7. Devastation Below

As it Began

Transylvanian Oil had permanently positioned an ROV in the immediate vicinity of the shuttered well-head.  By chance, the ROV camera caught the initial moments of the massive undersea landslide that reconfigured the Gulf’s Mississippi Canyon.  It also caught the near simultaneous collapse of the oil dome.

From the limited video available, the undersea landslide did not occur explosively at one single point but behaved more like an avalanche.  It was slow at first and then gathered momentum in its titanic rush to the sea floor.  The oil dome collapse, on the other hand, was dramatic – a bubbling cauldron of repressed darkness.

The ROV video was instantaneously transmitted to an on-station ship and then routed in real time to a land based monitoring center at Transylvanian Oil’s North American headquarters complex in New York City.  It was fortunate that communications had been configured in this way.  The ROV was rendered sightless within seconds, and then engulfed and crushed by rubble.  The on-station ship was destroyed seconds later when the turbulence reached the surface.

Joe’s prior education stressed that ships were designed to float on water.  They could sink like a stone if buoyancy was suddenly compromised.  No matter how big the ship, whether a supertanker, battleship or oilrig, the replacement of water with a chaotic mixture of gases, liquids and particles would destabilize it.  And if this lower density “hole in the water” was big enough, the vessel would quickly disappear below the surface never to return.  To add to the immediacy of a vessel’s distress, its instability and sinking would be accompanied by a massive explosion when the rising methane and hydrocarbon gases were ignited by any flame or spark.  This sequence of events has been suggested as one explanation for some of the odd disappearances in the infamous Bermuda Triangle.

The relationship between this devastation and the prehistoric geological record was somewhat clear.  Large undersea landslides triggered by earthquakes had occurred in the Gulf, and one such particularly massive landslide had occurred less than 10,000 years earlier.  What was not known was whether earthquakes and landslides had ever triggered an oil dome collapse.

Joe was thankful that he was well away from the Gulf.  His first thought was “Funny the way things happen.  The situation was very much like the Islamic terrorist attacks that collapsed the twin towers and damaged the Pentagon.  Sudden yet predictable – and probably statistically suspect for months if not much earlier.”

Earthquake

The continental United States is quite seismically active with thousands of 3 magnitude quakes occurring each year.  Fortunately, in an average year, there are less that ten 7 magnitude or greater such quakes.  Generally, most of the notable earthquake activity takes place in the Western part of the country, but quakes do occur virtually everywhere.

The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 ranks as the most significant and memorable seismic event in United States history.  The loss of life was in the thousands and fire swept the city destroying most of it.  It is estimated to have been somewhere between 7.7 and 8.3 magnitude; – and it occurred on the San Andreas fault line which is still geologically active and capable of massive destruction.

However, the most significant series of seismic events to have affected the United States occurred along the Mississippi River and are known as the New Madrid earthquakes.

Over the course of a few months in late 1811 and early 1812, earthquakes registering from magnitude 7+ to about 8 struck in northeastern Arkansas and Missouri.  Although the final earthquake destroyed the town of New Madrid in Missouri, there was little property damage and minor loss of life – primarily because that part of the country was sparsely settled at the time.

The impact of these earthquakes was remarkable.   The Mississippi River flowed backwards for a time.  Some lakes disappeared and others magically formed.  Entire forests were uprooted as the land subsided under them.  Jets of sand were blown hundreds of feet in the air through fissures created by the quakes.  Rocks were squeezed so tightly that they gave off eerie spurts of bluish light.  The smell of sulfur was everywhere.  Shocked citizenry saw all of this as confirmation of Satan’s presence.

Strong shockwaves from the quakes were felt in Pennsylvania and Virginia.  Severe shaking frightened people in Tennessee and Kentucky.  Church bells rang in South Carolina, Massachusetts and Canada.  Sidewalks cracked in Washington, D.C.

