WHOI Studies Show Sunlight Reduces Usefulness of Oil Spill Dispersants

An airplane sprays chemical dispersants on an oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Two new studies have shown that sunlight transforms oil on the ocean surface more significantly and quickly than previously thought. The phenomenon considerably limits the effectiveness of chemical dispersants, which are designed to break up floating oil and reduce the amount of oil that reaches coastlines. (Stephen Lehmann, U.S. Coast Guard)

WOODS HOLE – Two new studies from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution could affect the way responders to ocean oil spills decide when, where and how to use chemical dispersants.

The studies indicate that sunlight transforms oil on the ocean surface more significantly and quickly than previously thought and that the sunlight sunlight considerably limits the effectiveness of the dispersants which are used to break up floating oil and reduce the amount which reaches coastlines.

Reseachers found through one of the studies that sunlight chemically alters the crude oil floating on the sea surface within hours or days.

A follow up study reported that the sunlight changes oil into different compounds that dispersants cannot easily break up.

The related studies were published in the journal “Environmental Science & Technology” on February 20 and Wednesday in the journal “Environmental Science & Technology Letters.”

More information about the studies can be found here.

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