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Are we smoothing the path to global warming?


THE UK, Swedish and Finnish Press have all been running the same story in the last few weeks: ‘Huge mystery spill detected in Baltic off Swedish coast’ (Guardian);  ‘Huge spill of unknown mystery liquid found in Baltic Sea between Sweden and Finland’ (Independent); ‘Sweden Finds “huge” Floating Substance in the Gulf of Bothnia’ (Nord News) etc. To my ignorant eye it looks like they are all copying from each other, which must save a lot of effort.

The substance of the reports is that an area of the Gulf of Bothnia, an extension of the Baltic Sea between Sweden and Finland, has been hit by a particularly large pollution incident. There are images showing an obvious spill of something which is, apparently, not oil. The Swedish coastguard has taken samples which are being analysed. I’ll be following the result with great attention, not least because of my interest in the contribution of spilt or run-off oil and/or surfactant pollution to global warming. It might even be lipids from sewage-fed plankton, or a low molecular weight synthetic.

This ‘huge spill’, this enormous area of polluted sea surface, covers a massive 30 square miles.

Peanuts. Let me tell you a story. Let me tell you two stories.

During the Cold War the Soviet Navy built and deployed Sverdlov-class battle cruisers, powerful and dangerous warships armed to the teeth. The Royal Navy’s response was the Blackburn Buccaneer, a carrier-borne ultra-low level attack aircraft designed to toss unguided iron bombs from outside the range of most of a Sverdlov’s AA guns. As missile technology progressed Their Lordships at the Admiralty decided that stand-off missiles launched from Buccaneers would be able to attack and sink a whole range of enemy craft, not just a battle cruiser, so they went to the French and bought Martel missiles. Which was why my crew and I found ourselves stooging around the North Sea in the late 1970s with a dummy Martel strapped to our aircraft, looking for targets. 

Off one of the East Coast ports there was a shining path across the sea, half a mile wide, meandering away towards the horizon. We followed it. It narrowed all the way to its source. After 50 miles we found a small German ship washing out its bilges. Their oil had created that 50-mile path. Bilges don’t accumulate a huge amount of oil but even so it was enough to smooth all those miles of sea. We reported it to the Coast Guard and a couple of months later we were told by that the skipper had been fined. Too right – this was at a time when the EU was accusing the UK of being the ‘dirty man of Europe’.

Fast forward to 2012. I’d been watching for pollution of the sea surface for decades since flying low level around the Mediterranean. If you want to see what a dirty water surface looks like you can’t do better than look at that filthy sea. I’ve seen a little bay in Ibiza with tiny breaking waves in the morning smoothed to liquid glass by afternoon from the bathers’ sun oil, miles of gently undulating water smoothed by the drains from Costa del Sol fish restaurants. The eastern Med is coated with oil or oil/surfactant from Greece to Suez. The stuff is everywhere. I’ve checked images of Lake Superior, Baikal, Tanganyika, many others, all polluted.

In 2012 we went on holiday to Madeira. From abeam Porto for nearly four hundred miles there was a smooth – sometimes fractured, sometimes continuous – which extended further than I could see on either side of the aircraft, which was at least fifty miles. It was thousands of square miles in extent. This picture was taken from 40,000ft.

Now that’s what I call huge.

So how much oil or surfactant or oil/surfactant mixture would it take to produce the Baltic smooth? There is experimental data, there has been experimental data about the effect for some time. Take the observations by Benjamin Franklin. He found that a teaspoon of olive oil will smooth half an acre of a lake’s surface – the details can be found by looking at his account of trying it out on Mount Pond on Clapham Common in the 1770s. Using his figures and assuming a teaspoon contains five millilitres I calculate that the ‘massive’ spill in the Baltic was about five gallons, call it ten to allow for patchy spread. Ten gallons! (I use the Imperial measure here in case Mr or Mrs Johnson reads this.) Ten gallons of something has spread across the surface of the sea. This would usually suppress wave breaking and reduce the production of cloud condensation nuclei from spray and bursting bubbles, but to my eye the effects of this one are odd. Let’s wait for more images.  The point being that smoothed water has lower albedo (reflectivity) which normally means warming, as does cloud suppression.

So what caused the hundreds of times bigger smooth on the way to Madeira? How much did it warm the Atlantic? What proportion of global warming is caused by our civilisation’s discarded oil?

Look, someone! Action this day.

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Julian Flood
Julian Flood
Julian Flood was a Vulcan captain at the age of 24. It’s all been rather downhill since then.

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