The fate of oil from the Deepwater Horizon Oil spill

My paper on the oil spill is finally out. The punch lines are: there never was any chance of oil from Deepwater Horizon making it to the North Atlantic despite the media-hype suggesting otherwise; but there is/will be a long term, local scale environmental problem of oxygen depletion at depth near the leak.

You can see the official page about the paper (and read the paper) at http://www.gfdl.noaa.gov/simulations-of-underwater-plumes-of-oil-in-the-gulf-of-mexico.

Some personal observations about this whole exercise (caveat: these comments do not reflect the views of my employer, Princeton University, or of NOAA):

  • I had too high expectations of using a fast track journal; whereas normal publications times are of order 6-12 months, GRL published in exactly 5 weeks. However, it seemed like each step of the process took a week when it might have taken only a day. For instance, it took a week for the editor to make the final decision to accept the revisions (no reviewers involved). This was actually a very short time to publish a paper but in a time-critical publication it felt fustratingly slow. Lesson: don’t do time-critical research!
  • We didn’t go to the press first because we believe peer review is part of the scientific process.
  • We submitted the paper on the morning before the cap was installed (July 15th). We were deliberately conservative using a shut-off date on September 1st so the discrepancy in duration of leak might seem large. However, it turns out the revised estimated of flow rate (released at the beginning of August) was at the upper end of the large error bar we had assigned to flow rate. In the end, the total amount of oil spilt was pretty close to what we used, and in particular the overall consumption of oxygen is probably about right.
  • I learnt that Deepwater Horizon should always be italicized because it was a vessel (the title of this page doesn’t accept the <em> markup tag).
  • Working with such a large number of collaborators was educational; it added confidence and credibility to the research, which was well worth the minor headache of coordinating such a large group (multiple vacations coinciding with submission of the paper was the worst headache). I also met some new and interesting people from a field I would otherwise not have been exposed to.
  • We were careful to not be “critical” of other work but it hasn’t stopped others from using slights. No names shall be mentioned but I shall point out the following:
    • our simulations show the near-surface dissolved oil “vanishing” by mid-August (see NOAA announcement about where the oil has gone);
    • our simulations show that no dissolved oil ever made it close to the Florida straits or Gulf stream;
    • most other work to date (mid-August) emphasize that oil will make it to the Atlantic;
    • no oil from Deepwater Horizon has ever been found near the Florida straits or in the North Atlantic;
    • evidently we were right.
  • After the stress of time-critical work, I am glad to be moving back to my more normal research topics…
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~ by Alistair on August 18, 2010.

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