Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Mysterious flotsam in Gulf of Mexico came from Deepwater Horizon rig

Date:
January 20, 2012
Source:
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Summary:
Using state-of-the-art chemical forensics and a bit of old-fashioned detective work, scientists confirmed that mysterious material found floating in the Gulf of Mexico came from the Deepwater Horizon rig. They further determined that tracking debris from damaged rigs can help forecast coastal impacts and guide response efforts in future spills.

WHOI marine chemist Chris Reddy samples a piece of the mysterious honeycombed flotsam. Reddy and lead author Catherine Carmichael determined the material was part of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig.
Credit: Chris Reddy, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Shortly after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, mysterious honeycomb material was found floating in the Gulf of Mexico and along coastal beaches. Using state-of-the-art chemical forensics and a bit of old-fashioned detective work, a research team led by scientists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) confirmed that the flotsam were pieces of material used to maintain buoyancy of the pipe bringing up oil from the seafloor.

The researchers also affirmed that tracking debris from damaged offshore oil rigs could help forecast coastal pollution impacts in future oil spills and guide emergency response efforts -- much the way the Coast Guard has studied the speed and direction of various floating debris to guide search and rescue missions. The findings were published Jan. 19 in Environmental Research Letters.

On May 5, 2010, 15 days after the Deepwater Horizon explosion, oceanographer William Graham and marine technicians from the Dauphin Island Sea Lab were working from a boat about 32 miles south of Dauphin Island, Ala., when they saw a 6-mile-long, east-west line containing more than 50 pieces of white material interspersed with sargassum weed. The porous material was uniformly embedded with black spheres about a centimeter in diameter. No oil slick was in sight, but there was a halo of oil sheen around the honeycomb clumps.

Two days later, the researchers also collected similar samples about 25 miles south of Dauphin Island. Nobody knew what the material was, with some hypothesizing at first that it could be coral or other substance made by marine plants or animals. Graham sent samples to WHOI chemist Chris Reddy, whose lab confirmed that the material was not biological. But the material's source remained unconfirmed.

In January 2011, Reddy and WHOI researcher Catherine Carmichael, lead author of the new study, collected a piece of the same unknown material of Elmer's Beach, Grand Isle, La. In April, 2011, they found several large pieces, ranging from 3 to 10 feet, of the honeycomb debris on the Chandeleur Islands off Louisiana.

Oil on all these samples was analyzed at WHOI using comprehensive two-dimensional gas chromatography. The technique identifies the thousands of individual chemical compounds that comprise different oils from different reservoirs. The chemistry of the oil on the debris matched that of oil sampled directly from the broken pipe from the Macondo well above the Deepwater Horizon rig.

In addition, one piece of debris from the Chandeleur Islands retained a weathered red sticker that read "Cuming" with the numbers 75-1059 below it. Reddy found a company called Cuming Corporation in Avon, Mass., which manufactures syntactic foam flotation equipment for the oil and gas industry. He e-mailed photos of the specimen to the company, and within hours, a Cuming engineer confirmed from the serial number that the foam came from a buoyancy module from Deepwater Horizon.

"We realized that the foam and the oil were released into the environment at the same time," Reddy said. "So we had a unique tracer that was independent of the oil itself to chronicle how oil and debris drifted out from the spill site."

The scientists overlaid the locations where they found honeycomb debris on May 5 and 7 with daily forecasts produced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of the trajectory of the spreading oil slick. NOAA used a model that incorporated currents and wind speeds, along with data from planes and satellites. On both days, the debris was about 6.2 miles ahead of the spreading slick.

The explanation, the scientists said, is the principle of leeway, a measure of how fast wind or waves push materials. The leeway for fresh oil is 3 to 3.3 percent, but the scientists suspected that "the protruding profile of the buoyant material" acted acting like a sail, allowing wind to drive it faster than and ahead of the floating oil.

In this case, the flotsam served as a harbinger for the oncoming slick, but because different materials can have different leeways, oil spill models may not accurately forecast where oiled debris will head. "Even a small deviation in leeway can, over time, results in significant differences in surface tracks because of typical wind fields," the scientists wrote.

The Coast Guard has a long history of calculating the leeway of various materials, from life jackets to bodies of various sizes and weights, to improve forecasts of where the materials would drift if a ship sank or a plane crashed into the sea. But calculating leeways has not been standard practice in oil spills.

"We never had solid data to make the case until this study," said Merv Fingas, who tracked oil spills for more than 38 years for Environment Canada, which is equivalent to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"These results," the study's authors wrote, "provide insights into the fate of debris fields deriving from damaged marine materials and should be incorporated into emergency response efforts and forecasting of coastal impacts during future offshore oil spills."

This research was funded by the National Science Foundation.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. "Mysterious flotsam in Gulf of Mexico came from Deepwater Horizon rig." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 20 January 2012. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/01/120119153116.htm>.
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. (2012, January 20). Mysterious flotsam in Gulf of Mexico came from Deepwater Horizon rig. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 21, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/01/120119153116.htm
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. "Mysterious flotsam in Gulf of Mexico came from Deepwater Horizon rig." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/01/120119153116.htm (accessed September 21, 2014).

Share This



More Earth & Climate News

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Climate Change Rally Held in India Ahead of UN Summit

Climate Change Rally Held in India Ahead of UN Summit

AFP (Sep. 20, 2014) Some 125 world leaders are expected to commit to action on climate change at a UN summit Tuesday called to inject momentum in struggling efforts to tackle global warming. Duration: 00:41 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
New Music With Recycled Instruments at Colombia Fest

New Music With Recycled Instruments at Colombia Fest

AFP (Sep. 19, 2014) Jars, bottles, caps and even a pizza box, recovered from the trash, were the elements used by four musical groups at the "RSFEST2014 Sonorities Recycling Festival", in Colombian city of Cali. Duration: 00:49 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Raw: Wildfires in CA Burn Forest Asunder

Raw: Wildfires in CA Burn Forest Asunder

AP (Sep. 18, 2014) An out-of-control Northern California wildfire has nearly 2,800 people from their homes as it continues to grow, authorities said Thursday. Authorities said a man has been arrested on suspicion of arson for starting the fire on Saturday. (Sept. 18) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Raw: Elephant Undergoes Surgery in Tbilisi Zoo

Raw: Elephant Undergoes Surgery in Tbilisi Zoo

AP (Sep. 18, 2014) Grand the elephant has successfully undergone surgery to remove a portion of infected tusk at Tbilisi Zoo in Georgia. British veterinary surgeons used an electric drill to extract the infected piece. (Sept. 18) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins