Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Oil Seeps In The Gulf Of Mexico

My guess is you won't see this in the mainstream media because it doesn't fit the popular bias against the oil industry. So I'll pass this along. It is usually assumed that oil pollution in the world's oceans is caused by accidental spillage caused by drilling, production and transportation activities. The Exxon Valdez tanker spill in Alaska is the most infamous example that has tarnished the petroleum industry's reputation. These spills must be prevented and minimized as much as possible.

However, there is another side to this story. Geologists (some anyway) have long known that natural oil seeps occur, and have occurred as long as the Earth's sediments have been generating oil and gas. Oil fields leak their hydrocarbons to the surface, whether on land or beneath the oceans. Hydrocarbons are less dense than rocks and the water they contain, so the oil and gas is continually trying to escape to the surface. Eventually, given enough time, it all does.

The following satellite images from NASA prove this theory: oil and gas are always naturally leaking and "polluting" the oceans, and in a big way, as can be seen from these images. Also, consider this is going on 24 hours per day, seven days per week, 365 days per year. So maybe "big oil" companies are not the careless, evil polluters they're accused of being.

Another quite amazing thing to consider is the oceans must continually clean themselves. Somehow fish, sea plants, and corals survive. Somehow there remain pristine white sand beaches. Is the public being deceived about the damaging effects of the oil industry? I say yes.


Although accidents and hurricane damage to infrastructure are often to blame for oil spills and the resulting pollution in coastal Gulf of Mexico waters, natural seepage from the ocean floor introduces a significant amount of oil to ocean environments as well. Oil spills are notoriously difficult to identify in natural-color (photo-like) satellite images, especially in the open ocean. Because the ocean surface is already so dark blue in these images, the additional darkening or slight color change that results from a spill is usually imperceptible.

Remote-sensing scientists recently demonstrated that these “invisible” oil slicks do show up in photo-like images if you look in the right place: the sunglint region. This pair of images includes a wide-area view of the Gulf of Mexico from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite on May 13, 2006 (top), and a close up (bottom) of dozens of natural crude oil seeps over deep water in the central Gulf.

The washed-out swath running through the scene is where the Sun is glinting off the ocean’s surface. If the ocean were as smooth as a mirror, a sequence of nearly perfect reflections of the Sun, each with a width between 6-9 kilometers, would appear in that line, along the track of the satellite’s orbit. Because the ocean is never perfectly smooth or calm, however, the Sun’s reflection gets blurred as the light is scattered in all directions by waves.
The slicks become visible not because they change the color of the ocean, but because they dampen the surface waves. The smoothing of the waves can make the oil-covered parts of the sunglint area more or less reflective than surrounding waters, depending on the direction from which you view them.

The usual technique for mapping oil slicks from space uses radar, which bounces pulses of radio waves off the wave-roughened surface of the water and detects the amount of backscattered energy. The downside of using space-based radars to map oil slicks is that they don’t provide routine coverage of large areas, and oil slicks may evaporate or disperse significantly within a day. The researchers suggest that tracking oil slicks in the wide sunglint region of daily Terra and Aqua MODIS images may be a better avenue for comprehensive, near-real-time monitoring of large oil spills and natural seeps in marine ecosystems.

Hu, C., Li, X., Pichel, W.G., and Muller-Karger, F. E. (2009). Detection of natural oil slicks in the NW Gulf of Mexico using MODIS imagery. Geophysical Research Letters, 36, L01604.
NASA image created by Jesse Allen, using data obtained from the Goddard Level 1 and Atmospheric Archive and Distribution System (LAADS). Caption by Rebecca Lindsey.
Terra - MODIS


Anonymous said...

Not only are you correct, no less than the National Academy of Sciences agrees with you. They have published reports, titled "Oil in the Sea" which confirm the large role played by natural seeps and the very small percentage from offshore drilling, worldwide.

Rob A. said...

Yea, I bet you didn't see this coming. The amount flowing here in the gulf now will soon eclipse these natural oil seeps that are a natural part of what happens on earth and in the seas. What's going on is not a natural part of the system and thus will have catastropic impacts.

Peter said...

After the enviro-terrorists have finished celebrating over the latest oil spill catastrophe, it
too shall pass and the Earth will heal, as it always has.

Random said...

Keep in mind Natural seepage is still occurring.
Natural seepage however is not a pipe at the sea floor leaking 50,000 barrels or 7,900,000 litres a day into a localized area.
If it was we would see oil in the gulf like this on a regular basis.
We do not.

Peter said...

Of course you are correct. The current leak is a catastrophe, and fortunately an extremely rare event, so was the sinking of the Titanic. Human progress entails risk.

Anonymous said...

Yes, human progress entails risk -- but risk does not need to result in disaster. We do not always recognize the risk for what it is because of quasi-scientific "analyses" that seem to imply this is not a bad thing.

Spilling millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico is a BAD THING and it's damaging to say, "oh well, shit happens" rather than treat it like the serious issue that it is. I think if you have a look at the beaches covered in oil you will recognize that this is not a natural phenomenon. This tragedy reaches beyond politics and corporate profits and hurts us all.

Peter said...

By definition accidents happen and some, such as the current oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, are disasters.

The question is what to do in the event of a disaster. Do you first hide your head in the sand for weeks, like the Obama Administration has done, or do you aggressively, calmly, and intelligently try to contain the damage?

Do you immediately blame someone for the sake of gaining political points or fullfilling an agenda, as the Obama Administration has done? Or do you first stop the bleeding and then try and figure out what went wrong and try and create methods to insure that it will never (we hope) happen again?

Do you take a leadership role in preventing the disaster from growing larger, such as not allowing the oil to reach the shore, or do you hide from responsibility and hope someone else will take action, as the Obama Administration has done.

BP screwed up big time, they know it,they're paying for it, and they will continue to pay for a long time, as they should. Sadly, the government and the Obama Administration is looking even more incompetent than BP. That is the real tragedy here, any you and I, taxpayers will foot the bill and pay higher prices at the pump.

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