Archive for the ‘Oceans’ Category

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.

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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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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.

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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.

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Apparently, today (and every 8 June) is World Oceans Day. Along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, I’m guessing today’s holiday was overshadowed by more bad news from the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.

If you’re like me and spent most of today unaware of World Oceans Day, the Ocean Project has a few easy steps you can take (aside from the obvious: drive less) to help out in response to the Deepwater Horizon crisis. Take a look and see how you can lend a hand.

The picture above shows thick oil piled up along a private beach in Grand Isle, Louisiana. Image provided courtesy of Katherine Bourg and the New York Times.

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A northern gannet, covered in thick brown oil, lies dead on a beach in Grand Isle, Louisiana. Northern gannets are usually white.

Over a month after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank in the Gulf of Mexico, oil continues to gush from its open well. This week, scientists and government officials announced that oil has fouled Louisiana marshlands and coastal habitats along the massive Mississippi River delta. The extent of the destruction and magnitude of the loss of won’t be known for some time. However, the bodies continue to mount, and many are questioning whether such complex marshlands can ever recover from such a catastrophe. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, take a look at the image below of Louisiana’s irreplaceable coastal marshes, now coated in thick brown oil.

In the meantime, the federal government has admitted that it does not have enough equipment and experts to take over BP’s failed attempts to stop the flow of oil from the untapped well or contain the spill. Thus, for now, BP remains in charge of the spill itself, while states along the Gulf of Mexico try in vain to protect precious miles of shoreline.

First image provided courtesy of Sean Gardner and Reuters. Second image provided courtesy of Gerald Herbert and the Associated Press.

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National Public Radio has a fantastic set of stories out this morning about the growing controversy surrounding Corexit, the chemical BP is using to disperse oil pouring form the uncapped well of the sunken Deepwater Horizon rig. In short, BP has been pouring Corexit into the Gulf of Mexico to the tune of tens of thousands of gallons each day to help disperse the thick oil. However, we simply do not know the consequences of long-term Corexit toxicity to ocean life — everything from the fish we eat to the microbes which form the basis of ocean ecosystems.

The concern isn’t that Corexit itself will kill all ocean life. Instead, the real fear is that Corexit will act as an endocrine disruptor on marine life. Endocrine disruptors are compounds that mimic biological hormones. They get into the body, chemically masquerade as hormones, and disrupt the body’s natural signaling processes. Hormones govern everything from metabolism to sexual development — so, endocrine disruptors in the environment have the potential to devastate whole ecosystems, even in small doses. Plus, endocrine disruptors can settle into the environment and persist for decades, as we’re seeing with the many endocrine disruptors leaching out from today’s plastic compounds.  We’re not sure what the effects of these endocrine disruptors will be for tomorrow’s world.

Thus, in trying to lessen the impact form one environmental catastrophe, BP may be unleashing another. Only time and research will tell.

Both of these stories from NPR delve into further details. The second link is an audio file to a terrific interview with Jon Hamilton, one of NPR’s science correspondents.

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Shortly after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on 20 April, and sank 2 days later, scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Seattle tried to estimate the amount of oil spewing from the open well left at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. The method these scientists tried to use, the Bonn convention, relied primarily on a judgment of the thickness of the oil on the ocean surface. The NOAA estimate of the amount of oil flowing from the well was 5,000 barrels per day (which comes to approximately 210,000 gallons of oil per day).

Since 20 April, the flow from the unsealed well has continued. However, aside from this Bonn-based NOAA estimate, no one else has tried to figure out the volume of oil leaking into the Gulf of Mexico. There are also two more problems. For instance, the Bonn convention method was never intended to be used to measure the amount of oil leaked during large oil spills. In addition, the Bonn convention should ultimately yield a range of estimates of the amount of oil leaked, rather than a strict figure (such as 5,000 barrels of oil per day). Thus, many scientists not directly connected with either the federal government or BP have disputed the NOAA estimate, and requested an independent measurement of the amount of oil pouring from the well of the (former) Deepwater Horizon rig. To date, BP has disputed the claim that any accurate measurement of the amount of oil can be made, and independent scientists have not had access to sufficient data about the leak site to make their own estimates.

However, BP’s reluctant release of a video of one of the leak sites this week has provided some scientists with clues regarding the rate of oil hemorrhage. Their estimates are not promising: oil could be leaking at a rate of 20,000 to 25,000 barrels per day, over five times the NOAA estimate using the flawed Bonn convention method. If these figures prove true, then this oil spill already surpasses the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in terms of volume of oil released. And, unfortunately, oil continues to leak from the Deepwater Horizon’s well, with no end in site.

BP officials have admitted that the rate could increase to as much as 60,000 barrels per day, and some have estimated that up to 50 million barrels of oil remain in that undersea reservoir. Stay tuned.

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Earlier today, oil company BP released a 30-second video of one of the breaches in the Deepwater Horizon well that is sending thousands of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico each day. BP made the video on Tuesday at the request of the White House and the U.S. Coast Guard.

The footage shows one of the breaches in the destroyed well of the (former) Deepwater Horizon oil rig, which exploded on 20 April. Since then, oil and gas have been spewing from these breaches like geysers. Evidence thus far points to massive failures of numerous safety and containment features on board the Deepwater Horizon rig, which were meant to prevent such a disastrous geyser of oil and gas. Oil that gushed forth weeks ago is now washing ashore in places like Port Eads, Louisiana. All the oil from the geyser filmed yesterday won’t reach shores for weeks to come, and tomorrow will bring more.

“And the flood was forty days upon the earth…”

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