Mississippi coast, Memorial Day. The NOAA surface oil forecast is calling for the slick to come ashore on the Mississippi and Alabamba coasts sometime within the next 72 hours, so we head out that way today to see if anything was arriving early. And also to see just what is at stake when the oil does make landfall.

This is a place that knows all about bad landfalls.

It couldn't have been a more beautiful day, full of the poignancy of something so ephemeral, something likely to be gone soon. It was very quiet for a Memorial Day. People are staying home, we heard. People are staying away.

But not the birds. Where are they going to go? It's the height of the nesting season for this mixed colony of least terns and black skimmers. 

Both species breed on sandy beaches and forage just offshore for small fish and invertebrates.

The skimmers make their living skimming the surface with their longer lower bill. A bad occupation in the company of oil.

The terns were working hard, foraging at sea and ferrying their catches back to their chicks. In the photo above you can just make out through the grass the two chicks cryptically nestled in the sand beneath the parent and the dinner he or she has brought home.

The spill hasn't made landfall. Still, we wondered how many birds went out to fish today and didn't make it back.

Several independent teams of scientists monitoring the impacts of the Gulf oil spill have found huge plumes of undersea oil extending miles from the spill site. A first team of scientists reported a plume two weeks ago and last week teams identified two separate plumes extending in opposite directions. One plume is estimated to be 22 miles long, six miles wide and more than a thousand feet deep, made up of globules of oil of varying sizes.

How has BP CEO Tony Hayward responded to these findings? Seems he's decided to go the denial route. "The oil is on the surface," Hayward said. "There aren't any plumes." The company's own tests, he said, have found "no evidence" of such plumes.

This is, of course, the guy who for weeks argued that the spill was "tiny" compared to the "very big ocean." Last Friday he finally acknowledged that this is "clearly an environmental catastrophe." But now he's set to work to convince the public that the oil, which the company has tried so hard to keep below the water, doesn't exist if we can't see it on the surface.

The existence of the plumes is a new phenomenon; oil generally floats to the surface, given its natural buoyancy. But some of the scientists believe that the record volume of dispersants used at this site is keeping the majority of oil under the surface and causing it to form these plumes. That's what dispersants are designed to do—break up the oil into smaller globs so it sinks and can biodegrade more rapidly. As of Monday, a total of 920,000 gallons of dispersant have been used on the spill—720,000 on the surface and 200,000 at the spill site. Critics of dispersant use note that while the chemicals solve the problem of oil hitting land, they keep it under the water, where it's less of a PR issue for the oil company but still creates its own set of environmental problems.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) on Monday sent a letter to BP America president Lamar McKay asking for more information about BP's plume denial. The letter requests "copies of all measurements, calculations or other supporting materials on which Mr. Hayward based his statements regarding the existence of sub-surface plumes of oil (including indications of BP's methodology or any observational equipment used)."

BP has shown it can't be trusted to give an accurate estimate of the spill size. Now it looks like the company doesn't plan to be honest about where all that oil is going, either.

With the top-kill now declared a failure and another risky operation to cap the oil well gushing into the Gulf of Mexico just getting started, Obama's top environmental adviser on Sunday said the administration is "prepared for the worst."

The latest plan to cap the well resembles previous failed attempts at placing a containment dome over the gusher. But this version requires cutting through the broken riser, which might unleash even more oil—possibly as much as 20 percent more. Even if it does work, it likely won't catch all the oil.

"What our experts are saying is that when you cut the riser, the kink may be holding some of the oil in, and so we could see an increase," energy and climate adviser Carol Browner said Sunday on "Face the Nation." The only real solution appears to be the relief wells, which will take at least two months to complete.

"The worst is that we have oil leaking until August, until these relief wells are dug," said Browner. "And we will be prepared for the worst."

And these relief wells? Those, too, are a difficult, risky undertaking. As David Rensink, incoming president of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, told me several weeks ago, these wells are not often used and are especially difficult to drill at such a depth. Basically, BP hopes to drill  down to intersect the leaking well in order to inject cement and plug it. But the leaking well is only 7 inches in diameter. Experts compare it to a nurse trying to locate your vein to to draw blood—except the vein is a mile below water and then another three and a half miles under the seabed, and the operation has to be carried out with remotely operated robotic devices.

There are also concerns that trying to tap the well could make the situation worse. In its application for the permit to drill the relief wells, BP warned that an additional blowout could cause 240,000 barrels of oil a day to spew into the Gulf.

