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CARTHE Drifters: Where does oil go when it is spilled?

Smithsonian Ocean Portal

By Emily Frost

Throw a message in a bottle into the vast ocean and where does it go? The answer to this question is not just a romantic curiosity. Thinking about where a small floating item might end up in the immense ocean can help us understand the currents and movements of the water, which has many important uses, including helping us respond better to oil spills.

Oil spills can have disastrous impacts on coastal ocean ecosystems, human health, and the economy, as seen in the Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010. However, scientists still don’t know exactly where oil goes and how quickly it moves when it spills in the open ocean. The global process of water movement, often known as the “global ocean conveyer belt,” is much better understood than the small, local movements that occur on a daily, weekly, and even monthly scale. These movements are influenced by wind, waves, upwelling (water rising from the seafloor to the surface), and other factors that are difficult to predict precisely.

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