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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

On Oil Wells, Kills, and Nukes

BP has admitted that 'Operation Top Kill' has failed, after pumping 30,000 barrels of drilling mud and other materials. The worst spill in the history of the United States is still continuing, and it's time to look for other measures.

The damage control valve has already been lowered to the sea floor beside the damaged riser, which continues to spew oil at 12,000 to 100,000 barrels per day, but repeated pumpings of drilling mud and assorted junk have failed to stop the flow, so the valve cannot be fitted yet. BP says the best option now would be to drill relief wells around the main one to reduce the pressure, but the relief wells won't be completed until August.

In the meantime, the ecology of the Gulf of Mexico is going to hell on the freeway. The Louisiana marshlands and isles around the Mississippi inlet are home to over 400 species, including the endangered Kemp's Ridley turtle, and these areas have already been contaminated, and enclosed with a quarantine, so oil is continuing to be washed ashore. Microbes used to break up the oil into droplets are depleting oxygen in the bay area, so fish are dying out by the schools, only exacerbated by the film of oil cutting off the replenishing oxygen. Even worse, the Loop Current in the bay is carrying the spill counterclockwise, towards the source of the Gulf Stream. Should the oil reach that, there will be no way to stop its spread diagonally across the Atlantic, exporting at least a part of the problem to the UK, and by extension Europe, and the Arctic.
The dark oil coating the icebergs would lower the albedo of the area, furthering the melting. The melt water, being composed of fresh water, which is lighter than salt water, would serve to further disrupt the Gulf Stream, which is already decelerating, and in danger of stopping. Granted, so far that would probably not happen in our lifetimes, being some fifty years off, but this might bring it much closer.

To me, the next most attractive solution would be the Russian one: "Nuke 'Em!". That is, detonate a nuclear warhead beside the well, and hope that the shock and heat of the explosion would seal the well shut. Granted, BP would have to sink it again, but hey, it's their fault this happened in the first place. This, however, would possibly create an even greater catastrophe: aside from the fact that the ground there is mainly mud, while these explosion were previously done in solid rock, the Gulf area is chock full of methane hydrate. For those unfamiliar with the substance, it is formed from methane and water under extreme pressures, whereupon water spontaneously solidifies, and traps methane in the crystal lattice. One liter of such 'burning ice' can contain, on average, 168 liters of methane gas, which is the worst greenhouse gas. At 1,500 meters, the hydrostatic pressure is approximately 15,000 kPa, at which pressure methane hydrate starts releasing its payload at about 17°C. A nuclear bomb detonates at several thousand degrees, plus the shockwave propagating in the mud is powerful enough to (hopefully) fuse rock, more than enough to destabilize the hydrate at long ranges. If the worst case scenario comes to pass, and the nuking does trigger a release of methane from the hydrate on the floor, the entire Gulf, or at least a rather large part of it, will turn into a boiling hell-hole where ships practically fall in the water (since it loses density, it will no longer support them due to the law of Archimedes), probably along with several more platforms, any open flame might trigger the resulting fuel-air explosive into a devastating fireball over the bay which would flatten anything not already sinking, and catapult the global warming process forward several decades (admittedly, I'm a bit fuzzy on the actual amount released, so latter two may not come to pass). Even so, the fact that 80 kms from the inhabited shore of the (arguably still) greatest power of the world a nuclear weapon will be detonated is more than enough to send shivers down one's spine.

To sum it up: Nuking might save us, or might doom us, and there's a 50% chance of both. Not exactly life insurance, but right now, it's the best anyone has to offer.

I'll leave you with that thought, and the hope that if worse comes to worst, damage can still be controlled somehow, and they empty the gulf before pressing the proverbial Doomsday Button.

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