It was almost ten years ago that the Deepwater Horizon oil platform burned in the Gulf of Mexico and 790 million liters of heavy oil flowed into the sea. Now, new analyzes show that the oil that has escaped has spread significantly further than previously known. The effects of the oil spill were 30 percent greater than satellite images would suggest at the time, researchers from the University of Miami report in a study in the journal Science Advances.
The Deepwater Horizon explosion of April 20, 2010 killed 11 oil workers and destroyed the oil rig platform. For 87 days, oil from BP’s Macondo oil field flowed almost unhindered into the Gulf of Mexico and triggered one of the greatest environmental disasters in US history.
According to estimates at the time, the oil contaminated a marine area of around 150,000 square kilometers, an area larger than Greece. However, the new findings suggest that the damage went far beyond that.
Areas affected far outside of the restricted areas
A “substantial amount” of the oil was not visible from the air, reports Igal Berenshtein, lead author of the study. “The oil slick was only visible to satellites above a certain oil concentration on the surface of the sea, so part of it was not recorded.”
The scientists analyzed water samples from the Gulf of Mexico and combined the results with newly developed computer models of oil spread. According to their findings, toxic oil spread from the location of the disaster off the coast of the US state of Louisiana to the Texas coast in the northwest of the Gulf. In the east, the oil reached the Florida Keys. It was probably even carried around Florida to the Atlantic coast. With that, parts of the oil would have reached areas that were far outside of the restricted fishing zones established at the time.
“Our results change previous assumptions about the consequences of oil spills,” said co-author Claire Paris, professor of ocean research at the University of Miami. In disasters like the Deepwater Horizon explosion, toxic and invisible oil can spread far beyond the zone that can be observed from the air. The researcher hopes that the models used in the study will lead to better management of future oil spills.
The oil company BP sold its US business after the disaster. Penalties, cleanups, and damage claims cost the company more than $ 65 billion in total.
To date, nature has not fully recovered from the catastrophe.