Gulf Spill: Where did all the Oil Go?

Thursday, August 19th, 2010

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Now that the Deep Horizon oil well has been capped and crude oil is no longer gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, NOAA and the ocean science community have been working to assess the damage. In particular, there’s a question about where all that crude has gone now that most of the oil slicks on the surface have disappeared.

NOAA issued what some scientists characterize as an over-optimistic report that most of the 4.9 million gallons of oil have been burned, skimmed, recovered from the wellhead or dispersed and is in the process of being degraded or consumed by oil-eating microbes. In the peer-reviewed report, issued in early August, the administration estimates that only 25% of the original spill remains in gulf waters. In some of their earlier reports on flow rate, NOAA was criticized for not “showing their math,” in this report they showed how the calculations were made. Here’s what they say happened to the oil:
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A couple of days ago, scientists from the University of Georgia issued their own report estimating that only 10-30% of the oil was recovered or degraded and that 70-90% of the original spill remains a threat to the ecosystem. They make the point that dispersed oil (i.e. oil that has been dissolved or broken up into droplets) is still in the gulf and could harm the environment for years to come. Their report consists mostly of analysis of the governments estimates, pointing out the uncertainties and providing their own more pessimistic estimates of how much (or little, as the case may be) oil has evaporated, been consumed by microbes, and collected in marshes. They also point out the need for more sampling programs and increased monitoring of the Gulf waters, which NOAA has also announced they will implement.

So, who’s right? The Wall Street Journal favors the Georgia scientists, the New York Times green blog credits the NOAA study as peer reviewed and more credible. But this is a rapidly evolving situation and an article in today’s New York Times reports the discovery by Woods Hole scientists in June of a large plume of oil that doesn’t appear to be degrading rapidly. We probably won’t know for awhile what the true impact will be and it could be that both groups are “wrong” (i.e. their initial estimates are different from later analysis) and that the remaining oil in the gulf is somewhere in the middle of these two estimates. Like it or not, that is the nature of science, not to always pinpoint the definitive truth, but to give their best estimates based on available evidence and to continue monitoring and sampling to refine and sometimes correct initial observations and findings.

Given that people’s livelihoods and the Gulf ecosystems are at risk, it was important for NOAA to not wait until scientific consensus was reached before issuing their report and I would frankly be more worried about the estimates if there was no scientific debate about them. It is the nature of science to be a self-correcting enterprise and the nature of scientists to be skeptical, question the evidence and continue to seek answers. Because the Gulf is such a complex system, because a deep-water spill of this magnitude is extremely rare and therefore not well studied, lots of scientists will remain engaged with these questions for years to come. Their continued efforts should help society understand the environmental impacts of oil spills, decide what risks are acceptable and which are not, and whether deep-water drilling activities should continue and, if so, how they should be regulated.

Making Art from Weather Data

Sunday, July 4th, 2010

On my way out of town, I flew from San Jose’s new terminal and got to check out eCloud. It’s a new, interactive art piece that uses weather data from all over the world to create a changing display made of glass squares suspended from the ceiling. The electronic sign shows a city and its weather which triggers the array of glass squares, which will change from clear to opaque depending on the cloud cover in each city. Sacramento on this warm July morning was clear so most of the squares were clear, but Lisbon had some overcast so some of the squares were opaque. The weather information comes from NOAA and this piece represents an increasing interest in data-driven artwork. I shot a short movie on my Flip, here’s a link… eCloud display at San Jose Airport

Fishing in Antarctica: A Tasty Plate of Krill Anyone?

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010

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A recent New York Times article poses the question: is any industrial fishing operation sustainable? What does that mean for those of us who enjoy eating fish and wanting to make environmental choices?

The fishery in question is a single Norwegian-operated factory ship that harvests Antarctic krill in the Southern Ocean. Krill might not be something you regularly shop for in your local grocery store, but it’s an ingredient in processed food and used as feed for farmed salmon and Omega-3 supplements for health-conscious humans. In their natural environment these shrimp-like crustaceans can be extremely abundant, up to 500 million tonnes of biomass in the Arctic and Antarctic oceans. Krill themselves munch on algae and phytoplankton and form the basis of an extremely productive food web in Antarctica, feeding whales, seals, and penguins as well as fish and other Antarctic marine species. Without krill, much of the higher marine life in the polar oceans would collapse.

