First Peer-Reviewed Numbers on BP Oil Spill Disaster Released

The Earth Institute’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory reveals how many millions of barrels of oil were released into the Gulf of Mexico.


Researchers at Columbia University today revealed the results of the first peer-reviewed study of the quantities of oil released from the BP oil spill disaster. Until now, the government has only hinted at these figures, but never fully disclosed them. 

The Earth Institute is now resolutely referring to the BP oil spill as “the largest marine oil accident ever.” The authors, Timothy J. Crone and Maya Tolstoy of the Earth institute’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, used a new technique involving high resolution underwater video cameras. They found that 56,000 to 68,000 barrels of oil were being released per day between April and July, a total equaling 4.4 million barrels of oil.

The government’s official tally started at 12,000 to 19,000 barrels a day. Then in June, that number was revised upward to between 35,000 to 60,000 barrels per day. And finally in August, U.S. scientific teams updated the size of the spill once more, to between 53,000 and 62,000 barrels of oil per day.

“This new study is the first to lay out the details of an analysis publicly in a report independently reviewed by other researchers,” the press release indicates. Crone was already at work on studying natural hydrothermal vents. “This is a great example of how basic research that doesn’t seem to have any immediate value suddenly gains huge immediacy for society,” said the researcher.

While some may be skeptical, the authors understand that and take the risk that their numbers may not be perfectly on target. But they are the first independent numbers to be released and reviewed by independent bodies, which offers a dose of much-needed impartiality amidst the scandal.

“We clearly acknowledge the limits of our technique; we’re unlikely to ever know the exact figure,” said Crone. “This is not the last word. It is the first peer-reviewed word. But we think it’s a really good ballpark,” Tolstoy added.


“This is a welcome paper in that it opens the door onto how the oil spill flow-rate estimates have been calculated. It provides a transparency of method and a foundation for peer review for what has until now been a confusing and uncertain process,” said oceanographer Ian MacDonald of Florida State University.

Caption: Image of flow from the damaged well on June 3rd 2010 with an overlay of the image velocity field computed using optical plume velocimetry (OPV). Image by Timothy Crone.

About the author

Jenara is an overseas reporter for Fast Company and a freelance writer/producer in Asia, regularly on CNNGo, and a graduate of Harvard and UC Berkeley.