'Invisible oil’ discovery shows BP Deepwater Horizon spill was larger than previously thought

Toxic and invisible oil spread well beyond the initial footprint of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, new research reveals.

A study led by scientists at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science combined oil-transport modeling with remote sensing and in-water analysis to gain a comprehensive understanding of what took place after the oil spill on April 20, 2010.

"We found that there was a substantial fraction of oil invisible to satellites and aerial imaging," said the study's lead author, Igal Berenshtein, a postdoctoral researcher at the UM Rosenstiel School, in a statement. "The spill was only visible to satellites above a certain oil concentration at the surface leaving a portion unaccounted for."

When the oil rig exploded, 210 million gallons of crude oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days — making the disaster the country's largest oil spill. Oil slicks covered about 57,000 square miles.

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On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, creating the largest oil spill in U.S. history.

On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, creating the largest oil spill in U.S. history. (US Coast Guard)

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"Our results change established perceptions about the consequences of oil spills by showing that toxic and invisible oil can extend beyond the satellite footprint at potentially lethal and sub-lethal concentrations to a wide range of wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico," Claire Paris, senior author of the study and professor of ocean sciences the UM Rosenstiel School, said in a statement.

Researchers hope their framework can help officials and emergency responders with the management of any future oil spills.

“This work added a third dimension to what was previously seen as just surface slicks. This additional dimension has been visualized with more realistic and accurate oil spill models developed with a team of chemical engineers and more efficient computing resources," Paris explained.

The findings were published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances.

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