Monday, May 31, 2010

Deepwater Horizon Disaster Worse Than Exxon Valdez

News articles about this disaster continue to say that it's worse than the Exxon Valdez.

I confess I just don't under this comparison.

The Exxon Valdez was a container ship, carrying a finite amount of oil.

The Deepwater Horizon was a drilling rig, opening a hole into the ocean's crust from which a non-stop supply of oil is gushing.

The two cannot be compared.

What should be compared is the Deepwater Horizon with the Ixtoc oil gusher that gushed for 11 months before they were able to cap it.

President Obama continues to blame BP for this mess. But one must ask oneself, why were they drilling out so far, and so deep, so deep where conventional methods of capping a gusher won't work.

Why, because environmentalists prevented them from drilling any closer to shore.

Why - presumably to stop any oil leaks from getting to that shore.

Well, we're getting oil to the shore now. Drilling out that far and deep only exacerbated the problem.

One hopes Obama will be asked some tough questions by the press, since by his own admission he and his government were in charge of this mess since day one. Why did they wait until day 8 to try to start recruiting firebooms?

If a plan designed in 1994 had been implemented - moving several firebooms into position to burn off the oil, it would not now be endangering Louisiana and other Gulf States, not to mention the millions of suffering birds and ocean animals.

Our government - Democrat and Republican alike - are incompetent boobs. We need a total cleaning of the house to get incompetents out of office, and competents in. But how is that to be acocomplished? That's the question!

Deepwater mystery: Oil loose in the Gulf

Deepwater mystery: Oil loose in the Gulf

By MATTHEW BROWN, Associated Press Writer Matthew Brown, Associated Press Writer – 13 mins ago
NEW ORLEANS – Streaming video of oil pouring from the seafloor and images of dead, crude-soaked birds serve as visual bookends to the natural calamity unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico.

But independent scientists and government officials say another disaster is playing out in slow motion — and out of public view — in the mysterious depths between the gusher and the coast, a world inhabited by sperm whales, gigantic jellyfish and diminutive plankton.

More than a month after the BP PLC spill began, the disaster's dimensions have come into sharper focus with government estimates that more than 18 million gallons of oil — and possibly 39 million gallons — has already poured from the leaking well, eclipsing the 11 million gallons released during the Exxon Valdez spill.

"Every fish and invertebrate contacting the oil is probably dying. I have no doubt about that," said Prosanta Chakrabarty, a Louisiana State University fish biologist.

The deep Gulf is an area where light can't penetrate and researchers rarely venture.

Yet what happens there can ripple across the food chain. Every night the denizens of the deep make forays to shallower depths to eat — and be eaten by — other fish, according to marine scientists who describe it as the largest migration on earth.

In turn, several species closest to the surface — including red snapper, shrimp and menhaden — help drive the Gulf Coast fishing industry. Others such as marlin, cobia and yellowfin tuna sit atop the food chain and are chased by the Gulf's charter fishing fleet.

Many of those species are now in their annual spawning seasons. Eggs exposed to oil would quickly perish. Those that survived to hatch could starve if the plankton at the base of the food chain suffer. Larger fish are more resilient, but not immune to the toxic effects of oil.

The Gulf's largest spill was in 1979, when the Ixtoc I platform off Mexico's Yucatan peninsula blew up and released 140 million gallons of oil. But that was in relatively shallow waters — about 160 feet deep — and much of the oil stayed on the surface where it broke down and became less toxic by the time it reached the Texas coast.

Since BP's Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank more than five weeks ago, scientists said they have found at least two sprawling underwater plumes of what appears to be oil, each hundreds of feet deep and stretching for miles.

A plume reported last week by a team from the University of South Florida, was headed toward the continental shelf off the Alabama coastline, waters thick with fish and other marine life.

On Sunday, BP's CEO Tony Hayward disputed the existence of the plumes, saying testing by the company showed no evidence that oil was being suspended in large masses underwater. Hayward said oil's natural tendency is to rise to the surface, and any oil found underwater was in the process of working its way up.

However, the researchers said oil in the plumes had dissolved into the water, possibly a result of chemical dispersants used to break up the spill. That makes it more dangerous to fish larvae and creatures that are filter feeders.

Responding to Hayward's assertion, one researcher noted that scientists from several different universities have come to similar conclusions about the plumes after doing separate testing.

No major fish kills have yet been reported, but federal officials said the impacts could take years to unfold.

"This is just a giant experiment going on and we're trying to understand scientifically what this means," said Roger Helm, a senior official with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In 2009, LSU's Chakrabarty discovered two new species of bottom-dwelling pancake batfish about 30 miles off the Louisiana coastline — right in line with the pathway of the spill caused when the Deepwater Horizon burned and sank April 24.

By the time an article in the Journal of Fish Biology detailing the discovery appears in the August edition, Chakrabarty said, the two species — which pull themselves along the seafloor with feet-like fins — could be gone or in serious decline.

"There are species out there that haven't been described, and they're going to disappear," he said.

Recent discoveries of endangered sea turtles soaked in oil and 22 dolphins found dead in the spill zone only hint at the scope of a potential calamity that could last years and unravel the Gulf's food web.

Concerns about damage to the fishery already is turning away potential customers for charter boat captains such as Troy Wetzel of Venice. To get to waters unaffected by the spill, Wetzel said he would have to take his boat 100 miles or more into the Gulf — jacking up his fuel costs to where only the wealthiest clients could afford to go fishing.

Significant amounts of crude oil seep naturally from thousands of small rifts in the Gulf's floor — as much as two Exxon Valdez's every year, according to a 2000 report from government and academic researchers. Microbes that live in the water break down the oil.

The number of microbes that grow in response to the more concentrated BP spill could tip that system out of balance, LSU oceanographer Mark Benfield said.

Too many microbes in the sea could suck oxygen from the water, creating an uninhabitable hypoxic area, or dead zone.

Preliminary evidence of increased hypoxia in the Gulf was seen during an early May cruise aboard the R/V Pelican, carrying researchers from the University of Georgia, the University of Mississippi and the University of Southern Mississippi.

An estimated 910,000 gallons of dispersants — enough to fill more than 100 tanker trucks — are contributing a new toxin to the mix. Containing petroleum distillates and propylene glycol, the dispersants' effects on marine life are still unknown.

What is known is that by breaking down oil into smaller droplets, dispersants reduce the oil's buoyancy, slowing or stalling the crude's rise to the surface and making it harder to track the spill.

Dispersing the oil lower into the water column protects beaches, but also keeps it in cooler waters where oil does not break down as fast. That could prolong the oil's potential to poison fish, said Larry McKinney, director of the Harte Research Institute at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.

"There's a school of thought that says we've made it worse because of the dispersants," he said.

There have been dire reports of a powerful surface current, the loop current, carrying oil toward Florida. The current is one of the better understood dynamics at work in the Gulf, yet even those predictions are subject to debate.

Figuring out what is happening farther down in the water column gets even trickier.

The Gulf sprawls across 600,000 square miles and reaches more than 14,000 feet at its deepest point.

At different depths, currents pull in different directions at varying speeds. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration monitoring at the site of BP's Deepwater Horizon spill shows that on any given day water at different depths moves in dozens of directions.

Scientists who study the Gulf said their efforts to track the spill had been hobbled by a shortage of research vessels.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

What the Federal Government Should Have Done About the Oil Spil

Republicans are pointing out that this oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is President Obama's "Katrina." And the comparison is apt (except Republicans also say that Bush and the Federal Government didn't do anything wrong in their reaction to the floodig of New Orleans.)

The difference is that New Orleans belongs to the state of Louisiana, and thus the local officials had jurisdiction over what was happening in that city. It was their failure that response was delayed, really. (Although, if the Army Corps of Engineers had done their job and ensured that the levies were in proper working order, the whole disaster need never have occurred in the first place.)

With the Deep Water Horizon oil spill, its a diffrent matter entirely. The rig was miles and miles out in the Gulf - which made it federal jurisdiction from the beginning. The government didn't have to wait for local politicians to call them and ask for help - it was their responsbility from the beginning to prevent the oil from that spill from reaching the coast of the United States. [Ironically, on the other hand, the States had to submit requests to the Federal government on how to do their own work to prevent the encroaching oil, and at least as far as Bobby Jindal's Louisiana is concerned, they asked for permission and were stoned-walled for several days - recieving neither a yes or no, therefore essentially a no.

And now the oil has reached the shore.

What could Obama have done? Why, make sure that a plan from 1994, laid out to handle just this type of emergency, was implemented.

Despite plan, not a single fire boom on hand on Gulf Coast at time of oil spill
If U.S. officials had followed up on a 1994 response plan for a major Gulf oil spill, it is possible that the spill could have been kept under control and far from land.

The problem: The federal government did not have a single fire boom on hand.

View full size(AP Photo/U.S. Coast Guard, Petty Officer 1st Class Justin Sawyer)This April 28, 2010 image made from video released by the Deepwater Horizon Response Unified Command, shows an in situ burn in the Gulf of Mexico, in response to the oil spill after the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon. The "In-Situ Burn" plan produced by federal agencies in 1994 calls for responding to a major oil spill in the Gulf with the immediate use of fire booms.

But in order to conduct a successful test burn eight days after the Deepwater Horizon well began releasing massive amounts of oil into the Gulf, officials had to purchase one from a company in Illinois.

When federal officials called, Elastec/American Marine, shipped the only boom it had in stock, Jeff Bohleber, chief financial officer for Elastec, said today.

At federal officials' behest, the company began calling customers in other countries and asking if the U.S. government could borrow their fire booms for a few days, he said.

A single fire boom being towed by two boats can burn up to 1,800 barrels of oil an hour, Bohleber said. That translates to 75,000 gallons an hour, raising the possibility that the spill could have been contained at the accident scene 100 miles from shore.

