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A vortex of fire erupts at the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Take a good look at the intense power of the oil spill.



That’s right. Setting a small patch of it ablaze was enough to create a vortex of fire—a tornado of flame that makes the ships fighting the slick look like toy boats.

Nor is that the only way this spill boggles in size. New estimates peg the spill at as much as 60,000 barrels a day, though some of that is a result of BP’s semi-successful effort to cut the riser pipe and attach the so-called lower marine riser package to cap the well. That method now enables a system to recapture some 15,000 barrels a day but also exacerbated the leak—and it remains unclear whether the amount caught is more than the amount of oil added to the leak by cutting the riser pipe in the first place.

What is clear is that the oil spill is having an outsized environmental (dead sea cucumbers), economic (the end of much Gulf of Mexico fishing) and even political impact. President Obama characterized the spill as a "siege," saying, "we will fight this spill with everything we’ve got for as long as it takes," during an address from the Oval Office on June 15. Certainly, the vortex of fire looks like an act of war.

But we have only ourselves to blame for the spill. After all, it’s our incessant demand for petroleum that drives oil companies like BP to ignore environmental and engineering safeguards in a rush to barrel black gold. "For decades, we’ve talked and talked about the need to end America’s century-long addiction to fossil fuels," Obama noted. "And for decades, we have failed to act with the sense of urgency that this challenge requires.  Time and again, the path forward has been blocked—not only by oil industry lobbyists, but also by a lack of political courage and candor."

Of course, Obama may have created his own political vortex by calling for such a "clean energy future." That may be the only way to really stop the circumstances that led to the Macondo well spewing into the Gulf of Mexico in the first place. But it is also the kind of initiative that doomed President Jimmy Carter and his famous cardigan—an early effort towards energy conservation—to just one term in office.

At least we’re just lucky that the June 15 lightning strike that touched off a blaze on the good ship Discoverer Enterprise capturing some of the oil didn’t cause it’s own vortex of fire—again setting back efforts to stop the spill. In the end, that act of nature let another 15,000 barrels or so into the Gulf—just a small fraction of an oil spill that has become, as Obama said, "the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced."

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  1. 1. akmangalick 1:36 pm 06/16/2010

    It seems to me that equating Obama’s initiative with Carter’s and suggesting that the former’s days in office may be over in 2 years because of it is to claim that the American people are unrepentingly selfish and ignorant, or at the very least, that nothing of importance has changed in 30-plus years.

    The political and social environment of today is VERY different from that of the mid-70′s. Many fewer people then even considered that their actions could have a lasting effect on the planet, while an increasing number today are willing to change their behavior when presented with the global consequences of their actions. In this context, Obama’s call for a clean energy future has a much, much greater chance of being heard and made real.

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  2. 2. pine29 2:13 pm 06/16/2010

    that oil fire sure must have produced a lot of air pollution

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  3. 3. Soccerdad 2:21 pm 06/16/2010

    Circumstances have not really changed and the comparison to Carter is good. Carter thought that government could pick winners in energy. Billions of dollars later that coal gasification idea was finally scrapped. It’s no different today. Only the numbers are bigger.

    People may say they care more but they don’t beyond a few symbolic acts. So, you may see a lot of cloth bags going into the grocery store. But you still see people going to Mexico and Hawaii every spring break and driving alone to work every day. Cheaper will win over environmentally friendly every time. People will not make the lifestyle changes required to have any real impact. Government subsidies for clean energy doom us to higher taxes and more waste.

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  4. 4. JohnSciNew 2:27 pm 06/16/2010


    What you say is true. The big question is does "a much, much greater chance" get us to, and past, some sort of tipping point in our nation’s political life.

    Compared with President Carter’s time, I see more understanding of the problem by individual citizens.

    But, I also see more power in the hands of the political and economic ‘elite’ – and those folks are welded to the way things are now.

    We are living through a second gilded age with our own robber barons at the controls.

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  5. 5. the Gaul 2:57 pm 06/16/2010

    In the era of Beck, Limbaugh, Palin, etc, I would be loathe to count on the unselfishness and wisdom of the American people.

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  6. 6. quincykim 3:08 pm 06/16/2010

    "After all, it’s our incessant demand for petroleum that drives oil companies like BP to ignore environmental and engineering safeguards in a rush to barrel black gold."

    Yes, we have a heavy demand for oil that is unlikely to abate until something that’s price-competitive comes along.

    No, oil demand did not drive BP to do what it’s done. The driver there is greed.

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  7. 7. jtdwyer 3:46 pm 06/16/2010

    The article states:
    "But we have only ourselves to blame for the spill. After all, it’s our incessant demand for petroleum that drives oil companies like BP to ignore environmental and engineering safeguards in a rush to barrel black gold."

