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Perspectives on the Unfolding Spill: Evidence of the Environmental Impacts of the Event

09/28/2010 1:30 PM E14"674
Dr. Maria T. Zuber, E.A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics, Head of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, MIT ; ; Eric Adams, Lecturer, Civil and Environmental Engineering; Elizabeth Kujawinski, Associate Scientist, Marine Chemistry and Geochemistry, WHOI; Jerry Milgram, Professor Emeritus, Mechanical Engineering

Description: While the government declared an end to the oil spill at the Macondo well on September 19, 2010, research into the causes and impacts of the Gulf disaster is ongoing. At the kickoff panel of a three"part symposium, three scientists discuss what they are learning about the disposition of the nearly 5 million gallons of oil, as well as gas and chemicals, injected into Gulf waters following the blowout.

A decade ago, a group of oil companies, including BP, sponsored a series of controlled releases of oil and methane off the coast of Norway. Much of what we know about underwater spills comes from these studies, says Eric Adams, who "laments" the lack of follow up research into deeper waters. Scientists learned that the light gas "provided a buoyant engine for crude migration," and that as this oil mix gushed from the site of injection, it formed small droplets. The Gulf spill, like these studies, involved oil mixed with natural gas. Much of this oil was similarly atomized, suggests Adams, and reduced in size further by chemical dispersants. The resultant miniature droplets could take as long as a year to rise to the surface, and are deposited at different layers in the water. Adams and others hope to create models for how oil diffused into water around the Deepwater Horizon site, and how the particles disperse over time.

Using an ultrahigh resolution mass spectrometer, Elizabeth Kujawinski has been sampling sea water at different distances from the well head to identify the presence of oil and dispersants. In particular, she wants to know how these components spread into Gulf waters. With help from the EPA, Kujawinski and her team learned the chemical signature of Corexit, the key dispersant used in the Gulf spill, where it was used heavily for the first time under water. She is busy "quantifying the molecule" in samples from various cruises, and comparing these samples to control batches of sea water. Says Kujawinski, "Our data is providing new insight into compounds that haven't been observed before" and making it possible to track dispersant chemicals, and oil, through the complex Gulf ecosystem in the months ahead.

All those booms laid out to protect fragile wetlands looked like swimming noodles from the air, and may have had just about the same impact, suggests Jerry Milgram. These booms, with their underwater curtains and floating foam tops, permit oil to go under or over whenever the current gets too strong. Oil containment simply won't work against energetic wind and waves. Decades ago, Milgram attempted to design booms that rode the waves better in gently agitated seas, and he came up with oil collection gadgets as part of these devices. They were too expensive "and fell into disuse." Once the oil escapes, booms and skimmers are a waste of resources. Says Milgram, "When it comes to surface cleanup and open sea, use your money for something better."

About the Speaker(s): Maria Zuber studies the structure and evolution of planets and has been an innovator in the application of spacecraft laser ranging and radio tracking systems to map the topography and gravity fields of the planets. Zuber has led or co"led spacecraft instrument investigations to the Moon and Mars, and she is involved in future missions to Mars, Mercury, and the asteroids Ceres and Vesta. The topographic map of Mars produced by her laser altimeter on the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft is the most accurate topography model for any planet, including Earth.

Zuber received her B.A. in Astrophysics (honors) and Geology, from the University of Pennsylvania in 1980, her Sc.M. in Geophysics in 1983, and her Ph.D. in Geophysics in 1986, both from Brown University.

Host(s): School of Science, Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences

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MIT World — special events and lectures

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December 16, 2011 17:23
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