The controversy for the Antarctic krill fishery rests on a recent certification by the Marine Stewardship Council. The certification allows producers to provide a blue “seal of approval” msc_certificateimageindicating to consumers that the fishery maintains a healthy population, doesn’t damage the environment, and is effectively managed. That appears to be the case for this Norwegian operation, which claims it only harvests 1% of the Antarctic krill population each year, but environmentalists are disgruntled with the Marine Stewardship Council in general for relying on consultants paid by the fisheries without taking into enough consideration the work of independent scientists and the growing realization that most of the world’s marine fisheries are not sustainable and indeed that most commercial stocks are on the verge of collapse.

What’s really upset environmentalists, and I agree, is the MSC certification of a longline fishery of Patagonian toothfish near South Georgia Island. These fish are so integral to the Southern Ocean and Ross Sea ecosystem and their populations are declining according to biologists who work in Antarctica, including Art DeVries and our Ice Stories correspondent David Ainley. Groups like the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch , who do independent research on fisheries and provide consumer recommendations say to avoid this fish, often called Chilean Sea Bass, because most of the fisheries aren’t certified and the one fishery that is certified can be hard to find. When in doubt eat something else, is my philosophy.

Wind: Bike Commuter's Best Friend or Tourist's Worst Enemy?

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

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When I saw NOAA’s San Francisco weather forecast this morning I smiled. Northwest winds in the afternoon, blowing straight off the Pacific ocean.
forecast detail That’s bad news for the tourists shivering in their shorts at Fishermans Wharf, but great news for a bicycle commuter like me who rides to the southeast end of the city to catch her train home. The 20 mph afternoon sea breeze that pushes me to my destination is a familiar weather pattern for most ocean communities, especially in summer. This pattern is caused when temperatures in the inland valleys warm up in the sun, causing air to rise and expand, creating a low-pressure region. Meanwhile, air over the cool ocean sinks and compresses, creating a relatively high-pressure region. Air flows from high to low pressure, creating what cyclists and tourists experience as wind. The greater the pressure difference, the stronger the wind.

In San Francisco, this natural air-conditioner can keep the city downright chilly compared to Sacramento or San Jose—thirty degrees difference is not uncommon. It’s also why Mark Twain was reputed to have said “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” According to Snopes website though, Twain may have never said it… but it sure does ring true to the tourists who come here expecting “typical” California weather.

More plastic than plankton in the ocean?

Monday, June 8th, 2009

View from the NOAA Pacific Grove lab

View from the NOAA Pacific Grove lab


Last week, while thunder and lightning storms crackled and boomed over the eastern regions of San Francisco Bay, a group of us from the Exploratorium escaped to sunny Pacific Grove for a visit to the NOAA labs down there. Nestled between the ocean and the famed Pebble Beach golf course, the Pacific Fisheries Environmental Lab specializes in data analysis and visualization with a focus on climate and marine fisheries. We had some fascinating discussions about upwelling, a seasonal event along the Pacific Coast that starts when strong spring winds blow surface waters out to sea. Those waters are replaced with colder, nutrient rich water from the depths which trigger a bloom in microscopic marine plants, called phytoplankton, which feed tiny animals called zooplankton, which in turn nourish fish and birds that time their reproduction to this spring-time oceanic bounty.

In a future post, I’ll write more about upwelling and how it might be changing under a warming world. Today I’m focused on an entirely different threat to ocean health: plastic trash that makes its way from land to sea in seemingly overwhelming abundance. At the NOAA lab, we met an evangelist for this environmental issue, Captain Charles Moore who discovered firsthand what became knows as the “great Pacific garbage patch” on a yacht race from Hawaii to mainland U.S. in 1997. The sight of “shampoo caps and soap bottles and plastic bags and fishing floats as far as I could see” stunned Capt. Moore and compelled him to focus his marine research foundation Algalita on bringing public and scientific awareness to this looming environmental and ecological disaster.

Unlike paper and other biodegradable packaging, discarded plastic persists in marine and aquatic environments, collecting along beaches and in rivers, lakes, and the ocean. In some regions of the world, including the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans, plastic is swept into circular currents called gyres where the trash swirls in giant eddies twice the size of Texas.

NOAA map of the Pacific Grye, a region of the subtropical Pacific where marine debris accumulates.

NOAA map of the Pacific Grye, a region of the subtropical Pacific where marine debris accumulates.

