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Where Will All This Oil Be in August?Slate's interactive models of the Deepwater Horizon spill.

By Chris WilsonPosted Wednesday, July 21, 2010, at 9:45 AM ET

Click here to launch interactive map.

As government officials continue to nervously monitor the cap on the Deepwater Horizon well, there are still millions of barrels of oil oozing around in the Gulf of Mexico. In order to minimize the damage, scientists, engineers, and government officials need to figure out where that oil is headed. The bad news: Few things on the planet are as unpredictable as the currents in the Gulf of Mexico.

While the spill is constantly being photographed both by satellite and aerial imagery, those pictures are incomplete. Because the source of the spill is so far beneath the waves, a great deal of the oil that's been spewed has never reached the surface.

This is where complex models of the gulf's currents and eddies come in handy. The National Center for Atmospheric Research has used 120 years of data to simulate how the gulf behaves. In order to determine where the oil from the BP spill might end up, the NCAR inserted a "virtual dye"—essentially, digital food coloring—into their enormously complex three-dimensional models. The result: lots and lots of oil-spill scenarios.

Synte Peacock, who led the modeling effort, provided Slate with data from three of NCAR's scenarios, which are displayed below. These three visualizations begin immediately after the spill and stop after the oil has been swimming around for 130 days or more. While it may seem strange to look at a simulation of the oil spill's past behavior, it's worth remembering that NCAR's 3-D models go well beyond our limited knowledge of what's really happening in the Gulf of Mexico. In particular, they can show what might happen to oil—or at least virtual oil—that flows beneath the water's surface.

What's most noteworthy about these simulations? In the more than 20 scenarios the scientists conducted, the dye never stayed entirely in the Gulf of Mexico. (Two other modeling efforts reached similar conclusions.) If these models are to be believed, then the oil from the BP spill will reach the Atlantic at some point in the next several months, quite likely coating much of the coastline in the process. But there is also a distinct possibility that, depending on the whims of the eddies that form over the next few weeks, a good deal of the spill will remain in the center of the Gulf, drawn away from the Florida straits.


The following visualizations will pause at interesting moments in each scenario. While the descriptions refer to oil, the computer simulations model dye. The major consequence of that disparity is that NCAR doesn't model the biological degradation of oil, a factor that could affect how far the spill spreads. Also note that the view here is from 20 meters beneath the surface, which is a rough approximation for the footprint of the spill as it extends beneath the waves.

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Infographic of the Day: The Gulf Oil Spill Isn't the Biggest, but It'll Be the Costliest

BY Cliff KuangTue Jun 8, 2010 presents a new chart, putting the size--and cost--of the spill into perspective.

363diggsdigg  The myriad infographics we've seen about the BP Gulf spill have all focused on the absolute size of the disaster--and while it's certainly huge, size comparisons don't do justice to the real problem we're facing. That's why Fast Company created this graphic.

The BP Gulf oil spill is the worst ever when you combine its size and location. While it may not be the biggest, as you can see from the graphic, it certainly will be one of the most economically damaging and costly, simply because it occurred in some of America's most productive waters.

All of which is illustrated in this infographic, which we commissioned from the people at NG Oil & Gas.

Oil spills infographic

[Click image for full size]

Let's break down the details. Granted, the current worst-case scenarios could be way off. But if they're remotely accurate (again, not a certainty), then the BP spill is still dwarfed by the Ixtoc spill.

Oil spills infographic

Ixtoc also occurred in the Gulf of Mexico--but in that case, wind and currents managed to contain the damage. And it wasn't nearly as close to sensitive coastlines. Which is precisely the problem with the BP oil spill. Because of where it occurred, clean up and damages will likely reach unsurpassed totals:

Oil spills infographic

As to the environmental impacts, we simply don't know yet. Some have estimated that it will take years to clean up the spill thanks to the use of dispersants that have simply diffused the oil over more area--and we may see after effects of the disaster for generations to come:

Oil spills infographic

Click here for the full-size chart.

Read more about the Gulf Oil Spill

Got information on the spill you want to share? Email us at It'll go directly to the lead reporter and editor on these stories, and they'll assume all initial communication to be strictly confidential.

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Traces of Exxon Valdez spill can still be found By Dan Jones | 03/24/10 - 13:56

Over two decades after the devastating Exxon Valdez oil spill off the coast of Alaska, significant quantities of oil can still be found covering the state's shores and beneath gravel beaches, a new study has discovered.

Over 21,000 gallons of crude oil remains of the 11 million gallons of crude oil that gushed from the stranded tanker Exxon Valdez on the night of 23 March 1989. Traces of Valdez's oil have been detected as far as 724km away from the spill-site in Prince William Sound, and the toxic film that coats Alaska's shores remain a danger to wildlife, entire eco-systems and the lives of local people.

Writing in Nature Geoscience, a team of scientists found that oil just a few inches down was dissipating up to 1000 times slower than oil on the surface.

Despite Valdez not being up there with the largest oil spills of all time, it is one of the most high-profile and considered to be one of the worst environmental disasters of its kind, covering more than 2000km of coastline and killing thousands upon thousands of seabirds,fish and other water-dwelling creatures.

Largest Oil Spills

"Damage beyond anyone's imagination"

The economic impact was also significant as the region's fishing industry was heavily impacted, not to mention the money spent on clean-up efforts. Most clean-up operations in the area ended in 1992 with millions of dollars having been spent, because the remaining oil was expected to disperse within a few years.

However, a study a number of years after the spill discovered that the oil was disappearing at a rate of just four percent each year, far less than people expected and the new study compounds environmental concerns.

"The damage that [the spill] created is something beyond anyone's imagination," said Michel Boufadel, Temple University's Civil and Environmental Engineering chair, who has just completed research on why the oil persists.

As explained by National Geographic, oil naturally "disappears" through two processes: As the tide rises over an oil patch, the water sloughs off bits of oil, which then disperse into the ocean as tiny, less harmful droplets that can biodegrade easily. Secondly, bio-degradation occurs when bacteria or other microorganisms break down oil as part of their life cycle. However both these processes are slowed when oil is trapped among sand grains beneath the surface.

Exxon Valdez remains relevant today

In their paper, the team who conducted the new study observed that the upper layer temporarily stored the oil, while it slowly and continuously filled the lower layer, "You have a high amount of oxygen in the seawater, so you would think that the oxygen would diffuse in the beach and get down 2-4 inches (5-10cm) into the lower layer and get to the oil," said Prof Boufadel.

"But the outward movement of [fresh groundwater] in the lower level is blocking the oxygen from spreading down into that lower level."

The Exxon Valdez oil spill remains extremely relevant today. Last year, off the coast of Australia, a tanker grounded spilling 52,000 gallons of oil and shutting down local fisheries.San Francisco also saw the terrible effects of an oil spill in the bay in 2007.

Here NG Oil & Gas take a look at the world's largest oil spills.


Related Articles:

Exxon profits take a hit | Offshore drilling still high on the agenda | Preventing a pirate attack

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