    This is utter nonsense! We can all blame ourselves for using too much oil, but what have we been offered by the corporations and governments of the world?

    I can’t blame the management and stockholders of BP for wanting to maximize profits, but we can and must blame BP for this devastation! If I drove recklessly, causing an ‘accident’ that killed 11 people and destroyed a great deal of property, I would be at least charged with reckless homicide and likely imprisoned!

    Please, don’t set a president by allowing those responsible for the worst environmental disaster in this country’s history to get by with time served and a warning. They were directly responsible for their choice to pursue the lucrative profit potential of this high risk endeavor. They should be fully responsible for the consequences of their actions.

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  8. 8. bmw 4:26 pm 06/16/2010

    I am one of many who drive alone to work because it’s the only means I have of getting there. If I worked a 9-5 job I could car pool but my hours are all over the place. If we had transportation similar to several European countries, Germany to name just one, more people in the US would use them. As an example I can drive from Ct. to NY City faster than I can get there on a train or a bus. The trains are seldom on time or clean. Services on trains are almost non-existent also and yet a good share of the cost of trains is subsidized by the govt, in other words you and I.
    If given the choice of driving or using clean, efficient, on time public transit I think most people would use it.
    If we want non polluting energy for transportation and our homes we need to demand it from our govt.
    But instead we have Haley Barbour, governor of Mississippi, complaining over the 6 mo. moratorium placed on drilling even as his state is being inundated with oil.
    His constituents can correct this in the next election. They can vote him and his ilk out of office.

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  9. 9. akmangalick 5:28 pm 06/16/2010

    SoccerDad, I beg to differ: circumstances and people’s thinking have changed immensely. Recycling was unknown in the 70′s, as one example. Granted, many people unnecessarily drive SUV’s and do other things that are detrimental in many ways. But it is undeniable that many more people are at the very least conscious of global impacts for their local actions than ever before. I don’t think it is at all valid to discount this, as awareness of a problem is the beginning of the solution.

    Sadly, I do agree with the statement that cheaper will win out over environmentally friendly. But perhaps that unfortunate fact of our society should lead us to one part of a solution: include all the costs of oil production and usage in the price of petroleum products. Those costs include the economic and environmental impact of the Gulf oil spill, among other accidents and risks. I have to admit that I don’t have a simple answer for how to do so, but I only propose this as a starting point for discussion.

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  10. 10. RDH 5:30 pm 06/16/2010

    Did BP "ignore" safeguards? I thought they asked for, and received, waivers from our government for this well. Like it or not, our standard of living is what it is in part because of the availability of oil and its relative cheapness when compared to the alternatives.

    Now all those oil and oil company haters out there that think we can survive without oil are fooling themselves. If you think all it takes is "political courage", to quote President, then why have you, a SciAm reader, not come up with that better mouse trap. The first person that can provide the energy we need at an economical price will get quite rich. And perhaps no one will call them greedy when they do.

    As it stands right now, we need to eat. And like it or not, John Deere runs on diesel. Turn off the oil and watch the world population crash in a matter of months.

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  11. 11. ND3G 5:47 pm 06/16/2010

    Soccerdad wrote: Cheaper will win over environmentally friendly every time.

    Exactly, that is why we need the carbon tax and other means to add back account for the true cost of things. Once you do that cheaper and environmentally friendly are one and the same.

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  12. 12. Quintus 6:14 pm 06/16/2010

    No 1. This is fi

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  13. 13. jtdwyer 6:25 pm 06/16/2010

    BP has agreed to a $20 Billion fund from which claimants will be compensated. Who knows what the actual cost will be for those directly impacted, but this is a reasonable, good faith settlement of financial responsibility.

    Let’s clean up as best we can and ensure this will never happen again. Good luck to all.

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  14. 14. karlub 7:43 pm 06/16/2010

    Dude. You live in the one part of the world where you CAN take a train, and you won’t because the timing is less than convenient, and they aren’t clean enough for you?

    Case study, my friend, on precisely why we are ALL to blame.

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  15. 15. eRobin 8:08 pm 06/16/2010

    "But it is also the kind of initiative that doomed President Jimmy Carter and his famous cardiganan early effort towards energy conservationto just one term in office."

    That just isn’t true. He was never more popular after the speech that set the frame for conservation and sacrifice. He started to lose the country when he fired his cabinet. America responds to strong leaders who challenge us. Obama should give it a try.