Research by the Algalita Foundation has documented that in the Pacific gyre, plastic refuse can outweigh marine plankton by a factor of six to one. Ingested by marine creatures and birds, this garbage accumulates in body tissues although scientists don’t really know whether or how it affects their biology–a possible research agenda for NOAA’s Office of Marine Debris.

A self-described pessimist (he doesn’t say cleaning up this mess is impossible but does say it’s “really, really, really hard…”) CAPT Moore gave a recent TED talk that’s sobering but well worth watching. But not all the news is hopeless: there’s a multi-institutional program in Hawaii that collects plastic waste and transports it to a power plants that burns the waste for energy production. Another cool idea we heard yesterday: enlist the efforts of the Bering Sea crab fishermen to collect abandoned fishing nets and other large debris during their off season. From deadliest catch to yuckiest catch?? Might make a good reality show…what new disgusting thing will they pull out of the water this week?

But as CAPT. Moore points out we should be finding ways to cut this off at the source. Even though I recycle, I keep finding more reasons to reconsider every product I buy packaged in plastic. In celebration of World Ocean Day, today and for the rest of this week, I’m going to avoid buying or throwing away anything made of plastic.

We're Going to Greenland

Saturday, July 5th, 2008

icestories.jpgYou may have noticed that I’ve been pretty light on my blog posts the last nine months or so. That’s because I’ve been consumed with our Web project, Ice Stories. Just about a year ago, we got funding from the National Science Foundation to do this International Polar Year education project and it’s been non-stop polar research and education since then. We did a full slate of Webcasts last winter from Antarctica and trained some young Arctic researchers in media production and story-telling this past March. We gave them cameras and asked them to post dispatches, video and pictures from their research camps in Alaska and Greenland. We also sent an Exploratorium media crew to Barrow in May and June to produce Webcasts and stories from this science outpost on the northern-most spit of land in the U.S.

Now it’s my turn for a polar expedition and we’re going to Greenland starting July 7. Summer is an intense time for science in Greenland. With 24 hours of daylight and a melting ice cap to study, researchers spread along the edges of glaciers and on camps atop the summit of the ice cap to learn all they can about the dynamic nature of ice, wildlife, climate, and geology in an era of rapid climate change at the poles. I’ll be up there with video production Lisa Strong to document all the science we can stuff into three weeks. We’ll be camping and hiking with glaciologists, biologists, and climate researchers, recording interviews, writing dispatches, and capturing moving and still image scenes of this gorgeous icy island.

Our first stop will be the town of Kangerlussuaq, nestled along a 160-km (100-mile) long fjord with the looming ice cap behind. We’ll reach Kanger, as it’s often called, via an Air National Guard military transport from Scotia, New York and we’ll be staying at the Kangerlussuaq International Science Support facility, aka “KISS.” We hope to catch up with Billy D’Andrea, our Ice Stories correspondent from Brown University, who is studying lake sediments for clues of our recent climate past. We also plan to hitch a ride and hike out to Tom Neumann’s camp along the glacier edge. Tom is a glaciologist from the University of Vermont (http://www.uvm.edu/~greenlnd/) who is interested in the history of the Greenland Ice Sheet, in particular the last time Greenland was free from its mantle of ice. His team does this by patrolling the edge of the glacier and collecting debris spit out from the base of the ice sheet. These rocks contain clues about the last time they were directly exposed to cosmic rays from the sun (i.e. the last time they weren’t covered by ice). Near Kanger, we also hope to capture some musk oxen with our cameras and will almost certainly encounter unwelcome wildlife in the form of marauding Arctic mosquitoes (Billy says we’ll be eaten alive, which is why we’ve packed mosquito nets and plenty of deet).

iceberg_loudwaterberg.jpgFrom Kanger, we fly to the lovely town of Ilulissat, a major tourist and science destination on the island. Ilulissat means iceberg in Greenlandic and the town is aptly named situated as it is near the outlet of the world’s fastest-moving glacier, the Jakobshavn. Jakobshavn is Greenland’s largest glacier and it regularly calves huge icebergs in the summer season, some as large as a cubic kilometer is size. We hope to capture one of these gigantic calving events at Mark Fahnestock’s camp along the rocky shoreline of Disko Bay at the base of the glacier. Mark is a glaciologist from the University of New Hampshire, and studies the flow rate of the Jakobshavn glacier. This one glacier, a fraction of the 630,000-cubic-mile ice sheet that covers most of Greenland, produces 35 billion tons of icebergs every year, nearly all the bergs that threaten ship traffic in the Northern Atlantic and almost certainly the origin of the monster that sunk the Titanic. As a final destination of our Greenland science tour, Lisa Strong will fly with the Air National Guard up to Summit Camp to get a perspective of the ice from on top the two-mile-thick sheet.

