From: Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, via EurekAlert
Published August 9, 2014 08:51 AM

What happens immediately after an oil spill?

The fate of oil during the first day after an accidental oil spill is still poorly understood, with researchers often arriving on the scene only after several days. New findings from a field experiment carried out in the North Sea provide valuable insight.

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The immediate aftermath of an oil spill The fate of oil during the first day after an accidental oil spill is still poorly understood, with researchers often arriving on the scene only after several days. New findings from a field experiment carried out in the North Sea provide valuable insight that could help shape the emergency response in the immediate wake of disasters.

It is well known that oil and water don't mix. Less well known is the fact that when petroleum is spilt onto a water surface, a fraction of the oil immediately begins to evaporate into the air or dissolve into the seawater. These dissolved toxic hydrocarbons can threaten aquatic species, while evaporated compounds may pose a risk to rescue workers or populations downwind of an accident site. Publishing in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, a team of European and American researchers report on a unique study focused on the fate of hydrocarbons during the 24 hours that follow an oil spill.

Following a spill, oil suddenly finds itself in a radically new environment — exposed to light, air, and the water surface after millions of years underground. "In its new environment, the oil immediately begins to change its composition, and much of that change happens on the first day," explains Samuel Arey, a researcher at EPFL and Eawag in Switzerland and corresponding author of the study. Oil is a complex mixture of many hydrocarbon compounds. Certain volatile compounds evaporate within hours, contaminating the overlying atmosphere. Others, such as toxic naphthalene, simultaneously dissolve into the seawater, posing a threat to aquatic life.

Especially since the Exxon Valdez catastrophe in 1990, which released over 40,000 cubic meters of oil into the ocean, researchers have sought to evaluate to what extent marine species in the vicinity of an oil spill are exposed to toxic hydrocarbons. But this question has largely remained debated, because many of the hydrocarbons are dispersed into the water or the overlying air well before scientists arrive at the site.

Cleaning up oil spill image via Shutterstock.

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