"They said this was the tool of last resort. No, this is absolutely the asset of first use. Get in there and start burning oil before the spill gets out of hand," Bohleber said. "If they had six or seven of these systems in place when this happened and got out there and started burning, it would have significantly lessened the amount of oil that got loose."

In the days after the rig sank, U.S Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary Landry said the government had all the assets it needed. She did not discuss why officials waited more than a week to conduct a test burn. (Watch video footage of the test burn.)

At the time, former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration oil spill response coordinator Ron Gouguet -- who helped craft the 1994 plan -- told the Press-Register that officials had pre-approval for burning. "The whole reason the plan was created was so we could pull the trigger right away."

Gouguet speculated that burning could have captured 95 percent of the oil as it spilled from the well.

Bohleber said that his company was bringing several fire booms from South America, and he believed the National Response Center discovered that it had one in storage.

Each boom costs a few hundred thousand dollars, Bohleber said, declining to give a specific price.

Made of flame-retardant fabric, each boom has two pumps that push water through its 500-foot length. Two boats tow the U-shaped boom through an oil slick, gathering up about 75,000 gallons of oil at a time. That oil is dragged away from the larger spill, ignited and burns within an hour, he said.

The boom can be used as long as waves are below 3 feet, Bohleber said.

"Because of the complexity of the system and the obvious longer production time to build them, the emphasis is on obtaining and gathering the systems," he said.

Bohleber said his company has conducted numerous tests with the Coast Guard since 1993, and it is now training crews on the use of the boom so workers will be ready when they arrive.

"We're arranging for six to be shipped in. We keep running into delays. Hopefully, they will be here by Wednesday to be available for use on Thursday. Bear in mind, two days ago, we thought they would be here today."

Next Steps to Confront the Big Spill

Next Steps to Confront the Big Spill

CBS) BP said last evening that its so-called "Top Kill" operation failed to stop the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. Don Teague has more on where things stand now in this Sunday Journal:


It's been almost six weeks since the explosion and fire that destroyed the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform, killing 11 workers.

Forty days of oil gushing at what experts now fear may be up to a million gallons a day. Forty days of failure, at every attempt, to stop the flow.

The latest failure, the so-called "top kill" procedure of sealing the well with mud and bits of junk, confirmed yesterday by BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles - a new setback for a Gulf of Mexico disaster that's been described as a Hurricane Katrina in slow motion.

Special Section: Disaster in the Gulf

Every day that more escaping oil washes up on beaches or into delicate marshes, more birds and marine life perish, and more tourists - key to the Gulf economy - are driven away.

And the people who depend on these once-clear waters to make a living are driven closer to bankruptcy . . . people like fishing guide Jeff Brumfield:

"The efforts to stop and cleanup the oil aren't happening fast enough," he said.

He fears he's watching the death of his livelihood…

"This is where the shrimp and the fish and everything starts, in this marsh, and if it kills this marsh grass, the entire ecosystem is gone," Brumfield said.

Memorial Day weekend is supposed to be the high season in Grand Isle, Louisiana.

Ordinarily these beaches should be filled with tourists, but on this weekend they're empty.

It's an economic disaster. Once-bustling fishing marinas are also deserted.

Cleanup workers are the only people out in large numbers. "A lot of people can't understand," said one. "This is our Gulf. This is where we're from. We need to protect it."

And questions are mounting about BP's efforts to clean up the spill. Yesterday the company responded to charges that an army of workers that suddenly appeared around the time of President Obama's visit Friday was largely there for show.

"This was not window dressing," said BP's Suttles. "If you went there today - I just flew over it - you would find people working today."

BP announced yesterday plans for the building of tent cities and even floating camps to house cleanup workers, so they can spend more time at work.

And the next step?

The company said it will now cut off the well's broken gushing riser pipe and try to replace it with a new riser to help capture the oil.

"It takes a little longer to do that and that's why that would be the next option to stop the flow," said Suttles.

But all the while, the waters of the Gulf of Mexico - like the emotions of those that live here - grow a little darker.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Research: Distressed Damsels Stress Coral Reefs; 'It'S All About Real Estate--Places To Live'

Research: Distressed Damsels Stress Coral Reefs; 'It'S All About Real Estat--Places To Live'

MELBOURNE, Florida -- Damselfish are killing head corals and adding stress to Caribbean coral reefs, which are already in desperately poor condition from global climate change, coral diseases, hurricanes, pollution, and overfishing. Restoring threatened staghorn coral, the damsels' favorite homestead, will take the pressure off the other corals, according to a new study published in the online journal PLoS ONE.

The small, belligerently territorial, threespot damselfish kill portions of coral colonies to grow gardens of algae, which they use as grounds for feeding and nests for breeding. Marine scientists thought that overfishing groupers and snappers in the Caribbean released the threespot damselfish from their predators, allowing them to swarm over the reefs in larger numbers, killing more coral than ever before. That idea is wrong, says author Rich Aronson, a coral reef ecologist at the Florida Institute of Technology.

"Our surveys of reefs around the Caribbean show that the number of predatory fish is not the key to how many damselfish live on a reef," says Aronson. "It's all about real estate—places to live." Until the 1980s, threespot damselfish tended their gardens in staghorn coral, at the time the most common coral in the Caribbean. Staghorn coral, named for its long, thin branches, grew very fast and could keep ahead of the damselfish onslaught. The threespots preferred staghorn above all other corals for its tangle of branches, which provided ideal places to hide, feed, and nest. Although the threespots bit and killed portions of staghorn colonies, the living branches that remained continued to thrive. But outbreaks of coral diseases, compounded by hurricanes and other environmental insults decimated populations of staghorn coral to the point that it is now listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Coauthor Les Kaufman is a fish biologist with Boston University and Conservation International. He explains, "Once staghorn coral disappeared, the fierce little beasts switched to killing slow-growing coral heads." Coral heads are a lot less desirable from the damsels' point of view because they have fewer hiding places. Unlike staghorn coral, head-corals cannot recover quickly enough to keep pace with the death-bites of threespot damselfish, so the coral heads could take hundreds of years to recover. "Threespot damselfish are limited primarily by habitat," says Kaufman. "They have not been released by fishing to overpopulate reefs, and if anything they are less abundant now."

The fossil record shows that threespots commonly exploited staghorn coral on Caribbean reefs for at least the last 125,000 years—long before those reefs were fished. Adds Aronson, "Caribbean reefs changed fundamentally when staghorn coral suddenly disappeared after dominating for hundreds of thousands of years. Threespot damselfish are now killing slow-growing coral heads, much moreso than before and regardless of how many predators are around. We strongly advocate conserving fish stocks,

Islands of the World #5: Anna Maria Island, Florida



Anna Maria Island, sometimes called Anna Maria Key, is a barrier island on the coast of Manatee County, Florida in the United States. It is bounded on the west by the Gulf of Mexico, on the south by Longboat Pass (which separates it from Longboat Key), on the east by Sarasota Bay and Sarasota Pass, and on the north by Tampa Bay. Anna Maria Island is approximately seven miles long north to south.

History
Anna Maria Island was discovered by local indian tribes the Timucan and Caloosan American Indian tribes and then by Spanish explorers (including Hernando DeSoto) in the name of the Spanish Crown. Hernando de Soto and his crew entered the mouth of Tampa Bay north of Anna Maria in May, 1539, but passed it by to make their landfall on the mainland.

In 1892 George Emerson Bean became the first permanent resident on the Island and homesteaded much of what is now the City of Anna Maria. After Bean's death in 1898, the land went to his son, George Wilhelm Bean, who partnered with Charles Roser, a wealthy real estate developer from St. Petersburg, to form the Anna Maria Beach Company to develop the area. The company laid out streets, built sidewalks and houses and installed a water system.

Name origin
Ponce de Leon was said to have named the island for Maria Anna von der Pfalz-Neuburg, the queen of Charles II of Spain, the sponsor of his expedition. In the past, pronunciation of the name differed: old timers said "Anna Mar-EYE-a," but most people today say "Anna Mar-EE-a." According to a regional historian of note, Lillian Burns, the daughter of the early land developer, Owen Burns, the correct pronunciation of the name of the island by its early settlers was, an-na ma-rye-a, since it was named for the strong winds occurring in the area, using the German term for the wind, Maria.

Municipalities
Anna Maria Island today is divided into the three cities of Anna Maria in the north, Holmes Beach in the middle, and Bradenton Beach in the south. In 2005 the United States Census Bureau estimated the combined population of the three cities at approximately 8,500.

Transportation
The main north-south road on the island is Gulf Drive, which begins on the south end of the island at the foot of the Longboat Pass Bridge from Longboat Key. Gulf Drive is the only road that runs the entire length of the island. It is State Road 789 south of Manatee Avenue in Holmes Beach and County Road 789 north of there.

There are two bridges across Sarasota Bay from the mainland: the Cortez Bridge, which brings State Road 684 into Bradenton Beach from Cortez, and the Manatee Avenue Bridge, which brings State Road 64 into Holmes Beach from the Palma Sola section of Bradenton. Each of these state roads terminates at its intersection with State Road 789.

Anna Maria Island is serviced by a free trolley-style bus that runs north and south on Gulf Drive. The trolley connects with both the MCAT (Manatee County Area Transit) system serving the greater Bradenton area, and the SCAT (Sarasota County Area Transit) system. The MCAT connects to the trolley at Manatee Public Beach, at the intersection of State Road 789 and State Road 64.[4] The SCAT connects to the trolley at Coquina Beach, at the south end of Anna Maria Island, just before the Longboat Key Bridge.[5] Several local taxi companies serve Anna Maria Island.