If that fails? The Gulf well could continue spewing oil for years.

As the situation in the Gulf grows ever bleaker, new evidence came to light Sunday that BP had plenty of warnings about the Deepwater Horizon rig and this well. The New York Times reports that as far back as 11 months ago, the company knew about concerns with the well casing and the blowout preventer, both of which have been fingered as likely causes of the explosion that brought down the rig.

Reposted from my blog Deep Blue Home:
Wonderfully interesting news out of science this week about the buoyancy control of the lovely travelling octopuses known as argonauts, or paper nautiluses. Aristotle himself wondered about their talents—and no one since then has  deciphered just how these little bobbers move through the water column... Until now. Here's the abstract of the findings from a new paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society B:
Argonauts (Cephalopoda: Argonautidae) are a group of rarely encountered open-ocean pelagic octopuses with benthic ancestry. Female argonauts inhabit a brittle ‘paper nautilus’ shell, the role of which has puzzled naturalists for millennia. The primary role attributed to the shell has been as a receptacle for egg deposition and brooding. Our observations of wild argonauts have revealed that the thin calcareous shell also functions as a hydrostatic structure, employed by the female argonaut to precisely control buoyancy at varying depths. Female argonauts use the shell to ‘gulp’ a measured volume of air at the sea surface, seal off the captured gas using flanged arms and forcefully dive to a depth where the compressed gas buoyancy counteracts body weight. This process allows the female argonaut to attain neutral buoyancy at depth and potentially adjust buoyancy to counter the increased (and significant) weight of eggs during reproductive periods. Evolution of this air-capture strategy enables this negatively buoyant octopus to survive free of the sea floor. This major shift in life mode from benthic to pelagic shows strong evolutionary parallels with the origins of all cephalopods, which attained gas-mediated buoyancy via the closed-chambered shells of the true nautiluses and their relatives. 
 Illustration from Discover.
I wrote about my own encounter with an argonaut during a magical morning in the lagoon surrounding the island of Mo'orea in French Polynesia. From The Fragile Edge, an excerpt:
She is bobbing through the calm waters inside the barrier reef, near the swift channel between two hoa (passes), where a pair of streams enter the sea. I am loitering in the calmer water myself, dipping and fluttering my canoe paddle and trying to steer a straight course. It’s just after dawn. The air has not yet awoken to the convection currents that will drive it later this day, and the lagoon is motionless, almost oily looking, with a glycerin sheen as absorbent to color as a paintbrush. In the ripples to my left, the peridot green of Mount Rotui blooms. In the ripples to my right, the obsidian blue of the open sea. Between the two lies a surface as good as a window, through which sergeantfish, anthias, and lionfish drift above little islands of corals and gatherings of stingrays.
From afar, she looks like one of those ubiquitous pieces of oceangoing flotsam washed from shore or ship and plying the ocean with indestructible endurance. I paddle towards her, bent on litter collection, only to discover that she is not a styrofoam cup or a plastic sandal but a living creature roaming inside her own home—an argonaut, or paper nautilus, probably of the species Argonauta argo. She is a member of a genus of octopus that long ago abandoned life on the seafloor in favor of roaming the open seas. Unlike her namesake, the chambered nautilus, her delicately coiled shell is not an external skeleton that she is attached to as we are to our fingernails, but a mobile home that she can come and go from like a hermit crab.
Illustration from here.
I have never seen an argonaut alive in the sea before, and with fumbling hands I don mask, snorkel, and fins and slip over the side, dragging the va’a canoe by the float so as not to lose it. She is a timid creature and this may be the only opportunity that ever comes my way to see her in the wild. The thought going through my mind as I waft my fins is that I must approach as softly as a ripple.
It doesn’t matter though. She is engaged in one of those acts of violence that nearly preclude thoughts of personal safety. She is half out her shell, pulsing in bright red and yellow, the colors literally tumbling through her like reflections from flashing police lights. Her colors are so strong they bleed beneath the skin of her paper-thin shell, bruising it. She is administering the coup de grâce to a pteropod, a sea butterfly. Her eight arms are flared open, an umbrella turned inside-out, exposing the parrotlike beak. The pteropod is flapping its transparent wings in hopes of escape but the argonaut is reeling it in on the sucker disks of her arms, biting it, then tucking it under her bell, and rolling herself back into her translucent shell, where the flames of her hunting colors soften to pink.
Quietly now, her big eyes innocently wide, she floats a foot below the surface, arms wrapped over her head, the tips of them tucked daintily into her shell, leaving most of her sucker discs exposed. She observes me from a safe distance, one orange eye watching as she feints towards shore, the other watching as she tacks towards her home in the open sea.
 As with every female argonaut octopus, she has fabricated her shell herself, using calcium carbonate secreted by the two large, flattened dorsal tentacles unique to her genus and gender. She has invited a much smaller—no more than an inch long (invisible to me)—father-to-be aboard. Now, with her head and tentacles protruding, she sails herself, her mate, and eventually her brood around the tropical and semitropical oceans of the world. Carrying the family on the currents, her shell is as fragile as a parasol of bone china, yet strong enough to shield its occupants from the ultraviolet radiation present near the surface of the oceans.

