USF Scientist: Oil Spill Now Three Times Size of Lake Okeechobee

May 06, 2010 By Vickie Chachere
USF Scientists Track Spill

(PhysOrg.com) -- The oil-slickened water in the Gulf of Mexico, dead sea turtles on the beach and a sea bird’s feathers soaked in black goo are the searing images from the oil spill - but USF researcher Chuanmin Hu has a unique, and particularly devastating vantage point to this disaster.

Using images beamed from a NASA far above the earth to USF’s College of Marine Science, Hu tracks the spread of oil through the gulf.

The satellite images show the thick fingers of a silvery sheen that has grown each day since the April 20 collapse of a rig leased by British Petroleum. For Hu, who drew international attention last year for research showing natural oil seepage in the gulf using the , his space-age view is nonetheless disturbing.

“The question is how much bigger it is going to get,” Hu said Wednesday. “It’s really big - three times the size of Lake Okeechobee.”

Hu is an optical oceanographer who works with a team of physical oceanographers at USF’s College of Marine Science to chart the movement of water in the gulf. Since the oil spill began, the team has also been charting the spread of oil through the northern gulf and its movement to the Loop Current, which could send it into the Florida Keys and up the state’s Atlantic coast.

Last year, Hu drew international attention for his use of NASA satellite image to detect naturally occurring oil seepage in the gulf, a phenomenon he says occurs in hundreds of locations particularly in the oil-rich western and southwestern sections of the gulf.

Oil bubbles up all the time from the gulf floor, but in small quantities spread out over thousands of miles. Hu discovered that what scientists had long dismissed as sunlight “glints” on the NASA images. The oil created contrasting swaths of light areas in bodies of water, and Hu’s discovery has been crucial in detecting between naturally-occurring and man-made oil contamination in the gulf.

Incredibly, he said, on any given day the amount of oil naturally leaking in the gulf is about the same amount as from the BP spill.

But two major things differ: the naturally-occurring spills are small and miles apart, so the density of the oil is much less and, because oil has been seeping from the gulf floor for millions of years the marine environment has adapted to it.

Sunlight, bacteria and oxidation all help break up the natural , he said. Even coral reefs in that part of the gulf have learned to adapt. That won’t be the case with the spill from the Deepwater Horizon rig.

“It’s a huge event in one place, it’s not spread out,” he said. “This is much thicker than any natural slick.”

Hu’s work is one part of the multi-layered effort to track the effort through USF’s Ocean Circulation Group, which has created a series of complex models over the course of the past two weeks to follow the flow of oil.

Led by Physical Oceanographer Robert Weisberg, the research has been instrumental in showing both the public and policy makers what will happen should the oil reach the Loop Current, which circulates in the gulf and then flows around the Florida Keys and up the Atlantic coast.

Click the “play” button on this model to see how Weisberg’s analysis shows the currents would move oil spilled in the north central gulf. And this model shows projections for the Deep Horizon spill.

Explore further: Five anthropogenic factors that will radically alter northern forests in 50 years

Provided by University of South Florida

5 /5 (6 votes)

Related Stories

Image: Oil Slick Spreads off Gulf Coast

Apr 27, 2010

NASA's Aqua satellite captured this image of the Gulf of Mexico on April 25, 2010 using its Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument.

Scientists find black gold amidst overlooked data

Feb 19, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- About half of the oil in the ocean bubbles up naturally from the seafloor, with Earth giving it up freely like it was of no value. Likewise, NASA satellites collect thousands of images and ...

Envisat monitoring changes in oil spill

May 03, 2010

ESA's Envisat has captured the changes in direction of the rapidly-growing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as strong winds over the weekend pushed it around and hampered clean-up efforts.

Recommended for you

More, bigger wildfires burning western US, study shows

13 hours ago

Wildfires across the western United States have been getting bigger and more frequent over the last 30 years – a trend that could continue as climate change causes temperatures to rise and drought to become ...

User comments : 4

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Yes
not rated yet May 06, 2010
Even the Romans would have stopped this oil spill before BP. They would have made a long conical Doric Column and let it down forcing it into the drilling shaft.
A dome.... please.
Are we sure they don't want to keep winning oil from this shaft through the dome, and therefore use this complex dome construction idea? Loosing all this time wasting nature.
They can make a gigantic conical doric column from restfree steel.
If I am ignorant sorry for my ignorance.
Scientifica
not rated yet May 06, 2010
Why don't they just dump several shiploads of boulders?
CaptBarbados
5 / 5 (1) May 07, 2010
So, by 2012 this could be pretty devastating? (Better idea than the others.
Quantum_Conundrum
not rated yet May 09, 2010
Why don't they just dump several shiploads of boulders?


Because at 60,000psi, the well would just push them out of the way, and it would also obviously seep right through the space between boulders anyway.

More news stories

Six Nepalese dead, six missing in Everest avalanche

At least six Nepalese climbing guides have been killed and six others are missing after an avalanche struck Mount Everest early Friday in one of the deadliest accidents on the world's highest peak, officials ...

China says massive area of its soil polluted

A huge area of China's soil covering more than twice the size of Spain is estimated to be polluted, the government said Thursday, announcing findings of a survey previously kept secret.

There's something ancient in the icebox

Glaciers are commonly thought to work like a belt sander. As they move over the land they scrape off everything—vegetation, soil, and even the top layer of bedrock. So scientists were greatly surprised ...

Clean air: Fewer sources for self-cleaning

Up to now, HONO, also known as nitrous acid, was considered one of the most important sources of hydroxyl radicals (OH), which are regarded as the detergent of the atmosphere, allowing the air to clean itself. ...

Scientists tether lionfish to Cayman reefs

Research done by U.S. scientists in the Cayman Islands suggests that native predators can be trained to gobble up invasive lionfish that colonize regional reefs and voraciously prey on juvenile marine creatures.

Leeches help save woman's ear after pit bull mauling

(HealthDay)—A pit bull attack in July 2013 left a 19-year-old woman with her left ear ripped from her head, leaving an open wound. After preserving the ear, the surgical team started with a reconnection ...