Blue Marble - July 2011

Exxon Spills 42,000 Gallons in MT

| Tue Jul. 5, 2011 5:35 PM EDT

It's not news anyone wants to see over a long holiday weekend: on Friday night, a pipeline ruptured in Montana, dumping thousands of gallons of oil into the Yellowstone River. The pipeline, owned by ExxonMobil, ruptured 20 miles upstream from Billings, spilling up to 42,000 gallons of oil into the water.

The Environmental Protection Agency is posting updates on the clean up. As the New York Times reported over the weekend:

The pipeline is 12 inches wide and runs from Silver Tip, Mont., to Billings, an area with three refineries, ExxonMobil said. All three were shut down after the spill. ExxonMobil said it had summoned its North American Regional Response Team to help clean up the spill, and a fire spokesman in Laurel said more than 100 people, including officials with the Environmental Protection Agency, were expected to arrive at the scene by Sunday morning.
In a statement, the company said it “deeply regrets this release and is working hard with local emergency authorities to mitigate the impacts of this release on the surrounding communities and to the environment.”

Officials still don't know what caused the rupture on the line. The extent of the damage is also unclear at this point, but needless to say, local residents aren't very happy.

The rupture also isn't likely to help the case for the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would also cross the Yellowstone. That project has already met a good deal of protest as the State Department considers whether to grant it approval.

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Attack of the Cookie Cutter Shark!

| Fri Jul. 1, 2011 7:46 PM EDT

Ouch. All bite and no bark.

The first ever recorded instance of a human bitten by a cookie cutter shark is described in a paper now online in early view in Pacific Science.

An unfortunate human swimmer on a 47.5 kilometer/29.5 mile haul across the Alenuihaha Channel between the Hawaiian islands of Hawai‘i and Maui got nailed twice by this fearsomely ninjalike denizen of the deep, Isistius sp.

If you've spent any time at sea outside polar waters, chances are you've seen the toothwork of this gnarly little predator. It leaves deep round scars on whales, dolphins, tuna, billfishes, squids, and other larger marine life.

 

(Two cookie cutter shark bites in a pomfret. Credit: PIRO-NOAA Observer Program via Wikimedia Commons.) 

As Kramer used to say: Nature, she is a mad scientist... and never more so than with the hunting technique devised by the cookie cutter shark. Here's how FishBase describes it:

 

The cookie cutter shark has specialized suctorial lips and a strongly modified pharynx that allow it to attach to the sides of it prey. It then drives its saw-like lower dentition into the skin and flesh of its victim, twists about to cut out a conical plug of flesh, then pull free with the plug cradled by its scoop-like lower jaw and held by the hook-like upper teeth.

  

Cookie cutter sharks live in the mesopelagic zone and below and swim to the surface to feed at night. Credit: Nicholas Felton via Mother Jones.Cookie cutter sharks live in the mesopelagic zone and below and swim to the surface to feed at night. Credit: Nicholas Felton via Mother Jones.

Cookie cutter sharks spend the daylight hours below the cusp of darkness—that is, below 1,000 meters/3,280 feet. They migrate to or near the surface at night, travelling 2,000-3,000 meters/6,560-9,840 feet on a diel cycle. That's nearly two miles a day for a fish that maxes out at 56 centimeters/22 inches in length.

They ascend and descend alongside a massive community of marine life known as the deep scattering layer. (I wrote extensively about this community in my Gulf of Mexico oil piece in Mother Jones last year called The BP Cover-Up.) 

 

(Scars on a dead Gray's beaked whale, Mesoplodon grayi, possibly from cookiecutter shark bites. Credit: Avenue via Wikimedia Commons.)

But here the mad-scientist design gets even madder. The skins of cookie cutter sharks glow strongly bioluminescent—reported to radiate light for as long as three hours after death—part of their underwater camouflage wherein they hide among schools of glowing squid. 

And no one likes squid better than many cetaceans. When whales and dolphins attack squid, cookie cutter sharks ambush the ambushers, darting out to steal a plug of flesh, then disappearing back into the bioluminescent background

The human swimmer off Hawaii was attacked at night when the stern deck lights from the escort boat were lit and shortly after the escort kayak lit red and green bow lights. Here's what the Pacific Science paper says:

About ten minutes after the kayak's bow light was turned on, the victim was bumped by a squid. Over the next twenty minutes he was bumped by squid two or three more times in the shoulder and side areas at irregular intervals. At 2003 hrs, the victim suddenly felt a very sharp pain on his lower chest, and assumed it was a triggerfish bite. The sensation was instantaneous and localized, like a pin prick, and felt like a bite from a very small mouth. The victim yelped and swam over to the kayak, turned off the bow light, and was in the process of getting into the kayak with his legs vertical and "egg-beatering" to maintain position when he felt something bite his left calf. The time interval between the two bites was less than 15 seconds. The sensation of the bite to the leg was slightly more prolonged (but still very quick, less than a second), involved some pressure, and was less painful than the chest bite.

You can see images of these wounds at my blog Deep Blue Home. You can read the whole paper here.

Seems like FishBase will have to amend their listing for cookie cutter sharks. Currently it reads:

Not dangerous to people because of its small size and habitat preferences.