Anna Maria Island was only accessible by boat until 1921, when the wooden Cortez Bridge was constructed from the fishing village of Cortez to what is now Bridge Steet in Bradenton Beach. The remaining parts of the Cortez Bridge are used as a fishing pier.[6]

Tourism
Anna Maria Island has a thriving arts community. Cultural Connections, http://culturalconnections.info/, a coalition of the island's cultural venues, includes the Anna Maria Island Art League, http:www.IslandArtLeague.org/; Anna Maria Island Artists Guild, http://www.amiartistsguildgallery.com/; a local theater company, the Island Players, http://www.theislandplayers.org/; Anna Maria Island Community Chorus & Orchestra (AMICCO), http://www.amicco.org/, Anna Maria Island Historical Society, http://www.amihs.org/; Island Gallery West, http://www.islandgallerywest.com/; and The Studio at Gulf and Pine, http://www.studioatgulfandpine.com/. The group produces an island-wide arts weekend each November called artsHOP.

Anna Maria Island is also known as the "wedding capital of Florida." The Chamber of Commerce hosts an annual Wedding Festival.

With its crystal white beaches and an average year-round temperature of 74.8 degrees, Anna Maria Island is a year-round tourist attraction. Restaurants, resorts, gift and curio shops, real estate companies, and local watering holes dominate the economy.

Wildlife
From May through October in Florida, sea turtles come ashore to nest. Anna Maria Island is one of the many places in Florida that sea turtles nest on the beaches.[7] Protection of the sea turtles is an important aspect of the island culture, and information and training is available for tourists and locals in abundance. Manatees are also frequent summer visitors at Anna Maria Island, and similarly, the Manatee is held in great reverence by islanders. A subspecies of the Indian Manatee, these herbivores call Anna Maria Island their summer vacation home.[8] The entire island is a bird sanctuary, and pelicans, multiple types of cranes and herons, wild parrots, sand pipers, hawks, vultures, seagulls, and crows share the island with humans. Bottlenose dolphins can be observed both in the Intracoastal Waterway and the Gulf. You can watch them from boats,piers, and even from the shore. They often dive in and out of the wake from boats, leaping high into the air and thrilling their watching audience.

Adjacent islands
Adjacent to Anna Maria Island's bayside is the island of Key Royale, formerly known as School Key. It was uninhabited until 1960, when a bridge was built joining it to the Holmes Beach section of Anna Maria Island and development began. It is included in the city limits of Holmes Beach

Vocabulary Builder #6: F is for Falling Tide

The falling tide is that interval of the tidal cycle between a high water and the following low water. This is also known as ebb tide.

n. The receding or outgoing tide; the period between high water and the succeeding low water.

Origin:
1830–40

Friday, May 28, 2010

Scientists: Temperature And Salt Levels Of The Western Mediterranean Are On The Increase

Scientists: Temperature And Salt Levels Of The Western Mediterranean Are On The Increase

MADRID, Spain -- Spanish scientists have analysed the temperature and salt levels of the Western Mediterranean Sea between 1943 and 2000 to study the evolution of each variable. Their research shows that, since at least the 1940s, the deep water has become progressively hotter and saltier, and that, since the 1990s, this process has speeded up. Each year the temperature of the deep layer of the Western Mediterranean increases by 0.002ºC, and its salt levels increase by 0.001 units of salinity. These changes, although minimal from year to year, have been continuously and constantly occurring at a faster pace since the 1990s.

The results are consistent, "but to confirm this accelerating trend, we need to monitor it over the years to come", Manuel Vargas-Yáñez, main author of the study and researcher at the Oceanic Centre of Malaga of the Spanish Institute of Oceanography (IEO), assures SINC.

In their study, published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, the researchers analysed the temperature and salt levels of the three layers of the Mediterranean Sea: the upper layer (from the surface to 150-200 metres deep with water that enters from the Atlantic), the middle layer (from 200 to 600 metres deep with water from the eastern Mediterranean that enters the western basin via the Strait of Sicily), and the deep layer (from 600 metres to the sea bed with water from the western Mediterranean).

"These layers, especially the deep one, take up a huge volume, and raising its temperature each year by one thousandth of a degree requires an enormous amount of heat", the researcher points out.

The team has also observed an increase in the salt level and the temperature of the middle layer of the sea. This has not been clearly observed in the upper layer, "but it can be deduced from the heating of the deep water and from studies done by other teams and our current research projects", Vargas-Yáñez states.

We need to monitor the sea

The research team compiled the data about temperature and salt levels by means of the MEDATLAS (Mediterranean Hydrographic Atlas) database, and using the IEO monitoring programmes. All the data were collected from the Alboran Sea, the Catalan-Balearic Sea, the Gulf of Lion, the Ligurian Sea, the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Algerian Basin, between 1943 and 2000.

"We need to support the networks that already exist and build new ones to monitor the sea. Only then will we be able to detect, in a reliable and effective way, the changes taking place in the sea", Vargas-Yáñez concludes.

World's Largest Container Shipping Company Refuses To Ship At-Risk Marine Life; 'The Net Is Closing On Destructive Fisheries'

World's Largest Container Shipping Company Refuses To Ship At-Risk Marine Life; 'The Net Is Closing On Destructive Fisheries'

AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- The world's largest container shipping company, Maersk, refuses to ship a number of at-risk marine species including several caught by New Zealand fisheries, reports Greenpeace.

In response to the overfishing crisis facing our oceans, Maersk – which transports about 20 per cent of all international seafood that goes by water (1) – will not carry Antarctic and Patagonian toothfish (also sold as Chilean sea bass), orange roughy or any species of shark and whale aboard its ships.

"Ninety per cent of our fish is exported offshore and it's our fifth biggest export earner (2). If the New Zealand Government and fishing companies don't stay ahead of the global sustainability movement our seafood industry could end up gutted," said Greenpeace New Zealand oceans campaigner Karli Thomas.

"The net is closing on destructive fisheries as retailers continue to reject unsustainable seafood and now a major shipping company is refusing to transport a number of species plundered from our oceans."

"Greenpeace is demanding that the shipping and airline industries end their participation in oceans destruction and stop transporting unsustainable seafood. The urgent next step must be a commitment by companies to refuse to ship the most visible of all overfished species, bluefin tuna, and other species on Greenpeace's seafood red list."(3)

Maersk's refusal to ship Antarctic toothfish is in line with a growing movement to protect the pristine Ross Sea near Antarctica. New Zealand fishing vessels led the charge into the Ross Sea, which is a primary fishing area for the species. In the United States, the world's largest market for toothfish, retail chains including Wegmans and Ahold have committed to sustainable seafood and also refused to sell the fish.

"We recognise the global concerns over the overfishing of toothfish species and support efforts to curb this trade. The checks and processes that we have implemented with our global offices help prevent the transportation of these species as well as IUU [illegal, unreported and unregulated] catches of other species," said Maersk Line Head of Global Seafood, David Pawlan.

Greenpeace has been working with shipping companies and airlines to stop the transportation of whale meat. In April, Greenpeace activists stopped a shipment of meat from 13 endangered fin whales leaving the port of Rotterdam en route from Iceland to Japan (4). NYK Line, the shipping company, agreed to leave the seven containers of whale meat in Rotterdam and refused to transport them to their final destination.

In 2001 Greenpeace received a pledge from 21 major airlines, including British Airways, Air France, Lufthansa and KLM that they would not carry whale meat and blubber on their aircraft (5).

Vocabulary Builder #5: E is for Ecology

Ecology is the branch of biology dealing with the relations and interactions between organisms and their environment, including other organisms.

Word Origin & History
1873, coined by Ger. zoologist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) as Okologie, from Gk. oikos "house, dwelling place, habitation" (see villa) + -logia "study of."



Organizations: AASP—THE PALYNOLOGICAL SOCIETY

Palynology is the study of pollen, spores, dinoflagellates, and other microscopic "palynomorphs."

The scientific study of spores and pollen, both living and fossilized. Palynology helps improve knowledge of ecosystems in both the recent and distant past, since pollen and spores are extremely durable, unlike many other plant parts.

Palynology originated in Scandinavia in the early 20th century and developed in America after World War II, particularly in the area of petroleum exploration.

http://www.palynology.org/

Word Origin:
[Greek palunein, to sprinkle + -logy.]

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Islands of the World #4: The Florida Keys

We should have started our Islands of the World with the Florida Keys (since we're going to be covering the islands in geographical order, and have started with islands in the Gulf of Mexico, and begun with Florida.)

The Florida Keys are actually over a thousand islands, with only about 20 habitable.

The Florida Keys are the islands that separate the Gulf of Mexico from the Atlantic Ocean... so the west coast of each island borders the Gulf of Mexico, the east coast of each island borders the Atlantic Ocean.

The Florida peninsula juts eastwawrd out into the Atlantic Ocean. At its tip, the Florida keys curl westward into the Gulf.



The islands are exposed portions of an ancient coral reef.

Major islands
Highway 1, the "Overseas Highway" runs over most of the inhabited islands of the Florida Keys. The islands are listed in order from north to southwest.

Upper keys
Keys in Biscayne National Park (accessible only by boat) in Miami-Dade County

Transitional keys

Soldier Key
Ragged Keys
Boca Chita Key
Sands Key

True Florida keys, exposed ancient coral reefs
Elliott Key
Adams Key
Reid Key
Rubicon Keys
Totten Key
Old Rhodes Key

Keys in Monroe County
Key Largo
Plantation Key
Windley Key
Upper Matecumbe Key
Lignumvitae Key
Lower Matecumbe Key
(Plantation Key through Lower Matecumbe Key are incorporated as Islamorada, Village of Islands. The "towns" of Key Largo, North Key Largo and Tavernier, all on the island of Key Largo, are not incorporated.)