The New Madrid earthquake occurred along a fault line that runs from Canada’s Saint Lawrence Seaway, through the eastern Great Lakes, and down the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys into the Gulf of Mexico.  Some scientists theorize that the New Madrid quakes were actually triggered by an event in the Gulf.  This theory was advanced in the 21st century when magnitude 5 and 6 earthquakes in the Gulf shook residents from Louisiana to Southwestern Florida.

Landslide

When most people think of earthquakes, they think of tectonic plates interacting with each other and releasing unimaginable amounts of energy.  However, earthquakes can trigger other events and a landslide is one of them.  When a landslide is on land, it is generally easy to see the immediate destruction.  However when a landslide interacts with a body of water, a chain reaction occurs that often magnifies the disaster.

In 1953, geologists observed that the mature tree line in Lituya Bay, Alaska, did not extend to the coastline.  In their place was a trim line of younger trees.  It seemed as if someone had logged the lower half of what was a steep slope and just stopped.  However, when the mature trees were examined, they displayed severe bark damage and scarring in the direction of the bay waters.  The scientific theory was that the culprit was an unusually large wave driven by a landslide.

This theory was confirmed in 1958 when an earthquake of magnitude 7.7 dislodged and dropped a 90 million ton block of ice and rock into the head waters of Lituya Bay.  The force of the impact created a wave over 1700 feet high – a few hundred feet taller than the Empire State building in New York City and about the height of the Willis Tower in Chicago.

In what can only be considered a miracle, a man and his son were fishing in the bay, saw the gigantic wave coming at them, were then picked up by the wave, carried over the trees, and finally washed back into the bay.  Amazingly, these individuals and their fishing boat survived.

Collapse of the Oil Dome

The Mississippi canyon looks a lot like Colorado’s Grand Canyon in that its rock walls are steeply sided.  It is nominally 4 miles wide and upwards of 60 miles in length, and lies a few thousand feet below the sea surface.  It contains numerous seafloor formations, including oil and gas domes, and provides a channel for sediment from the Mississippi and Louisiana basin

The sea floor sediment and other materials that overlay a natural oil or gas dome are miles thick.  They are buttressed by many tons of water immediately above.  It takes massive geological forces to breakthrough either from above or below.  Certainly a large earthquake or earthquake and landslide in combination could be sufficient.

When the oil dome collapsed, methane and hydrocarbon gases were released.  Driven by several billion barrels of suddenly depressurized crude oil, these gases exploded to the surface as if propelled by some supernatural entity.

Meanwhile, nature was attempting to seal the massive cavity created by the collapse.  Unfortunately, nothing could not stop seawater under tons of pressure from entering the cavity – where it turned into steam.  The steam in turn lifted what had previously been parts of the oil dome.  The displacement of water was once again terrific.

Collapse then rise.  Collapse then rise.  Collapse then rise.  The cycle repeated itself until the energy was spent.

More

The sounds of the explosions were the loudest sounds heard in the world of the 21st century – and almost certainly greater than the sounds associated with the volcanic eruption and collapse of Krakatoa in the 1800s.

The entire event was seen from a safe distance by a number of satellites.  The disaster data, however, was not initially made public. What the satellite camera’s had seen was turbulence and explosions hundreds of square miles in area and a massive churning series of gigantic “bubbles” in the Gulf waters.  Ships, rigs, boats, and aircraft in the area were “there one second” and then they were gone.

Joe was mesmerized when he saw video footage shot from above one of  the hellish “bubble”.  The video had been shot by a news crew just before their helicopter was incinerated in an explosive air blast.

Specialist in geological phenomena, consultants from the National Science Foundation and National Academy of Engineers, and far out “I told you so thinkers” were brought into the Department of Homeland Security for their advice on what to do.

Joe volunteered his services, but eventually ended up on television as a commentator.  The fact that his experience was largely irrelevant didn’t seem to matter.  The TV executives couldn’t find the top talent, so they were desperate for anyone who seemed technically savvy and could talk intelligently in front of a camera.