The Passing of the Torch

Monday, April 14th, 2008

By Kate O’Donnell
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While there may not be such a thing as a ‘usual’ day at the Exploratorium, when I pulled in to work last Wednesday, I knew I was in for something different.

For one, there was a plane circling above my head towing a massive “FREE BURMA” sign. For two, every one and thing in the city was buzzing about our newly arrived guest.

San Francisco was hosting an international celebrity, one whose whereabouts were a deeply desired yet hidden secret. I’m talking, of course, about the Olympic torch.

For weeks on end it was a main topic of conversation and debate. Trying to prevent London and Paris from repeating themselves, Mayor Newsom had decided that the Olympic torch processional would be held in an undisclosed (and changed-numerous-times-at-the-last-minute) location. The protesters were outraged. The police prepared for security lockdown. And as for us here at the Exploratorium? Well, we just happened to get front row seats.

Our VIP view of the Olympic torch drama had begun earlier in the week when protesters scaled cables on the Golden Gate Bridge to hang giant “FREE TIBET” signs high in the air. Our roof cam—which lets you zoom in on different views from atop the Exploratorium—caught some great pictures of the signs going up, flying high, and being taken down by the police.

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Click the picture to see a series of shots from our roof cam over the course of the morning.
To visit our roof cam, please click here.

As far as I was concerned, that would be my close-up view of the torch affair for the week. Then on Wednesday around 3pm, the hottest thing in America suddenly landed in the Exploratorium’s lap.

The surreal episode began like an African thunderstorm: first one drop, then two, then ten thousand. One minute I was crossing the street between the museum and administrative offices and it was a peaceful Marina afternoon—quiet, with a light breeze and the occasional jogger. The next minute I was reading an e-mail from a colleague across the street: “Um, there are a lot of cops over here. Like, a LOT of cops. I think the torch might be coming.”

I rushed out of the museum, but by the time I got outside the place had already undergone a major transformation. Sirens were squealing as helicopters roared overhead and hundreds of motorcycles filled the streets. What seemed like the entire San Francisco police motorcade had lined the road as far as I could see, and MUNI buses of policemen on foot were pulling in and unloading. The mayor and Chief of Police arrived just as the first protesters on wheels zoomed in with signs and megaphones. Within minutes hundreds of people were streaming in, signs and voices raised.

While San Francisco was doing its best to keep the press at bay, the headline of the week had just landed in our backyard. I was pleased and unsurprised to see fellow Exploratorium staff running out with still cameras, video cameras, and audio recorders. As the procession came by—led by an amphibious duck vehicle and featuring none other than former SF Mayor Willie Brown as torchbearer—I had to smile. The torch route may have changed numerous times, the Exploratorium staff alerted to its presence merely a minute or two ahead of time, but leave it to the Explo to still create complete documentation of the event.

Documentation, of course, to share. Below is a link to a slideshow of our collected pictures. Hopefully it can offer a fun alternative to other media coverage that, as Mary rightly put it, has been treating the Olympic torch like Princess Diana. We hope you enjoy as, in the meantime, I look forward what I’m hoping will be Elton John’s next hit: ‘Torch Flame in the Wind.’

Slideshow
For slideshow, please click here.

Crafty Science to save a Coral Reef

Wednesday, March 5th, 2008

29554877.jpgFor months I’ve been carrying around a fuzzy little sea creature, depriving it of a rightful home among fellow reef denizens. I hate giving up the crenulated critter because it was hand made by my mother, it’s beautiful and it feels so good in the hand, like a wooly worry bead.

The blue wool sea slug was created for a community art project, called the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef. The project is the brainchild of Margaret Wertheim, a science writer and founder of the Institute for Figuring in Los Angeles. The reef project has been traveling around from city to city, most recently Manhattan where it caught the attention of a New York Times reporter.

Margaret came to the Exploratorium last July to give a workshop on hyperbolic crotchet, a method of creating mathematically complex forms using strands of wool and a crotchet hook. We also did a Webcast with Margaret about hyperbolic crotchet and her coral reef project, which was created to bring attention to the environmental threats facing the Great Barrier Reef in Margaret’s native Australia.