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  16. 16. kristi276 10:41 pm 06/16/2010

    Eco-nazi’s? What in the world is a eco-nazi? Is it like the Eco-Aryan nation? What about concentration camps and Brown Shirts. What about the Eco-Gestapo? How far does this go? We are in the middle of a world wide ecological disaster, and the ultra conservatives have to get their political gabs in, and the beating of the liberal punching bag. Arm chair quarterbacks are a dime a dozen, and it is easy to criticize when it is not you who has to make the right decisions that effect millions of peoples lives. It Obama is not doing it right, then can you come up with what should be done; with out the name calling and the analogies towards sm; considering German Nationalism is also about White and the might of the German State. Obama, is not white nor is he German. We do have a problem that is out of control that affecting peoples and marine habitats, and will have a long lasting effect for countless generations, so how do we deal with the problem. Solutions! We need solutions! If B P does not provide solutions to this problem, then some one needs to push them out of the way and get the job done right.

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  17. 17. ebanst 11:19 pm 06/16/2010

    The drill in Anwar argument is so tired. There could be a disaster there as well. Somehow the idea that greed will not ruin things in certain areas (like Anwar, etc.) is really not well thought out. Oil leads to pollution in any part of its life span, extraction, refinement, and use, even without disasters. To think that the only problem in this disaster is that the drilling is deep in the ocean is pure propaganda. Short term thinking is a real epidemic in our time.

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  18. 18. hawkeye 1:57 am 06/17/2010

    Kristi276, you have just put your finger on the problem those "ultra conservatives" have with this president. Namely that he is not white.

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  19. 19. Riverdale008 3:50 am 06/17/2010

    The article quotes Obama "Time and again, the path forward has been blocked-not only by oil industry lobbyists, but also by a lack of political courage and candor."

    How about the auto companies and the auto workers’ unions’ lobbyists; we just bailed out GM and the auto workers’ health care plan bills; candor? let’s see- the president and members of congress are exempt from enrolling in the new health care plan they passed and signed into law; the auto workers’ union has ‘x’ number of years before they have to participate in the health plan. Auto companies breathe oil – they don’t want alternative fuels.
    Political courage? How about political know how! Obama’s team didn’t know the right contacts to call on for immediate action and independent assessment, they relied on BP for that. Courage – the foreigners who called and offered their expertise and equipment for containing this spill were turned away, is that courageous?
    But remember Obama is in charge, he said so; BP can’t do anything unless the White House says it’s okay. So the Obama team said okay to "Top Kill" without knowing if the method BP was to use was rational; I’m no scientist but the physics just wasn’t there. Instead we have a larger hole now on top and no one admitting (courage) that there are leaks in the seabed where these pipes are buried in. BP has switched from stopping the leak to ‘collecting’ the oil!

    Any new energy plan that will change how we use ‘oil’ and alternatives and update the grid will take at least 15 years to implement across the country. Obama said in 10 years we won’t be importing any more oil if we have an (his) energy plan.
    Hmmm – a trip to Oz is needed: for a heart, some brains and courage.

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  20. 20. Squish 7:40 am 06/17/2010

    SoccerDad: Symbols are important. I will not get into semantics (or semiotics!) but the way we think is largely symbolic. When I see all of the eco-products I buy and look at my less than 1000cc engine car, it reminds me that I act on my own volition; according to my conscience I choose what is best for the environment. My will is becoming evident ever so slowly in the products I buy, and moreso, in the behaviours I engages in.

    There are not many choices available to me at the moment. The more choices that become available to me, the more I will vote with my wallet. If it is a higher price, then let me subsidize it for you, because I pay for value. For me a blood diamond is not a bargain because I have a well-defined system of values. I don’t care if people invest in ethical or green industries for status. As long as that is the trend I am happy.

    Perhaps, when enough people vote with their consciences – or even because it is fashionable to be sustainable – new alternatives will become available that are competitive on the free market.

    Give me the choice and let me show you the trend is not illusory. Yes, what we have done since the Carter years is a drip in the bucket. And yes, a marathon starts with a single step.

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  21. 21. Sky News 9:46 am 06/17/2010

    Could the author of this article contact Sky News on +44 20 7585 4568 as soon as possible, we would be interested in discussing your article further.

    Many thanks

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  22. 22. ASeriousSpectator 4:55 pm 06/17/2010

    The emphasis should be on oil producer’s taking shortcuts on safety to save money. BP and its competitors need to feel that they cannot afford such an environemental disaster. Oil rigs have to be designed with enough extra shut-off valves and containment instruments that even after an explosion there is still a way to stop the flow of oil. And companies have to incorporate this in their costs, rather than spend money on compensating fisherman for loss of income.

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  23. 23. jtdwyer 5:51 pm 06/17/2010

    David Biello; Sky News

    Iwould hope you’d drop the "But we have only ourselves to blame for the spill…" paragraph from any use of the article internationally, now that BP has agreed to provide at least $20 Billion in compensation for their responsibility in producing the spill.

    We may be guilty of using too much oil, but BP is responsible for the oil well and the resulting oil leak and environmental devastation.