Lithograph of Argonauta nodosa, The Tuberculated Argonaut, or Paper-Nautilus, Argonauta oryzata; Artist: Arthur Bartholomew (1870s). Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

With oil still gushing into the Gulf and the ability of BP to respond to the environmental devastation it has unleashed in question, congressional investigators are now taking a closer look at the company's emergency response plans. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) have requested information from four companies that provided services or consultation for emergency response to BP and rig owner Transocean.

The congressmen sent letters to the heads of the National Response Corporation and the Marine Spill Response Corporation, two companies that had service agreements with BP. They also sent inquiries to the Marine Preservation Association, which funds the Marine Spill Response Corporation, and the O'Brien's Response Management Inc., which served as a consultant on emergency response issues to both BP and Transocean. The congressmen request all information related to the companies' response plans for an emergency at the Macondo well site, correspondence with the companies, and "all documents relating to failure to control an oil well on the seabed."

More attention is being paid to how much, if at all, these companies paid to emergency response planning. Clearly not enough, as we're seeing very clearly in the Gulf. Numerous attempts to stop the well have failed, and the company has been unable to control or contain the oil gushing into the ocean. On paper, the company's plan might be funny if the company's failure to anticipate this kind of situation wasn't so tragic.

A Senate committee has also asked the Department of Justice to look into whether BP made false claims about its ability to respond to a disaster in plans submitted to the government. The DOJ says it is "examining the full range of affirmative legal options that may be available to the United States" in dealing with the companies found to be at fault in the Gulf.

UPDATE 7:08 PM SATURDAY: BP and the Coast Guard announced that they have stopped the top-kill procedure in a press conference Saturday evening, the 40th day of the Gulf disaster. "We have been unable to overcome the flow from the well," said BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles. "We now believe it is time to move on to the next of our options."

Suttles said the top-kill, which BP had given an estimated 60 to 70 percent chance of success, had failed. "We've given this every chance to succeed," he said.

He acknowledged the growing frustration, and fear, as the top-kill had been painted as the best hope, short of waiting at least three months for a relief well to be drilled. "This scares everybody, the fact that we can't make this well stop flowing, the fact that we haven't succeeded so far," said Suttles.

The next option is what they're calling the "Lower Marine Riser Package," or LMRP, which would use robotic devices to cut off the broken riser at the top of the blowout preventer, cap the opening, and insert a new riser. The new riser would be used to pump the oil and gas to a ship on the surface (here's a graphic explaining the process that BP released). But Suttles warned that this is as untested as previous efforts to cap the well: "No one's ever done anything like this that I know of."

With this new attempt, Suttles said there "clearly is a risk it won't work." Pressed by a reporter about the odds this would succeed at controlling the well, Suttles said, "We do have a lot of confidence, but I'm not going to quote a number."

Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary Landry said that it will take four to seven days to know if this next attempt works. "We're all on a roller coaster ride here," said Landry.


After indicating on Thursday that the top-kill effort was working, then pausing the operation, then resuming it and indicating that it was going as planned on Friday, BP now says that the amount of oil spewing from the well hasn't changed, and there is no guarantee that the procedure is actually working.

"I don't think the amount of oil coming out has changed," BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles said on Saturday. "Just by watching it, we don't believe it's changed."

