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Oily rain and cracks in the earth: Busting Gulf oil spill myths

Scientists are tackling Internet rumors of worst-case senarios from the Gulf oil spill. But as one says, 'What we have going on now is a huge science experiment and research needs to be done on it.'

By Bill SasserCorrespondent / June 30, 2010

Oily waves come ashore in Orange Beach, Ala., Wednesday, June 30. Heavy seas from Tropical Storm Alex helped push more oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster towards the Florida and Alabama coasts.

Dave Martin/AP


New Orleans

As the prospect of an active hurricane season adds a new dimension to the on-going BP Gulf oil spill disaster, on-line media is awash with rumors of impending worst-case scenarios for the region. Viral Internet myths range from a collapsing seabed to oily rain to contaminated seafood.

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Here are a few oil spill myths and misconceptions, addressed by scientists, experts, and official sources:

• The blown oil well has spewed so much oil and gas from the substrata of the Gulf floor that the earth around the wellhead could sink and crack, opening multiple oil gushers that could never be stopped. A variation of this scenario involves a sinkhole forming under the well that could collapse, sending tidal waves ashore, or a giant methane gas bubble exploding to similar effect.

According to Gary Byerly, a professor of geology at Louisiana State University, none of this could occur.

IN PICTURES: Sticky mess: The Gulf oil spill's impact on nature

“The idea that there could be a catastrophic cave in, or a methane gas explosion, that’s not a reasonable worry,” said Byerly. “The rock formations on top of this oil deposit have enough strength that nothing like that is going to happen.”

Byerly added that it’s also a common misperception that all the oil in the Gulf of Mexico is part of one vast deposit, and if the well isn’t capped all that oil will leak out.

“These are individual deposits that have boundaries and finite amounts of oil,” he said. “But it’s possible that this one deposit could leak for years before it was empty, if it wasn’t capped.”

Some myths based in reality

Although misconceived, some of the myths regarding the blown well and surrounding seabed are based in reality, he added.

Highly pressurized methane gas, which caused the initial explosion that destroyed the Deepwater Horizon rig, has so far thwarted efforts to cap the well. And natural cracks that occur on the Gulf floor are in fact a source of leaking oil and gas.

“That has been going on for tens of thousands of years, and petroleum and natural gas will find any kind of fault to come to the surface,” he said.

• Last week, a video posted on YouTube purporting to show oily rain falling in a New Orleans suburb became an Internet sensation, prompting a number of cable news channels to debunk the idea.

According to Alberto Mestas-Nuñez, an associate professor of oceanography at Texas A&M University, the notion that crude oil could evaporate and then come back down to earth in the rain as something resembling crude oil is impossible.

“I don’t think what is supposedly shown in the video could happen,” said Mestas-Nuñez, an environmental scientist who studies ocean weather cycles. “Oil is a complex mixture of hydrocarbons, and I don’t see how these separate components could evaporate and then recombine in the atmosphere and come down as something like oil.”

Still, Mestas-Nuñez acknowledges, there have been cases of hydrocarbons and other pollutants entering the atmosphere and falling back to earth with rainfall.

Acid rain is one example. Another are the so-called “black rains” that occurred in the Middle East after the Gulf War in 1991 when Saddam Hussein torched Kuwait’s oil fields.