My mother dropped in for part of the Exploratorium workshop and made a few sea slugs, one of which I’m supposed to send to Margaret. Maybe I’ll do that if the crotchet coral reef comes to San Francisco…

AAAS: The Science Conference People Love to Bash

Monday, February 18th, 2008

The demise of the AAAS meetings have been rumored for as long as the nearly 20 years I’ve been attending them and probably even before then. Journalists grump that there’s not enough breaking news, scientists say not enough of their colleagues attend, organizers fret that the registration numbers are flat even as other more specialized science meetings have mushroomed in recent years. An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about this year’s conference rehashes the old debate, with no news of its own to contribute.

But I love AAAS, for its science celebrities, its smorgasborg of different disciplines, its parties and networking opportunities, and the meeting’s focus on science policy and public engagement. The organizers take all these things seriously and the results are a unique cross-roads of science and society that seem ever more relevant to those of us who love research and want to share it with our audiences. I collect business cards, brainstorm new ideas with colleagues, recruit scientists to visit and give talks at the Exploratorium, and dance at the annual science writer party (this being Boston it was held at Fenway Park with a fantastic Motown cover band).

This year I got to see, if not shake hands with, Ken Miller of Brown (one of the witnesses in the victorious evolution trials of Dover, Pennsylvania and recipient of the Exploratorium’s outstanding educator award), Barry Barrish (founding directors of LIGO and now heading up the troubled but not abandoned International Linear Collider), Lawrence Krauss (theoretical physicist and author of “The Physics of Star Trek”), Dan Gilbert (Harvard psychology professor, author of Stumbling on Happiness and son of Walter Gilbert, who we interviewed during our DNA webcasts), and Andy Revkin (NYTimes climate reporter and blogger).

I attended sessions on the climate history of the Arctic, global warming and the media, memory and imagination, gigantic international physics collaborations, and science in a religious America. The latter was organized by our friend Matthew Nisbet of American University and he put together a stellar panel of folks in the large middle ground of the debate where most people live. Matt and the panelists don’t feel that religion undermines science, and argued that both can co-exist in modern society, if not the hearts and minds of some scientists and Catholics. Of course that means he’s attacked by people on the edges: the “new atheists” who feel that religious thought should never be tolerated, but rather should be campaigned against by the educated (their words) and religious fundamentalists and politicians who say that accepting evolution means that humans have no moral foundation on which to stand. All did agree that Intelligent Design isn’t based on evidence and therefor isn’t science and that only evolution should be taught in biology classrooms. So that is the bright shining line that even tolerant scientists won’t tolerate.

Palm trees and crocodiles in the Arctic

Saturday, February 16th, 2008

No, this isn’t a dire climate prediction from one of Al Gore’s disciples. This description was of the Arctic’s distant past given by a paleo-oceanographer during the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science, being held this year in Boston (brrr, baby it’s cold outside). This particular scientist, Henk Brinkhuis from Utrecht University in The Netherlands, also said that 50 million years ago the Arctic was “stinky, swampy and freaking warm.”

exp302-8.jpgScientists know this because a few years ago an international consortium mounted the first ever deep ocean drilling expedition to the ice-covered Arctic Ocean. The ice-breaking drill ship pulled up sediment cores that represent climate history back to a time when Earth was a “greenhouse world” with no ice caps at the poles. Their 2004 expedition is written up in the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) website. It was actually a feat to drill through thick sea ice to the ocean floor below and it took three ice breakers to do the job: a nuclear icebreaker from Russia to break up the floes, a Swedish ice breaker to grind them into slush, and a third ship to deploy the drill string.

Sediment cores are a time machine, scientists pore over the mud looking for fossil fragments, ancient microbes, pollen, and other pieces of evidence that give clues about the temperatures of the ocean and atmosphere. We know from the ANDRILL sediment coring project in Antarctica, covered in our Ice Stories website, diatoms and other plankton are good indicators of past climate because they are very particular about the environments they live in, including the temperature of the water.

Scientists at the session were quick to say that they don’t expect palm trees and crocodiles anytime soon in the Arctic. In fact, from these ocean cores it appears that ice started forming 40 million years ago, shortly after the maximum warm period, and as been an important climate driver in the Arctic Ocean since then. With recent thinning and changing sea ice cover around the North Pole, Kate Moran, a leader on the arctic drilling expedition, said “As scientists, it’s important to point out the issues that demontrate the vulnerability of our planet, that we could destroy this in 200 years.”

photo credit:
H Pälike © ECORD/IODP