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Saturday, May 1, 2010

Tracking the Deepwater Horizon disaster

It may not have been apparent at first, but as anyone who's been paying attention to the news knows, the destruction of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig has turned into one of the biggest ecological disasters of the new century.

The disaster began eleven days ago, when several oil well-control systems failed, leading to a blowout, which caused the Deepwater Horizon oil rig to explode. The rig subsequently sank, leaving eleven crewmembers dead and seventeen injured. Most of the personnel on board the rig managed to quickly escape uninjured in lifeboats and were rescued by the Coast Guard.

Tugs attempt to put out rig fire
Above: Tugboats attempt to put out the fire raging on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig fifty miles off the coast of Louisiana.

At the time of the explosion (April 20th) and the sinking (April 22nd) it was known that the rig's demise had created a significant oil slick, covering an area approximately one mile wide and five miles long (1.6 x 8 kilometers). The Coast Guard — and British Petroleum (BP) which controlled the rig under lease from Transocean Ltd. — initially believed the wellhead itself was not leaking oil. But exactly a week ago, four days after the blowout occurred, the Coast Guard admitted that the wellhead was in fact gushing oil into the ocean.

Satellite view of Deepwater Horizon mess
Above: A satellite image of the area affected by the Deepwater Horizon disaster. The gray splotch in the middle of the image is the oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico. Image courtesy of NASA's Earth Observatory.

BP originally put the gusher at one thousand barrels a day, but last Wednesday, NOAA estimated it to be five times that size. (That's 5,000 barrels/210,000 gallons/790,000 liters). But even that might be a conservative estimate. Florida State's Ian MacDonald, an oceanography professor, thinks oil might be gushing from the uncapped wellhead at the rate of twenty five thousand barrels a day. So far, BP has been unsuccessful in closing the well's valves using remotely operated vehicles. Engineers are now attempting to put a dome in place over the well to stop oil from escaping, and Transocean is preparing to drill a relief well.

Meanwhile, what could be the biggest oil spill in history continues to get bigger.

Here's a roundup of articles and perspectives on the Deepwater Horizon incident that readers may find useful for tracking the disaster:
If you know of something we missed that should be on the list, please let us know by leaving a comment with a link to the resource in question.


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