Scientists want to understand the way oil responds to its new environs after a spill -- being exposed to light and water after thousands of years underground.
"In its new environment, the oil immediately begins to change its composition, and much of that change happens on the first day," said Samuel Arey, researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) and co-author of the new study.
Because hydrocarbons are quickly dispersed into surface water and overhanging air, determining the entirety of an oil's negative effects on nearby marine life can be difficult. Scientists and environmental officials are often not on the scene of an oil spill until at least a day after an incident.
Dutch and Swiss researchers collaborated with scientists from Germany and the United States in order to recreate a small oil spill, contained in the North Sea by a 140-cubic-foot barrier.
The small experiment gave researchers a better idea of what types and amounts of volatile compounds -- like the toxic naphthalene -- leach into the air and water in the hours after a spill. The scientists say they will be able to use their data to extrapolate how larger spills might look and act.