As some of you probably remember, there was an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year. You can be forgiven for not remembering it, as our news media hasn’t been talking about it very much lately. In fact, if your only source of oil spill news was the mainstream media, you probably think that the Gulf is doing great! A little over a year ago, CNN ran a story about how the BP oil well that caused the spill was “effectively dead” and was “no longer a threat to the Gulf”. CNBC (and many others) ran stories about how 75 percent of the oil from the spill was gone from the Gulf. Bloomberg reported that the Gulf would recovery completely by 2012. London’s Telegraph celebrated a dramatic recovery after only one year. Whew… things aren’t as bad as we feared, and the Gulf has almost totally recovered! Or has it?
The A-frame shuddered as the box core, heavy with mud and reeking of sulfur, emerged from the water. We knew that it had found its mark 2300 meters below. Soft sediment from the seafloor oozed out the sides as I slid the safety pins into the spade arm. There was nothing visibly special about this mud. No ancient arthropods or primeval polychaetes crawled through this muck. It was a cubic meter of sticky, stinking glop. My first sample.
We were in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, aboard the R/V Cape Hatteras. Our cruise objectives were to characterize the pelagic and benthic fauna associated with deep-sea methane seeps. For me, it was a ship of opportunity. In exchange for and extra set of hands to work the gear and process samples, I could add my own small research project to the cruise objectives. My goal was to collect sediment cores from multiple sites and survey the diversity of fungi associated with these methane seeps.
The 12 hour shifts rarely left me enough time to eat meals. Though I had never seen the equipment before we left port I became the acoustic tracking technician, out of necessity. Things consistently went wrong. Nets tore, gear broke, a misfired box core almost crushed my leg. Two hurricanes, one a category 5, hit the Gulf of Mexico while we were at sea. Work was exhausting and rest was brief, when existent. I loved every minute of it.
The end of that cruise was the high point of a 4 year project that began with unbridled optimism and early, exciting results, only to decay into drudgery, failure, desperation, and collapse. In the end, it would rise from the past for one small victory. In hindsight, so much of those four years seems painfully trivial, but this story is really about how much of a human being is poured into a scientific manuscript.
In the year since the Deepwater Horizon sunk, killing 11 people and pumping untold millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, much has been revealed about the causes and effects of this disaster: the chain of events leading up to the explosion, the response (or lack of response) from BP and the US government, the impact of sealife and coastal fisheries. In his most recent book, A Sea in Flames, Carl Safina lays out the timeline of the disaster, the factors the lead to such an egregious lapse in safety, the role that several corporate and government entities played, and the anger. Above all else, this book is about the rage one man feels about a situation that is almost impossible to comprehend.
February 2005 – A giant in the oil industry sets out to drill what is, at the time, the deepest oil well in the world, a staggering 32,000 feet below the sea bed. The oil field, just 28 miles from the Louisiana coast, is estimated to contain up to a billion barrels of oil. The success of this well could launch a new era of offshore drilling and revolutionize an industry. And then, after 18 months and $180 million dollars, just 2,000 feet from their target, ExxonMobil halts their drill, declares Blackbeard West unsafe, and walks away.
Barely 5 years later, a similar well, deep and deeply unsafe, would suffer a catastrophic blowout, pumping millions of barrels of crude into the Gulf of Mexico. The resulting investigation revealed a history of unacceptable risk and a blasé attitude towards safety on the part of BP. While the BP blowout at the Macondo well was a disaster on a global scale, Blackbeard West was a disaster deferred. How could these two incidents, both created by nearly the same conditions, have had such dramatically different consequences? What can we learn about the culture of oil exploration and the true cost of a crude economy from Blackbeard West?
Just a reminder that one year ago today, the Deep Water Horizon exploded and sunk into the Gulf of Mexico, taking 11 lives with it and starting a chain of event that resulted in the largest oil blowout in history.
This 2011 Beneath the Waves Film Festival entry comes from the Pew Charitable Trusts. Shifting Gears tells the story of longlining in the Gulf of Mexico. If you have a question for the filmmakers, please leave it as a comment below and I’ll make sure they get it.
In the spirit of the pseudoscience of astrology here are our top ten predictions for 2011, based partially on informed guesswork and mostly on Yuengling.
Largely ignored by the mainstream media, the impact of the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill will continue to be felt across the Gulf Coast. BP and NOAA will continue to make it difficult for scientists to get access to sediment cores. The first developmental effects of oil and dispersant exposure to fetuses and young children will be reported.
Science will be more frequently put on trial, as politicians attempt to supplant peer-review by suing climate scientists and challenging NSF and NIH grants. This approach will backfire as more Americans come to accept global climate change and a new generation of Monkey Trials makes a mockery of anti-science politicians. Both sides will frequently pat themselves on the back and declare victory.
The Southern Fried Scientist will start raising chickens, Bluegrass Blue Crab will start raising goats, WhySharksMatter will raise some sort of ruckus.
The economy will improve, just in time for everyone to start campaigning for the 2012 election. All sides will claim responsibility for the recovery and all side will blame the opposition for the collapse. Despite almost every politician claiming responsibility for a now successful economy, most Americans won’t notice any change.
Sea Shepherd will claim their best year ever in the Southern Ocean whale campaign, despite there being no significant difference in the average number of whales killed since 2005 – 450 (+ or – 50). Theatrics will ensue.
Several large mammal species will make a comeback, as populations begin to rebound after years of conservation initiatives.
As the world population continues to grow, people will slowly begin to realize that Malthus was wrong, and that in cases such as India, demographic momentum will have massive positive benefits for quality of life, food availability, and environmental consciousness.
Every piece of plastic you used last year will still exist this year.
Sales of hybrid and electric cars will reach an all time high. I will continue to drive the same truck I’ve driven for 10 years until it won’t run, then replace it with something used.
WhySharksMatter will finish his book – Why Sharks Matter: Using New Environmentalism to Show The Economic And Ecological Importance of Sharks, The Threats They Face, and How You Can Help. He will decide to use a shorter title.