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Let's say a terrorist organization decides to attack the cap on the Deepwater Horizon oil well. They use high powered explosives to blow such a large hole in the sea bed that there is no viable way to even attach a capping mechanism like the original one to the severely unstable edges of the hole.

In the original disaster, Wikipedia states:

BP originally estimated a flow rate of 1,000 to 5,000 barrels per day (160 to 790 m3/d). The Flow Rate Technical Group (FRTG) estimated the flow rate was 62,000 barrels per day.

Is this a viable end of the world scenario? If not, why? Please take into consideration:

  • long term ecological effects

  • long term economic effects

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    $\begingroup$ I daresay that humanity would probably figure out a way to stop the flow, even if it took detonating a small nuke on the sea floor, and collapsing the seabed. I can't see that triggering the extinction of civilization as we know it. WW3? Sure. Oil spill (even a massive one)? Not likely. $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Dec 14 '16 at 15:28
  • $\begingroup$ @AndreiROM Is nuking it a guaranteed way to seal the opening, or could it lead to more cracks and fissures from which oil could escape? $\endgroup$ – Thom Blair III Dec 14 '16 at 15:29
  • $\begingroup$ The pocket is 18,360 feet (5,600 m) below the seabed. That's pretty deep. A nuke exploding just off the surface of the sea bed would cause tremendous pressure to be applied to the seabed, and thus the drill hole. It wouldn't "rupture" the ground ... not to a depth of almost 5 km. My guess would be that it would collapse the whole thing in on itself, and seal the oil reservoir. Of course, it would also have devastating effects on the marine life in the area. But on the other hand, I'm no expert. $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Dec 14 '16 at 15:34
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This is not a viable apocalypse scenario for a simple reason: the spill wasn't stopped by a permanent cap, it was stopped by drilling into the original borehole and filling it with mud and cement under the sea floor. It would take a considerable explosion to reach the (minimum) 5,600-meter depth needed to remove the blockage.

I seriously doubt anyone other than one of the G8 could produce enough explosive energy in a short amount of time to achieve the objective you've stated. Maybe if terrorists got hold of a country's entire nuclear arsenal it could happen, but you have bigger issues to concern yourself with if that happens.

Also, were it to happen, we could probably just drill a deeper hole and repeat the sealing process.

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Natural oil seepage in the Gulf of Mexico ranges from 1-5 million barrels a year of petroleum products. The BP spill, at it's highest estimated rate of 5,000 barrels a day, comes to 1.8 million barrels of oil a year. Don't misunderstand me, that's a LOT of oil, but it's well within the span of natural seepage for the gulf. So what made Deepwater Horizon so bad?

  1. It was a concentrated blowout
  2. Humans did it

The first part is why we had oil impacting beaches and wildlife; those 1-5 million barrels of natural seepage are spread out throughout the gulf, so the oil is diluted. Deepwater Horizon was a point gusher, so it created a concentrated cone of higher-concentration oil. The good news is that the Gulf has a complex ecosystem that already breaks down oil; the bad news is we tend to create concentrated oil spills.

The second part is what made the gusher look so bad. When a volcano goes off, it's a disaster, but it's not a MAN MADE disaster, so we have nobody to blame but God. Deepwater Horizon, which was a blowout of pressurized methane gas on the level of an "act of God" was considered such a big disaster because it was man made: we had people to blame for it. (I'd be interested to see how environmentalists would handle a natural blowout in the gulf).

Deepwater is not the only large oil blowout in the gulf. We just had better TV cameras and a more vocal environmental community to complain about it. Ixtoc I was a similar disaster, in the latter half of 1979. 3 million barrels from that one. It ruined coastlines and took 9 months to plug, but we were still here to panic about Deepwater Horizon 30 years later.

The Gulf of Mexico is YUUUGE, and so is the world. While I don't mean to minimize the disastrous effects of either of these spills, we need to look at the map. On the grand scheme of the gulf itself, both disasters took place REALLY close to land. Had it happened in the center of the gulf, maybe it'd have completely dispersed before affecting land.

