An Oil Slick to Rival Oklahoma


With no more oil flowing into the Gulf of Mexico from the the blown-out BP well, the surface oil slick seems to be breaking down rapidly, as Campbell Robertson and I report in Wednesday’s paper. That the surface oil would fade away is no surprise: scientists have long understood how oil weathers and dissipates in the environment.

The remarkable thing is how fast it seems to be happening in this case, with the slick virtually gone less than two weeks after BP managed to cap the well. Scientists cite a combination of warm weather in the gulf, which encourages the rapid biological breakdown of oil as well as the fast evaporation of some of its compounds, and recent storms that helped disperse the oil.

Our article emphasizes that the damage from the spill is not over and years of work remain to assess that harm and restore the ecology of the gulf. Still, we have probably reached a point where it makes sense to start toting up numbers for the history books on the Great Oil Spill of 2010.

SkyTruth, a small environmental organization, gets a jump on that task here. John Amos, its president, has been assiduously tracking the spill using satellite images since it began. He was one of the first to raise alarms about the low-ball estimates of the leak rate, and his critique ultimately helped force the government into revising its estimates way upward.

Mr. Amos has created a map, shown above, that combines all the areas of the gulf that were hit by the oil slick as it drifted around with the winds and the currents. His main finding is that the slick, at one point or another, covered a total of 68,000 square miles of the ocean surface, about the size of the state of Oklahoma.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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