Thrawn Rickle 35

Sadam Oil Slick

© 1993 Williscroft

Oil is floating on the Arabian Gulf waters and the president of Worldwatch has solemnly pronounced that the effect will last “at least ten years—perhaps indefinitely.”

The news media is rallying to the cause. Television networks broadcast long sequences of pathetic oil-soaked cormorants trying desperately to hoist themselves onto seemingly impossible concrete barriers; nobody bothers to explain that these birds received their dousing, not from the so-called “Sadam slick,” but from a smaller, much more localized spill that occurred further north in the gulf.

No one points out that, as of this writing, the big slick has not touched shore.

One of the things that makes crude oil so valuable as raw material for fuel is the many volatile elements it contains. As soon as crude oil is exposed to the air, it begins to evaporate, losing many of its more volatile components within a few hours to days. Floating on the surface of the Arabian Gulf, exposed to relatively high day-time temperatures, within a few days most of the liquefying, volatile components disappear. What remains sloshes around in the relatively choppy waves of this region, congealing into sticky clumps that will sink to the bottom before long.

There, within months, they will be covered by the natural action of detritus deposition.

Oil that does reach the sandy beaches will cause a sticky mess for a while. Fortunately, Mother Nature quickly lends a hand here as well. Continuous wave action against the oil-soaked beach sand washes the oil deeper and deeper, while long-shore transport of sand deposits a new layer of sand over the old. Again, within months nothing will remain of the awful mess.

While it is true that for a while one will get sticky feet if one digs into the sand, even this will disappear with time. Besides, bikini clad, barefoot Saudis are a rare event on these beaches anyway. Two years from now, the Gulf will have completely absorbed the spill—it will be as if the spill had never happened.

Journalist Warren T. Brooks reports in The Quill on the findings and comments of James Mielke of Congressional Research Services. CRC studied several “major” spill events including the Santa Barbara Blowout in the 60s, the Amoco Cadiz grounding on the French coast in 1978, and the recent Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound. Mielke says: “It’s devastating to have a spill, but there’s been a lot of over-reaction.” He concludes that spill clean-ups are a waste of time and money, noting that a record 40 million pink salmon were harvested in Prince William Sound in 1990.

Brooks quotes from a 400-page CRC report to Congress: “[While] local impacts from a large spill might be quite severe, most indications are that the major effects are short term…. The marine environment is resilient and has the ability to absorb oil spill impacts through natural processes.”

This report concludes that “Petroleum production has been among the least damaging to the environment of any of the extractive earth resources industries. Despite short term media attention to the catastrophic nature of major spill events, the chemicals contained in petroleum have long been part of the marine environment and physical impacts are likely to be temporary in the dynamic natural flux of the coastal environment.”

So why all the fuss? Get on with the task at hand and let nature take its course.

Submariner, diver, scientist, author & adventurer. 22 mos underwater, a yr in the equatorial Pacific, 3 yrs in the Arctic, and a yr at the South Pole. BS Marine Physics & Meteorology, PhD in Engineering. Authors non-fiction, Cold War thrillers, and hard science fiction. Lives in Centennial, CO.

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