12 February 2020
By Adam Vaughan
The US’s worst ever oil spill, at a BP rig a decade ago, may have been almost a third larger than previously thought. The finding, published today, comes as the oil giant launched a new bid to burnish its environmental credentials.
The Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010 saw nearly 800 million litres of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico, which satellite tracking suggested covered an estimated 149,000 square kilometres. But an analysis suggests that the real extent of the spill may have been 30 per cent greater, because much of the oil was invisible to satellites. The study also found that the oil extended much deeper than satellites had detected, with toxic concentrations 1.3 kilometres down.
A US team arrived at this estimate using data from 25,000 samples of water and sediment from the area, much of it only released in recent years by BP, in addition to satellite and aerial images. It used these to model how far the oil is likely to have spread, accounting for ocean currents, temperature and the biodegradation of oil.
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The results suggest the spill reached as far as the West Florida shelf, Texas shores and Florida Keys. “The environmental damage extends substantially beyond what was previously estimated both in space and time,” says Claire Paris-Limouzy at the University of Miami, Florida.
While these previously undetected hydrocarbons weren’t picked up by satellites, they were found at levels “potentially lethal and sublethal” to marine organisms at different depths. “The impact on marine life was, and still is, larger than expected,” says Paris-Limouzy. The spill has been linked to deaths of dolphins, lobsters and smaller animals such as sea cucumbers.
While the researchers say their analysis should change perceptions of the disaster and the risk from future spills, they note that satellites are still the quickest, main way of detecting oil spills and directing clean-ups.
The Deepwater Horizon crisis has cost BP more than $65 billion. On Wednesday the company said the spill had “tested us to the core”, as it announced plans to reduce its carbon footprint to net zero by 2050. “If BP is really ‘green’, its leadership should continue efforts to assess the long-term impact and restore the Gulf of Mexico,” says Paris-Limouzy.
Journal reference: Science Advances, DOI: eaaw8863
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