An unconventional analysis of the BP oil spill effects

String theorist Steve Hsu, at the University of Oregon posted an estimate of the long term effects of the spill that are unconventional:

This isn’t meant to minimize the environmental horror of the BP oil spill, but I can’t resist some rough estimates. (I did this quickly, so please correct my errors.)

100 days x 50k barrels/day x 150 liters/barrel = 750 million liters

Call it a billion liters of oil: 10^9 liters

Gulf of Mexico: over 2M cubic kilometers of water, or 2 x 10^18 liters

Suppose the spill is concentrated in 1 percent of the Gulf’s area (a region 10% by 10% of the Gulf’s linear dimensions – about 50 miles by 100 miles). This would presumably only be the case for a limited amount of time, and concentrations would fall off as the oil disperses further. Of course, if the oil is concentrated on a 2-dimensional surface slick, that would be quite bad for anything in the slick.

Then, assuming uniform dispersal within this sub-region, the oil concentration is about 1 part in ten million, or .1 ppm.

Googling around (e.g., ppm oil toxic), I couldn’t find evidence of toxicity at any concentrations lower than 1 ppm.

So, aside from shocks to otherwise already endangered species, it seems the long-run effects of the spill won’t be that bad. Don’t yell at me — I’m an environmentalist! But numbers don’t lie…

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