Methane Tracking Could Size Up Gulf Oil Slick

Sizing up the oil gusher from the Deepwater Horizon disaster has proven difficult so far, but one scientist suggests that measuring methane in the water could give a better idea of how much oil has spilled into the Gulf of Mexico.

Methane makes up about 40 percent of the leaking crude by mass, according to BP. Much of the gas (made up of one carbon and four hydrogen atoms) would dissolve into the water as it rises up from the oil well deep below the surface, and many U.S. research vessels already have the equipment to estimate the size of these rising methane plumes.

"Methane follows the water [currents], so if you can follow the water you've got a pretty good idea of where to look for the plumes of gas," said David Valentine, a marine geochemist at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Current estimates of the oil spill range from BP's initial figure of 5,000 barrels per day to as high as 100,000 barrels per day, with many scientists leaning toward an estimate higher than 5,000 barrels. Tracking the oil slick size through methane could at least put a lower limit on the estimates, Valentine explained.

But the methane won't linger in the waters forever, and so that puts some pressure on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and researchers to get started.

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