Saturday, May 29, 2010

Pouring oil in troubled waters

"Pouring oil on troubled waters" is an old saying intended to convey the notion of making an attempt to calm an agitated situation.

As one website reports,
The calming effect of oil was known to the ancient Greeks. In 1762, Benjamin Franklin repeated an experiment first performed by Pliny, which he reported in A Letter from Benjamin Franklin to William Brownrigg, 1773:

"At length being at Clapham, where there is on the common a large pond which I observed one day to be very rough with the wind, I fetched out a cruet of oil and dropped a little of it on the water. I saw it spread itself with surprising swiftness upon the surface; but the effect of smoothing the waves was not produced; for I had applied it first on the leeward side of the pond where the waves were greatest; and the wind drove my oil back upon the shore.

I then went to the windward side where they began to form; and there the oil, though not more than a teaspoonful, produced an instant calm over a space several yards square which spread amazingly and extended itself gradually till it reached the lee side, making all that quarter of the pond, perhaps half an acre, as smooth as a looking glass."

Pouring oil up from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico is having the opposite effect: one of creating more agitation and anxiety. It appears that efforts to stop the gusher have had the effect of creating underwater streams of the oil which then rise elsewhere. It's Mother Nature's way of running the blockade.

USA Today reports, to the East of the big gusher, towards Florida,
A 22-mile plume of oil was nearing an underwater canyon, where it could poison the sealife in waters off Florida's coast, the Associated Press reports.

The discovery by researchers on the University of South Forida College of Marine Science's Weatherbird II vessel is the second plume reported since April 20, the story says.

And the Washington Post reports on a messier plume off to the West of the Big Gusher.

La. scientist locates another vast oil plume in the gulf
Cowan said that his crew sent a remotely controlled submarine into the water, and found it full of oily globules, from the size of a thumbnail to the size of a golf ball. Unlike the plume found east of the leak -- in which the oil was so dissolved that contaminated water appeared clear -- Cowan said the oil at this site was so thick that it covered the lights on the submarine.

Cowan said that the submarine traveled about 400 feet down, close to the sea floor, and found oil all the way down. Trying to find the edges of the plume, he said the submarine traveled miles from side to side.

"We really never found either end of it," he said. He said he did not know how wide the plume actually was, or how far it stretched away to the west.

This discovery seems to confirm the fears of some scientists that -- because of the depth of the leak and the heavy use of chemical "dispersants" -- this spill was behaving differently than others. Instead of floating on top of the water, it may be moving beneath it.

That would be troubling because it could mean the oil would slip past coastal defenses such as "containment booms" designed to stop it on the surface. Already, scientists and officials in Louisiana have reported finding thick oil washing ashore despite the presence of floating booms.

This week, Mike Utsler, who helps oversee the spill response off the entire Louisiana coast as BP Houma incident commander, said he's focused only on taking oil off the surface. "We don't know there's oil underwater," he said.

William Hogarth, dean of the USF College of Marine Science, said university researchers have sent samples to federal officials for analysis, but it's clear the oil is new because Stanford scientists had sampled the same area a year ago and found no evidence of oil. The Weatherbird II will conduct another tour next week, he said, with different researchers aboard.

Buy, hey, no need to get all gloomy about the plumey oil. Maybe there's a silver lighting to those slicks.

Oil on troubled waters may stop hurricanes (2005)
As hurricane winds kick up ocean waves, large water droplets become suspended in the air. This cloud of spray can be treated mathematically as a third fluid sandwiched between the air and sea. "Our calculations show that drops in the spray decrease turbulence and reduce friction, allowing for far greater wind speeds - sometimes eight times as much," explains researcher Alexandre Chorin at the University of California at Berkeley, US.

The researchers suggest that, during a tropical storm, aeroplanes could deliver harmless surfactants to the ocean surface - reducing surface tension in water and stopping droplets from forming - perhaps preventing a hurricane developing.

The timing might not have been better.
2010 hurricane season could be one of most active
This year’s hurricane season, which begins in another four days, is shaping up to be one of the most active ones in recent times.

That’s according to the seasonal outlook issued yesterday by NOAA’s Climate Prediction Centre. It said that an “active to extremely active” hurricane season is expected for the Atlantic Basin and underscores the importance of having hurricane preparedness plans in place.

NOAA is projecting a 70 percent probability of 14 to 23 named storms, with top winds of 39 mph or higher; eight to 14 hurricanes with maximum winds of 74 mph or higher; and three to seven major hurricanes - Category 3, 4 or 5 with winds of at least 111 mph.

"If this outlook holds true, this season could be one of the more active on record,” said NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco. “The greater likelihood of storms brings an increased risk of a landfall. In short, we urge everyone to be prepared.”

You think?

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