Speculation

The scientific community quickly noted that there had been two substantial earthquakes in the Gulf just a few years before the spill and now one huge one that coincided with the landslide and dome collapse.  Respected geologists suggested that the Caribbean Sea and portions of the Gulf of Mexico, rather than being geological quiet were actually a “mini-ring of fire” similar to the “ring of fire” that bordered the Pacific Ocean.

As might be expected, there were numerous theories batted about regarding the undersea landslide and collapse.  However, there was no specific agreement between the scientific and engineering talent assembled.

Most experts focused on the shallow yet massive 8.2 magnitude earthquake that was centered near what was presumed to be the southern end of the New Madrid fault line and in the Mississippi Canyon.  They theorized that the canyon wall landslide and dome collapse were independent of each other but both were precipitated by the quake.

Other experts thought that collapse of the dome was clearly caused by the megaslide not the earthquake.  Some seismic data seemed to support this theory.  The differences in timing and the distances between the earthquake, megaslide and dome collapse were sufficient to suggest that each event was distinct and possibly independent of the other.

A third group of experts believed that the canyon wall failure was triggered by the internal dynamics of the previously damaged oil dome.  For many years, geological anomalies in the immediate area of the shuttered well had caused concern.  Thus the megaslide was related to an unknown weakness in the canyon wall, and that weakness was created when Transylvania Oil attempted to access the crude oil below the sea floor.  The earthquake, therefore, was merely the trigger for what would have eventually taken place.

Because things were happening in real time and without much data, Joe reasoned that it was difficult to know for certain the way in which this disaster happened.  Therefore, almost any theory worked.  And, frankly, it was really an academic exercise to argue cause in the face of the horrific situation still unfolding.

When the initial analysis was completed some hours later, the scientists and engineers were stunned.  Clearly, the forces released were the greatest ever recorded or witnessed.

In an attempt to explain the disaster, one news network rapidly assembled a simplistic animation.  The news anchor’s script is considered an historical first account.  Based on reasonable assumptions and initial facts, it captured the undersea situation in a remarkably accurate way.

“In the Beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and separated the seas from the land.  Mankind, in its headlong rush for modernity, abused God’s creations.  And mankind is beginning to pay the price for his arrogance.

A few hours ago, three things happened under the surface of the Gulf.  A massive earthquake, a subsurface landslide, and an explosive decompression of the oil dome that had been the source of the initial Gulf spill.

The animation you are viewing shows the beginning of the 8+ magnitude earthquake.  Secondary and large aftershocks continue.  The oil dome is in the center of the animation.  It contains a large oil pool at the bottom and natural gas, including methane above it.  The decompression of the oil dome releases both the natural gas and oil.  Being lighter than seawater, they rapidly rise toward the surface, expanding and mixing as they go.  The subsurface Mississippi Canyon landslide enters the picture from the left and smashes into the side of the oil dome.  Whether the dome collapsed as a result of the earthquake alone or in combination with the landslide is unknown.

The impact of this Gulf disaster is unfolding, but here is what we know.  Methane gas contained within the oil dome has reached the surface.  Fires and explosions have consumed ships, aircraft and oilrigs.  A tsunami of unknown impact is hitting the Gulf coast.  Stay tuned for further bulletins.

Perspective:  Spill versus Collapse

The Gulf oil spill was one of the largest oil spills in recorded history.  At around 150 to 250 million gallons of oil, it overwhelmed the previous Mexican Gulf spill by tens of millions of gallons.  It released nearly 25 times more oil than the historic Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska.  It matched the Iraq War disaster in which Saddam Hussein deliberately torched his wells.  The only known disaster to exceed the Gulf oil spill lasted over a year from 1910 to 1911.  Known as the Lakeview Gusher, it dumped over 900 million gallons of oil into Kern County, California.

