Mess With Texas

Five gallons worth of oil-derived tar balls washed up on Texas beaches this past weekend. Jerry E. Patterson, Commissioner of the General Land Office of Texas, confirmed that the tar balls were found on beaches in Galveston and the nearby Bolivar Peninsula. It’s worth nothing that the amount of oil that washed up in Texas is relatively small, enough to fill a large bucket. In addition, no one can say for sure if this unexpected tar ball arrival is due to the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. The tar balls could have come from a ship leaking oil in the area, or from the countless gallons of oil that seep naturally from the Gulf of Mexico floor each year. Scientists and officials are looking at recent weather and ocean current patterns in the Galveston area to ascertain the likely course and direction the tar balls took to reach Texas shores. Hurricane Alex’s recent appearance south of Galveston may also be a factor in this mystery.

If these tar balls do indeed originate from the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, then Texas would become the fifth and final American Gulf coast state to have beaches and shoreline habitats fouled by the continuing oil spill. News is still worse for Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. In Louisiana, for example, tar balls and oil sheens have now reached Lake Pontchartrain, the country’s second largest salt water lake, just north of New Orleans. Near-shore oil skimming ships were held in port last week due to choppy seas from Hurricane Alex, and more oil continued to wash up on Gulf coast beaches.

Finally, the U.S. Coast Guard has restricted access for journalists to clean up sites. The new rules limit how close journalists (and other onlookers) can get to clean-up boats and containment booms, as well as beaches and other areas fouled by oil. Journalists must obtain permission a Coast Guard commander to come closer than 65 feet to any of these sites, or else face fines of up to $40,000 and felony charges. Initial reaction to these rules has been hostile from some journalists and local government officials. CNN’s Anderson Cooper in particular takes the U.S. Coast Guard to task, accusing the Coast Guard of backtracking on its initial pledge for full and complete transparency of the disaster and its lasting effects on the Gulf coast.

Finally, nearly 80 days after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank, oil continues to gush from the rig’s open well. BP has announced that recent choppy seas in the area have hampered its efforts to drill a relief well, which is the last best chance the company has to plug the open well permanently. BP hopes the relief well will be drilled by mid-August.

In the Beginning

The Planck spacecraft has delivered quite a payload of preliminary data on the origins of our Universe, and now the European Space Agency (ESA) is letting us catch a glimpse of Planck’s bounty. Named for German physicist and Nobel laureate Max Planck, the ESA launched Planck in May 2009 from the Guiana Space Centre. The spacecraft settled into a stable orbit along Earth’s nightside in a few months later. Earth’s nightside is an ideal spot for space-bound observatories: permanently shielded from the sun, spacecraft have an unobstructed view of the visible cosmos.

At the end of last summer, Planck began its ambitious mission: a survey of the entire sky. But Planck’s mission isn’t a simple pictorial survey (we’ve done that before). Planck was launched to survey the sky for wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum that we can’t see. Microwaves and very far infrared have longer wavelengths than visible light (see figure below), and Planck is capturing those wavelengths in its survey of the visible Universe.

It took the Planck spacecraft a little over six months to complete its first microwave and very far infrared survey of the sky, and made use of instruments designed and built by both the ESA and NASA. The embedded videos below illustrated how Planck completed this survey.

The fruits of Planck’s labor are shown below, in the spacecraft’s first microwave and very far infrared image of the sky:

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The above satellite image shows Hurricane Alex in the southwestern Gulf of Mexico on 30 June 2010. The category 2 storm began life as a tropical wave off the coast of Africa earlier this month. It entered the Caribbean Sea on 20 June and later strengthened to a tropical storm. Alex made landfall on 27 June just north of Belize City, crossed the Yucatan Peninsula, and entered the Gulf of Mexico. Quickly attaining hurricane strength over open waters, the storm’s rapid movement led American government and BP officials to scale back or postpone clean up efforts for the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. They cancelled flights to drop chemical dispersants and held skimmer boats in port, prompting widespread protests that this temporary cessation of clean up and containment efforts would allow even more oil to wash ashore on previously clean beaches. Some scientists, however, have hoped that Alex’s arrival in the Gulf will help scatter oil into smaller droplets, making it easier food for oil-consuming microbes.

