The Gulf of Mexico oil spill may already be bigger than the massive Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 and could have dumped as much as 13 million gallons (49 million litres) of crude into waters off the U.S. coastline, a Florida oceanographer said on Friday.
Ian MacDonald, a biological oceanographer at Florida State University, said official estimates that 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons/795,000 litres) have poured into the Gulf each day since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded two weeks ago were much too conservative.
The real flow rate from the undersea well, based on aerial images of the oil slick and estimates of the thickness of the oil itself, is probably closer to 25,000 barrels (1,050,000 gallons) per day, MacDonald said in an interview.
“We’ve been looking at … data and we see that the area of the Gulf which is covered by oil has been increasing rapidly, at a rate well in excess of a 1,000 square kilometers (386 square miles) a day,” he told Reuters.
“We see in excess of 10,000 (3,860 square miles) perhaps as much as 16,000 square kilometers (6,178 square miles) of oil-covered water, or water which has some indication that there’s oil there,” he said.
“We think that to get that much oil coverage we would to have to have flow rates well in excess of the 5,000 barrel per day rate and we’re putting this out as a high-end estimate,” MacDonald said.
A spokesperson for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which has been monitoring the oil spill, said no one was immediately available to comment on possible revisions of the oil spill’s size.
MacDonald said the official estimate, used by NOAA, BP and the U.S. Coast Guard, had never been explained in detail and appeared to be little more than a guess.
The Exxon Valdez tanker ship spilled about 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound, in one of the world’s worst environmental disasters ever.
If his own estimate is accurate, MacDonald said BP’s oil spill was already bigger than its 1989 rival.
“Our belief is that the overall amount of oil out there well exceeds the 5,000 barrel per day rate,” MacDonald said.
“I’m providing a thorough documentation of the methods that we’ve used,” he added.
MacDonald acknowleged that any estimate of the size of the spill, based on the surface area of the oil slick, could be flawed by a failure to correctly gauge the oil’s average thickness.
But he said he had worked together with NASA, and used some estimates provided by BP itself, to calculate the flow rate from the offshore oil well, almost 1 mile (1.6 km) below the Gulf of Mexico surface.
(Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Xavier Briand)