Middle keys
Craig Key
Fiesta Key
Long Key (formerly known as Rattlesnake Key)
Conch Key
Duck Key
Grassy Key
Crawl Key
Long Point Key
Fat Deer Key
Key Vaca
Boot Key
Knight's Key
Pigeon Key
(Key Vaca, Boot Key, Fat Deer Key, Long Point Key, Crawl Key, Knight's Key and Grassy Key are incorporated in the city of Marathon)[12]

Lower keys
Little Duck Key
Missouri Key
Ohio Key (also known as Sunshine Key)
Bahia Honda Key
Spanish Harbor Keys
West Summerland Key
No Name Key
Big Pine Key
Little Torch Key
Middle Torch Key
Big Torch Key
Ramrod Key
Summerland Key
Knockemdown Key
Cudjoe Key
Sugarloaf Key
Park Key
Lower Sugarloaf Key
Saddlebunch Keys
Shark Key
Geiger Key
Big Coppitt Key
East Rockland Key
Rockland Key
Boca Chica Key
Key Haven (Raccoon Key)
Stock Island
Key West
Sigsbee Park
Fleming Key

Outlying islands
These are accessible by boat.
Sunset Key
Wisteria Island
the Marquesas Keys
the Dry Tortugas

Vocabulary Builder #4: D is for Diatom

Diatom are a class of unicellular algae (Bacillariophyceae) that live in cold waters of relatively low salinity.

From Dictionary.com: any of numerous microscopic, unicellular, marine or freshwater algae of the phylum Chrysophyta, having cell walls containing silica.

Word Origin
[New Latin diatoma, from Greek diatomos, cut in half, from diatemnein, to cut in half.]

(If you watch Bones, you may have heard their "dirt" guy, Hodgins, talk about diatomaceous earth. This is: a fine siliceous earth composed chiefly of the cell walls of diatoms: used in filtration, as an abrasive, etc.)

Concept: Immersed Senses lets scuba diver breathe and move freely underwater


From the Design Blog: Immersed Senses lets scuba diver breathe and move freely underwater

Improving the limitations of current scuba diving system, designer Adam Wendel has come up with a futuristic device named the “Immersed Senses” that changes the way the diver sees, hears, and breathes underwater, allowing them to become a part of their surrounding environment. Immersed Senses is the future of underwater diving and exploration. Featuring a LED flashlight to let the diver to observe the dark depths of the ocean, the mask also includes a large OLED glass display to offer a panoramic view of the surroundings. The OLED enclosed helmet also allows the extracted oxygen to flow freely throughout the helmet, as if you are breathing on land without any breathing apparatus.

While an interactive OLED display gives access to underwater GPS maps, therefore allowing the diver to navigate efficiently throughout the ocean’s landscapes. The OLED also offers software that can identify all species of fish, coral and other ocean dwelling creatures that diver is currently viewing. With Immersed Senses, experiencing the underwater world is now fully interactive. In addition, the OLED screen depicts important info such as oxygen toxicity, nitrogen levels and even body heat to keep the diver well informed and safe.

Made in haptic glass, the device concept touts futuristic technology to the core. An optically clear glass with microscopic pours keeps water molecules out, yet it allows sound waves to pass through. Sound travels six times faster underwater than on land, however it is nearly impossible to interpret where the sound is coming from. The haptic glass interprets the sound wave orientation then displays the source and direction on the OLED display.

Water leakage is eliminated with the use of a silicone lining that seals the helmet to the skin. The silicone’s flexibility affords the diver to explore with comfortable movements. The orange side panels assist in internal circulation of the extracted oxygen. The rear of the helmet contains an electrolysis reactor that extracts oxygen from saltwater. The breathable oxygen is circulated throughout the helmet, creating a revolutionary underwater breathing experience.

Immersed Senses operates by a battery that utilizes a centrifuge mechanism to pull oxygen from seawater that begins the electrolysis reaction. Saltwater is extracted into the bottom reservoir that reacts with hydrogen gas. The saltwater is then charged by a positive and negative anode/cathode that generates breathable oxygen. Two internal devices help to circulate the oxygen to the diver’s mouth and nose.

The diver then breathes in the oxygen and out carbon dioxide, which exits the helmet. The battery and stored hydrogen can keep a diver submersed for up to 8 hours. The Immersed Senses revolutionizes how a human can breathe underwater, as well as interact with the OLED display offering a panoramic view of the deep sea.

Record number of basking sharks found off Donegal

From the Irish Times: Record number of basking sharks found off Donegal

LORNA SIGGINS Marine Correspondent

IRELAND’s northernmost point is currently “teeming” with a record number of basking sharks, according to marine researchers.

More than 100 of the world’s second largest fish were tagged by the Irish Basking Shark Study Group off Donegal’s Dunaff and Malin Head within the past week.
This compares with 106 tagged during the entire season last year, according to the study group’s leader, Dr Simon Berrow.

The sharks were up close to the sea surface, mouths wide open, as they could filter up to 1,500 cubic metres of water an hour, he noted.

“So the amount of food available for them must have been colossal. There were many more around that we just couldn’t tag – it was absolutely spectacular.”

Malin Head was identified by the group last year as one of the top European “hotspots” for the sharks which are also known as liabhán chor gréine – the great fish of the sun – due to their tendency to swim just below the surface.

However, the numbers counted over a four-day period within the last week exceeded the group’s expectations. The group also believes that reported sightings of breaching whales off this coast may in fact be basking sharks.

The basking shark is not protected under Irish legislation through the Wildlife Act, although there is an EU moratorium on catching or landing the fish as a by-catch. It is protected in Britain, and there are plans to extend this legislation to Northern Irish waters.

Dr Berrow – who is best known for his work with the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group – spent four days studying activity at sea with National Parks and Wildlife Service conservation ranger Emmet Johnston, Dr Ian O’Connor and Darren Craig of the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology.

It is believed that the sharks are active during winter and do not hibernate, as previously thought.

One shark tagged in the Isle of Man in 2007 and traced to Newfoundland, had travelled almost 10,000km in 82 days.

Sightings of basking sharks off Sligo, Mayo, Cork and Waterford have also been made in the last few days, according to Dr Berrow.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

U of G biologists study the way whales strain fish from seawater

From the University of Guelph: U of G biologists study the way whales strain fish from seawater

Baleen whales are among the largest creatures on the planet. To learn more about how their unusual feeding structure helps sustain the mammals’ enormous size, two Guelph biologists needed to get a close-up — really close-up — view.

Prof. Doug Fudge, Integrative Biology, and Lawrence Szewciw, who completed a zoology master’s degree in 2009, worked with Guelph physicist Diane de Kerckhove to study the keratin-based feeding filter in baleen whales. Unlike toothed whales such as dolphins, baleen whales use comb-like plates in their upper jaw to strain fish and crustaceans from huge gulps of seawater.

In a paper published online in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the U of G scientists show how calcium helps stiffen the keratin that makes up baleen. They’ve also helped to solve the puzzle of how whales immersed continuously in seawater can stiffen keratin that normally requires air-drying to harden into nail, hair, horn and other structures in land animals.

Szewciw is lead author. Another co-author is Geoff Grime at the University of Surrey Ion Beam Centre in the United Kingdom, where de Kerckhove analyzed fingernail-sized samples of the substance.

Keratin proteins are arranged inside baleen cells as intermediate filaments. Hanging like a curtain from the animal’s upper jaw, baleen plates are frayed along their ends into tapered bristles that sieve prey from the water. Baleen whales — including the blue whale, the largest animal on Earth — typically eat fish and shrimp-like crustaceans called krill.

Szewciw’s extensive mechanical tests in the lab showed that calcium salts like the ones found in bone lend reinforcement to baleen. And Sei whale baleen showed more calcification than that of two other species they studied. That makes sense, says Fudge. Unlike the minke and humpback, the sei whale feeds on millimetre-long plankton such as copepods. It needs fine but tough baleen bristles able to stand up to whale-sized forces.

“Calcification allows the bristles to be thin without compromising their ability to stand up to the water flowing past them,” says Fudge. Remove calcium from sei baleen, he adds, and the material loses about half of its stiffness.

To look at the calcium salts within baleen cells, he and Szewciw used light microscopes and electron microscopes. But they needed more sensitive equipment to get a detailed picture of the ratio of calcium and other elements. That’s when they turned to de Kerckhove.

She uses instruments to bombard samples with streams of protons to measure trace elements. This year, de Kerckhove is completing installation of a high-resolution proton microprobe in the MacNaughton Building that will be the only one of its kind in Canada. But when she started working with Fudge three years ago, she still needed to travel to Surrey’s ion beam facility. Using PIXE (proton-induced X-ray emission) analysis, she mapped the locations of calcium, phosphorus and sulphur in the material and determined relative amounts of each element.

In all three whale species, these elements are distributed in characteristic ways. “This is the first time calcification has been shown in different areas of the baleen plate,” says Szewciw.

Adds de Kerckhove: “It’s fascinating how nature has found the best and optimal way of using these mineral resources.”

No Asian carp found in fish kill

No Asian carp found in fish kill

I'm surprised animal rights activists even allowed this in the first place. And note the last sentence - the bodies of the fish are going to be sent to a landfill. Can't they be turned into fertilizer? Have something good come out of their deaths?

Biologists check 100,000 pounds of fish in Chicago waterways
Biotechnology Industry By Joel Hood, CHICAGO TRIBUNE REPORTER

Biologists wrapped up another exhaustive search for Asian carp in Chicago's waterways Tuesday, an orchestrated massive fish kill designed to test the validity of DNA results that had indicated the presence of the fish in the Calumet-Sag Channel.

Failing to find even a single Asian carp was good news for those who feared the aggressive invasive species was within striking distance of Lake Michigan. But the results further complicate an already divisive political issue and raise new questions about what may have triggered positive DNA samples in the first place.

"We don't question the methodology of the eDNA research; we look at it like one tool to help us make the right choices," said Chris McCloud, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. "We'll continue to use eDNA to see what risks exist to the Great Lakes."

