Archive for the ‘Oceans’ Category

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…”

The Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank some twenty days ago. Since then, oil has been gushing from the uncapped well to the tune of at least 5,000 barrels per day, though some estimate the daily hemorrhage to be at a rate of about 25,000 barrels. As the flow of oil continues, and the massive spill assaults the U.S. coast of the Gulf of Mexico, some are starting to ask why we have chosen to invest plenty time and resources into new drilling technologies, but practically no resources into new oil spill clean-up techniques.

It’s true: we will be using a lot of older and more cumbersome means to clean up the beaches, ocean, and wildlife for quite some time. However, some groups are using this environmental catastrophe to promote new “green” approaches to cleaning up our black gold problems. One group, Matter of Trust, has been promoting a new variation on an old approach: oil booms and oil-soaking mats made from hair.

Their approach is slowly making its way through the press, and I hope this movement continues to gain momentum. It’s ingenious: hair naturally clings to oils from the environment (which is why unwashed hair gets so oily). It’s practical: salons, sheep farms, and pet grooming businesses accumulate pounds and pounds of trimmed hair and fur daily, which is usually thrown out unceremoniously. It’s simple: businesses which accumulate hair and fur trimmings simply need to sweep up the bounty and ship it to Matter of Trust. They manufacture oil-clinging mats and booms (also made from used nylons, of course) to use as part of the clean-up effort. Of course, these mats and booms are also useful for the thousands of other oil spills that occur each year. These products could also be used in urban areas to prevent oil from reaching the watershed.

Most important of all: it’s accessible. Very few of us live along the Gulf coast in areas directly affected by the oil spill. Of course, we are all indirectly harmed by the spill, but the effects may take some time to reach us. However, many of us do get our hair trimmed, and do see the floor littered with hair trimmings. The argument advocated by Matter of Trust is simple: put these trimmings to good use and make a real difference in our approach to oil spills!

So, the next time you go for a haircut, mention three simple words to the salon employees: Matter of Trust. Perhaps your salon or pet groomer already participates? It certainly doesn’t hurt to ask.

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Oil without the Drill

Oil is that precious substance which, for better or worse, we have quite an addiction to. We spend billions of dollars and risk (and occasionally sacrifice) lives to retrieve it from Earth’s depths. Yet, Earth is often not so greedy. The planet regularly releases crude oil on its own, with no help from us. The extent to which oil “seeps” up on its own is not known. However, scientists have recently uncovered a new tool to help them understand this phenomenon.

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This satellite image shows the Mississippi River flowing through the Quad Cities metropolitan area, forming the border between the states of Iowa and Illinois. From its source in Minnesota’s Lake Itasca, the Mississippi River flows over 2,300 miles, past countless farms and communities like the Quad Cities, before reaching the Gulf of Mexico. The Iowa-Illinois Quad Cities are an example of one location where the oceans begin. You’re standing on another.

The typical amount of time I devote in a week to researching topics and writing entries for this website has been cut severely this week. Part of the blame lies with my research, since the fish I study for my graduate thesis breed in the late spring and early summer. But, this week, COSEE can also share the blame. They have several events in Seattle this week, including their nationwide meeting.

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A dead sea turtle washed ashore near Pass Christian, Mississippi. Since the devastating oil spill over a week ago, dead sea turtles have washed ashore in several U.S. states along the Gulf of Mexico. The number of corpses is much larger than normal.

Earlier this week, 25 sea turtle corpses washed up Mississippi beaches alone. Initial examination of the bodies did not reveal oil on the turtles. However, scientists caution that oil could have doomed the sea turtles in a number of other ways. For example, ingesting oil or fish contaminated with oil could damage the lungs, liver, and red blood cells. Oil exposure could also cause pneumonia or immune system distress. Tissue samples from the turtle corpses are being tested to look for evidence of some of these effects.

Some of the dead turtles include Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle, an endangered species. Oil continues to leak from the well of the former Deepwater Horizon oil rig to the tune of about 5,000 barrels per day.

Image provided courtesy of the New York Times and Michael Appleton.

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