Friday, June 29, 2012 2:02 PM
The ecological effects of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill
are still largely unknown. Josh Fischman, senior writer, is on the
research vessel Endeavor in the Gulf of Mexico, with a team of university scientists seeking answers. He is filing reports from the ship.
—100 miles off Pascagoula, Miss.
Debby did Gulfport this past weekend. Or threatened to, enough to toss the Endeavor’s
cruise plan up in the air. Tropical Storm Debby was barreling north
across the gulf with 50-knot winds and 15-foot waves, but the forecasts
were vague about whether she would turn east across Florida or west,
right across Gulfport, Miss., and the area we want to study. The harbor
in Gulfport is fairly exposed, and the captain didn’t relish the idea of
staying in port and getting banged against the pier. So on Sunday we
jogged four hours east, to a Coast Guard station and shipyard protected
by an island at Pascagoula. It was fly-infested—the biting buggers were
still on the ship days later—but it was quiet and it was safe.
And it gave Andrew Juhl a chance to talk about why he was on the
ship. He was hunting for predators. Small single-celled predators, but
still bigger than the oil-eating bacteria which they engulf with tiny
whiplike appendages called flagella.
Juhl is a biological oceanographer who “didn’t even see the ocean
until I was a teenager, because I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin,” he
says. “But I was always interested in it, probably because I watched a
lot of Jacques Cousteau as a kid.” He sees a lot of it now, as a
research scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, part of Columbia
University, where he holds an adjunct appointment and teaches. A
slender, quiet man, Juhl spends a lot of his time near the water in
Alaska, where he studies algae that grow inside sea ice, and on the
water here in the South, where he has been part of the Ecogig, a group studying gulf ecology since 2010.
Here his interest is bacteria, in particular the kind that live off
hydrocarbons like oil, or pieces of hydrocarbons, and a puzzle about
them spewed by Deepwater Horizon. Every milliliter of seawater has about
a million bacteria. What researchers found in the aftermath of the 2010
accident was that particular bacteria had started to degrade the oil.
But although their metabolic rates went up—the bacteria were more
active—the population wasn’t growing by much.
“That’s sort of a paradox,” Juhl says. “You’d think if there’s a food
source they’d start dividing more, and the population would increase a
lot.” (Scarcity of nutrients like nitrogen, which are not a part of the
oil, can limit population size, as one of Juhl’s colleagues, Samantha
Joye of the University of Georgia, has pointed out.
But not in this case, Juhl says. If lack of nitrogen was holding
bacteria back then the metabolism would have stayed low along with
population size.) The composition of the community changed—there were
more bacteria that degraded alkanes, an oil component—but the overall
population size didn’t go up much.
The explanation, Juhl thinks, lies in the next step up the ocean food
chain: Micropredators, single cells just a few microns across that look
like spheres with hairs sticking out of them, are grazing on the
bacteria, thinning their ranks.
Read the rest at Chronicle.com.
Image: Deepwater Horizon oil spill as seen from NASA's Terra Satellites, May 24, 2010. Photo by
NASA's Earth Observatory, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. This image is in the public domain.
Tuesday, April 19, 2011 2:19 PM
On April 20, 2010 — one year ago this week — the Deepwater Horizon, a massive drilling rig operated by BP off the southeast coast of Louisiana, exploded, opening a sea-floor gusher that began spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The disaster that unfolded — some five million barrels of oil would be spilled in the three months before the well was capped — was a gut-wrenching reminder of how profoundly American dependence on fossil fuels affects our marine environments. Yet a mere six months later, after only modest regulatory reforms, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar lifted the moratorium on deep-water drilling; the event had already begun to recede from public consciousness. And so we wasted — along with much else — the chance to have a larger, more searching conversation about the impact of our actions and choices on the health of the ocean.
If we are to tilt toward a sustainable world, we've got to show more than fleeting concern for marine habitats. In the words of oceanographer and explorer Sylvia Earle: "The world is blue." Oceans cover most of the earth's surface — 130,000 square miles — at an average depth of 2.5 miles, forming its largest life zone and serving as the primary regulator of planetary chemistry. They are an important source of protein for the world's almost seven billion people. Our environmental health and indeed our survival — our systems of food production, energy, transportation, temperature regulation, oxygen production, carbon sequestration and more —are dependent upon the earth's waters.
