4 minutes a day

I was looking for the latest aerial picture of the Gulf with oil in it. The pictures I’ve already seen give me a graphic sense of the magnitude and possibly the impact on the planet. the photos so far show an area with strings of oil spreading out about the size of Great Britain. (85,500 Sq. miles a hair smaller than Minnesota)

Now think of this oil going into the atmosphere as carbon gas molecules which it would have if it had not had its immediate and accidental release from the ocean’s floor. Other than polluting the Gulf Waters which supply about a third of the seafood harvested in American Waters the area is pretty small compared to the entire globe. It may last all summer and will no doubt increase in area and if his by a hurricane will disperse further.

In some ways is doesn’t seem that threatening in the ocean. Sure its a tragedy locally, but come on, we’ve got a pretty big ocean out there.

But this was oil destined for the atmosphere and global warming through the green house effect. There are a couple miles of atmosphere above that spot in the gulf and considering that oil descends miles below the surface its fairly easy to imagine all that same oil suspended as gas in the air columns above. But again its a small area. Maybe its not that big a deal.

In the first days of the oil spill a month ago I was trying to visualize the impact when BP was reporting the release at 1000 barrels a day. That led me to do a little math to figure out a daily spill volume I could comprehend. Eventually I concluded that the spilled oil was about the same volume as my home takes up. That made me scratch my head because the arieal photos already showed a swatch of the ocean a hundred miles wide with oil on it and that was only what made it to the surface. Could a load of oil about the volumn of my home really lead to that much spillage, I wondered?

As we now know those early estimates were greatly fudged. Today the estimates are that 35,000 to 65,000 barrels of oil are leaking daily. That’s enough to fill my house up with oil 35 to 65 times a day. That’s an amount, times sixty days, I can imagine spreading out over Lake Superior.

But still, after two months that swatch of oil looks pretty small on a global scale.

I was driven to google today when I heard a story on the Gulf Spill on National Public Radio.

What caught my attention was the statistic which was so outlandish that it caused the programs hosts to burst out laughing. The daily spill from the well in the Gulf of 60,000 barrels equals 4 minutes of driving by all American cars. The spill is one 360th of the amount of oil burned by cars each day in the US. This is oil that is being put into the atmosphere. It doesn’t include gasoline burned up by the rest of the world or coal burned anywhere or any other fossil fuels whose combustion puts additional green house gases into the atmosphere.

So, if we only imagined the petroleum consumed by American cars in a single day (times the period since the well burst) and tried to calculate how much of the ocean it would spread over we’d have to multiply the area of Great Britain by 360. That equals an area of 30 million square miles. That’s 100 times the size of the United States or thirty times the size of the old Soviet Union or three times the size of the Atlantic Ocean. Imagine an area of that size with ropes of oil descending a mile deep all this from 60 days worth of oil used solely to power American cars. Now add in all the cars of the rest of the world, and the power plants, and the forests burned to create land for grazing cattle. Now imagine all of this carbon headed into the atmosphere as oil covering the ocean and not just for sixty days but for 365 days a year, year in and year out. Now add to that image a picture of even more carbon being released as the world’s population increases and more of its population becomes wealthy enough to demand more goods requiring the expenditure of more fossil fuel. That’s one ugly ocean.

I was struck by some of the facts in that Gentleman Quarterly story I linked to about the depth of these deep ocean oil wells. After being placed a mile deep in the ocean the drills have the capacity to drill another five miles down to oil. That’s the distance between sea level and the top of Mount Everest. Imagine starting at the top of Mount Everest and drilling down to reach salt water. Fantastic!

We can thread a needle sized drill bit down five miles of subsea earth crust. A ten mile wide meteor impacting the Earth would be ground to bits long before it reached that depth.

On the other hand such a meteor impact could fracture the Earth’s crust to that depth. In fact, the Earth’s crust has many very deep fractures some of when already reach deposits of oil. Since the Gulf disaster I’ve been hearing about bacteria which dissolve carbon molecules. In doing so they consume Oxygen and cause Dead Zones, something which is also aggravated by farming which washes carbon laden soils into the ocean. That too has created huge dead zones which no shrimp can survive.

A google search for images of the oil spill led me to this fascinating (pre gulf disaster) photo from space of the Gulf. Evidently is shows ribbons of oil floating below Louisiana which were released naturally.

For eons bacteria has been eating this oil and in time it will consume the gulf oil spill as well. This organic chemistry will also be acting the carbon molecules being showered back into the ocean from the atmosphere from other human activity. As it rains back it will continue to acidify the ocean making it likely that different kinds of animals will take the place of those existing now. Imagine an ocean ruled by jelly fish and without coral reefs! That seems to be one possible, maybe likely future. Evolution, which doesn’t happen according to Texas public school text books, could eventually lead to fish that can handle a more acidic ocean, but those of us who see the end of monster tuna won’t be around to see them replaced by something similar. (BTW sea turtles like to eat jelly fish so they might enjoy a come back if there’s not too much oil in the sand where they lay their eggs)

Those who doubt the impact on the climate from human activity have a great ally in the invisibility of carbon bearing gasses. Out of sight out of mind.

Perhaps the best thing about the Gulf Oil Spill is its visibility. Seeing the oil spread out over an area the size of a small, western, European nation and then multiplying that image into an area three times the size of the Atlantic Ocean puts a mental picture of the magnitude, if not the consequences, of human fossil fuel consumption in one’s head.

We will have to use our heads to figure out what to do about the consequences of yielding to our unquenchable desire for oil’s energy.

My vote is for a carbon tax.

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