Infographic: How much oil is leaking into the Gulf of Mexico

How much oil is leaking into the Gulf of Mexico? A new calculator estimates, based on data from NOAA and BP. Plus, information on how saltwater deconstructs oil.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor on

How much oil is leaking into the Gulf of Mexico?

Since an oil rig exploded and sank last month off the coast of Louisiana, no one's exactly sure how much the accident is contaminating the water around it.

Several reputable groups -- the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, outside experts, even British Petroleum itself, which leased the rig -- have provided estimates, but there's no clear consensus.

As of publication, there were two remaining leaks in the rig, named Deepwater Horizon, which has been leaking since April 22.

NOAA pegs the leak at an estimated 210,000 gallons, or approx. 5,000 barrels, per day.

BP has estimated that the leaks could be as much as 60,000 barrels a day. At 42 gallons per barrel, that's 2.52 million gallons of oil per day.

That's fast enough to quickly surpass the 11 million gallons spilled by the Exxon Valdez in 1989.

PBS NewsHour has taken this data and created an interactive calculator to help us understand what those numbers mean -- and how different those two estimates really are.

Here's a look:

How exactly does all that oil interact with the saltwater around it, you ask? It deconstructs it.

Cassie Rodenberg describes the process in Popular Mechanics, likening it to how the human body handles alcohol: by breaking it down and metabolizing or depositing its component parts.

She writes:

From deep-sea sediment to bobbing clumps, oil quickly loses its original properties and breaks off into hydrocarbon components, with many different chemical compositions and existing in different forms. These forms can prove toxic to marine life, but after a time—with weathering, feasting micro-organisms and solar decomposition—the water self-purifies, as intermediate compounds gradually disappear and water and carbon dioxide reform.

The way to speed up this process? Chemical agents called oil dispersants, which have proven toxic to some forms of marine life.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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