How Nature is Helping Clean Up the Oil Spill
As news reports have indicated, the initial efforts to contain and capture oil issuing from the still leaking well at the site of last month’s Deepwater Horizon disaster have sadly not panned out, and a second-draft fix remains an untold number of days away. But as Christine Dell’Amore reminds us in writing for National Geographic, natural processes are already hard at work on the critical task of blunting the potential harm posed by the leaked petroleum.
Oil that has escaped or overwhelmed efforts to absorb and contain it may be mitigated by a couple of different processes. The first is simple evaporation, which is most effective for the lighter chemical fractions of recently spilled product. The loss through evaporation of these lighter hydrocarbons is described as fortuitous, as these particular classes of aromatic hydrocarbons are more readily dissolved into the water were they not to evaporate, and pose the greatest toxicity risk to marine life. As Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution marine chemist states the matter for National Geographic, evaporation “is our friend right now.”
Once these lighter compounds are given off, what’s left behind still in or on top of the water is heavier, more viscous, and less able to evaporate. Cue the dinner bell for countless marine bacteria, for whom the heavier, more energy-packed fractions of the spilled oil are “like butter.” National Geographic indicates that, particularly in a warm and sunny climate such as that of the Gulf of Mexico, microbial activity and its capacity to mitigate spilled oil can be significant.
It may seem like insult to injury to have an environmental disaster such as this inflict harm on the natural world only to then have nature itself do a good bit of our heavy lifting with respect to cleaning up our mess. But the power and resilience of natural systems will prove to be indispensable in dressing its own wounds inflicted by the Gulf oil platform incident.