Aftermath of an Oil Spill in North Sea Study Released

Aug 11, 2014 08:17 AM EDT | Matt Mercuro

In an attempt to better understand the early aftermath of an accidental oil spill, a team of American and European researchers have released a new study on the North Sea, which is expected to provide important information into how to respond in the event of another disaster.

When petroleum is spilt onto a water surface, some of the oil starts to evaporate into the air while some of it dissolves into the seawater. While the dissolved toxic hydrocarbons can hurt marine species, the evaporated elements can be a cause of concern for rescue workers and people downwind of an accident site, the researchers said, in the study.

For the new study, researchers focused on understanding how the hydrocarbons behave during the initial 24 hours after an oil spill.

"In its new environment, the oil immediately begins to change its composition, and much of that change happens on the first day," Samuel Arey, a researcher at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne and Eawag in Switzerland, said in a press statement.

The researchers worked with emergency-response specialists in order to recreate a four cubic meter oil spill in the North Sea, in a shipping site, already full with pollutants, some 124 miles off the coast of the Netherlands.

They said that the findings of the study could help evaluate the risks to underwater life.

The environmental impact of an oil spill also depends on other factors like waves, wind, and the temperature of the surrounding air and water. 

In cooler climate, with slower wind and smaller waves, the oil slick can persist for longer periods of time, while the oil slick dissipates faster during the summer with high waves.

The North Sea experiment was carried out on a summer day with two-meter high waves, the researchers said.

The study was published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology this week. It is expected to help researchers better understand the impact of future disasters on the environment.

Research was carried out in partnership with the Royal Netherlands Institute of Sea Research, the Dutch Rijkswaterstaat, the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research in Leipzig, Germany, and the Woods Hole Oceanographic institution in Massachusetts, USA.

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