Researchers tracking the movement of Asian carp up the Chicago river system have been using a method of DNA sampling called eDNA, or environmental DNA, which involves collecting cells commonly found in fish scales, feces and urine. The DNA is then matched against a global database for Asian carp and independently verified.

Researchers have discovered a couple dozen carp samples among the 1,000 or so DNA samples taken from Chicago's waterways over the past year, an indication that carp might be moving north toward Lake Michigan.

The problem with eDNA sampling, however, is that it can't determine whether the cells come from a live fish or dead fish, prompting many different interpretations of the data and fueling the debate around its use.

"Much more needs to be known about eDNA before it becomes the basis for another massive fish kill," said Mark Biel, executive director of the Chemical Industry Council of Illinois, an organization that has fought to keep Chicago's waterways open to shipping traffic.

McCloud said the state is not ready to say Chicago's waterways are free of bighead and silver carp. Scientists will take some time to study the more than 100,000 pounds of fish, comprising at least 40 species, removed from the channel. Those fish will be destroyed and sent to a landfill.

Vocabulary Builder #3: C is for Coastal Plain

Coastal plain is pretty self explanatory, "a plain extending along a coast". A "coast" is "the land next to the sea."
A "plain" is a section of flat land, on the coast, or inland as well.



Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Research: Nine New Species For Disappearing Handfish Family; 'They 'Walked' The World's Oceans'


Research: Nine New Species For Disappearing Handfish Family; 'They 'Walked' The World's Oceans'

VICTORIA, Australia -- Nine new species of handfish have been described by CSIRO in research that highlights an urgent need to better understand and protect the diversity of life in Australia's oceans.

The new species are described in a review of the handfish family by Hobart-based fish taxonomists from the CSIRO Wealth from Oceans Flagship, Daniel Gledhill and Peter Last.

Supported by funding from the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, the review of the handfishes brings the family to 14 known species – six found only in Tasmania and one known from only one specimen possibly collected in Tasmania by early European explorers, yet not recorded since. It also deepens concerns about declining populations of some handfishes.

"Handfishes are small, often strikingly patterned or colourful, sedentary fish that tend to 'walk' on the seabed on hand-like fins, rather than swim. Fifty million-years ago, they 'walked' the world's oceans, but now they exist only off eastern and southern Australia," Mr Gledhill says.

"They are of great importance to understanding the origins of Australian marine life, the role of Australia as a refuge during previous periods of change, and the effects on living species of habitat alteration and rapid climate change."

Dr Last says handfishes are extremely vulnerable to environmental change – introduced species, pollution, siltation, fishing, sea-temperature rise and coastal development – due to their scarcity, patchy distribution, life history strategy, low breeding rates and poor dispersal ability.

(The Spotted Handfish is listed as endangered under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 and the Red Handfish and Ziebell's Handfish are listed as vulnerable.)

"There is evidence of shallow-water species disappearing quickly, from being common in certain areas a few decades ago, to apparently being locally extinct in some areas," Dr Last says.

"It's not just two or three handfish species of concern. Our work has described nine new species, each with its own environmental niches and needs, and several of these appear to have very restricted distributions, and/or occur in very low abundance."

Mr Gledhill says the handfishes have proven difficult to classify due to their rarity and a lack of specimens.

One of the newly named species, the Pink Handfish, is known from only four specimens and was last recorded off the Tasman Peninsula in 1999. The Pink Handfish will feature in a photographic exhibition of Australia's marine biodiversity that opens today (21 May) at Questacon in Canberra.

The exhibiton is mounted by the Marine Biodiversity Hub, a national research partnership charged with furthering knowledge of Australia's oceans, and coincides with the United Nations' International Year of Biodiversity (2010) and International Biodiversity Day, 22 May 2010.

Professor Nic Bax of CSIRO and the University of Tasmania, director of the Marine Biodiversity Hub, says the exhibition offers a wonderful opportunity to acquaint young Australians with the beauty and challenges presented by Australia's vast ocean realm.

"More than half of Australia's territory is ocean, and some 95 per cent of this world is yet to be explored," he says.

CSIRO initiated the National Research Flagships to provide science-based solutions to Australia's major research challenges and opportunities. The 10 Flagships form multidisciplinary teams with industry and the research community.

Underwater cave find threatens wind farm

From the Times of Malta: Underwater cave find threatens wind farm

The rare discovery of two large underwater 'caves', found on the reef where the government plans to build an offshore wind farm, could pose a threat to the project.

The reef off Mellieħa was chosen as the site of Malta's first offshore wind farm because it is the only area of the seabed around the islands that is shallow enough to cater for today's technology.

But if the reef turns out to be unstable or hollow in some areas, it would be extremely difficult, expensive or even dangerous to drill into the seabed to install the wind turbines.

Oxford graduate and marine geologist from the University of Malta, Aaron Micallef, 29, conducted a study of the Mellieħa reef known as Sikka l-Bajda, as part of a research project.

His team carried out a five-day survey, mapping the topography of the seabed of various offshore areas in the northeast of Malta, sending sound pulses to measure the depth of the seabed.

What they found was surprising: two large perfectly circular sinkholes (or dolines). These were probably formed during an ice age, when the reef was above the sea level. The caves would have been eroded by rainwater, which is slightly acidic, flowing through cracks in the rock.

"Basically a large hole was formed underneath the rock's surface. Eventually the roof grew thin, or the pressure on the top of the roof increased, and it collapsed," Dr Micallef told The Sunday Times.

One of the caves is 240 metres wide and eight metres deep, while the other is about half the size.

"The problem is that there may be more where these came from. It is likely that along the reef there are other caves that have not yet collapsed. And this may create problems for the wind farm project."

The reef is full of fractures, probably because it is made of upper coralline limestone overlying a layer of blue clay, causing the limestone to slip along the softer clay, as happens in various parts of Malta's cliffy coast.

Dr Micallef said: "I don't want to be alarmist. For all I know these could be the only caves and we would be able to work around them. Further studies would obviously have to be carried out. But at least we know beforehand that we could encounter difficulties."

He said the two sinkholes should immediately be classified as sites of scientific importance, as was done with the same kind of cave found above sea level, namely at Maqluba and the Inland Sea.

Marine biologist Alan Deidun said that shallow dolines could provide unique habitats to sensitive shade-seeking species, especially around the walls of the 'caves', attracting rare algae and types of coral.

He said an Environmental Impact Assessment would be carried out on the site in the coming weeks to establish whether there were any other dolines in the area and to identify the least harmful areas in which wind turbines could be built.

While a wind farm could initially damage part of the reef, there were ways to minimise this, and the wind farm itself would immediately be colonised by various species.

Dr Deidun said the reef was already damaged by constant bunkering and bombing during the Second World War.

Dr Micallef said a seismic study would provide an X-ray-like idea of what lies beneath Sikka l-Bajda and help experts understand whether other caves have been eroded within the reef.

When contacted, a spokesman for the Resources Ministry said geological studies would form part of the EIA to be conducted in the coming weeks.

"Currently a number of studies are being carried out to investigate the wind resources in the area and the impact of the wind farm on ecology. The results of the studies will allow informed decisions on the viability of the offshore wind farm."

The spokesman added that "irrespective" of the depth of the reef, preliminary assessments showed that a wind farm with a capacity up to 95 megawatts was "technically possible".

Last November, Resources Minister George Pullicino warned that should the reef off Mellieħa prove to be inadequate for a wind farm, Malta would be "stuck" and would probably have to ask the EU to reconsider its expectations.

The planned 18 to 20 turbines at Sikka l-Bajda, together with the smaller farms in Baħrija and Ħal Far, would generate almost 40 per cent of the clean energy Malta needs to reach the 2020 EU-imposed targets.

Islands of the World #3: Pine Island

From Wikipedia:

Pine Island is an island located in Lee County, Florida, on the Gulf coast of southwest Florida. The Intracoastal Waterway passes through Pine Island Sound, to the west of the island. Matlacha Pass runs between Pine Island and the mainland. Pine Island lies west of Cape Coral.

Geography
Unlike the sandy barrier islands of Sanibel to the south, Captiva to the southwest, and North Captiva to the west, Pine Island is made from the same coral rock as the mainland. Sanibel owes its unique shrimp-like shape (and orientation perpendicular to the coast) to being on the leeward side of the Gulf Stream from Pine Island.

Communities
Pine Island is home to four unincorporated towns: Pine Island Center, Bokeelia, Pineland, and St. James City. Matlacha is also considered one of the communities, but is actually on its own small island. Bokeelia is at the north end of the island, at the mouth of Charlotte Harbor.

Ecology
Pine Island is also home to Matlacha Pass National Wildlife Refuge. Little Pine Island is a state-owned wildlife refuge, currently being "de-developed" and returned to its natural state. Ospreys, herons, egrets and ibises, and, roseate spoonbills are often seen, as well as owls, hawks, bald eagles, and songbirds.

The local form of the marsh rice rat has been recognized in some classifications as a separate subspecies, Oryzomys palustris planirostris.[1]

History
Skeletons unearthed on the island have been dated to about 6000 years ago. The Calusa are thought to have inhabited Pine Island since around the year 300, with a cultural center called Tampa (or Tanpa or Toempe) at the mound-site now known as Pineland, where an archaeological dig is underway. Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León landed near the city in 1513, and careened his ship for repairs in Pine Island Sound. After the Calusa empire collapsed in the 1700s due to war and diseases, the island was only sparsely inhabited until the 1870's.

Hurricanes
Pine Island was hit hard in 2004 when Hurricane Charley passed through the area.

Vocabulary Builder #2: B is for Ballast

Ballast are the disposable weights carried by surface ships to keep them on an even keel, and by submersibles, to help them descend and ascend.

