Oil Spills Used to Save Lives at Sea

Here is a pointer to a great article with a maritime history lesson:  sea captains used to intentionally create small oil spills around their ships during rough weather in order to calm the seas. And it worked.

The short version:  when air blows over water, it isn’t frictionless: the air stirs up the water, and if there is enough air current and enough turbulence to it then you end up with rough seas.  However, oil forms a thin layer on top of the water; that layer has a lower coefficient of friction with air and makes it much harder to stir up the water.

Further: even when the water does get stirred up into waves and breakers, any waves of water that rise above the layer of oil are denser than the oil and can’t be supported by it, so they immediately start falling through it and in effect sap the strength of the waves.

The article suggests you can test this effect yourself by going outside on a blustery day, finding a puddle of water with ripples from the wind, and pour a very small amount of vegetable oil onto it.

But don’t go trying to create your own oil spills at sea. Please.


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