Alex has kept some distance from the Deepwater Horizon well itself, so efforts to drill two relief wells can continue. BP has also been able to keep the temporary cap (which is drawing approximately half of the oil escaping from the well) in place for now. Two vessels are collecting oil from the cap despite 7 foot waves. However, initial uncertainty over Hurricane Alex’s course prompted BP to delay by a week the deployment of a third vessel, which could help increase the oil capture rate from the well.

But now, meteorologists have a good idea where Hurricane Alex is heading. The storm has turned west, barreling toward the coast. It will make landfall in the Mexican State of Tamaulipas later this evening.

Two days before Alex (then a tropical storm) made its initial landfall in Belize, press stories began to stoke fears that the storm would rage across the Gulf of Mexico, scattering oil and forcing BP to remove its temporary cap from the Deepwater Horizon well. After arriving in Portland for my conference, I read a few of those stories and then went to my favorite Lebanese restaurant for some late lunch. The tables in this establishment have maps on them, and here’s the table where I sat.
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A mystery virus struck me down this weekend, leaving me largely useless for blogging much of this week. However, I’ve recovered just in time to head off to the 2010 Evolution Meeting in Portland, Oregon. I’ll be on the first train out of Seattle tomorrow morning.

I’m not sure how much time I’ll have for blogging while I’m at the meeting. So, consider this week a freebie. This blog is still young enough that you can still easily browse the monthly archives:
March 2010
April 2010
May 2010
June 2010

See you next week!

The Whales Go By

The Gulf of Mexico is home to approximately 1,700 sperm whales. Many of them feed just off the continental shelf, particularly around the Mississippi River delta, an area filled with ample food for these huge marine mammals. The whales reside in family groups, and rarely mingle with other sperm whale groups from the open Atlantic Ocean. They live as long as us, but reproduce at most only every five years. The Gulf of Mexico is their full-time home.

Since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank over sixty days ago, scientists have been concerned with the fate of Gulf of Mexico sperm whales. Sperm whales have been sighted in the fouled waters themselves, and no one knows what effect oil droplets will have on whale physiology and behavior. In addition, BP and the U.S. Coast Guard have been using unprecedented levels of chemical dispersants to scatter oil in the water, and no research has been done on the effect of even small amounts of these dispersants on cetaceans.

Given these uncertainties, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s discovery this week of a dead sperm whale near the spill zone is a particularly troubling find. On Tuesday, the NOAA ship Pisces cited the decayed corpse of a young, 25 foot long sperm whale adrift nearly 80 miles from the site of the (former) Deepwater Horizon oil rig. Based on the decay of the body and the degree of scavenging by sharks, scientists estimate the whale perished several days ago, but don’t yet know the cause of death. They have taken tissue samples to help determine how the whale may have died, and hopefully analysis of the whale’s genome will determine its sex, and whether or not it was definitely from the endangered Gulf of Mexico population (which, given its location, it probably was). Skin samples taken may determine whether the whale was exposed to large amounts of oil before it died. However, since the whale’s body was adrift for days, scientists will have to infer where it died based on current patterns in the area where the body was found, weather conditions over the past week, and forensic clues of the time of the whale’s death.

All in all, a dead sperm whale is a rare find in the Gulf of Mexico, and this discovery so close to the site of the oil spill may be a harbinger of the spill’s lasting effects on the Gulf’s ecosystem. However, more won’t be known until scientists announce the whale’s cause, time, and location of death. In the meantime, the NOAA vessel Gordon Gunter put to sea on Wednesday to survey Gulf of Mexico cetaceans and catalog some of the oil spill’s effects on their ecology, physiology, and behavior. The ship’s mission also includes orders to observe the Gulf’s endangered sperm whales, all 1,699 of them.

Image of a sperm whale diving near a deep water rig in the Gulf of Mexico provided courtesy of Christoph Richter, the Sperm Whale Seismic Study, the U.S. Office of Naval Research, the Minerals Management Service of the U.S. Department of the Interior, Oregon State University, and Texas A & M University.

Night Watch

A consortium of astronomers from universities around the world have started a project to patrol the night skies for intruders. Their targets aren’t alien spacecraft looking for a dry patch of Earth on which to set down. These scientists are mapping asteroids and other objects in Earth’s vicinity that could one day strike our planet.
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Oil-rich waves crash ashore near Orange Beach, Alabama. Nearly sixty days after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, oil is still gushing from the rig’s unsealed well. Even BP’s attempts to capture some of the oil by diverting it up to ships on the surface hit a snag earlier today when one of those ships was struck by lightning. I’m not kidding.

