The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has been gushing its toxic crude into the ocean for over two months despite BP’s focused efforts to bring it under control. Occurring at an unprecedented depth of 1,500 meters (5000 feet) below the sea, the BP oil spill lies in the ocean’s Bathypelagic, or Midnight Zone. This great depth poses several challenges which have made oil containment difficult.
A Deep Sea Oil Spill Response
The incredible depth of the BP oil spill makes direct human intervention impossible. SCUBA divers cannot go down and simply patch up the broken oil well due to the freezing temperatures and crushing pressures occurring in the ocean’s Midnight Zone. Temperatures at this depth hover at a constant 4 °C (39 °F) and the pressure at 1,500 meters is roughly 2200 pounds per square inch*. Consider applying one ton of force to every square inch of the body – it is certainly enough to crush a person. Adding to the difficulties, the aptly named Midnight Zone is pitch black as sunlight simply does not filter down to these depths.
* Calculating PSI: 5000 feet* 0.445 lbs per foot of depth = 2225 PSI
Oil Spill Response Equipment: Robots
Since the BP oil spill is happening in a place humans can’t reach in person, robots are sent instead. However, according to CNN’s John D. Sutter in “Deep-sea mysteries: Why drilling in ‘inner space’ tests human limits”, robots present a few challenges of their own. First, the oil containment robots BP is using were designed to support drilling operations – not repair blowouts. Second, these robots simply do not have the dexterity humans do. According to Sutter, simple tasks such as attaching a nut to a bolt would take a human a few seconds – but would take a robot about 30 minutes.
Finally, the robots are operated through cables that are miles long. This restricts the robots’ movements. It also means it can take hours to bring the robots up to the boat and send them back down again. Compared to space exploring robots, the oil spill responders have it hard. Sutter notes that robots in space could send back signals to Earth via low-power radio frequencies. Sending signals through water however is difficult – hence the bulky cables.
Oil Spill Containment At Last?
According to The Washington Post article “Oil leak is stopped for first time since April 20 blowout” (Joel Achenbach), BP has finally stopped the flow of oil. However, the well must still be monitored carefully and pressure readings must be taken to ensure there are no leaks. This requires further use of video carrying robots looking for leaks. It is also important to note that even with the well shut, the oil spill will continue to affect the marine environment for years to come.