Prof. Ian McDonald, professor of Oceanography at Florida State University, spoke last Saturday, May 8 at a public forum at the Hilton Garden Inn on Pensacola Beach. Prof. McDonald has been involved with the Oil Spill Academic Task Force, a group of scientists who he said hope to be a board of review to oversee the statements made by various parties, in hopes to represent the best interests of Florida.
McDonald used images of radar bouncing off the oil to estimate the surface of the oil spill, which he stated then was around 15,000 sq. km (or 5,191.5 sq. miles).
At first, BP and the Coast Guard had inspected and said the fallen rig wasn’t leaking, they then estimated that the oil leak was only flowing at a daily rate of 1,000 barrels a day.
“They never gave a real methodology. They never presented images of oil coming out of the leaks and didn’t give any kind of scaling. They simply said this is our estimate- 1,000 barrels a day,” Prof. McDonald said at the forum.
This, he said, caused him and some colleagues to do the math based on surface area maps of the spill and the amount of oil needed to make that size of surface area. They soon realized that the rate of 1,000 barrels a day and the surface area didn’t add up.
“There was a series of challenges in the media and some discussion with NOAA scientists and, abruptly, the rate was raised to 5,000 barrels a day.”
McDonald also stated that by his research, the oil on the surface appears to be expanding by a rate of around 1,000 kilometers per day. “That’s an alarming rate,” he said.
However, there does appear to be a bright side. Much of the sheen, the very thin layers, will evaporate or biodegrade; something that could prove to be especially good if the oil stays offshore. Oil that has been dispersed with dispersal chemicals will not be at the surface and, thus, will not evaporate. Also, about 90% of the oil volume is contained in less than 5% of the surface area, at the source of the leak.
McDonald then elaborated on the research done with radar pictures by using a picture taken of the oil spill by the Coast Guard and implemented the different colorations in the streaks to estimate thicknesses of the different parts of the surface level. With these estimates, as well as the surface size estimates, he approximates that the rate of the leak is actually 25,000 barrels a day; five times higher than the BP estimate of 5,000 barrels a day. This, he said, would have made the spill a volume of 8-9 million gallons of oil, by the April 28th picture he showed the audience.
“I could be wrong. I hope that I’m wrong,” McDonald said. He also added, “What we need to do, as citizens, is ask for an open process. What I’m suggesting is that the way we can empower ourselves in all this, is for us to ask-without panicking, without throwing stones-to ask for information, from our government and from BP on all these things.”
He also stated that one key factor in all of this data that is missing is what type of oil this spill consists of. It’s been reported as being light-sweet crude, but McDonald cites that oil chemists from LSU have suggested the oil is a much thicker type. “The type of oil has a direct bearing on how long it’s going to last in the water out there over the coming days and weeks.” He also said that it is possible that the type of oil might change as the oil continues to flow from the leak.
McDonald openly admits that his estimates are just that, estimates. However, he underscores the apparent PR problem with this oil disaster, that local, expert scientists are having trouble evaluating and overseeing BP’s data on the spill because BP is not being open about it’s methodology for getting data.
Many in the audience seemed to also share McDonald’s opinion, that BP is unnecessarily keeping those in academia and members of the public in the dark, through a lack of sharing data, pictures, and other forms of information.
Prof. McDonald also suggested that if the oil gets into the loop-current in the Gulf of Mexico, it would most likely hit Cuba. This brings into question what sort of ground other countries affected by this disaster would have in bringing lawsuits against the United States and BP if this should happen.