Turns out that the fugitive emission of nasty sulfur gases in New York that had Fox News suspecting terrorism for a while may have come from more mundane sources.
But we haven’t, and we think we can support one of the theories of the odor’s source that has been suggested. Based on our familiarity with the local aquatic environment and regional meteorology, we believe that the odor was caused by gases released from saltwater marshes in the metropolitan area. Let us explain. The intertidal sediments in this region are home to micro-organisms that produce sulfur compounds. When these sediments interact with saltwater that contains low levels of oxygen, gases are released. These gases include hydrogen sulfide and a variety of thiols (like the gas additives thiophane and mercaptan) — all of which have an odor similar to rotten eggs.
First, there was a low tide in the coastal marshes from roughly 4 a.m. to 6 a.m. Second, we experienced winds from the south and an atmospheric inversion, which created something like a low-lying bubble of air.
The result of the two factors? The low tide exposed the marsh sediments and hastened the release of sulfur gases into the atmosphere. The inversion trapped the odor close to the groundand the southerly winds then carried it to Lower Manhattan, where it remained until atmospheric conditions changed.
Damn, this is CSI NY (Atmospheric Chemistry and Modeling Division), good stuff!
Our explanation highlights the consequences of excessive nutrient loading and the resulting low oxygen levels in local coastal waters. (By nutrient loading, we mean exposing water to sewage, fertilizer, chemicals or other pollutants.) Of course, these consequences go beyond odor — they kill marsh vegetation, degrade the wider marine habitat and make it unsafe to swim or fish.
Indeed, so the cause, while natural is not really natural, it is from untreated sewage. New Yorkers, stop blaming New Jersey! Look at yourself!