The process and the fate of oil spill are poorly understood with experts often reaching the spot after several days. The results of a field experiment carried out in the North Sea can provide insight into the process of any oil spill and also help to formulate effective response immediately after any such catastrophe.
Oil and water are immiscible is a well known fact. However, what is least known is the fact that immediately after any petroleum spill a small fraction of the oil starts to evaporate into the air or a small portion gets dissolved in the salt water. The dissolved hydrocarbons are very toxic and can threaten aquatic species. The evaporated portion of the spill could be carried by wind to nearby regions threatening both rescue workers and the population in the near vicinity of the spill.
A team of European and American researchers have published a unique study about the fate of hydrocarbons in the first 24 hours of the oil spill in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.
Immediately after the oil spill, it is exposed to a completely new environment. The oil spill is now exposed to light, air, and the sea water surface. The oil which remains underground for millions of years immediately starts to change in composition and a major portion of this change happens in the first 24 hours of the spill. Oil is a complex mixture and is composed of hydrocarbons of different evaporating points. Some compounds are highly volatile and are first to evaporate and contaminates the overlying atmosphere. Other toxic components of oil include toxic naphthalene and other phenols which can dissolve in the sea water and threaten all forms of aquatic life.
The Exxon Valdez catastrophe in 1990 released over 40,000 cubic meters of highly toxic oil into the ocean highlighting the need for a detailed study about the extent to which marine species are affected in the close vicinity of the disaster area. However many hydrocarbons evaporated or were dissipated by the time the experts arrived on the scene.
To collect data on the aftermath of an oil spill in the first few hours, researchers in close collaboration with the emergency response specialists of the Dutch Rijkswaterstaat recreated a four cubic meter oil spill in the already highly polluted North Sea shipping lane, 200 Kilometers off the shores of Netherland. The researchers were able to understand what goes in a bigger spill by studying small patch of oil spill. The knowledge gained in the study will prove to be extremely useful in formulation strategy and training the emergency response team who are the first to reach any oil spill. The study will also help to assess the risks to marine ecology as well as the emergency team workers.