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American Association for the Advancement of Science

The Gulf oil spill's effects on the atmosphere

Sea surface oil slicks near the Deepwater Horizon spill site, June, 2010.
[Image courtesy of David Valentine, UCSB]

After the Deepwater Horizon disaster, a plume of air pollution accumulated over the spill, as the oil evaporated off the sea surface, scientists have discovered.

Organic "aerosol" particles in the atmosphere are an important cause of air pollution and an influence on climate change. Unfortunately, scientists don't have a very good understanding of how these particles form and enter the atmosphere, though they know that one way is through the evaporation of substances like oil. A better understanding of how this type of air pollution form should help efforts to clean up the air.

The Deepwater Horizon blowout was tragic and rare opportunity for scientists to study organic aerosol formation. As the oil on the sea surface evaporated, different organic compounds entered the air from different parts of the oil slick.

Flying aboard a large research airplane often called a "hurricane hunter," Joost de Gouw of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and colleagues traveled over the spill site twice, on 8 and 10 June 2010.

They measured the composition of the air above the spill and identified a plume of organic compounds called hydrocarbons downwind of the spill site. This plume included pollution particles that formed from the lightest hydrocarbons, which evaporated the most easily. More surprisingly, it also included heavier hydrocarbons that took longer to evaporate. Until now, researchers weren't sure that these heaver compounds contributed to aerosol pollution.

These findings appear in the 11 March issue of the journal Science.