LATEST BLOG
Wednesday, October 22, 2014
Sunday, October 19, 2014
Monday, October 13, 2014
Welcome to Matt Ridley's Blog
Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

Please note that this blog no longer accepts comments (there was too much spam coming in!). If you're reading this blog and want to respond then please use the contact form on the site.

You can also follow me on twitter.

The oil runs out

That damned elusive slick

I noticed a curious thing recently. The BBC's coverage of the Gulf oil spill for the last two nights was missing one thing: oil.

A reporter went down in a minisubmarine and looked at a pristine coral reef. Newsnight interviewed lawyers, fishermen and politicians.

But there was no sign of a slick, a slimed pelican or even a tar ball in their reports.

Then I found this on ABC News and the penny began to drop.

For 86 days, oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico from BP's damaged well, dumping some 200 million gallons of crude into sensitive ecosystems. BP and the federal government have amassed an army to clean the oil up, but there's one problem -- they're having trouble finding it.

The leak is capped and the spill appears to be shrinking, but where is it going?

At its peak last month, the oil slick was the size of Kansas, but it has been rapidly shrinking, now down to the size of New Hampshire.

Today, ABC News surveyed a marsh area and found none, and even on a flight out to the rig site Sunday with the Coast Guard, there was no oil to be seen.

"That oil is somewhere. It didn't just disappear," said Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser.

Salvador Cepriano is one of the men searching for crude. Cepriano, a shrimper, has been laying out boom with his boat, but he's found that there's no oil to catch.

"I think it is underneath the water. It's in between the bottom and the top of the water," Cepriano said.

Even the federal government admits that locating the oil has become a problem.

"It is becoming a very elusive bunch of oil for us to find," said National Incident Cmdr. Thad Allen.

The numbers don't lie: two weeks ago, skimmers picked up about 25,000 barrels of oily water. Last Thursday, they gathered just 200 barrels.

Still, it doesn't mean that all the oil that gushed for weeks is gone. Thousands of small oil patches remain below the surface, but experts say an astonishing amount has disappeared, reabsorbed into the environment.

"[It's] mother nature doing her job," said Ed Overton, a professor of environmental studies at Louisiana State University.

Looks like photo-oxidation and biodegradation work well in warm water, just like some scientists argued.

Here's another report

Reporters flying over the area Sunday spotted only a few patches of sheen and an occasional streak of thicker oil, and radar images taken since then suggest that these few remaining patches are quickly breaking down in the warm surface waters of the gulf.

And another:

Since BP capped the renegade Macondo well at the center of the Gulf oil disaster 12 days ago, the oil slick has shrunk to about 10,000 square miles from 80,000 square miles in just a matter of weeks.The reduction has amazed scientists who are tracking the spill and raised many questions about where all the oil has gone.

Natural resilience.

 

Update

It looks like my guarded rational optimism on the oil spill was perhaps if anything too cautious. In Time magazine, Michael Grunwald exposes the hype even more starkly:

 

So far - while it's important to acknowledge that the long-term potential danger is simply unknowable for an underwater event that took place just three months ago - it does not seem to be inflicting severe environmental damage. "The impacts have been much, much less than everyone feared," says geochemist Jacqueline Michel, a federal contractor who is coordinating shoreline assessments in Louisiana.

...Anti-oil politicians, anti-Obama politicians and underfunded green groups all have obvious incentives to accentuate the negative in the Gulf. So did the media, because disasters drive ratings and sell magazines; those oil-soaked pelicans you keep seeing on TV (and the cover of TIME) were a lot more compelling than the healthy pelicans I saw roosting on some protective boom in Bay Jimmy. Even Limbaugh, when he wasn't downplaying the spill, was outrageously hyping it as "Obama's Katrina." But honest scientists don't do that, even when they work for Audubon.

"There are a lot of alarmists in the bird world," Kemp says. "People see oiled pelicans, and they go crazy. But this has been a disaster for people, not biota."