Can you imagine cleaning up an oil spill for a living? You would need words to talk about the work. So what is the difference between a tar ball, a patch, a patty, a sheen and a slick? And chocolate mousse.
Starting with the term you are hearing all over the news, a tar ball is simply a clump of petroleum that has been subject to the salinity (salt content), constant movement, pressure, and extreme temperatures of ocean water. Depending where they travel, the balls can cause different types of harm. At the bottom of the ocean they can slowly release their toxins into some of the most sensitive aquatic ecosystems. When they wash up on beaches, animals can swallow them quite easily or embed them in their feathers.
Though the media uses these words interchangeably, to oil spill bioremediation workers, a patty is an oil deposit bigger than 3.9 inches but smaller than 39.3 inches. It’s smaller than a patch but bigger than a tar ball.
The sheen (“brightness or radiance”) of an oil spill plays a role in determining the thickness, composition and size of an oil slick. The shinier the sheen, the thinner the slick (probably.) The sheen spectrum proceeds to rainbow colors and then gets darker. Darkness is not good news.
Mousse, or chocolate mousse, in petroleum slang, refers to oil that has emulsified, which means that the oil and sea water have blended together without actually combining. Basically, one substance in an emulsion coats the other like a wrapper, “a suspension of tiny droplets of one liquid in a second liquid.” The effect of emulsification on oil is high viscosity (extreme stickiness.)
You can imagine the consequences of mousse for an oil spill cleanup. So tar balls, in the sad scheme of things, can be easier to remove, since they are still relatively homogeneous.
If you’ve heard any other oil spill terms that you would like defined, please post them in the comments and answers will be posted there as well (check back later.)