Researchers have longed try to come to grips on what happens at the initial point of an oil spill. A new study out in journal, Environmental Science and Technology is out to answer just that. What they found was that oil in an accidental spill immediately begins to change in composition as it hurts the ocean.

Researchers used a controlled environment to ‘spill’ oil in the North Sea. The idea is to come up with new protocols to handle a spill in its immediate aftermath, and hopefully mitigate some of the environmental impacts.

As the oil hits the ocean, some of it is dissolved, while parts begin to immediately evaporate. Both have impacts during the spill. Oil that dissolves is a threat to marine life, while the evaporated oil threatens first responders and residents downwind of the spill.

Samuel Arey, a lead researcher at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne and Eawag in Switzerland released a statement on the findings. “In its new environment, the oil immediately begins to change its composition, and much of that change happens on the first day.”

This controlled spill consisted of a four cubic meter spill in busy shipping lanes, around 124 miles off the coast of the Netherlands. Researchers had the help of emergency response teams to set it up.

The study found that weather plays a major role in how long a spill persists after the oil flow is shutdown. Oil slicks dissipate slower in colder environments coupled with slow winds and small waves. The slicks dissipate faster in hot climates with large waves.

What researchers hope to gain with the new study is better planning and response times. Using the science gathered from this controlled spill, it should help emergency response officials plan for the immediate aftermath better. If they tackle oil spills correctly from the outset, we may avoid the pictures that came from the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

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