A team of U.S. and European researchers wanted to find out what happens with the oil within the first 24 hours of an accidental oil spill. The immediate aftermath of an oil spill accident can be catastrophic. But we know little about how to respond because what happens in the first day of such an accident is still poorly understood. Understanding how to respond in the immediate wake of the oil spill accidents would help contain the damage in the future.

North Sea Oil

Most of the chemical changes in oil take place in 24 hours of a spill

So, researchers teamed up with emergency response experts to see exactly what happens after an oil spill occurs. They recreated a four cubic meter oil spill. The study was conducted in a heavily polluted shipping zone in the North Sea, about 124 miles off the coast of the Netherlands. Researchers studied this relative small spill in depth, observing how the oil molecules responded to changing environmental conditions.

Findings of the study can be applied to larger spills. Oil is exposed to a completely new environment following a spill. After millions of years underneath, it is exposed to air, water and light. So, various chemical reactions take place. Samuel Arey, lead author of the study, said in a statement that the oil immediately starts changing its composition, and most of that change takes place in the first 24 hours.

Some oil molecules evaporate; others dissolve into the sea water

Oil is a complex mixture of hydrocarbons. When petroleum is spilt, some volatile molecules instantly begin to evaporate, contaminating the atmosphere. The evaporated elements could affect rescue workers. Other molecules dissolve into the sea water, posing a serious threat to marine life. The study is focused on finding out how the hydrocarbons behave in the first 24 hours after the spill.

Researchers said the environmental impact of a petroleum spill also depends on the temperature, waves and wind. The oil layer over the water surface dissipates much faster during summer with high waves. The North Sea study was conducted on a summer day with two-meter high waves. Findings of the study appeared in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.