In the case of ships, ballast are usually stones. For submersibles - in particular bathyscaphes - it can be gasoline. For submarines, outside water or pressurized air. To blow ballast tanks, the water or air is expelled, causing the submersible to rise. [Typically, a submarine is a submersible in service to the military branch of a country, a submersible is a research vessel.]

Word Origin and History: (link to online dictionary]
1520–30; < MLG, perh. ult. < Scand; cf. ODan, OSw barlast, equiv. to bar bare1 + last load; see last4




Discharge of ballast water (used to keep the ship on an even keel) from a container ship. Foreign ships in their home waters take on this ballast - complete with destructive marine organisms, sail around the world to another port, where they discharge the ballast water, and the marine organisms, into once pristine water.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Vocabulary Builder #1: A is for Abyss

Abyss. Pronounced uh-biss. The very deep parts of the ocean.

Word origin and history [link is to online dictionary]:
late 14c., earlier abime (c.1300), from L.L. abyssus "bottomless pit," from Gk. abyssos (limne) "bottomless (pool)," from a- "without" (see a- (2)) + byssos "bottom," possibly related to bathos "depth."



Gulf oil spill: similar disaster could occur in Arctic later this year

From the Telegraph: Gulf oil spill: similar disaster could occur in Arctic later this year

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has heightened fears of a similar disaster occurring off America's Arctic coast, where Shell is due to begin exploratory drilling later this year.

President Barack Obama has ordered a review of the Anglo-Dutch firms plan's to drill off the coast of Alaska.

Activists have claimed that the remote nature of the proposed drilling site, sub-zero temperatures and gale-force winds would be formidable obstacles to any potential clean-up operation.

Iraq oilfields up for grabs in TV auctionThe Alaska Wilderness League said in a statement that it would be almost impossible to mount the kind of clean-up witnessed in the Gulf of Mexico, describing the Arctic as one of the "most remote and extreme environments on Earth".

Meanwhile, in the Gulf of Mexico, there was no end in sight for the massive clean-up operation, as BP officials said on Sunday that one of their efforts to slow the leak was not working as effectively as it had initially.

A mile-long tube inserted into the leaking well siphoned some 57,120 gallons of oil within the past 24 hours, a sharp drop from the 92,400 gallons of oil a day that the device was sucking up on Friday, according to John Curry, a BP spokesman.

However, the company has said the amount of oil siphoned was likely to vary from day to day.

Over the weekend Mr Obama created a commission to examine what caused the explosion on and subsequent leak from Deepwater Horizon BP rig and to "make sure it never happens again".

He noted concerns about the "cozy relationship between oil and gas companies and agencies that regulate them".

However, the president underlined that he remained committed to retaining off-shore oil as part of his energy plan. "Because it represents 30 per cent of our oil production, the Gulf of Mexico can play an important part in security our energy future," he said.

The establishment of the commission came as oil continued to gush from the rig, blackening more of the Louisiana's marshlands and beaches. Even at the lowest estimates, more than six million gallons of crude have soiled Gulf waters.

Bob Dudley, BP's managing director, said that the latest bid to stop the leak in a ruptured pipe 5,000 feet below the surface would began on Tuesday or Wednesday. A "top kill" operation that has never been tried before will shoot heavy mud into the pipe then seal it with cement.

With the crisis entering its fifth week, the Obama administration has been forced increasingly on the defensive for responding too weakly and placing too much trust in BP.

Normally friendly voices have begun to criticise the president personally. James Carville, a former Bill Clinton campaign manager and Louisiana native, said the president had been "lackadaisical" and "naïve".

Chris Matthews, a popular liberal cable TV presenter, said the president was "acting a little like a Vatican Observer".

"The president scares me," he said. "When is he actually going to do something? He doesn't want to take ownership of it."

Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said: "There's no doubt that we have had some problems with BP's lack of transparency: We asked that a video feed [of the oil gush] be made public, and that took ten days. We have sent letter recently in order to get them to post their air-and-quality data."

Islands of the World #2: Sanibel Island

From Wikipedia:

Sanibel Island is an island located on the Gulf coast of Florida, just offshore of Fort Myers. In 2000, it had an estimated population of 6,064 people. Located within Lee County, Sanibel is a barrier island – a collection of sand on the leeward side of the Gulf Stream from the more solid coral-rock of Pine Island.

The city of Sanibel incorporates the entire island, with most of the city proper at the east end of the island. After the Sanibel causeway was built to replace the ferry in May 1963, the residents fought back against overdevelopment by establishing the Sanibel Comprehensive Land Use Plan in 1974 helping to maintain a balance between development and preservation of the island's ecology. A new, higher bridge without a bascule (drawbridge) having to open for tall boats and sailboats, was completed in late 2007.

Thanks in part to the new causeway, Sanibel is rapidly becoming a popular tourist destination known for its beaches, shelling, and wildlife refuges. More than half of the island is made up of wildlife refuges, the largest one is the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge. The Island also hosts the Sanibel Historical Village and a variety of other museums and theaters.In August 2004 Hurricane Charley hit the island causing mandatory evacuation for the island's residents and resulting in the most damage done to the island in 44 years.

History
Sanibel and Captiva formed as one island about 6000 years ago. The first humans in the area were the Calusa, who arrived about 2500 years ago. The Calusa were a powerful Indian nation who came to dominate most of Southwest Florida through trade and their elaborate system of canals and waterways. Sanibel remained an important Calusa settlement until the collapse of their empire, soon after the arrival of the Europeans.

In 1765 the first known appearance of a harbor on Sanibel is labeled on a map, listed as Puerto de S. Nivel. An official Spanish map from 1768 identifies the island as Puerto de S. Nibel (the "v" and "b" being interchangeable); thus, the name may have evolved from "San Nibel". Alternately, the name may derive, as many believe, from "(Santa) Ybel", which survives in the old placename "Point Ybel", where the Sanibel Island Light is located. How it would have gotten this name, however is a matter of conjecture.

One story says it was named by Juan Ponce de León for Queen Isabella I of Castile; the island may indeed be named for this queen or the saint whose name she shares, either by Ponce de León or someone later. Another tale says it was named by Roderigo Lopez, the first mate of José Gaspar (Gasparilla), after his beautiful lover Sanibel whom he had left behind in Spain. Like most of the lore surrounding Gasparilla, however, this story is apocryphal, as the above references to recognizable variants of the name predate the buccaneer's supposed reign.

Sanibel is not the only island in the area to figure prominently in the legends of Gaspar; Captiva, Useppa, and Gasparilla are also connected. Sanibel also appears in another tale, this one involving Gaspar's ally-turned-rival Black Caesar, said to have been a former Haitian slave who escaped during the Haitian Revolution to become a pirate. According to folklore, Black Caesar came to the Gulf of Mexico during the War of 1812 to avoid interference from the British. In the Gulf he became friends with Gasparilla, who allowed him to set up on Sanibel Island. Eventually the old Spaniard discovered Caesar had been stealing from him and chased him off, but not before his loot had been buried.

Legendary pirate's dens aside, the first modern settlement on Sanibel (then spelled "Sanybel") was established by the Florida Peninsular Land Company in 1832. The colony never took off, and was abandoned by 1849. It was this first group that first petitioned for a lighthouse on the island. The island was re-populated after the implementation of the Homestead Act in 1862, and again a lighthouse was petitioned.

Construction on the Sanibel Island Lighthouse was completed in 1884, but the community remained small. In May 1963 a causeway linking Sanibel and Captiva to the mainland was opened, resulting in an explosion of growth. The City of Sanibel passed new restrictions on development after it was incorporated; these were challenged by developers, to no avail. Currently the only buildings on the island taller than two stories date before 1974, and there are no fast food or chain restaurants allowed on the island except a Dairy Queen, which was on the island before the laws were enacted. A new causeway was completed in 2007; it replaced the worn out 1963 spans, which were not designed to carry heavy loads or large numbers of vehicles. The new bridge features a "flyover" span tall enough for sailboats to pass under, replacing the old bridge's bascule drawbridge span. The original bridge was demolished and its remains were sunk into the water to create artificial reefs in the Gulf of Mexico.

Ecology
The island's curved shrimp-like shape forms Tarpon Bay on the north side of the island. It is linked to the mainland by the Sanibel Causeway, which runs across two small manmade islets and the Intracoastal Waterway. A short bridge links Sanibel Island to Captiva Island over Blind Pass. The Gulf side beaches are excellent on both islands, and are world renowned for their variety of seashells, which include coquinas, scallops, whelks, sand dollars, and other deeper-water mollusks, both univalve and bivalve. The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum is the only museum in the world dedicated to the study of shells.

Sanibel Island is home to a good variety of birds, including the Roseate Spoonbill and several nesting pairs of Bald Eagles. Birds can be seen on the beaches, the causeway islands, and the reserves, including J. N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Common sights include pelicans, herons, egrets, and Anhingas, as well as the more common birds like terns, sandpipers, and seagulls. There is a population of American Alligators, and a lone rare American Crocodile has been seen at the refuge as well. Plants on the island include the native sea grape, sea oats, mangroves, and several types of palm trees. The Australian pine is an introduced species that has spread throughout the island, to some extent overpowering native vegetation and trees. Once mature, the pine blocks sunlight and drops a thick bed of pine needles that affect the soil's pH and prevents new native growth.The ground is very soft.

The local form of the marsh rice rat has been recognized in some classifications as a separate subspecies, Oryzomys palustris sanibeli.

Wildlife Refuges
Preserving the island's natural ecology has always been important to its citizens and visitors alike. A driving force in the preservation of the island is the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation which was founded in 1967 with a mission to "preserve natural resources and wildlife habitat on and around the islands of Sanibel and Captiva."

1300 acres of land on Sanibel are under the supervision of the Foundation; included in this land there is a "Marine Laboratory which actively conducts research in areas including seagrasses, mangroves, harmful algal blooms, fish populations and shellfish restoration."

Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation also has a project called RECON (River, Estuary and Coastal Observing Network) which includes a "network of eight in-water sensors that provide real-time, hourly readings of key water quality parameters." The foundation is also serves to protect the wildlife on the island and has a variety of education programs designed to instruct people about the island's unique ecology.

The biggest wildlife refuge on the island is the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, around a million visitors a year come here making it one of the most visited refuges in the United States. Covering more than 5,200 acres of land, the refuge strives to ensure that these lands are "preserved, restored and maintained as a haven for indigenous and migratory wildlife as part of a nation-wide network of Refuges administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service" The lands also serve to provide a home for many endangered and threatened species.

Currently the refuge provides a home for over 220 species of birds native to the island. Visitors to the refuge can walk, bike, drive, or kayak though the wildlife drive which takes you through five miles of mangrove tree forests and tidal flats, this drive is prefect for watching the island's wildlife and looking at the island's native vegetation.

To show that preserving the wildlife really is important, the drive is closed one day every week, Friday, so that the wildlife can have a day to themselves where they can scavenge for food closer to the drive and not have to be bothered by or fearful of humans. There is also an education center which features "interactive exhibits on refuge ecosystems, the life and work of "Ding" Darling, migratory flyways, and the National Wildlife Refuge System."

Beaches
Known for their premium shelling, Sanibel beaches attract visitors from all around the world. The large amount of shells that wash up on the island happen as a result of Sanibel being a barrier island with an unusual layout having an "east-west orientation when most islands are north-south. Hence, the island is gifted with great sandy beaches and an abundance of shells."

It is also due to the fact that Sanibel is "part of a large plateau that extends out into the Gulf of Mexico for miles. It is this plateau that acts like a shelf for seashells to gather." Throughout the year, many people come to the beaches of Sanibel to gather up these beautiful shells to add to their collection. People are often seen bending down looking for sea shells, and this posture has been named the "Sanibel Stoop."

There are beaches everywhere on the island, even on the way to the island there are beaches along the causeway which are great to fish and windsurf off of. However, beach parking is very limited and often unavailable. Lighthouse Beach is named after the famous Sanibel Lighthouse, which includes a popular fishing pier and nature trails. The most secluded beach on the island is Bowman's beach, there is not a hotel in sight and it is known for its "pristine and quiet" atmosphere.

Barron's selected Sanibel and Captiva Islands as one of the 10 Best Places for Second Homes in 2010.

Climate
Sanibel Island, located in southern Florida, has a climate that is "subtropical and humid" with temperatures ranging from 60°F (16°C) in midwinter to around 90°F (32.2°C) in the summer.

January through April (peak tourist season on the island) have the coolest temperatures ranging from 75°F during the day to a cool 55°F at night, there is very little rainfall on the island during these months.

The summer heat and humidity on the island, which has been recorded as high as 100°F, is cooled by the ocean seabreezes from the Gulf of Mexico, and by almost daily afternoon and evening rain showers, which is responsible for much of the island's rainfall. June is when the Island gets most of its rainfall.

The area is prone to being hit by tropical cyclones and hurricanes, the hurricane season starts in June but most of the activity occurs in September and October. However, local communities have "adapted to cope with these occasional storm threats."

Hurricanes
Southwest Florida rarely suffers direct strikes by hurricanes, but every 20 or so years it takes a significant hit, and about every 40 years a major one. Most of these have had an impact on Sanibel. On August 13, 2004, Sanibel Island was hit hard by Hurricane Charley, a category four hurricane with 143 mph winds.

It was the strongest to hit Southwest Florida since Hurricane Donna in September 1960.

While much of the native vegetation survived, the non-native Australian pines suffered serious damage, blocking nearly every road. Wildlife officials were also concerned that nests of birds and sea turtles were destroyed. The Sanibel Lighthouse survived with little damage, and the Sanibel Causeway suffered relatively minor damage, save for a toll booth tilted partly over, and erosion of a small seawall. Blind Pass was again cut through, but refilled less than one month later.

Demographics

As of the census of 2000, there were 6,064 people, 3,049 households, and 2,125 families residing in the city. The population density was 352.4/mi² (136.0/km²). There were 7,075 housing units at an average density of 411.2/mi² (158.7/km²). The racial makeup of the city was 97.99% White, 0.94% African American, 0.08% Native American, 0.33% Asian, 0.05% Pacific Islander, 0.12% from other races, and 0.49% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 1.39% of the population.

There were 3,049 households out of which 10.7% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 65.3% were married couples living together, 3.2% had a female householder with no husband present, and 30.3% were non-families. 25.9% of all households were made up of individuals and 14.7% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 1.99 and the average family size was 2.33.

In the city the population was spread out with 10.1% under the age of 18, 1.7% from 18 to 24, 12.4% from 25 to 44, 35.8% from 45 to 64, and 40.0% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 60 years. For every 100 females there were 90.6 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 88.9 males.

The median income for a household in the city was $79,044, and the median income for a family was $92,455. Males had a median income of $40,641 versus $27,481 for females. The per capita income for the city was $66,912. About 2.0% of families and 3.2% of the population were below the poverty line, including 2.8% of those under age 18 and 1.5% of those age 65 or over.

Notable residents
R. Tucker Abbott, leading conchologist
Horace William Baden Donegan, English prelate
Clifton Fadiman, author and radio/TV personality
Helaine Fendelman, appraiser
Porter J. Goss, former CIA director
Jean Shepherd, author, screenwriter and radio raconteur

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Islands of the World #1: Captiva, Florida

http://www.gulfbase.org/ is a database of information about the Gulf of Mexico.

There are several reefs, banks, and a few islands in the Gulf of Mexico... none of which show up on a typical globe of the world, but I'm going to ask you to acquire one anyway. It will be useful as we continue to explore the islands of the world.

Most of the islands in the Gulf of Mexico are barrier islands, quite close to the mainland of which they are a part. We start with Florida, and Captiva Island.

From Wikipedia:
Captiva Island is an island in Lee County in southwest Florida, located just offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. Originally part of neighboring Sanibel Island to the southeast, it was severed when a hurricane's storm surge washed away a new channel,[when?] called Blind Pass, which had filled in over the years but was reopened during a dredging project in the summer of 2009. Like Sanibel, Captiva is a barrier island to Pine Island (to the east of Captiva and north of Sanibel), however it is much narrower. The only automobile access to Captiva is via the Sanibel Causeway and Sanibel-Captiva Road, which ends in the CDP of Captiva, the island's only CDP. Captiva was homesteaded in 1888 and a tiny cemetery next to The Chapel by the Sea has the grave of the original resident, William Herbert Binder (1850-1932), an Austrian. Half the island is in private ownership, with "Millionaire's Row", luxury homes on gulf and bay side of "San-Cap" road. The South Seas Island Resort entry gate is at the end of this road. Roosevelt Channel on the east side of the island, is named for Theodore Roosevelt who fished there.

North Captiva Island or Upper Captiva is another island, in turn severed from Captiva in a 1921 hurricane, creating Redfish Pass. North Captiva has power from lines that originate on the north end of Captiva, and is privately owned. With about 300 homes built and 300 vacant lots, the island is about half way to build-out. Since the island can be accessed by boat or small plane only, North Captiva real estate values are generally lower than on Captiva.

Damage on Captiva Island from Hurricane CharleyCaptiva was seriously damaged in August 2004 when the eastern eyewall of Hurricane Charley struck North Captiva, immediately before hitting Charlotte Harbor to the north-northeast. Initial reports indicated that 160 buildings were destroyed and another 160 seriously damaged. Although there are reports that the storm surge cut a path 400 yards (366 m) wide across the narrowest part of North Captiva, separating the island, local fishermen have said that the separation of the two halves of the island was actually caused by a series of tornadoes that passed through the area in September of 2001.[citation needed] The new pass has not been formally named, but the locals call it "Charley Pass" or "The North Cap Gap". It has since filled in with sand and reunited the island.

Captiva is the part-time home of many famous people and was the full-time home of world renowned artist Robert Rauschenberg. South Seas Island Resort and Yacht Harbor, a 330-acre (1.3 km2) resort, resides on the northern two miles (3 km) of Captiva Island. The Wall Street Journal selected Sanibel and Captiva Islands as one of the 10 Best Places for Second Homes in 2010.

According to local folklore, Captiva got its name because the pirate captain José Gaspar (Gasparilla) held his female prisoners on the island for ransom or worse. However, the supposed existence of Jose Gaspar is sourced from an advertising brochure of an early 20th century developer and may be a fabrication.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Gulf of Mexico



From Wikipedia:

The Gulf of Mexico is the eleventh largest body of water in the world.

Considered a smaller part of the Atlantic Ocean, it is an ocean basin largely surrounded by the North American continent and the island of Cuba. It is bounded on the northeast, north and northwest by the Gulf Coast of the United States, on the southwest and south by Mexico, and on the southeast by Cuba.

The shape of its basin is roughly oval and approximately 810 nautical miles wide and filled with sedimentary rocks and debris. It is part of the Atlantic Ocean through the Florida Straits between the U.S. and Cuba, and with the Caribbean Sea (with which it forms the American Mediterranean Sea) via the Yucatan Channel between Mexico and Cuba. With this narrow connection to the Atlantic, the gulf experiences very small tidal ranges.

The gulf basin is approximately 615,000 mi². Almost half of the basin is shallow intertidal waters. At its deepest it is 14,383 ft at the Sigsbee Deep, an irregular trough more than 300 nautical miles long. The basin contains a volume of roughly 660 quadrillion gallons. It was probably formed approximately 300 million years ago as a result of the seafloor sinking.

Pollution
There are frequent "red tide" algae blooms that kill fish and marine mammals and cause respiratory problems in humans and some domestic animals when the blooms reach close to shore. This has especially been plaguing the southwest and southern Florida coast, from the Florida Keys to north of Pasco County, Florida.