As planners and designers, we need to take up the mantle of blue urbanism. Just as green urbanism challenges us to rethink sustainability at the city scale, blue urbanism asks us to re-imagine ourselves as citizens of a blue planet. How can we become better stewards of the world's oceans?
In October 2010, the Census of Marine Life released the results of a ten-year study of marine biodiversity, which significantly increased estimates of the quantity of ocean life. Genetic analysts believe there are at least one million distinct marine species and perhaps tens or hundreds of millions of microbe species. Less than five percent of the sea has been explored and only one-quarter of its species discovered, but already we know that marine environments are more biologically diverse than terrestrial environments at the phylum level. But as we begin to appreciate this biodiversity, we need also to recognize that it is in peril. We are rapidly approaching unprecedented tipping points that, if unheeded, will lead inexorably to systemic failure. Hypoxic dead zones surround river mouths and coastal areas, industrial fishing technologies are rapidly depleting fish populations and degrading habitats, and massive amounts of plastic waste and chemical toxins are polluting marine ecosystems from mangroves to intertidal zones to the deep sea. Carbon emissions are changing the basic chemistry of the planet, raising ocean temperatures and altering acidity levels, which in turn are endangering coral reefs and other marine life. The human reach is so great that it threatens even the vast and remote deep pelagic zone, the area of the open ocean extending from three hundred feet below the surface to just above the ocean floor.
City Planning and Marine Sprawl
Until recently, cities have mostly evaded responsibility for the failure of ocean systems because it is difficult to visualize or quantify the offshore effects of urban life. Our city maps stop at the water's edge, even though the activities that support urban systems extend many miles beyond. In The Urban Whale, Scott Kraus and Rosalind Rolland of the New England Aquarium have produced a fascinating map of terrestrial watersheds and offshore waters on the U.S. Atlantic Coast, showing areas of urban activity, including high boat traffic, shipping, fishing and dredging. Mechanical noise from ships near port cities has produced "acoustic smog" so thick that the chance of two North Atlantic right whales hearing each other is 10 percent of what it was a century ago. This kind of marine sprawl rarely gets the attention within our profession that terrestrial sprawl does...
Read the rest of “Blue Urbanism: The City and the Ocean” by Timothy Beatley at
Image by Plastic Pollution Coalition, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, April 19, 2011 1:34 PM
As the anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf approaches we look to some of our most trusted sources to get us up to date on all things BP and the Gulf. Below are some of the nominees for this year’s Utne Independent Press Awards in the environmental and political categories with their most recent coverage of the oil spill, one year later.
Let’s start at Audubon Magazine for a little history on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, by way of an excerpt from A Sea in Flames: The Deepwater Horizon Oil Blowout by Carl Safina (who also appears in the latest issue of Utne Reader). Even though we know how it all ends, Safina’s build up to the blowout is tense and makes you anxious while reading:
A churning drill bit sent from a world of light and warmth and living beings. More than three miles under the sea surface, more than two miles under the seafloor. Eternal darkness. Unimaginable pressure. The drill bit has met a gas pocket. That tiny pinprick. That pressure. Mere bubbles, a mild fizz from deep within. A sudden influx of gas into the well. Rushing up the pipe. Gas expanding like crazy. Through the open gates on the seafloor. One more mile to the sea surface.
The always feisty Mother Jones doesn’t beat around the bush with their latest blog post about the spill: “10 Reasons to Still Be Pissed Off About the BP Oil Disaster.” The all-too-clear-but-all-too-easily-forgotten reasons include, “BP is gunning to get back to drilling in the Gulf of Mexico” even though “People are sick” and “Fish and other sea life in the Gulf are still struggling after the disaster.” Meanwhile, “GOP House members want more drilling off all our coasts with less environmental review” and “Congress hasn’t changed a single law on oil and gas drilling in the past year.” As promised, the list of 10 will piss you off. (Also, if you missed Mother Jones’ September/October 2010 issue with the cover story “The BP Cover-Up” it’s worth revisiting now.)
