Burning oil from BP spill produced carbon plumes


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Chalk up another environmental impact from last summer’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill: Nine weeks of burning off oil slicks from the surface of the Gulf of Mexico following the BP spill released an estimated 1 million pounds of soot into the atmosphere, according to a study released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The burns were conducted to reduce the size of the slicks and to minimize the amount of oil reaching the gulf’s coast and wetlands systems. But the study, which was co-written by researchers at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences in Boulder, Colo., found the plumes of smoke from the burns produced an amount of carbon equal to the total black carbon emissions normally released by all ships that travel the Gulf of Mexico during a nine-week period.


Black carbon, whose primary component is often called soot, is among the most light-absorbing particles in the atmosphere. The new study, published online in Geophysical Research Letters, provides some of the most detailed observations made of black carbon sent airborne by burning surface oil.

The study found that the soot plumes reached much higher into the atmosphere than ship emissions normally rise, and that the average size of the soot particles was larger than normally emitted from other sources in the gulf region. Researchers also found that the soot particles were almost all black carbon, unlike forest fires, for example, which produce other particles along with black carbon.


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-- Julie Cart