Archive for the ‘Oceans’ Category

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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The U.S. government is still trying to wrap its head around the scope of the damage done (and still being done) by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. We’ll be dealing with this for years to come.

In the meantime, yesterday the U.S. Department of Energy released a numbing series of photos of the final moments of the Deepwater Horizon rig. The explosion and fire on Deepwater Horizon occurred on 20 April 2010. These photos were taken two days alter as it listed and sank in 5,000 feet of water. Eleven workers are missing and presumed dead.

Oil is still leaking from the Deepwater Horizon’s well to the tune of at least 5,000 barrels a day, the slick will soon reach the shores of Gulf states, and dead marine life is washing ashore.

I can’t help but recall my childhood on the Gulf coast of southern Florida: literally days and days spent on the beach. I was particularly fond of evening walks on the beach in the winter: wearing one of our few sweatshirts, a breathtaking sunset, and dolphins swimming just offshore. I hope I’m not the last generation to experience this.

Image provided courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy.

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Oceans from Above

Two independent reports published in this week’s issue of the journal Nature report the existence of ice in a rather unexpected place: an asteroid. The asteroid in question is 24 Themis, a rather large resident of the Asteroid Belt. This discovery may leave you wondering, “Who cares?” Well, the implications of this finding have a lot to do with us, and one of the substances that was absolutely required for life to evolve and thrive on this planet: water.

Let’s start answering the “Who cares?” question by defining some fancy terms. An asteroid is a small, rocky or metallic body that orbits the sun. They’re smaller than planets and dwarf planets, but larger than the largest (boulder-sized) meteoroids. 24 Themis was discovered in 1853 and has a diameter of about 123 miles. As for the Asteroid Belt itself, this region lies between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. As the name suggests, it is a “belt” of asteroids and smaller meteoroids, all orbiting the sun. Asteroid belt residents range in size from collections of space dust to the dwarf planet Ceres.

Two teams independently looked at 24 Themis in the Asteroid Belt using NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility atop the Mauna Kea volcano in Hawaii. The teams looked at how sunlight is reflected off of 24 Themis’ surface. Different wavelengths of light can be absorbed, reflected, or scattered based on the chemical properties of substances that the light hits. In the case of 24 Themis, both teams found that light hitting the asteroid’s surface was scattered in a pattern consistent with the presence of a very familiar chemical: water. In this case, both teams conclude that there is a thin layer of frost on the surface of 24 Themis.

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Last night, I listened to a fascinating (but depressing) program on Wisconsin Public Radio’s To the Best of Our Knowledge. The topic: “Polar Stories.” I especially paid attention to a rather downtrodden segment on the future of the polar bears (or lack thereof) as sea ice over the Arctic Ocean disappears. The verdict: they’ll be gone in my lifetime.

Even if polar bears aren’t your thing, the entire program is worth a listen. They cover polar geology, the sensation of cold at the poles, and even Antarctic fiction.

Public radio isn’t the only venue reporting on the polar regions. This morning, the New York Times jumped into the Arctic arena with an article on the demise of the harp seal.

All this talk of the Arctic thaw made me wish humankind had some sort of Arctic ice tracking service… and, as it turns out, we do! The National Science Foundation and NASA have teamed up to create the National Snow and Ice Data Center. They have maps and datasets tracking Arctic ice, as well as simple explanations for those of us who don’t eat, sleep, and breathe oceanography or climatology. Take a look!

Image: three polar bears investigate an intruder, the Los Angeles Class attack submarine U.S.S. Honolulu (SSN 718), after it surfaced through Arctic sea ice some 280 miles from the North Pole in 2003.
Image credit: Chief Yeoman Alphonso Braggs, United States Navy.

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While I was enjoying the gorgeous views of British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast from the many ferry rides it took to get to Texada Island on Thursday, Andrew Revkin posted new findings concerning climate change and ocean currents on the New York Times blog Dot Earth.

A short summary: ocean currents as they’re currently set up help distribute warmer waters from equatorial regions toward the poles, and bring cold water back to the equatorial regions to be heated. This planet-wide circulation pattern has tremendous effects on local climates. One famous result of these current networks is that northern Europe’s climate is kept much warmer than it would otherwise be based solely on its latitude.

For several years now, scientists have worried that these circulation patterns in the north Atlantic Ocean could be disrupted by climate change. The problem centers on melting ice: rising temperatures may shrink or completely melt the massive ice sheet covering Greenland, discharging huge amounts of cold freshwater into the north Atlantic. As a result, these ocean circulation networks in the north Atlantic could slow down (a bad event) or break down entirely (a topic of the disaster film The Day After Tomorrow). While the sudden collapse of the north Atlantic circulation pattern was a highly unlikely scenario, even the current’s slowdown could cool northern Europe to a climate not seen in recorded history.

However, new research from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory measuring has added silver lining to the climate change cloud. Sure, parts of the Greenland ice sheet are melting, but so far the speed of the north Atlantic currents has remained stable since the 1990s. Currents keep bringing warm water up from the equatorial regions, and transporting cool water down to be re-heated, despite the increasing discharge of freshwater.

Many questions remain:

  • How fast is the Greenland ice sheet melting, and will it melt entirely?
  • What about the potential loss of sea ice from the Arctic?
  • Could there be other sources of freshwater discharge into the north Atlantic and Arctic, such as increasing stream and river discharges from a warmer Canada or Russia?
  • Will the currents still remain stable in the coming decades?

And of course, even if all these melting events don’t slow ocean circulation patterns significantly, there’s another major problem we still have to deal with: all these melting glaciers and ice sheets are going to raise global sea levels.  It’s not a matter of “if,” but “how much?”

Video of ocean current circulation patterns courtesy of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

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Earlier today, I headed over to the University of Washington campus so high school students could teach me all about water quality problems facing the Puget Sound region. The event showcased projects the students themselves had chosen to research and test as part of their science classes at three Seattle high schools. Three local organizations put on the event: the Center for Ocean Sciences Education Excellence, the University of Washington’s GK12 teaching fellowship program, and SoundCitizen.

In short, the event was a tremendous success. The students were curious and enthusiastic about their chosen topics, and this biologist learned quite a lot. Any and all water quality issues were addressed: from environmental pollutants to saving the local orca pods.

Belatedly, I remembered that I had my iPhone with me, and took a few pictures of my favorite presentations. Unfortunately, my iPhone photography skills leave a lot to be desired.

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