Science and Spills

While we anxiously await a closer telling of the geologists in Afghanistan tale, there are some fascinating moments of science in action to be found in this gripping tale of Deepwater Horizon's last hours and immediate aftermath.

I had no idea how ridiculously huge and complex these drilling rigs are. I know that the federal government pitched deep sea exploration as a kind of parallel to space exploration in the second half of the twentieth century: exploring inner space. Sean Flynn draws on a similar metaphor: "Deep-sea drilling is a risky and complicated process, of course—the oil industry's equivalent of a moon shot—and it's vulnerable to all sorts of delays."

The scientists, as opposed to the engineers and technicians, only make a cameo here and they are set up against BP's official pronouncements on the volume of the leak. The problem of knowledge becomes: how do we settle on a measurement of oil flow at a mile and one half (8,000 feet) below the Gulf's surface. I post the relevant passage after the break, but the entire story---for all its detail and pathos---demands to be read. Read more...


The Spreading Poison
7 Days After the Blast
A small armada of oil skimmers and service boats are puttering about the Gulf of Mexico, attending to what is, officially, a minor ecological untidiness. The wounded Macondo well supposedly is trickling a mere thousand barrels of crude into the sea every day.
That is a ridiculous number, and an obviously ridiculous one, albeit less ridiculous than the one announced four days ago, which was zero. "The blowout preventer," Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary Landry announced at a press briefing on Friday, April 23, "appears to be working."
It is important to note that Admiral Landry was not obfuscating. Rather, she—indeed, everyone—was relying on BP for information. The BOP is under a mile of water, in a dark and murky place that can be seen only by remotely controlled submersibles, which the Coast Guard neither owns nor operates. Visibility is so poor and the water so deep, in fact, that it required two days of searching to locate the capsized wreckage of the Horizon, which had burned for thirty-six hours before toppling into the waves.
The Friday briefing was not, primarily, about the potential environmental impact but was instead to announce that the Coast Guard was suspending its search for Shane Roshto and the other ten missing men. After twenty-eight sorties by plane and boat and helicopter covering a swath of ocean the size of Connecticut, "we have reached the point," Landry said, "where the reasonable expectation of survival has passed."
So that left the oil, or the threat of the oil. By Tuesday, a week after the explosion, when the BOP has clearly failed and the well is purportedly leaking only 1,000 barrels a day, crude the color of dime-store chocolate streaks miles of the surface in long, ragged ribbons. Approaching from the north, even a mile out, before the stink begins to sting the eyes, the water is divided by a stark and clearly defined line, a border of oil.
Given the undeniable silliness of its initial estimate, BP soon quintuples it to 5,000 barrels a day, another egregious lowball that for weeks will be repeated religiously by reporters, a fragment of boilerplate—210,000 gallons a day—in daily news reports.
Meanwhile, other scientists—oceanographers, environmentalists, an assortment of professionals who share no culpability in having punctured a hemorrhaging wound in the earth's surface—calculate much higher figures based on satellite imagery and a basic understanding of how the ocean functions. Oil bleeding out of a hole a mile down, for instance, will get swept into sub-sea currents and dragged Lord knows where; deep-sea pressure will make it heavier, less likely to rise; thousands of gallons of chemical dispersants, a toxin in their own right, break the crude into droplets that linger at staggering depths. In mid-May scientists will discover plumes of oil, miles long and miles wide, spreading at 4,300 and 2,600 feet below the surface.
BP, for its part, maintains that measuring the flow more precisely isn't possible (not true, but whatever), and in any case, what's the point? If it can't clean up 5,000 barrels a day, BP seems to be saying, what difference does it make if Macondo is spewing 70,000? To BP, for right now, it makes no difference at all, except that 5,000 isn't nearly so catastrophic a number. BP can't unwreck the ocean, and the damage, environmental and economic ruin on a heretofore unimaginable scale, will become apparent in time, when the lawyers and public-relations people are better equipped to deal with it.


Thanks Dan. I would recommend this exercise to every entering college student this summer: try to estimate the rate of oil leakage in the Gulf, based on whatever information you can obtain. The solution attempts can give everyone a bit of useful material with which to discuss critical thinking, the politics of corporate power, garbage-in garbage-out computations, the hallmarks of valid quantitative reasoning (such as a solution with at most one significant digit!), even "why one might want to learn calculus" regardless of your major prospective interest.

Ooh. That's a terrific idea. I may even attempt it myself in the not too distant futures. Others are welcome to post their answers here.

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