President Barack Obama will make his first Oval Office address to the nation tonight at 8:00PM Eastern Time. He will speak about the federal government’s response to the disaster, recovery efforts, and his comprehensive energy reform proposal. In the meantime, the Gulf of Mexico continues to collect oil from the Deepwater Horizon well, sending oil and dead wildlife to the shores of Louisiana, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas.

Image provided courtesy of Dave Martin and the Associated Press.

Artist Luke Jerram creates the most dazzling glass-blown representations of microbes, to the awe of scientists and the general public. His glass microbiology series includes viruses like H.I.V. and bacteria like E. coli in remarkable structural detail. Colorblind, the artist focused on the shapes and textures of these pathogens. Some works are currently on display in a Manhattan art gallery.

Luke Jerram’s glass-blown representation of H.I.V. Image provided courtesy of the artist.

Luke Jerram’s series is not without its critics. Some, including medical professionals, question whether he should use the causes of deadly and incurable diseases for artistic purposes. However, such criticisms may underplay the power of these works of art to engage the public and put a face on faceless pathogens. These breathtaking works reveal a world of biology and medicine hidden for millennia by the limitations of the human eye, and dampened even in the 21st century by the limitations of the two-dimensional images we use to view these creatures under a microscope. Luke Jerram’s works bring that much-needed third dimension. Take a look for yourself.


A space capsule has landed in rural Australia, and its contents will help answer a lot of questions about asteroids and the formation of the solar system… Maybe.

The capsule in question hails from the Hayabusa spacecraft. Designed by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Hayabusa wasn’t just built for exploratory purposes. JAXA wanted to use Hayabusa to test new technologies for sending unmanned spacecraft to planetary bodies, explore them from orbit, land on them, collect samples, and return those samples to Earth. The spacecraft’s target was 25143 Itokawa, an asteroid (hereafter referred to as ‘Itokawa’). Discovered in only 1998, Itokawa orbits the sun in a meandering path that crosses Mars’ orbit. In case you were wondering, the asteroid was named for Japanese rocket scientist Hideo Itokawa (1912-1999), the father of the Japanese space program. For such an honor, some critics are regretting that the asteroid named for Dr. Itokawa was Hayabusa’s target, considering the number of technical glitches and failures that plagued the spacecraft’s mission
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You are looking at a picture of the world’s oldest known leather shoe. It was found in an Armenian cave in 2008, and an international team of archeologists recently published their analysis of this object in the journal PLoS One.

Scientists have debated as to when humans decided to cover their feet. Most hypothesize that we have been shoed for tens of thousands of years. However, the reasons behind our ancestors’ abandonment of bare feet are hotly debated. As for this specimen, it is not the oldest known shoe. But, it is the oldest known shoe that is not made from plant material.

The shoe itself is made of leather, most likely cowhide. Both the shoe and the grass loosely stuffed in it date to approximately 3627–3377 B.C.E. “B.C.E.” stands for “before common era,” a newer term synonymous with “B.C.” (“Before Christ”). The shoe fits a human right foot. Based on the dimensions, archeologists assume the shoe fit a woman (American size 7). The grass haphazardly stuffed inside the shoe may have indicated that it was inserted to preserve the shoe shape for storage. Leather laces closed the shoe firmly around the wearer’s foot.

The shoe discovery, while newsworthy, is merely the tip of the iceberg. The cave in which the shoe was found is called Areni-1. It has been inhabited by human groups from these ancient times up through the medieval period. However, there are distinct portions of the cave that date from the Chalcolithic (“Copper”) Age, including the areas where this shoe was found. The Copper Age encompasses the 4th millennium B.C.E., during which this shoe was manufactured. Other items in this cave date from the same time period, including dried fruits, a possible winemaking apparatus, obsidian stone tools, animal remains, and several ritualistic jars (including one vessel which contained a teenage human skull). All in all, it seems Areni-1 was a cave of some importance to a population of Copper Age humans. It served as living quarters and sites of rituals.

Areni-1 is a rare window to the past: a glimpse at how our ancestors survived and thrived, and laid the ground for a more prosperous future for their descendants. And the search of this extensive archeological treasure is not complete. More clues to our past may be hidden in the caves depths! After all, shoes work best in pairs, and the left partner of this shoe remains missing.

Image provided courtesy of Boris Gasparian and the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology in Yerevan, Armenia.