Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Anatomy of an Oil Spill, Part I

Now that the well is reportedly capped...reportedly...it would seem a collective sigh of relief is in order.  That is if you don't stop to think about the damage already done.  In the past few days, I had the grand opportunity to survey some of that damage.

I have had the good fortune of being able to fly out over the BP/Macondo site, and over other Gulf areas affected by the oil spill, twice in 4 days.  I say good fortune...I nearly lost my breakfast 20 or 30 times, but it was well worth it.  I took a video camera up with uber-eco-warrior, fearless pilot, PhD of Theoretical Physics, and 2nd mate of the Sea Sheperd's anti-whaling boat, the Bob Barker (featured on Animal Planet's Whale Wars),  Bonny Schumaker.  (more here...scroll down)

Bonnie is one amazing woman, one of the most amazing I've ever met.  A spirit of unyielding intent...she flies her single prop plane, Beautiful Bess, with the same determination and fearlessness she portrays in her fight to save the world's oceans and marine life.  While I was never scared riding shotgun in Bess, I am prone to motion sickness and I sure as hell wasn't ready for the banks and turns she pulled the moment we hit our first destination.  On the first trip there were two other folks in the plane (in the back seat) and I didn't want to wimp out and be the dude who puked on the flight, but it took everything I had to hold back the upchuck.  Once my body adjusted to it I was fine, but the first couple of hours felt like I dropped the brown acid at Woodstock and was trapped on a tilt-o-wheel.

That first destination was Racoon Island in Caillou Bay.  From there we scanned the waters on our way to the Macondo site and finally took a break at Ocean Springs, MS.  I am going to put up a short video of the excursion, but I wanted to put up some stills and a post as soon as I could because the trip is still fresh in my mind.

1st Trip - Friday, July 23, 2010

Here is the rough flight path we took on Friday:  Lakefront Airport, N.O. >  Racoon Island, LA > BP/Macondo site > Horn Island, MS. > Ocean Springs Airport, MS. (Yellow lines).  Then we flew directly from Ocean Springs to Lakefront Airport in N.O. (Orange line).

Our first off shore stop was Racoon Island.  We had been told that there were a number of distressed birds there and we wanted to check it out first. (You can click on the pix to blow them up.)

There were a ton of birds on Racoon Is. as opposed to neighboring Islands....it was very strange.  I did  notice that neighboring islands such as Whiskey Island and the Timbalier Islands seemed to show significant signs of human activity and clean up crews as opposed to Racoon.  I suspect the human presence on those islands may have scared the birds off to neighboring Racoon.

One thing which became immediately apparent was the large amount of failed boom, not just at Racoon, but all over the barrier islands.

Not only could I not understand the logic behind it's placement, it just simply wasn't working.  I'm not sure if those barriers you see in the picture above were built to stop the oil spill, but neither the land barriers or the boom were doing much to stop the oil invasion.

After leaving Racoon, we took off toward the Horizon well site.  We immediately ran into signs of oil and dispersant, on a rather large scale.  We spotted a small pod of dolphins right about a mile from the Racoon area, but after that....nada.  I've flown over the Gulf before and been out in boats, and I was very spooked at the overall absence of dolphins.

As we progressed, the oil became more and more apparent in different forms and textures.  It was like Baskin Robbins 32 flavors of Hell....here are some examples.

I call these the diarrhea clouds.  They appeared to be Corexit-diluted oil which was breaking up in massive running clouds stretching up to a mile.  I'm pretty sure that's Racoon Island in the background.

In some areas the oil had broken down pretty heavily and you could see these little islands.  We saw multiple pelicans trying to land right on these things, I think they were confused and thought it was some kind of land mass.

These guys were like striped blobs which ran on for only about a 100 to 200 yards.  It just looked like an oil leak on the road.

As we got closer to the site, we started noticing a very weird phenomenon.  There were lines of what appeared to be dispersant and on one side of the line the ocean was a deeper, darker greeen or blue, and on the other side it was a more brownish color.  It was almost like a thermocline separation (I know that's not the case) in how distinct the line was.  At first I expected to it last just a mile or so but as we progressed toward the well site I realized it ran on forever, tens of miles, all the way to the site.  I was told the brown part on the bottom is the oil.

At some point the colors shifted from brown/green to blue/green.  I suspect that was due to an increase in water depth.  Once again....this was endless all the way to the well site.  Supposedly the oil is the green side on these photos.

We flew over this boat which was cutting an iridescent wake.  Hard to tell in this pic, but it was a very vivid rainbow effect.

There were no methane flares that day, I assume because they were evacuating the site as tropical storm Bess was still posing a threat.  Still, the amount of vessels had increased significantly since I was last there 2 1/2 months ago.

The Enterprise Discovery.

1 of 2  TransOcean drilling platforms.

The Helix Producer....I think this boat takes in the oil being siphoned off the wellhead.

We saw about 3 of these support boats which were jettisoning something out the sides.  I'm assuming it's Corexit.  These ships had large yellow tubes running on deck and they were clearly blowing shit out the sides as seen in the photos.

After 4 flyovers of the site, we headed towards Ocean Springs Airport.

About 8 to 10 miles north of the site, we ran into the weirdest of all the spill flavors.  I called this stuff the ghost sheen.  I cant begin to describe how spooky this stuff was.  It was moving like a cloud pattern just below the surface of the ocean.  It kind of reminded me of the ghosts floating below the surface in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End.  It was just freaky...it was changing patterns almost like clouds in a rapid storm system.