In truth, there was really no way to calculate with great accuracy the amount of Gulf oil spilled after the Transylvanian rig exploded, burned and sunk. The lighter hydrocarbons evaporated as a result of the sun or were dispersed by the action of wind, waves and chemicals.  The estimates of how much oil was left in the Gulf ranged from 25% to 80% depending on who was doing the calculations.

Joe reasoned that both figures had political implications.  The lower number tended to make the American people feel better and more secure about returning to the Gulf for recreation and the consumption of Gulf fish products.  The higher number was alarmist and supported the position of the environmental movement that oil and gas drilling was evil, and green initiatives needed more funding and a higher priority.  Not unexpectedly, Kor and Newman heavily supported the latter argument.

By way of comparison to the Gulf spill, the oil dome collapse released somewhere between 1,000 and 10,000 times more oil than the spill, and it did this in a few minutes rather than a few months.

There were no known events of similar geological importance and impact.  About the only thing approaching such a catastrophe was the biblical story of Noah’s Ark that some in the scientific community speculate led to the creation of the Black Sea.  The theory was that a great flood resulted from a volcanic eruption and caldera collapse in the Mediterranean Sea.  The initial tsunami, hundreds of feet in height, overwhelmed the land bridge between southeastern Europe and the mid-East.  The seawater from the Mediterranean turned the Black Sea, once an ancient fresh water lake, into a salty sea.

One thing for certain, based on prior oil spills, the billions of gallons of oil released by the Dome collapse would turn the Gulf into little more than an oily swamp for the foreseeable future.

Seconds Change Worlds

From his experience investigating accidents, Joe knew that a few seconds meant the difference between normalcy and disaster.  Accident after accident started in a relatively benign manner, and then a sudden shift of circumstances created chaos, injury and death.  A fall overboard led to death when a spinning propeller struck the back of someone’s head.  Gasoline spilled in a confined space suddenly ignited when a stereo was turned on.  Carbon monoxide, the silent and odorless gas, killed suddenly when a child played hide and seek under a houseboat’s swim platform.

The megaslide and dome collapse, while happening over a slightly longer period of time because of their magnitude, showed the same characteristics as the common accident.  One moment, nature in a normal and benign state.  Next nature at a level of chaos and ferocity never before witnessed.

Joe reasoned that when something of this magnitude and unpredicted nature happens all of humanity is destabilized.  Mankind has one foot in the past, and then suddenly, the other foot in the future – and there is no time to adjust.

Ripples in the Pond

Things bubble up in ponds.  Ripples spread revealing some things and hiding others. In some ways, the Gulf was little more than a big saltwater pond.  However, when what bubbles up from such a pond is thousands of  square miles of area and comes from great depths, the ripples are correspondingly large and of greater impact.

Large ripples suggested fundamental questions.  How would Americans react to something this unprecedented?  Would they succumb to reliance on more government or would they return to the individual freedoms given by the founders?

Large ripples can also provided answers.  Joe realized that the environmental movement was being rendered irrelevant and impotent.  By its insistence on stabilizing and controlling an inherently unpredictable world, the movement had encouraged the spending of untold trillions of dollars on the wrong paradigm of nature.  In focusing on the relatively easy issues of saving the polar bears from extinction and the land from oil exploration, it ignored the need to prepare for the natural macro environmental changes that would completely shift the Earth’s climate and directly impact human survival and all life on earth.

To Joe, the fundamentally misplaced priorities of the environmental movement were but one example of how America’s constitutional republic had been distorted.  Oppressive jurisprudence, legislative malfeasance, and unchecked executive arrogance had all played their parts.  Joe had seen a steady a deterioration of American Exceptionalism, – and his thoughts, like the ripples that reach the edge of the pond and spill over to disturb the land, remained ominous and full of dread.

About Robert Warren

Research, Development and Engineering Consultant; Marine Accident Investigator; Author and Lecturer; CEO of Expertise, Inc.; Doctorate
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