The name "Deepwater Horizon" gives the impression that it was way out in the middle of the gulf, while the horrible images on the news made it seem that the entire Gulf coastline was being decimated. It's all perception, though; the Gulf itself couldn't care less about a few million more barrels of seepage. But there was a more insidious problem.

Humans.

See, we'd already had Ixtoc I. We already knew what it took to contain a disaster like this. The government already had regulations on the books for how to monitor and manage a spill, and keep it contained away from shore. But BP didn't follow those rules. There weren't enough booms stationed nearby to stop the spill. International cooperation choked causing delays in getting disaster supplies to the Gulf. To add on to that, until Deepwater we didn't realize just how well the ecosystem of the Gulf had evolved to consume oil, so we sprayed the slick with millions of barrels worth of dispersant, which spread the oil out, but also made it impossible for the microbes and other life of the Gulf to manage the oil, which meant is HAD to be scooped out by hand or cleaned off shores.

Okay, so, TL;DR: No. Deepwater Horizon was not a world destroying event. You could have the terrorists put a nuke on the sea floor in hopes that it would shatter so much rock that the seepage would be too much for us to handle, but as mentioned before, Deepwater had to drill DEEP, so you'd need to do enough damage that you could use those resources more profitably elsewhere.

But Terrorists don't go for damage, they go for effect. So as experience with Deepwater Horizon has shown, if terrorists could blow up two or three blowout preventers at once, they could convince the world that they're screwed, even though history and science show that the disasters would likely remain local, and that might be good enough for them.

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The bore from the Deepwater Horizon well is very deep, the deepest bore being over 10km below the ocean bed.

In order to make a hole too big to be plugged, that hole has to be 10 4 km deep. Otherwise, even if the top of the bore at the ocean floor was turned into a 1km wide, 1 km deep crater, there is still several kilometers of deep bore (only about 0.3m wide) that can be plugged, or simply filled with concrete.

If a large enough hole was blown into the seabed that the crater reached down several km..well I think the tsunami that hits Dallas and Atlanta would be a bigger deal than a little oil spill.

EDIT: My internet based fact discovery claims the well was operating a depth of 4090m below sea floor when disaster hit. The 10km bore was from a previous drilling. Still a 4km deep crater is no joke.

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Though I completely agree with the answers that say that it's pretty much not possible to blow this hole open (you could pump enough cement to seal nearly any hole they could feasibly blow open and the explosion to reopen the plug would have to be massive) if they did get it to the flow rate of the Deepwater Event, it would be pretty damaging in terms of ecological effect because it could possibly spread outside of the Gulf where petroleum-eating microbes are plentiful (they actually did the brunt of the cleanup work) and make huge swaths of the oceans dead zones such as the Gulf besides the microbes. It would also affect the Gulf coast like the original event though the damage would be way more severe and possibly not even recoverable due to the amount if it wasn't contained rapidly. As well, world governments would probably pour money into stopping the flow in some way either by using technologies to collect this spilling oil.

In all honesty, I think there likely wouldn't be any long-term effects because if we can't cap it, we'd find a way to collect it as oil and water don't mix and you can filter them out of each other eventually and such a disaster would force us to use that kind of system at the very least like putting a new rig up there to collect the petrol-water, filter out the petroleum, and then return the water. If this was done, oil prices would probably bottom out because of the glut (since we're assuming we can't stop the flow) and we can't just leave the oil to get picked up by the natural ocean currents because we thankfully avoided that with the previous disaster. This means as long as we start a process (it might require specially fitted tankers until they get the oil rig up and running and they'd probably be guarded by nearly the whole world's navy due to the global nature of the possible ecological disaster) it wouldn't get to apocalypse level proportions.

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  • $\begingroup$ Filtering out the oil in the water was something being done with the DH disaster. $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Dec 14 '16 at 16:38
  • $\begingroup$ @Frostfyre - Not to the extent it would need to be done with this scenario and they also used chemicals and buoys to contain and cleanup the spill. $\endgroup$ – rangerike1363 Dec 14 '16 at 16:41

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