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The Gulf of Life

I’ve been slow to say anything about the Gulf of Mexico situation because, in all honesty, words simply fail to express my disgust.  Dwelling on blame doesn’t seem reasonable because in an economy that pigs out on oil the way we do something like this seemed inevitable.  The cleanup is going to be long and difficult no matter what.  But one angle that seems to have been lost in furor is the critical role that the Gulf of Mexico has in bringing life to North America and Europe in the form of warmth and rain.  A tremendous slick of oil has the potential to change the climate in ways that are, at the very least, worth keeping an eye on.

The Mississippi-Missouri-Ohio river systems are over 90% contained.  Water evaporates in the Gulf, swirls over the continent, and falls as rain through the vast center of North America.  Very little water comes in over the Rockies and the prevailing winds keep clouds from the east away, meaning that it all comes up from the South.

Similarly, the warm water bubbles up into a river that passes the Strait of Florida and becomes the well-named Gulf Stream, making Europe much more habitable than its high northerly latitude would suggest.  This one shallow sea is responsible for a tremendous amount of life in the Northern Hemisphere.

How might a film of oil in place over the next few years change this?  The process of bringing the water of life from the Gulf has two distinct phases that might be affected.

First, sunlight is absorbed by the water which has now become darker and more turbid (cloudy).  If there is any net change in the amount of heat taken up by the water of the Gulf, it should reasonably be higher – that is, the water itself is likely to become hotter or stay the same.

The other process is one of evaporation, where the hot water boils up into the air on its way to becoming a sweltering Midwestern summer or, when conditions are right, a dark thunderstorm.  We can expect that a thin film of oil bubbling up from underneath will only slow the rate of evaporation, if it makes any change at all.

That leave us with four possibilities for the near future:

Absorption increases but evaporation stays the same. This would make for a hotter Gulf.  In this scenario, there is more fuel waiting for a hurricane that may just have the low pressure and turbulence to mix things up and encourage evaporation in the way a calm sea cannot.  The amount of warm water going to Europe also would increase, and effect that would probably only be noticed if it continues for many years.

Absorption increases and evaporation decreases.
This is the same as above, but potentially much moreso.  The Gulf could become much hotter than we’ve ever seen and have the potential to fuel very large storms that are catastrophic.

Absorption remains the same but evaporation decreases.
That would mean less water moving into the air and the potential for drought throughout the farm states of the Midwest lasting for years.

Both remain the same. Obviously, there would not be any net change.

Given these four possibilities, it seems that if the net effect of a sea darkened by oil is a hotter sea that may not be able to find its equilibrium easily.  The climate would, primarily, become a bit more chaotic and act outside of normal bounds.  There is at least some potential for drought if the evaporation is slowed significantly.  The changes may be large or small – we can’t say until we see how important the processes of water and energy in the Gulf are affected.

What will happen because of this terrible oil spill?  Away from the human drama of cleaning and blaming, preening and shaming there is at least the potential for a serious in the life of two highly populated continents.  The Gulf of Mexico is that important to civilization as we know it.  We can’t predict exactly what will happen, but there are boundaries based on what we know can happen.  None of it is good.

There could be a storm coming, so fasten your seatbelts.  Better yet, just stay out of your car and seek shelter. – we’ll all burn a bit less petroleum.

10 thoughts on “The Gulf of Life

  1. The possibility that this could cause a climate change is just incredible but your logic is sound. I can see that you are only saying it is possible, not predicting that it will happen. But it makes sense.

    We will be dealing with this for years no matter what.

  2. Excellent analysis. I think we’ll see by the end of the summer what we’re dealing with, but I agree that there’s a possibility this could be severe and long lasting. If this does impact the whole country it’ll cost way more than the piddly $2 billion BP has put up.

  3. Thanks – I’m glad you’re taking this the way I meant it, which is to say as idle speculation. I’m not saying that something terrible is going to happen with our climate, just that there is a real possibility that it could go down that way.

    I just want us to keep our eyes open as we move ahead and think this through. If nothing else, a serious drought through the whole breadbasket of North America would be a good time to hold corn and soybean futures. It also is a good reason to put an end to the wasteful practice of converting grain to ethanol, although I suspect that people who don’t understand how silly that process is will probably call for more ethanol, believing it is a substitute for oil somehow.

  4. Only time will tell and time is something that really isn’t on our side. I hope and wish with heart and soul that we have inflicted a fatal wound. Will we take stock and look hard at our own wantoness and greed?

  5. Gwei, I fear that if we haven’t done so already, it’s not going to happen. Momentum for change/action is best harnessed directly after a disastrous event (witness 9/11). As time goes by, everyone settles down and back into their familiar rhythms. Change makes people uncomfortable and so they must become very uncomfortable in order for change to gain a foothold.

  6. One sad, underreported side of this disaster is that smaller, frequent oil spills and related economic misery have been going on for years around the world (http://bit.ly/b4djNn). Because they haven’t been in our backyard, we’ve paid little attention to them. I am afraid the temporary ban on off-shore drilling in the gulf will only export the environmental degradation.

    FYI, BP had to set up a $20 billion trust, not $2.

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