Every day, I check the latest updates on the Gulf oil spill. The spill is massive; the response of BP is slimier than a cesspool; and our government appears incompetent and impotent. Last night, this article caught my attention, Loop Current Is Now Drawing The BP Oil Disaster To Florida Keys. Sometimes a reader comment is better than the article, such as this one (which follows after the jump):
magellanic says:Why reinvent the wheel when magellanic expresses my thoughts. If you are interested in tracking his approaching doom, here are some worthwhile links:
When I hear the term “worst-case scenario”, I usually dismiss it, thinking, “It will never get that bad.” My rationale in making this judgment is that things will change over time. Even so, the term has great value because if we are aware of how bad it might get, with enough lead time, we can prepare mitigation strategies so that “it will never get that bad.” The massive seafloor gusher in the Gulf of Mexico requires that kind of thinking and that kind of mitigation effort.
At first the media harped that this disaster might rival the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska. That was a soft-sell; there was no need for the subjunctive tense. The Deepwater Horizon blowout quickly eclipsed the Exxon Valdez. It is likely to pass Chernobyl as the worst manmade environmental disaster on record. Given that the best-case predictions of capping the flow are weeks, if not months, away, it is probably a good idea to roll out the worst-case scenarios and start strategizing about fighting it as the contamination spreads.
Reading most popular media coverage about the Gulf catastrophe gives the impression that this is a local event and that the Gulf shoreline of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and western Florida, is destined for disaster. This is undoubtedly true for vast stretches of the coast. Those states will see the worst shoreline effects but this is not a local event; this disaster will affect a much larger area.
We could well be witnessing the first stages of a global environmental Armageddon as it unfolds before our eyes in slow motion. By the time you read this, the petroleum slick will be involved with the Loop Current which will accelerate dispersal of the Gulf slick and begin to convert it into the North Atlantic Ocean slick. Once the hydrocarbon raft starts moving with the current, it will spread throughout the Gulf of Mexico. A portion of it will escape the Gulf through the Straits of Florida between south Florida and Cuba, fouling those shorelines. Most of that water will then flow up the Straits of Florida, between Florida’s east coast and the Bahamas, while the rest spreads through the passages between the various islands of the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands. The muck will continue to flow up the east coast of North America powered by the Gulf Stream. It would be wise for all East Coast states and Maritime provinces to prepare mitigation efforts similar to the valiant stand currently being made by citizens of the Gulf states.
Not all of that floating petroleum will be absorbed by North American beaches, estuaries, and wetlands. The Gulf Stream will carry part of it past Greenland and Iceland toward Europe where the Gulf Stream splits to form the North Atlantic Current, which flows northward into the Arctic Ocean, and the Canary Current, which flows southward along the west coasts of Europe and North Africa.
A small portion of the Canary Current branches off and flows into the Mediterranean. Petroleum that gets into the Mediterranean will stay there because there is no surface outflow. The rest of it begins to flow westward a few degrees north of the equator as the North Equatorial Current, eventually entering the Caribbean and returning to the Gulf of Mexico where the current flow cycle starts over again. Fortunately, there is very little surface water that crosses the equator, so it is likely that the slick can be contained in the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans.
The North Atlantic (and Arctic) slick won’t be the chocolate brown goo that is being monitored in the Gulf at present. It is more likely to be a thin film, a fraction of a millimeter thick, with a colorful iridescent sheen similar to those often seen on puddles in parking lots. The consequences of a thin petroleum film floating on the surface of the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans will need to be addressed. The film constitutes a barrier for oxygen exchange between the ocean and the atmosphere. Most near-surface life is comprised of zooplankton (animals) and phytoplankton (plants). Without oxygen this bountiful community of unicellular life will perish: the base of the food chain will disappear. Like falling dominos, the North Atlantic extinction will travel up the food chain. Fisheries will become a memory. Cultures that rely on seafood for sustenance, primarily in Africa, northern South America, Central America, and Caribbean island nations will need to adapt to a change of diet or face a similar fate.
The petroleum film will also impede water evaporation. If the solar energy that evaporates water is blocked, the only alternative is for the surface water temperature to rise. Warmer water will accelerate Arctic Ocean melting during the long summer daylight hours and impede refreezing during the long, cold, winter darkness. Arctic Ocean mammals such as polar bears, walruses, and other pinnipeds will probably not survive.
Fortunately, nature has its way of curing what ails it. Over a period of years to decades to centuries, depending on how long it takes to plug the leak, the petroleum will evaporate or decompose and life will slowly return to the poisoned oceans but it will be a different world. An ice-free Arctic Ocean will trigger dramatic climate changes. Increased summer evaporation will dump vast amounts of moisture on northern Eurasia and North America. In the winter months, it will fall as snow—lots of snow. Incoming spring sunlight will reflect back into space, cooling the planet. Melt water will enter the Arctic Ocean and float on top because it is less dense than seawater. Unlike today, surface water will flow out of the Arctic Ocean and override the warm but salty North Atlantic Current, sinking the heat supply that makes Northern Europe habitable. This could foment a return to Ice Age conditions while shortening growing seasons and sparking population migrations. I provide these predictions as a worst-case scenario in the hope that there is enough lead time to rally mitigation efforts. Earth is an incredibly intricate and complicated system. The petroleum mega-leak disrupts important components and causes systemic ripple effects. If we don’t attack the problem with inspired mitigation, we could face a bleak future on both sides of the North Atlantic.
Is there a way to stop the spread of the petroleum already floating in the Gulf? The best opportunity to contain the dispersal is at the “narrows” between Key West and Cuba. By constructing a long, floating boom between Key West and Cuba, in an eastward-pointing, V-shaped weir, the natural current flow can be enlisted to funnel the petroleum to a central collection point where it can be captured, loaded aboard tankers, and shipped to the nearest refinery. Once the efficacy of this technique is established, other booms can be constructed to direct petroleum farther out in the Gulf toward the Straits of Florida for collection. The booms can be maintained by a flotilla of fishing craft and pleasure craft. The weir should be made collapsible so that it can be taken in and redeployed as hurricanes move through the area. Naturally, the Straits of Florida will need to be closed to shipping. Such a solution will be expensive but not nearly as expensive as the clean-up efforts that will need to be made if the contamination in the currents is left unabated. The media overuse the term “tipping point” to describe a rapid and dramatic climate change. We may be watching that tipping point gurgling out into the Gulf of Mexico on the evening news. This severe environmental catastrophe may turn into humanity’s greatest challenge. I hope not; I would love to be wrong but you should know about it (May 18th, 2010 at 5:52 pm).
The Ocean Circulation Group, a physical Oceanography research lab at the University of South Florida's College of Marine Science. And here are some animated time lapse simulations that make Mickey Mouse look like … well … British Petroleum.