In June 1979, the Ixtoc I oil platform in the Bay of Campeche suffered a blowout leading to a catastrophic explosion, which resulted in a massive oil spill that continued for nine months before the well was finally capped. This was ranked as the largest oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico until the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.

In July 2008, researchers reported that the dead zone that runs east-west, from near Galveston, Texas, to near Venice, Louisiana, was about 8,000 square miles, nearly the record. Between 1985 and 2008, the area roughly doubled in size



Deepwater Horizon - and the Gulf of Mexico

I haven't been sharing much info on this environmental disaster...it's been all over the papers, but now I'll start a feature which points out where all these deep water oil rigs are.

From Wikipedia:
Deepwater Horizon was an ultra-deepwater, dynamically positioned, semi-submersible offshore drilling rig which sank on April 22, 2010, causing the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The spill was the result of an explosion two days earlier in which eleven crewmen died.

Deepwater Horizon was built in 2001 in South Korea, is owned by Transocean and was leased to BP plc until September 2013. She was registered in Majuro, Marshall Islands. In September 2009, the rig drilled the deepest oil well in history at a vertical depth of 35,050. feet and measured depth of 35,055 feet.

History
Designed originally for R&B Falcon, Deepwater Horizon was built by Hyundai Heavy Industries in Ulsan, South Korea. Construction started in December 1998 and was delivered in February 2001 after the acquisition of R&B Falcon by Transocean. She was the second semi-submersible rig constructed of a class of two, although the Deepwater Nautilus, her predecessor, is not dynamically positioned.

Since arriving in the Gulf of Mexico, Deepwater Horizon was under contract to BP Exploration. Her work included wells in the Atlantis and Thunder Horse fields, a 2006 discovery in the Kaskida field, and the 2009 Tiber oilfield. On September 2, 2009, Deepwater Horizon drilled on the Tiber oilfield with a vertical depth of 35,050 feet and measured depth of 35,055 feet, of which 4,132 feet was water.

In 2002, the rig was upgraded with "e-drill," a drill monitoring system whereby technicians based in Houston, Texas, received real-time drilling data from the rig and transmitted maintenance and troubleshooting information.

At the time of the accident, Deepwater Horizon was worked on BP's Mississippi Canyon Block 252, referred to as the Macondo Prospect. The rig was last located 50 miles (80 km) off the southeast coast of Louisiana. In October 2009, BP extended the contract for Deepwater Horizon by three years, to begin in September 2010. The lease contract was worth US$544 million, a rate of $496,800 per day.

Description
Deepwater Horizon was a fifth-generation, RBS-8D design, deepwater, dynamically positioned, column-stabilized, semi-submersible drilling rig. This vessel is a Mobile Offshore Drilling Unit and can drill subsea wells for oil exploration and production purposes. The rig was 396 feet long and 256 feet wide and in 2010 was one of approximately two hundred deepwater offshore rigs that are capable of drilling in more than 5000 feet of water.

Explosion and oil spill
The rig was in the final phases of drilling a well in which casing is cemented in place, reinforcing the well. At approximately 10 p.m. CST on April 20, 2010 (0300 UTC, April 21, 2010), an explosion and fire occurred on the rig. Eleven people were missing after the incident. Seven workers were airlifted to the Naval Air Station in New Orleans and were then taken to hospital. Support ships sprayed the rig with water in an unsuccessful bid to douse the flames.

Deepwater Horizon sank on April 22, 2010, in water approximately 5,000 feet deep, and has been located resting on the seafloor approximately 1,300 feet (about a quarter of a mile) northwest of the well. The oil slick spreading from the Deepwater Horizon disaster threatens fisheries, tourism and the habitat of hundreds of bird species.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Oil spills are not the calamity doom-mongers say they are

Yes, oil spills are terrible. But the truth is they're not the calamity doom-mongers say they are

A few names stand out as symbols of Man’s profligacy and carelessness in the environmental hall of infamy.

These must include Torrey Canyon, Amoco Cadiz and Exxon Valdez — huge oil spills that led not to massive loss of human life, but, we are told, to ecological destruction on a scale never before seen. To this list we must now add ‘Deepwater Horizon’, the huge BP drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico which exploded on April 20.

Since then, around 10-12 million litres of crude oil have been gushing every day from the broken wellhead, a mile down on the seafloor.

Despairing environmentalists, together with politicians and scientists, say that this has led to the greatest ecological disaster in U.S. history with thousands of tonnes of oil set to ruin the pristine shores of the Gulf, kill millions of seabirds, fish and marine mammals, and decimate the lucrative fishing industries of America’s swampy underbelly.

Already, green campaigners have pointed to the spill as yet another sign that modern Man’s dependency on oil amounts to a Faustian pact with an evil subterranean devil; not only does oil wreck our climate when it is burned, releasing warming carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, its very substance amounts to a prehistoric poison unleashed by our demonic technologies.

But the truth is that when it comes to oil spills — and other environmental disasters — history tells us something very puzzling and counter-intuitive.
Despite the appalling pictures beamed onto our screens — the oil-covered seabirds, the grim tides of dead fish, the blackened beaches and disgusting oozing mess at the water’s edge — Nature has seen that, usually within a year or two or even less, places affected by oil spills have returned more or less to normal, the disaster forgotten.

Indeed, many experts now believe that if left to run their natural course, it is likely that the effects of even the worst disasters are nullified.

How can this be? Are oil spills really less bad than we have been led to believe?
Certainly, our attempts to deal with them can often cause far more havoc and destruction than the spills themselves.

In March 1967, the oil tanker Torrey Canyon ran aground off the Scilly Isles en route from the Gulf to Milford Haven.

As the ship foundered and started to break up with its 120,000 tonnes of crude leaking into the Atlantic, the world faced its first major oil-spill disaster. A huge slick was heading for the holiday beaches of Cornwall.

First, the RAF bombed the stricken tanker, in an effort to burn off the oil. Most of the bombs missed and the effect was to accelerate the rate at which oil leaked into the sea.

Next, 10,000 tonnes of industrial-strength detergents were sprayed on the oil by teams on 42 ships in an effort to disperse it all. These chemicals had little effect on the slick, but they poisoned millions of marine organisms and probably caused far more damage to the ecosystem than the oil itself.

At one point, huge drums of detergent were simply poured onto the beaches around Land’s End in the hope that, should the oil wash ashore, this would keep the sands clean. At Sennen Cove, huge quantities of solvent were ploughed into the sand — meaning that the oil was held in situ for months.

There is no doubt that the oil from the Torrey Canyon was toxic and killed a lot of animals, as well as being unsightly. But experts are now convinced that the best solution, short of pumping the oil off the tanker before it could escape or otherwise trying to contain it, would have simply been to do nothing.

According to Dr Simon Boxall, an oceanographer and oil-spill expert at Southampton University: ‘Crude oil is a natural product (being rotting vegetation — albeit modified by age and pressure) and in the environment breaks down naturally through bacterial decay.’

In fact, thousands of tonnes of crude oil, far more than is spilled as a result of man-made disasters, seeps from the seabed naturally every year. The main difference with a ship or oil well disaster is its suddenness and localised nature.
Of course, there is nothing good about an oil spill. If one happens near land, then not only are marine ecosystems threatened but also the fragile coastal ecologies upon which thousands may depend for their livelihood.

The most obvious short-term threat is to tourism; no one wants to lie on a beach sticky with a layer of tar and swim in a sea shining with the telltale rainbow iridescence of floating oil.

Oil spills can kill marine organisms in their millions, and can have a devastating effect on fragile ecosystems such as coral reefs and mangrove swamps. Modern dispersant chemicals are far gentler and more effective than those used in the Torrey Canyon disaster.

But the good news is that these disasters ARE short-term. The environment will recover. And the speed with which it does so depends on the grade of the oil, how much was spilt, the sea temperature, the amount of sunlight, tidal mixing and wave conditions.

What is astonishing is that in most cases, complete recovery takes less than two years.

For example, in December 1999, the MV Erika sank in the Bay of Biscay, and within days a huge oil slick washed up on the beaches of southern Brittany.
News reports showed heartrending pictures of stricken seals as thousands of volunteers battled to clear up the mess.

But despite predictions that the Brittany coast would be ruined for years, the fact was that by the following summer most of the oil had been effectively dispersed and there was certainly no sign of any oil on the beaches when I had a family holiday there less than two years later.

Even more strikingly, when the Braer ran aground off Shetland in 1993, there were widespread predictions of an environmental catastrophe. Some reports suggested that seabird populations could be decimated for 70 years.
In fact, gale-force winds combined with the fact the spill consisted of a very light crude so that, apart from a few hundred affected birds (and some badly-oiled sheep), the environmental effects were so minor that, in the words of marine Biologist Prof Chris Frid of Liverpool University, ‘they were hard to measure’.
Crude oil is a mix of natural hydrocarbons, from light spirits to thick tars. The light oil tends to evaporate quickly and the thicker stuff can be ‘digested’ by marine microbes quite efficiently.

In open oceans, even a large spill will disperse in a few weeks. Closer to shore, there is plenty we can do but we should not overreact.

Oiled seabirds are heartwrenching (and make great TV) but in reality their numbers tend not to be great — birds simply tend to fly away from polluted sea.
Of course, our society depends on oil; until an alternative can be found, it would be foolish to pretend otherwise and in this sense we are all to blame for the Louisiana spill.

Understandably, people living on the Gulf Coast are fearful (and, it must be said, keen to obtain any compensation that may be on offer).
But the fact is these accidents will happen. And the lessons from Nature is that whatever happens from now on, in a couple of years’ time, the silver sands of Florida’s Gulf Coast will be as pristine as they were before the spill.