BP, the Coast Guard, and federal officials are holding a press conference at 5 pm EST today. The Times-Picayune reports that, according to sources, there they will officially announce that the operation has failed and the company is setting to work on other plans:

BP is expected to announce that it will move on to its next option, known as LMRP. The procedure involves cutting off the failed, leaking riser at the top of the Lower Marine Riser Package on the blowout preventer to get a clean-cut surface on the pipe.
Then the company will install a cap with a sealing grommet that would be connected to a new riser from the Discoverer Enterprise drillship, with the hopes of capturing most of the oil and gas flowing from the well.

I'll have more after the press conference. [SEE UPDATE AT TOP OF POST.]

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How much oil is leaking from the wreck of the Deepwater Horizon? Five thousand barrels a day? Or a whole lot more? And how would we ever know?

Well, David Valentine of the UC Santa Barbara writes in a Nature op-ed that were we to measure methane in the waters around the spill we'd know. That's because some 40 percent of what's leaking is likely to be methane—most of it dissolved in the water.

Valentine calculates that if 5,000 barrels a day were leaking  then some 7,500 tons of methane would have entered the Gulf in 27 days, driving methane concentrations to three times normal levels in a 2,000-square-mile, one-kilometer-deep stretch of the Gulf. He recommends that US research vessels start taking these measurements as an accurate means to assess the spill.

BTW, I posted a blog a day or two ago about Valentine's work with dispersants and microbes, and all the bad potentials when the two meet.

H/T Roberta Kwok at Journal Watch Online.

The op-ed: Valentine, D. 2010. Measure methane to quantify the oil spill. Nature 465(7297), 421. DOI: 10.1038/465421a.

A new model reveals two major hotspots within the Gulf of Mexico where bluefin tuna prefer to spawn in circular swirling water masses known as cyclonic eddies.

Sadly, the model also indicates the tuna are spawning there right now—and that the hotspots lie in waters befouled by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The Gulf of Mexico bluefins have suffered a huge population decline since 1950. A 20-year plan to rebuild the stock has failed utterly. That failure led the United Nations to consider listing the species as endangered last March—a decision they cowardly backed out of. The senior author of the paper in PLoS ONE, Barbara Block, tells Stanford University:

"Both catch data and electronic tags indicate the Gulf of Mexico along the continental shelf is the preferred habitat of this majestic fish. I think it is amazing how precisely we can predict where the bluefin are. Unfortunately their spawning habitat overlaps the Deepwater Horizon oil accident site, and the timing of the spill coincides with the time when we expect them to be there spawning."

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President Barack Obama is down in Louisiana today, where he toured an oil-covered beach and got a briefing from the Coast Guard on the response effort. But he was met there by local environmental groups that believe the federal government needs to take control of the clean-up, rather than letting BP direct it.

I talked with Jonathan Henderson, an organizer with the Gulf Restoration Network, by cell phone as he stood waiting for Obama's arrival, holding a sign that read "Clean up the Gulf." He says what he's seen of BP's response on the shoreline is "appalling." "They're basically doing window dressing," he said. "If they're doing everything they can, we're in deep, deep trouble."

Henderson says there's not enough man power deployed. There's not enough boom protecting the wetlands, and even where there is, it's not actually stopping the oil; the slick just washes over the booms. Rather than letting BP send its contractors out, they should be writing checks to the federal government so it can send its own response teams, he said.

The Gulf Restoration Network and other local conservation, sportsmen, and Native American groups on Friday called on Obama to federalize the clean-up. Those efforts, the groups said, should be controlled by the government alone – not, as Obama described it yesterday, by BP with the oversight of the federal responders. The groups also called on the government to make all the data related to the spill publicly available, rather than relying on BP to do it, and for an immediate stop of the use of dispersants "unless and until federal and state natural resource scientists agree on their safety for people, wildlife and habitat." The groups also argue that a military commander should replace the Coast Guard in heading up the federal response, as ocurred after Hurricane Katrina.

National groups are also calling on the government to take over. "The government needs to assert itself much more forcefully in this response," said Larry Schweiger, head of the National Wildlife Federation. NWF staffers in the Gulf this week found that BP has been grossly underestimating the amount of impacted wetlands. While the company says 30 acres are affected, a fly-over indicated that it's more like 3,000 acres.

Charles Melancon (D-La.) broke down at a House Energy and Commerce hearing on the Gulf spill Thursday as he discussed the "slow motion tragedy" affecting his home state, which comes, of course, after plenty of previous tragedy in the region. "Our culture is threatened. Our coastal economy is threatened," he said. "Everything I know and love is at risk."

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