And if that’s not enough to piss you off, add this to the mix from The Nation: “BP’s Oil Spill Tax Credit Matches EPA’s Entire Annual Budget.” While the oil giant’s tax credit claim may be old news, The Nation highlights the protests of US Uncut, a group focused on corporate tax breaks and attacks on the public service sector:
Thousands of young voters rallied at the White House this Tax Day to demand President Obama stand up to Big Polluters and make them pay their fair share. During the day of action, a flash mob, led by US Uncut’s Carl Gibson, successfully shut down a BP gas station in response to the company’s $9.9 billion tax credit from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which nearly matches the EPA’s entire annual operating budget.
Conveniently, OnEarth has all of its coverage of the Gulf oil spill in one spot—Disaster in the Gulf—including the most recent post from Ian Somerhalder (the actor most known for his role as ‘Boone’ on Lost).
A year after the worst oil spill in U.S. history, dozens of dead baby dolphins are washing ashore in the Gulf of Mexico; oyster populations are devastated, crippling a multi-billion dollar industry and the tens of thousands of jobs that go with it; and Gulf residents continue to complain of lingering health problems that they believe were caused by the BP oil spill. Despite what you may read in the mainstream media, the oil has not gone away.
Finally, In These Timessums up the situation clearly and succinctly. Simply put, one year after the worst oil spill in U.S. history the “government and media may be moving on from [the] aftermath of the Deepwater disaster, but the scars left behind by the spill are still raw and festering.”
I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention here the story “Fish with the King” that we recently reprinted from the excellent online magazine of politics and arts, Guernica, about the devastation the oil spill has had on the fishing communities in the Gulf.
Source: Audubon Magazine, Mother Jones, The Nation, OnEarth, In These Times, Guernica
Image by lagohsep, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, August 26, 2010 1:51 PM
Since the moment an explosion rocked the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, the muckrakers at Mother Jones have been on the beat. After months evading local law enforcement, drilling BP-execs for answers, and witnessing a slow tide of oil lap at the shores of Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, MoJo’s staff have released an excoriating report on ecological peril in the Gulf region.
Julia Whitty’s examination of the hidden threat to the ocean’s mesopelagic and bathypelagic zones—the stretch of ocean approximately four miles beneath sunlight’s reach and a critical, less-understood area of the ocean’s ecosystem—from chemicals used by BP to alleviate the oil spill will make your stomach drop. By using potentially toxic chemicals that break up globs of oil before they ever reach the surface—technically called “dispersants”—BP has ensured that the full scope of the spill will never be seen.
Although the devastation of the spill still feels immediate and visceral, the implicit message of Mother Jones is that the worst is yet to come. One particularly shocking info-graphic maps the infrastructure of the oil business in the Gulf. Here’s a spoiler: There are thousands of oil platforms, rigs, and wells and miles and miles of oil pipelines that are just waiting to get ripped apart by a hurricane.
Thanks as always, Mother Jones, for fearlessly exposing the truth and depressing us at the same time.
Source: Mother Jones
Image by lagohsep, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, June 16, 2010 1:58 PM
Being blown up in an oil-rig-related explosion calls for some compensation, no? Well, according to Slate, BP might not be paying much to the families of those killed when the Deepwater Horizon outfit burst into flames:
After a BP refinery in Texas exploded in 2005, killing 15 workers and injuring scores more, the oil giant paid $1.6 billion in settlements to employees and their families. But the families of the workers killed on BP's Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico probably won't receive a similar windfall. That's because the Deepwater rig is legally considered an oceangoing vessel and was more three nautical miles offshore at the time of the accident. As a result, the families of the dead workers can only sue BP and its contractors under a 90-year-old maritime law, the Death on the High Seas Act, which severely limits liability. In some cases, BP could get away with shelling out sums as paltry as $1,000.
The Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA) may be one of the least emotionally accommodating laws of all time:
Just ask Son Michael Pham, the vice president of the International Cruise Victims Association. In 2005, his parents went on a Caribbean cruise and never came back. Carnival Cruise Line, one of the world's largest cruise operators, never offered any explanation for what had happened, and has refused to discuss the incident with Pham and his family since then. That was how Pham discovered the horrible divide in the way the law treats people killed through negligence at sea. "We couldn't take legal action to get justice," he says. Long before the BP explosion, his group was lobbying Congress for DOHSA to be overhauled.
Yeah, some reform might help.
Image by Ashok666, licensed under Creative Commons.
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