Friday, May 14, 2010

Can Microbes Contain the Oil Spill?

Following the daily NOAA extent maps for the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, it is easy to see that the oil is spreading out, but it is not advancing as rapidly as or reaching shore in the volumes that the more gloomy scenarios had predicted. Weather will play a substantial role in the movement of the oil slick, but extrapolating from what we’ve seen so far, it seems it could take months for the oil spill to spread across the eastern half of the Gulf of Mexico to reach Florida and Cuba.

Part of the reason is the presence of oil-eating microbes. They are part of the natural surroundings in an area where a small amount of crude oil leaks into the water every day. These microbes are surely killed off along with everything else wherever there is a heavy concentration of oil, but can flourish if the oil is light enough, and I have to imagine they are doing more than all the human efforts combined to control the light outer edges of the spill.

The scale of the oil containment effort is tiny compared to the scale of the problem. NOAA reports “more than 5 million gallons” of oily water removed from the gulf. That sounds like a lot until you compare it to the extent of the spill, possibly 250,000 square kilometers today (that’s 3 percent of the area of the Gulf of Mexico). Imagine taking one bucketful out of each square mile of sea water and you can see how little difference this would make. With all our efforts able to collect less than a tenth of the oil spilled so far, we’re mostly at the mercy of natural forces to limit the damage from the spill.