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Weathering the Oil Spill: Tar Balls, Streamers, and Eddies

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Today's oil spill news is dominated by Obama's Oval Office speech, but the highlight for me was a quiet update by the head of NOAA yesterday.

Check today's newspaper (or the HuffPost homepage), and you'll likely find three big oil spill stories.

  • Updated spill numbers with bigger estimates of the damage. Government officials again revised their estimates of the amount of oil spewing from the Deepwater Horizon well into the Gulf of Mexico: now as much as 60,000 barrels per day (a wee bit more than their initial 1,000-barrels-a-day estimates).
  • Obama on the spill, its ripple effects, and plans to fix it. Last night, President Obama, in his first address from the Oval Office, pledged to restore the gulf's economy and environment, while holding BP's feet to the fire in liability.

    The president also insisted that the crisis was a wake-up call on our "century-long addiction to fossil fuels," and urged action on a climate and energy bill, offering to consider "serious" Republican and Democratic ideas. (See Sen. Dick Lugar's climate bill, recently backed by Sen. Lindsey Graham, versus the Kerry-Lieberman, formerly the Kerry-Lieberman-Graham, bill.) In the speech Obama declared: "All of these approaches ... deserve a fair hearing ... But the one approach I will not accept is inaction."

    Hey, arguing against "inaction" worked for health care, so why not climate
  • BP liability contingency fund: The company that turned "oil spill" into a four-letter word in homes across the country has agreed to set aside $20 billion to compensate people who have suffered financially from the accident. The fund will be administered by Kenneth Feinberg who oversaw the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund.

NOAA Chief Briefs Scientists on Spill

While it didn't make any headlines, a far more informative story played itself out yesterday for me in Washington, where I, along with a group of about 30 scientists, was briefed by Jane Lubchenco, the administrator of NOAA, the "leading scientific resource for oil spills, ... providing coordinated scientific weather and biological response services to federal, state and local organizations."

Jane Lubchenco is by any measure a scientist extraordinaire. As I've noted before, she has worked tirelessly to advance science, protect our earth, and help sustain our way of life.

The Colorado native got her doctorate in marine ecology from Harvard, where she went on to teach before joining the faculty of Oregon State University in the 1970s. One of the "most highly cited" ecologists in the world, Jane has received numerous awards including a MacArthur ("genius") Fellowship. She has been a strong champion of the importance and role of science to both policy making and human well-being.

Given that background, it's little wonder that the scientific community received her nomination to lead NOAA with enthusiasm. For those of us who know and have worked with Jane, it was especially gratifying. In addition to being a great scientist, she's a remarkable person: thoughtful, analytical, even-tempered, and caring. Her elevation to the head of NOAA says volumes for the importance of science as an intellectual endeavor and as a vehicle to improve society.

Her stellar scientific career notwithstanding, it's unlikely that her pre-NOAA life prepared her for the firestorm that descended on her agency with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. I'm sure these last eight weeks have seen lots of long workdays and sleepless nights. (In fact, for anyone interested in following her efforts on the oil spill, Jane tracks them on Facebook.)

Yesterday, when she met with us for an old-fashioned, non-Facebook, face-to-face update, she was her usual cool, unflappable self. In command of the facts, she spoke informally and without notes.

A Summary of Lubchenco's Talk

  • The human side: The oil spill is a "human tragedy as well as an environmental disaster." Our response to it must be threefold, aiming for "healthy oceans, healthy coasts, and healthy communities."
  • Not your grandmother's oil spill: Because the oil is coming from such great depths, it's showing up in a highly emulsified form -- as droplets of oil and seawater. When it gets to the surface, it's essentially a chocolaty-brown goop instead of the black ooze normally associated with oil spills.
  • The deepwater unknown: There is an inordinate amount of oil beneath the surface -- we don't know how much and we don't know what its long-term impact will be. (Some scientists fear that microbial decomposition of this oil will deplete oxygen, exacerbating the gulf's already problematic anoxia and dead zones.) However, this subsurface oil is not a huge black river of concentrated oil spreading out over the gulf as has been frequently depicted. As noted above, it is in the form of emulsified droplets. The concentration of subsurface oil near the well is quite high, but falls to parts-per-million (and even parts-per-billion) levels within tens of kilometers of the wellhead.
  • Caught in the eddy:
    NOAA's realtime forecast of Gulf of Mexico current
    Click on image above to go to NOAA's real-tine forecast for the surface horizontal current in the Gulf of Mexico.
    There is great concern that the oil will get caught up in the Loop Current and be carried to the Florida Keys and on up the East coast. Fortunately, however, much of the spewed oil so far has been caught up in what's called the Eddy Franklin, trapped at least for now in a circular flow within the gulf.
  • Here come the tar balls: If the Loop Current carries the oil long distances, the oil will show up in highly "weathered" form -- balls and elongated streamers of a tar-like substance instead of liquid oil. (The appearance of such oil has already been reported on beaches in Alabama and Florida.)
  • Not gone fishing: Currently, 32 percent of the Gulf of Mexico has now been closed to fishing. NOAA is carefully monitoring the oil spill's extent to assure the integrity of seafood harvested from the area, and has imposed a five-mile buffer beyond the spill.
  • Map it yourself: A major problem for NOAA has been an inability to get all the facts out in the way the agency would like. Its official Web site provides a wealth of information on the spill, but that wasn't enough for such a fast-moving problem. So NOAA in conjunction with other federal agencies has set up an interactive geographic information system for accessing the latest relevant info and data at www.geoplatform.gov. As noted on Jane's Facebook page: "It is important that the American people see how their government is responding to this crisis, and I hope you'll explore the site and share your feedback with us." It's pretty cool -- check it out. 

Jane did an amazing job. Not only did I leave the meeting feeling more informed; I felt reassured, like the government folks really were on top of things and could get this mess fixed up. Actually achieving that expectation, however, is going to be a tall order -- even for someone as extraordinary as Jane Lubchenco.

Crossposted with www.thegreengrok.com.

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