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Humans responsible for over 90% of world’s oil slicks

Study: Humans are responsible for more than 90% of the world's oil spills

The Taylor Energy rig, about 10 miles off the coast of Louisiana, was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and immediately began to leak oil. Oil slicks, like this 2013 photo, were commonly seen on the site until a containment system was installed in 2019. Credit: Ian MacDonald

A team of American and Chinese scientists mapping oil spills in Earth’s oceans has found that more than 90% of chronic oil spills come from human sources, a much higher proportion than previously estimated.

Their research, published in Science, is an important update to previous studies of marine oil pollution, which estimated that about half came from human sources and half from natural sources.

“What’s fascinating about these results is how often we’ve detected these floating oil spills — from small spills, from ships, from pipelines, from natural sources like seeps into the ocean floor, and then also from areas where industry or population produces runoff that contains floating oil.” said Ian MacDonald, a professor in the Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science at Florida State University and co-author of a paper.

Oil slicks are microscopic layers of oil on the surface of the ocean. They can cause massive oil spills, but they are also widely and continuously produced by human activities and natural resources.

These ephemeral oil slicks are constantly moved by wind and currents as waves break them apart, making research challenging. To find and analyze them, the research team used artificial intelligence to examine more than 560,000 satellite radar images collected between 2014 and 2019. That enabled them to determine the location, extent and likely sources of chronic oil pollution.

An oil slick leaked from an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2012. Credit: Ian MacDonald

Even a tiny amount of oil can have a major impact on plankton that form the basis of the ocean food system. Other marine animals, such as whales and sea turtles, are harmed when they come into contact with oil as they come up to breathe.

“Satellite technology provides a way to better monitor ocean oil pollution, especially in waters where human surveillance is difficult,” said Yongxue Liu, a professor in Nanjing University’s School of Geographic and Oceanographic Science and corresponding author. “A global view can help focus on regulation and enforcement to reduce oil pollution.”

The effectiveness of satellite images offers a possible solution. Researchers found most oil spills near coastlines. About half of the oil spills were within 40 miles of the coast and 90% were within 100 miles. The researchers found relatively fewer oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico than elsewhere in the world, suggesting that government regulation and enforcement and compliance by oil rig operators in U.S. waters reduce leakage.

An oil slick forms on the ocean’s surface after a pipeline leak in the northern Gulf of Mexico in 2016. Credit: Ian MacDonald

“If we can take those lessons and apply them to places around the world where we’ve seen high concentrations of oil spills, we can improve the situation,” MacDonald said.

Professor Yanzhu Dong of Nanjing University was the lead author of the study. Other co-authors included Yingcheng Lu of Nanjing University and Chuanmin Hu of the University of South Florida.

Ocean surface spots are pelagic nurseries for various fish

More information:
Yanzhu Dong et al, Chronic oil in the oceans, Science (2022). DOI: 10.1126/science.abm5940www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.abm5940

Provided by Florida State University

Quote: Study: Humans Responsible for Over 90% of the World’s Oil Spills (2022, June 16) Retrieved June 17, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-06-humans-responsible-world-oil- slicks.html

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