Right next to the ghost sheen we spotted a school of Golden Manta Rays.  In fact we saw about 4 groups of these guys on the trip.  There was a shark in close pursuit right behind this group, not sure if he was hunting them or looking for scraps.  I was told these guys don't normally surface like this, I don't know if that's true but we saw a lot of them.

Upon approaching Horn Island off the Mississippi shore, I started to get a little sick to my stomach.  This time it wasn't the flying, I had already leveled out....when I saw the amount of oil that was encroaching on the shoreline and realized there were people swimming on the beach at Ocean Springs, I got nauseated all over again.  I became increasingly mortified looking down and seeing all this nasty shit right off the shore and wondering just how much nastier the shit I couldn't see was.

You can see this boom off Horn Island's north side is black and covered in oil....that's right....north side.  Oil plume is in the bottom left hand corner.  Horn Island is a little under 7 miles from the MS. shoreline.

This is a shot of the south side of Horn Island....that black stuff on the beach is oil.

We landed at the Ocean Springs Airport and met with a local lawyer and conservationist who gave us a tour of the city and beach.  I was in a state of disbelief when we drove past the beach area and saw kids on the beach and in the water.  I wanted to run out and scream bloody murder, but I realized it was futile and that there were hundreds if not thousands of people out in that water from there to Panama City, FL.  Man, if they could only have seen what I saw from the air.  I don't know what the state of Mississippi is telling people, but I can absolutely, positively assure you that this spill is in the waters off their beaches.

Another shocking revelation which occurred on the flight....and I almost don't want report this because I'm afraid of how it will be interpreted....the plane was coated in a rather thick layer of oil when we landed.

What does that mean?  I don't know.  Yes I'm the same guy that was railing on the douchebag that claimed it was raining oil a month ago....and I still stick to that lambasting.   But I can't deny what I saw, the plane was covered in a layer of oil after the flight.  That doesn't mean it can rain oil but I now have to question the capacity for the oil to somehow evaporate into the atmosphere along with water.  I don't know if that is what is happening, I just know the oil had to get on the plane from the air and we never dipped down low enough to get sprayed from the ocean surface.  I am going to post a video clip of it tomorrow and I welcome any speculation as to how it got there....and it didn't come from the engine of the plane.

I have a lot more to say, but I am going to wait and post part II tomorrow before I rant.  In the meantime, I would highly recommend not going to the beach and I would vehemently recommend you don't go swimming in the affected areas of the Gulf.  But hey, it's your life.

More to come tomorrow.


Editilla~New Orleans Ladder said...

Thank you for this most excellent blogging.
I hope this can help with your framing the oil airborne:
~Modeling Airborne Levels Of Some Volatile Components In Oil Spills
~The Physics of Oil Spills
And this from the CDC, though I have trouble with the veracity of our Federal Institutions right now...
~Deep Water Horizon Oil Spill Human Health Interim Clinical Guidance

Looking forward to the next step in this series.
Way to go, Ashe.

PS~I gotta post this one. Your Word Thingy Formentor (WTFr) word for this comment this post????
HA! Hey Youz! Roar Me!

Anonymous said...

Oh, Dambala, thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Thank you to your brave and dedicated friends, too.

This was sad and nauseating for those reading along at home, too.

Those pictures were unforgetable.

Please take care.

Thank you again.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this report. It's so much better than anything else I've seen.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your always honest and in your face real account of what is happening in the gulf.

Unknown said...

Great post! Thank you for sharing this.

The methane flaring only occurred when the well was being produced. Since the shut in, no oil has been flowing to the ships and therefore no flaring of gas.

And that ship looks like it is the Monica Ann. It's not a dispersant ship and will likely be pumping mud for the static kill/relief well efforts. Which would explain the hoses.

PDF with ship info: http://www.gulf-log.com/index_files/Monica%20Ann.pdf

Previously I believe it sprayed water during the flaring operations.

In a press conference weeks ago it was mentioned that dispersants were applied to that area aerially. I haven't heard of any dispersant operations after the flow was shut off.

And yes, the Helix Producer did siphon oil for like a day. The Discoverer Enterprise (cappy) and Q4000 (top kill line) siphoned oil for much longer.

The Q4000 will also be pumping mud into the wellhead for the static kill. I don't know what role, if any, the Producer will have.

Anonymous said...

Dambala, the area where the brown water meets the blue-green water may be a rip line where 2 different water masses meet( cold/warm, high salinity/low salinity, river/gulf). If there was debris floating in the separation, like grass and sticks, it was a rip.

Captain Sassy said...

be careful, corexit messes with you testicular functioning. seriously.

Jason Brad Berry said...

I really don't think it was a ripline as it ran north/south all the way to the source. But I can't rule it out.

Anonymous said...

This is what happens when you ASSume.... the pictures of the Monica Ann "shooting shit out the sides" is actually the vessel moving Athwarthsip through the water (sideways). Many of these vessels are Z-drive or have stern tunnell thrusters that direct propwash perpendicular to the vesell. The vesells with straight shaft drives that are DP (dynamic position) can split their rudders and send prop wash out the side of the vessel.
It is commentary like this that clouds the judgement of average people.
Capt. D
PS. I see that you must approve all comments. Do you have the integrity to accept a correction? More importantly will you move it up to the top so followers can see that you made a mistake?

Jason Brad Berry said...

Sorry Charlie, it was carrying dispersant that's already been confirmed.