Blue Marble - May 2010

The Gulf Disaster, in Perspective

| Fri May 28, 2010 1:52 PM EDT

How big is the Gulf spill? Over at Beowulfe.com, you can use Google mapping technology to see what it would look like over your town.

Andy Revkin talked to the site creator, Andy Lintner, about what inspired him to develop it. "I realized that if more people understood the actual scale of the spill, they would be angry too," said Lintner. "That anger is necessary to force the change we need to prevent this kind of thing happening again."

I mapped it over my current home in Washington, D.C., but it stretches almost all the way up to my hometown in southern New Jersey. The thought of a giant pool of oil stretching from the Capitol dome all the way to my family's farm is indeed shocking.

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The Gulf of Oil from Space in 35 Days

| Fri May 28, 2010 12:38 PM EDT

NASA has compiled a 35-day timelapse series of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The images are from its Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) flies aboard the Aqua and Terra satellites. Both satellites are part of the international Earth Observing System and both orbit the globe from pole to pole, observing most of the planet every day. These images are of oil at the surface only.

 

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Timeline: The Gulf Oil Disaster

| Fri May 28, 2010 12:23 PM EDT

A lot has happened in the month since BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, sunk, and caused the worst oil spill in US history. To help keep track of the events, we've put together a handy timeline of the disaster and some of the history behind it, from BP's green rebranding effort to the Mineral and Management Service's record of lax oversight. It's a work in progress, so check back for the latest developments and more background info in the days ahead. Slide along the timeline using the scroll bar on the bottom; zoom in and out using the slider on the left side. Or view a full-screen version of the timeline here.

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Environment Makes a Comeback (Except Among Republicans)

| Fri May 28, 2010 11:09 AM EDT

Public concern about the environment has made a sharp upward turn in the weeks since the Gulf spill, according to new polling data from Gallup. In surveys asking Americans which is more important, energy production or the environment, the preference has flipped in just two months.

When Gallup asked in March, 50 percent said energy should take precedence over the environment, while 43 percent said environment should be more important. With millions of gallons of oil in the Gulf—the consequence of policies that prioritize development over conservation—the numbers have shifted. Now 55 percent say the environment is most important, compared to 39 percent who favor energy production. Environment was trending downward over the past two years until this incident.

This isn't true, however, for Republicans. The split on the question remains unchanged even in the wake of the disaster—62 percent favor energy development and 30 percent picked the environment.

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BP Wants Cases Heard by Judge with Oil Ties

| Fri May 28, 2010 10:36 AM EDT

BP CEO Tony Hayward acknowledged Friday that the Deepwater Horizon spill is an "environmental disaster" – rather than, as he said two weeks ago, "relatively tiny." And BP keeps saying that it intends to pay all costs related to the disaster in the Gulf. Sorry, scratch that, "all legitimate claims" (legitimate is in the eye of the beholder, of course, and the company's judgment is questionable, to say the least). The Obama administration says they believe BP.

But we're already seeing signs that the company is trying to game the system. This week, BP asked the courts to give all pre-trial issues for the 98 lawsuits already filed against the company to a single federal judge–one that happens to have significant ties to the oil industry. The Miami Herald reports:

That judge, U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes, has traveled the world giving lectures on ethics for the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, a professional association and research group that works with BP and other oil companies. The organization pays his travel expenses.
Hughes has also collected royalties from several energy companies, including ConocoPhillips and Devon Energy, from investments in mineral rights, his financial disclosure forms show.

The article points out that Hughes has ruled both for and against oil companies in previous cases. But it seems clear that the company wants someone to handle these suits who is more likely to be sympathetic to the company's views. BP also wants the cases heard in Houston, home of its US corporate headquarters, since it's easier for them than dealing with seven different courts in five states, most of them directly affected by the spill. The other option for consolidating the cases is in the New Orleans district court, but BP would likely get far less sympathy in the area most-impacted by this disaster.

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Eco-News Roundup: Friday May 28

| Fri May 28, 2010 7:20 AM EDT

News on the environment and health from our other blogs.

Federal Coverage: Why BP is not a federal failure like Katrina, but still a mess.

Show and Tell: The BP and Obama press conference was more show than substance.

Cost of Health: If Republicans want to avoid universal care, they better address costs.

Bad to Worse: BP's plan to plug the pipe is just the least bad (possibly) of worse options.

Slippery: BP may be intentionally low-balling damage estimates to escape penalties.

Size Matters: The size of the spill relates to how much BP will have to pay in fines.

On Camera: Efforts to plug the BP pipe leak will be televised after all.

Death Sentence: Broken, poor medical equipment is hastening one prisoner's death.

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BP Spill Officially Worst In US History

| Fri May 28, 2010 7:00 AM EDT

Now that we know that the BP's gushing well has likely dumped somewhere between 18.6 million and and 39 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the disaster certifiably tops the list as the worst in US history, eclipsing the Exxon Valdez.

It may even make it to the ranks of the worst oil spills in human history. Exxon Valdez didn't even make that list; as bad as that was, there have been 33 larger spills around the would. The idea that this Gulf spill might not even qualify for that list is perhaps the most scary prospect.

