Ixtoc Fire and Oil Spill
The BP Oil Spill is a lot like the Ixtoc I Oil Spill of 1979.
It took ten months to stop the oil flowing after a gas explosion. They stopped it by drilling three relief wells. It spilled 140 million gallons and coated 170 miles (275 kilometers) of U.S. beaches, in some cases a foot deep in oil.
The good news is the Ixtoc experience suggests the Gulf of Mexico has natural properties that help it cope with massive oil spills, scientists say. Warm waters and sunlight helped break down the oil faster than many expected. Weathering reduced much of the oil into tar balls by the time it reached Texas.
Two decades after the Ixtoc disaster, marine biologist Wes Tunnell sank his diving knife into an area where he had spotted a tar patch just after the spill. The blade came out black and tarry but the hardened surface of the patch was under sand, shells and algae that had completely covered it.
“No one else would know that it was anything other than a rock ledge,” said Tunnell of the Harte institute. “I think that the Gulf of Mexico is hugely resilient, or at least it was 30 years ago. We’ve insulted it a lot since then in various ways.”
The Gulf has also long dealt with oil that naturally seeps from the seafloor. Some experts estimate that tens of millions of gallons seep into the Gulf from natural up-wellings each year, fostering large populations of oil-eating bacteria and microorganisms.