Effects Of Oil Spills On Marine Life – The 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster spilled more oil into the Gulf of Mexico than any other spill in American history. When that happened, the respondents did what they usually do with oil spills: They consulted their guidance documents to choose the best strategies to reduce the risk to people and ecosystems, especially sensitive areas like coastlines.

These guidance documents provide up-to-date knowledge on which tools – dispersants, boosters, and skimmers – may be most effective under different conditions, such as the type of oil spilled, temperature and wind conditions.

Effects Of Oil Spills On Marine Life

Effects Of Oil Spills On Marine Life

Regardless of who wrote these guidance documents — industry, government agencies, or officials from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine — they all say the same thing: Oil floating on the surface of the sea will dissipate quickly, some will evaporate, and the rest will be eaten by microbes.

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None of these documents acknowledged that sunlight plays a major role in what happened to the oil spill in the marine environment. It seems that regardless of whether it’s a sunny or cloudy day, all response tools should be used equally. The oil spill society may have underestimated the role of sunlight.

In February 2018, I published a study in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology showing that 50 percent of the oil floating in the Gulf of Mexico was chemically altered (or weathered) within days. Importantly, sunlight does not remove oil from the sea surface, as it evaporates, and sunlight still needs to be cleaned.

The chemical transformation of oil by sunlight reduces the effectiveness of chemical dispersants—a commonly used response tool that helps disperse oil into droplets and reduces the amount of oil reaching coastal ecosystems.

A question people often ask is, “How did the guidance documents go wrong?” The answer really boils down to the fact that there is no way to study how oil reacts with sunlight in the field.

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In the early 1970s, several scientists reported, ahead of their time, that oil spills in the marine environment were being transformed by sunlight. Photo of Solar Energy-

But making the leap from the laboratory to the field is difficult. This requires the analysis of hundreds of field samples collected over time and space. nuanced and complex photochemical experiments; and interdisciplinary modeling efforts.

The first step in making this leap is to show that the longer oil floats on the surface, the more it oxidizes – an oil spill that has never been reported anywhere in the world.

Effects Of Oil Spills On Marine Life

Why? Because Deepwater Horizon is as big as it is, tidal waves are rare. The spill sent about 500 million barrels of oil and gas into the Gulf of Mexico. The oil floated on the surface of the sea for 102 days.

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This allowed the respondents to dump oil from the ocean at different time points, and then we analyzed its oxygen content. Instead, most tankers approach the coast and suddenly produce small amounts of oil. When the responders came down, much of it stuck to sorbent booms or washed up on beaches.

These answers were a gold mine to explore by first responders jumping from the surface of the sea. For the first time, we have been able to report a strong correlation between the length of time an oil remains on the surface of a sunset sea and the oxygen content of that oil. Oil oxidation was not a big surprise (remember the 1970s research), but the amount of oil that was oxidized and how quickly it was oxidizing surprised us and the oil spill community.

At least 50 percent of the oil floating in the Gulf of Mexico was chemically altered within five days.

Oxidized. Two possibilities were sunlight and marine microbes. The guidance documents say that germs are the culprit, so we investigated that first.

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I analyzed hundreds of samples for dozens of chemical markers of biological degradation. I found little evidence for biological degradation as the oil floated on the surface of the sea, oxidizing the oil. Despite claims in the guidance documents, microbes were not the primary driver of oil oxidation at the sea surface.

Logically, the next question is: is photo-oxidation sufficient to account for the rapid oxidation observed at the sea surface?

This question is incredibly complex and has invited a diverse group of collaborators, including water photochemists, analytical chemists, modelers, and remote sensing experts. In all, the team included ten scientists from seven institutions, including the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory in Florida and the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Maine.

Effects Of Oil Spills On Marine Life

If you understand these four things during your 102 days of swimming in the Gulf of Mexico (which is no small exercise), you can estimate the potential of sunlight to add oxygen to floating oil.

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The potential appears to be enormous. In fact, all evidence from field, laboratory, and modeling studies points to sunlight rather than microbes as the primary driver of oil oxidation at the sea surface.

After discovering how and how quickly oil oxidizes, I began to understand why the oil spill community should care about photo-oxidation. Oil spill containment tools are generally rated on “fresh” oil that has not been altered by sunlight, but deep water horizon spill cleanup tools have been applied to sunlit air oils. This inconsistency has led us to question the accuracy of the guidance documents, which state that sunlight does not affect the weathering of oil spills.

The first weapon I tried was chemical dispersants. I assembled another diverse team of scientists, this time from the US Environmental Protection Agency (Robin Conmee) and experts in oil spill response and industrial oil spill modeling (Deborah French-McKay, RPS Ocean Science). Collectively, we found that the effectiveness of chemical dispersants decreased by at least 30 percent per day of sunlight equivalent. The laboratory results were similar to the field results, and we concluded that sunlight is a major factor in air dispersants.

Next, I began a modeling effort to assess whether this lower-than-expected dispersant was common for deep aquifer flow. The results showed that under moderate wind and sunlight conditions, the majority of dispersant applications—in the hundreds—would not achieve even the minimum effectiveness levels set by the EPA because they targeted photochemically weathered oil. Even in the best scenarios for aerial dispersant spraying—cloudy weather (which will limit photochemical weathering) and high wind conditions (which will carry the oil far before sunlight changes)—dozens of aerial dispersant applications would still occur. Achieved efficiency levels set by EPA.

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I expect this research may lead to some negative comments about dispersant use. It’s sad. The purpose of our research is not to make decisions about the pros and cons of dispersant use. Instead, I provide more education to officials to use dispersants more effectively.

Notably, these studies provide a solution for the lower-than-expected prevalence of photo-oxidized fat. Studies have shown that the dispersant-solvent system is not compatible with photo-oxidized oil and does not effectively entrain it into droplets that can be more easily dispersed in the ocean. I present this solution with great caution: the knowledge gained from this work can be incorporated into novel dispersant formulations designed specifically for photochemical weathering.

A lot of research needs to be done before jumping the gun and reformulating dispersants. First, the collective research community must determine how photo-oxidation varies with different types of oil—from heavy, sour bitumen oil to light Canadian tar sands to sweet oil from North Dakota’s Bakken oil field.

Effects Of Oil Spills On Marine Life

Next, we need to determine how oil photo-oxidation affects a wide range of oil spill response tools—from chemical agents such as scrubbers and soil washing agents to tools that physically remove oil, such as sorption and skimming.

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Finally, we need to put all this data together and write algorithms to determine how quickly different oils will oxidize in different waters on Earth. This will allow us to develop effective response plans for future spills.

Time is exciting, but nerve-racking! It’s not a game, it’s just another way to get more papers published or more research funds. Money is very high. Oil spills pose a serious threat to people and ecosystems. Oil refineries are expensive, and they will be for at least our lifetime. My thinking is simple: accurate oil spill response guidance documents translate into more efficient oil spills and risk mitigation.

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