The Fate of Spilled Oil
Natural processes that may act to reduce the severity of an oil spill or accelerate the decomposition of spilled oil are always at work in the aquatic environment. These natural processes include weathering, evaporation, oxidation, biodegradation, and emulsification.
- Weathering is a series of chemical and physical changes that cause spilled oil to break down and become heavier than water. Winds, waves, and currents may result in natural dispersion, breaking a slick into droplets which are then distributed throughout the water. These droplets may also result in the creation of a secondary slick or thin film on the surface of the water.
- Evaporation occurs when the lighter substances within the oil mixture become vapors and leave the surface of the water. This process leaves behind the heavier components of the oil, which may undergo further weathering or may sink to the ocean floor. For example, spills of lighter refined petroleum-based products such as kerosene and gasoline contain a high proportion of flammable components known as light ends. These may evaporate completely within a few hours, thereby reducing the toxic effects to the environment. Heavier oils leave a thicker, more viscous residue, which may have serious physical and chemical impacts on the environment. Wind, waves, and currents increase both evaporation and natural dispersion.
- Oxidation occurs when oil contacts the water and oxygen combines with the oil to produce water-soluble compounds. This process affects oil slicks mostly around their edges. Thick slicks may only partially oxidize, forming tar balls. These dense, sticky, black spheres may linger in the environment, and can collect in the sediments of slow moving streams or lakes or wash up on shorelines long after a spill.
- Biodegradation occurs when micro-organisms such as bacteria feed on oil. A wide range of micro-organisms is required for a significant reduction of the oil. To sustain biodegradation, nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus are sometimes added to the water to encourage the micro-organisms to grow and reproduce. Biodegradation tends to work best in warm water environments.
- Emulsification is a process that forms emulsions consisting of a mixture of small droplets of oil and water. Emulsions are formed by wave action, and greatly hamper weathering and cleanup processes. Two types of emulsions exist: water-in-oil and oil-in-water. Water-in-oil emulsions are frequently called "chocolate mousse," and they are formed when strong currents or wave action causes water to become trapped inside viscous oil. Chocolate mousse emulsions may linger in the environment for months or even years. Oil and water emulsions cause oil to sink and disappear from the surface, which give the false impression that it is gone and the threat to the environment has ended.