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  24. 24. bonderman 12:51 am 06/18/2010

    Vortex of Fire? The smaller burn area is occluded by the larger one as the aircraft circled clockwise. The primary area didn’t turn into a tighter vortex.

    While the disaster in the gulf is terrible, these kinds of errors in reportage damage our ability to sort through the details for some truth.

    As a subscriber of many decades, its sad to see Scientific American sponsor a column as devoid of rigorous editing as this one.

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  25. 25. 3:31 am 06/18/2010

    I am getting so tired of the endless litany of "we have only ourselves to blame".

    Allow me to quote Hannah Arendt: "Where all are guilty… no one is; confessions of collective guilt are always the best possible safeguard against the discovery of the actual culprits, and the very magnitude of the crime the best excuse for doing nothing.

    It is important that those directly responsible for this crime be made to pay for it. It is important to toughen safety standards and enforce them rigorously so nothing like this can happen again. It is important to tax the oil industry sufficiently to cover the true social cost of its products. We won’t achieve any of those things by wallowing in collective guilt.

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  26. 26. HankVenture 4:53 am 06/19/2010

    So, where is this "vortex of fire". I see a fire. I see smoke. I do not see a vortex.

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  27. 27. BertieFox 8:14 am 06/19/2010

    Can anyone explain to a mere layman why the oil leak from the BP well cannot be stopped by using a large amount of high explosive in an underwater explosion to completely fill the well head with mud and debris?
    To be honest, even using a ‘small’ nuclear device could hardly be more environmentally damaging than what is currently happening.
    My suspicion is that either would work but the oil companies don’t want to lose the option of going back to use the well without having to re-drill.

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  28. 28. Dimitris 8:43 am 06/22/2010

    @ BertieFox

    What you suggest was essentially BP’s idea, the "top kill operation". Essentially, it would pile huge amounts of loose rumble on top of the spill, hoping it would clog it. It didn’t work, so the explosives would similarly fail. As for the nuclear option, you Americans must seriously stop thinking about them as the ultimate solution to every kind of problem.

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  29. 29. cigarshaped 8:28 pm 06/22/2010

    JUST TELL ME THIS IS WRONG! I received this mailed report – ahrd to believe. Edited for this space:
    "Scientists Warn Gulf Of Mexico Sea Floor Fractured Beyond Repair’
    A dire report circulating in the Kremlin today that was prepared for Prime Minister Putin by Anatoly Sagalevich of Russia’s Shirshov Institute of Oceanology warns that the Gulf of Mexico sea floor has been fractured “beyond all repair” and our World should begin preparing for an ecological disaster “beyond comprehension” unless “extraordinary measures” are undertaken to stop the massive flow of oil.. Sagalevich .. due to his being the holder of the World’s record for the deepest freshwater dive .. with Russia’s two Deep Submergence Vehicles MIR 1 and MIR 2 .. to the depth of 6,000 meters (19,685 ft).

    According to Sagalevich’s report, the oil leaking into the Gulf of Mexico is not just coming from the 22 inch well bore site being shown on American TV, but from at least 18 other sites on the “fractured seafloor” with the largest being nearly 11 kilometers (7 miles) from where the Deepwater Horizon sank and is spewing into these precious waters an estimated 2 million gallons of oil a day.

    As a prominent oil-industry insider, and one of the World’s leading experts on peak oil, (Matthew) Simmons further warns that the US has only two options, “let the well run dry (taking 30 years, and probably ruining the Atlantic ocean) or nuking the well.”

    Reportedly, the U.S.S.R. developed special nuclear devices explicitly for closing blown-out gas wells,..

    As to the reason for Obama’s government refusing to consider nuking this oil well, Sagalevich states in this report that the American’s “main concern” is not the environmental catastrophe this disaster is causing, but rather what the impact of using a nuclear weapon to stop this leak would have on the continued production of oil from the Gulf of Mexico,..

    After all, is cheap petrol really worth the cost of destroying our own Earth? BP surely thinks so, let’s keep hoping Obama doesn’t."

    But Pravda says " BP rejects Avatar director’s call for Russian mini-subs to help..

    Is this a massive cover-up or a wind-up?? Is that you Michael Moore?

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  30. 30. bloomingdedalus 8:59 am 06/26/2010

    Don’t blame us for BP’s mess and the scientific communities failure to think ahead when drilling holes into the ocean – I don’t care what you come up – but having a working contingency plan for an "oh shit we have no control over this giant hole we drilled into a high pressure system of a non polar, lesser dense liquid than the polar liquid above it" is nobody but the scientific community’s fault. No matter what you say, the economic benefit of having had a plan for this, or even an ultimate kill switch operating completely separately from the oil hole itself is far cheaper than the cost to clean this up for BP.

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