The Pacific Science paper concludes:

Humans entering pelagic waters at twilight and nighttime hours in areas of Isistius sp. occurrence should do so knowing that cookiecutter sharks are a potential danger, particularly during periods of strong moonlight, in areas of manmade illumination, or in the presence of bioluminescent organisms.  

 

Gem of the Week: Peer Pressure Makes False Memories

| Fri Jul. 1, 2011 3:18 PM EDT

In a study trial lawyers are sure to find of interest, Israeli scientist Micah Edelson has found that people's recollections of recent events can be altered by peer pressure. The study (published in Science this week) asked participants to view a movie in small groups. Directly after the movie, participants were questioned individually about it. Some participants were very sure their answers to interviewers' questions about the movie were correct.

Four days later, the interviewers asked participants about the movie again (especially on the items the participant felt strongly they had answered correctly). However, this time, the interviewers presented the participants with false information about the film, allegedly provided by the other people in the participant's viewing group. Edelson found that in nearly 70% of cases, the participant changed his or her correct memory about the movie to match the group's incorrect memory. And in nearly half of these cases, the participant's memory switch was long-lasting, meaning they might no longer remember their own, individual, correct version of the movie: instead, it had been replaced with the group's inaccurate memory.

There has been research before showing people's willingness to change their stories (even if they knew they were true) under social pressure. What makes Edelson's research unique is he used an MRI scanner while people were answering interviewer's questions. Edelson found that participants' hippocampi and amygdalas showed activity only when people changed their answers to match their viewing groups. If they changed their answer because a computer told them they were wrong, the hippocampus and amygdala didn't light up. The hippocampus is linked with memory and the amygdala with emotion.

"Our memory is surprisingly susceptible to social influences," Edelson said during a recent podcast. This can be a source of concern to some, he noted, since "studies have show that... [witnesses] often discuss crime details with each other before testifying, and this can definitely have an influence on court cases." As Edelson's recent paper shows, a crime witness who's had his or her true recollection of an event altered by some one else's faulty recollection may lose their initial memory of the event forever. It's neurologically possible for a witness's (or a juror's) memory of an event to truly change under social pressure.

Makes you wonder what effect the hippocampus and amygdala have on people who continue to believe crazy things (cough! Obama's a Muslim!) even in the face of conflicting facts. Maybe their communities have actually changed their memories of events and they actually remember a different reality than others. Or maybe it doesn't so much matter what you believe, as long as you think someone else believes it too.

To Frack or Not to Frack?

| Fri Jul. 1, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

It's been a busy week for anyone following the national debates over hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," the controversial method used to cut into shale rock to extract natural gas. In New Jersey, a strong bipartisan majority in both chambers of the legislature approved a bill banning fracking in the state as its neighbor to the north, New York, appeared ready to end its moratorium on the practice.

The New York Times reported Thursday that on July 1, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is expected to lift a fracking moratorium, which former Gov. David Patterson issued in an executive order last December amid concerns that the use of a high-pressure mixture of chemicals and water used to tap the rock could lead to groundwater contamination. While it was described in press accounts as Cuomo "lifting" the ban, he's actually just letting the ban expire; it was temporary anyway, and was put in place while the state awaited the results of an environmental review, as ProPublica explains.

The state's Department of Environmental Conservation intends to issue a draft environmental review with recommendations on how to proceed to the governor on Friday. In its press release, the DEC indicated that it will recommend that high-volume fracking be banned in the New York City and Syracuse watersheds, within primary aquifers and 500 feet of their boundaries, and on state-owned land—which still leaves about 85 percent of the state's land open to fracking. There will be a 60-day public comment period beginning in August, so it will be months before fracking could actually proceed in the state.

Environmental groups aren't likely to take kindly to the proposed rules, as it still leaves much of the Marcellus Shale open for fracking. "It seems like there's an attempt to carve up the state, sparing certain places while turning others into sacrifice zone," said Claire Sandberg, executive director of Frack Action in New Paltz, NY. "We want to see a full and permanent state-wide ban."

New York, which sits on a significant portion of the Marcellus Shale, has been ground zero for debates over fracking. New Jersey, though, hasn't seen the rush to development. A portion of the northwestern part of the state lies on the Utica Shale, which is deeper than the Marcellus and not a target for natural gas developers at this point (though it could possibly be of interest in the future). This makes Wednesday's vote in New Jersey largely a symbolic move, but its sponsors hope it resonates in neighboring states. "We want to send a strong message that we don't want to poison our drinking water," said Assemblywoman Connie Wagner (D), who sponsored the bill in the Assembly.

The bill passed by large margins in both chambers: 32-1 in the Senate and 56-11 in the Assembly. It also had pretty strong support accross party lines. "It's a terrible practice, which has great potential to do irreparable harm to the water supply system," said State Sen. Christopher "Kip" Bateman, a Republican who cosponsored the measure. "It's a practice that should be outright banned nationwide."

Bateman couldn't say whether Gov. Christie is going to sign the bill into law. If he does, New Jersey would become the first state in the country to formally ban the practice. "If he's smart he'll sign it," said Bateman.