectric materials are highly valued for their thermal and chemical stability and rapid electro-mechanical responses, but creating a material that is scalable down to the tiny sizes needed for technologies like silicon-based semiconductors (Si-based CMOS) has proven challenging.

Now, Hiroshi Funakubo and co-workers at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, in collaboration with researchers across Japan, have conducted experiments to...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

Resolving the mystery of preeclampsia

21.10.2016 | Health and Medicine

Stanford researchers create new special-purpose computer that may someday save us billions

21.10.2016 | Information Technology

From ancient fossils to future cars

21.10.2016 | Materials Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>