In the decade since the Deepwater Horizons oil spill, scientists have been working hard to understand the intricacies of how liquid and gaseous hydrocarbons behave underwater. The high pressures, low temperatures, and varying density of the surrounding ocean water all complicate the situation.
Released hydrocarbons form a plume made up of oil drops and gas bubbles of many sizes. Large drops and bubbles rise relatively quickly due to their buoyancy, so they remain confined to a relatively small area around the leak. Smaller drops are slower to rise and can instead get picked up by ocean currents, allowing them to spread. The smallest micro-droplets of oil hardly rise at all; instead they remained trapped in the water column, where currents can move them tens to hundreds of kilometers from their point of release. (Image and research credit: M. Boufadel et al.; via AGU Eos; submitted by Kam-Yung Soh)