Sonar Spots Invisible Arctic Oil Spills

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Boom in Arctic Ocean drilling means hazardous leaks under ice, hidden from sight—but not from sound.

The next big oil spill could be out of sight. Climate warming has packs of Arctic sea ice in retreat, opening up vast areas for oil and gas drilling. That is posing a new problem for spill detectors: There is still a lot of ice in the region, and people cannot see through it. Remember that giant oil slick on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig blowout? Off the north coast of Alaska that kind of slick would likely be shielded by miles of drifting ice. “The risk of a serious oil spill in the Arctic is escalating,” the National Research Council warned in a report just last month. And, the council added, the U.S. is not ready to respond.

One answer could be to use sound rather than sight. High-frequency sonar chirps can reveal oil underneath ice, even when it is sandwiched between ice layers. “We were able to distinguish two different signatures: oil together with ice versus just ice alone,” says Christopher Bassett, a postdoctoral researcher at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. He and his colleagues presented their work Wednesday at the Acoustical Society of America’s meeting in Providence. Other researchers showed that sonar was sensitive enough to detect even tiny leaks, down to the level of individual oil and gas bubbles.

Flying spotting planes or sending scout ships across the chilly Chukchi and Beaufort seas may not find oil spills after they have drifted miles from their origins, Bassett says. The oil could be hidden under moving packs of seasonal ice that form and melt every year in the region—hidden from visual observation, that is.

But not from sound waves. In a cold seawater tank in Hamburg, Germany, Bassett and his group grew a 12-centimeter-thick layer of ice. Then they squirted 50 liters of North Sea crude oil under it and continued to freeze the water until they had created an ice and oil sandwich.

Written By: Josh Fischman
continue to source article at scientificamerican.com

11 COMMENTS

  1. Bassett says. (He adds that most of these sounds are beyond the range of marine mammal hearing and are very brief. Unlike the long, low drone of ship motors it is unlikely to bother whales and the like, he says.)

    Most of the sounds but not all…..and the ship motors obviously bother whales and ‘the like’

    This sounds like a covert justification….

  2. Am I the only one who find it quite disturbing that the government has to look for oil spills. Should it not be the responsibility of oil companies to 1) make sure that there are as few oil spills as possible 2) detect all oil spills that still occurs. But, as always in this fu**ing capitalistic world oil companies have very few responsibilities whatsoever. And worse, they don’t give a damn. But, still they get billions of dollars in subsidies and have a range of tax loopholes and other benefits. Go figure! The cock brothers are at it again!

    • In reply to #5 by Nunbeliever:

      Am I the only one who find it quite disturbing that the government has to look for oil spills. Should it not be the responsibility of oil companies to 1) make sure that there are as few oil spills as possible 2) detect all oil spills that still occurs. But, as always in this fu**ing capitalistic wor…

      That illustrates how wrong people are when they talk about how fossil fuels are so much cheaper than alternative energy. They are cheaper to the companies that make them because of the various incentives in place that move the additional costs of cleanup and dealing with environmental consequences on to governments and consumers. When you look at the “technologies” that the oil industry uses for cleanup it’s really pathetic. Rachel Maddow had a short segment on this last week, one of the most widely used cleanup tools are the equivalent of industrial strength paper towels. And recently in a large US town they used diapers, actual baby diapers to clean up an oil spill

      • In reply to #7 by Red Dog:

        They are cheaper to the companies that make them because of the various incentives in place that move the additional costs of cleanup and dealing with environmental consequences on to governments and consumers.

        The sad part is that it’s not even really surprising that politicians do nothing. I mean, if they are not psychopaths bought by big business they are religious nutjobs who think God will do the cleaning. And when I read stories like this one (Oil Company Argues Oil Spills Are Good for the Economy) I really don’t know what to think anymore.

  3. Damn it. I’m sorry, but just – fuck the oil companies! Fuck them. No more goddamned drilling in the oceans! Aren’t Arctic waters the breeding ground for krill and plankton, the basis of the marine food chain? I’m pretty damn sure that krill and plankton don’t thrive on crude oil, and that marine life of any species doesn’t enjoy meals served with crude oil gravy. And these greed-based oil corporations are not going to regulate or police themselves, or pay for their fuck-ups, as disgustingly evidenced by the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, and the BP blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. They’re all about continuing to pocket the most obscenely huge profits in corporate history. Fuck them.

    Sorry about the profanity. This just enrages me. Good on Woods Hole for exposing the shit the oil companies thought they could hide under the ice.

  4. I once worked on a raster-scanned sonar phased emitter array system that had a two axis steerable beam. It produced realtime video images (a little better than John Logie Baird) of a diver in zero visibility murky water at a distance of 250 metres and closer in clearly showed released air bubbles. It was for the North Sea oil industry to be used for maintenance work. This was the early eighties. Bubbles of oil would be equally well seen.

    Why aren’t all well-heads monitored with such equipment? It should be pretty darn cheap. (It certainly didn’t make me rich building the prototypes.) Why aren’t such monitors mandated?

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