EnviroKnow's Josh Nelson put together a chart showing how this spill stacks up to the other notable oil incidents of the past:

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Dear Rachel Carson,

| Thu May 27, 2010 9:18 PM EDT

Happy birthday on the 103rd anniversary of your birth. Wish you were here. There's so much to tell you about the oceans since you left this world 46 years ago.

Tens of thousands of young women and men have gone into science since your pioneering work. Their cumulative efforts have vastly increased our understanding of the marine world.

Exciting new technologies—deep-towed cameras, sonar, submarines, remotely operated underwater vehicles, free-swimming autonomous underwater vehicles—are illuminating the abyss in ways not even your fertile mind could have imagined.

Entire ecosystems you had no idea existed are now explored on a daily basis, including hydrothermal vents (discovered 1977), cold seeps (discovered 1984), and whale falls (discovered 1987).

One of the greatest scientific endeavors of all time, the Census of Marine Life—now drawing to a close after a decade of intensive effort to find as many lifeforms in the seas as possible—has added 17,500 new species to the catalogue of 230,000 species of marine animals known at the close of the 20th century.

The Census is also returning to the past—or what's left of it, captured in millions of forgotten specimens jars on dusty shelves in museums and universities. Swimming through these formaldehyde seas are urchins, eels, and cunners, including a few surely known to you—perhaps a jar held between your own hands. We know that one small mollusk, the eelgrass limpet, Lottia alveus, formerly abundant and common in tidepools in Cape Cod, succumbed to extinction around 1929—during your tenure on the Massachusetts shore. Limpets are humble creatures, slow-moving, mostly sedentary, able to clamp down onto rocks with enormous force. They survive the desiccation of low tide. They survive the burn of sunlight. Many return to the same home scar engineered in the rock to await the return of the waters.

Long after your time on this Earth, Rachel Carson, we still need your voice reminding us of the ocean we love, the ocean we are losing, the one we're clinging to and fighting for with limpetlike tenacity right now. Thanks for lighting the beacon.
 

Congressmen Press BP for More Answers

| Thu May 27, 2010 3:38 PM EDT

New evidence has emerged in the past days about the events leading up to the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig. A congressional committee released a report on its findings about what happened on the rig before the blast, but today they want to know what BP might have been keeping from them.

In a tersely worded letter to Lamar McKay, president of BP America, Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) demanded that the company turn over more information related to its internal investigation:

We are concerned about issues that were omitted from BP's presentation and letter. In today’s New York Times and Wall Street Journal, questions are raised about several decisions made by BP that could have led to well failure, including the decisions to use a type of casing that could allow gas to flow up the annular space to the wellhead, to limit the number of spacers centering the casing despite objections by Halliburton, and to curtail the length of time that drilling fluids were circulated to clean gas out of the well. Neither BP's presentation nor its letter contains any discussion of these issues.
This raises the possibility that BP's internal investigation is not examining the consequences of BP’s own decisions and conduct.
The Committee's investigation is examining all potential causes of the blowout, including those that are the responsibility of BP. To assist the Committee in this investigation, we ask that you provide the Committee with additional information about the issues raised by The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Specifically, we request that you provide the Committee:
  1. All documents related to BP’s casing strategy for the Macondo well, including the decision to use a single casing line comprised of sections attached to one another from the sea floor to the oil reservoir;
  2. All documents related to BP’s decisions regarding the use and number of spacers centering the casing line prior to cementing; and
  3. All documents related to BP’s decision concerning how long to circulate drilling mud through the well on April 19, 2010, prior to cementing.

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Did 9/11 Cause More Male Miscarriages?

| Thu May 27, 2010 2:55 PM EDT

More male fetuses than female were miscarried in the year after 9/11, a new UC Irvine study finds. According to a lead researcher, here's why:

In this case, women across the country were undergoing a process of "communal bereavement" -- empathizing with others, even if they hadn't experienced a direct loss during 9/11.

"It's a situation where witnessing harm, even if you don't actually suffer yourself, can actually induce harm," Bruckner said.

Female fetuses are hardier than males, because women have adapted to produce what Bruckner describes as "the alpha male." In times of prosperity and security, male fetuses are more likely to be brought to term, because there's a greater chance that they'll be healthy and robust. During periods of scarcity, however, male miscarriages are much more common.

"A woman's body faces a decision -- evolutionary, not cognitive -- of whether to carry her male baby to term, or abort the fetus," Bruckner said. "If you're pregnant in a time of low resources, there's less impetus for your body to bear that child."

So: Women were emotionally drained by 9/11, so somehow their bodies knew it'd be harder to raise an "alpha male" in such a stressful environment. Therefore, their wombs rejected the male fetuses.

I'm skeptical. For starters, how could you ever prove such a theory? For a while now another MoJo editor and I have been collecting examples of folks taking the general principle of natural selection and really just running with it, using it to explain all sorts of things. For example: Why do men prefer blondes? "Typically, young girls with light blond hair become women with brown hair. Thus, men who prefer to mate with blond women are unconsciously attempting to mate with younger women."  Why do women like the color pink? "Being drawn to men with rosy, rather than pale, complexions may also have helped them bear healthy children."

These are fun to think about, since the have a sort of a creation-myth feel about them. That's probably because we've evolved to wonder about human nature, don't you think? But seriously, this isn't science, it's speculation. And in the wrong hands, it could actually be used to undermine real evolutionary science. That could be dangerous.