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“Live Streaming” Oil and Video May 30, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in BP/Deepwater Horizon oil catastrophe, Buddhist concepts, oil, oil spill.
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BP has officially declared that its operation “Top Kill” has been a failure. Of course I wish it hadn’t failed even though I dislike the phrase– “top kill”– used to describe the sadly comical ‘operation’.  The experts disingenuously choose words that they hope will convey to onlookers some degree of confidence while the professionals dump old tires, golf balls, and mud into the hole to plug the leak.

I’m unsurprised completely that “top kill” has failed. Try to plug an open fire hydrant with the palm of your hand and simulate the challenge the fixer-uppers face.

It’s difficult to feel anything other than despair. Buddhist thinkers would tell us at least to pay attention. My advice? Don’t be distracted from concentrating on this reality by obscure terminology and political spin. Monitor the source of the disaster by watching here the live streaming video of the plume of oil gushing from the site of the BP/Transocean calamity and the Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) attempt to stop the flow.

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Encyclopedia of Earth and BP/Deepwater Horizon Fiasco May 27, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in BP/Deepwater Horizon oil catastrophe, fossil fuel, oil, oil spill.
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Encyclopedia of Earth, is a relatively new electronic reference about Earth’s natural environments and society’s interactions with them. It’s free, searchable, and credible–a peer-reviewed collection of articles written in non-technical language by scholars and educators that is supported by the National Council for Science and the Environment (a not-for-profit organization dedicated to improving the scientific basis for environmental decisionmaking).

As the ongoing BP/Deepwater Horizon fiasco unfolds, check out an article in the  Encyclopedia by Cutler Cleveland, professor of geography and environment at Boston University. Cleveland comprehensively summarizes and analyzes the situation. We need to understand what happened; we’re going to live with effects of this episode for a very long time.

Eaarth in the Anthropocene May 20, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in "Eaarth", Anthropocene, Bill McKibben, geologic time.
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In her recent piece in Yale Environment 360The Anthropocene Debate: Marking Humanity’s Impact,” New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert addresses cogently the official reflection among my colleagues in the geological community regarding the possibility of crowning the geological time scale with a new name to characterize this age on Earth. Kolbert explains that the International Commission on Stratigraphy—the scientific group that minds geological time by tracking discoveries that effect the perceived location of Era, Period, and Epoch boundaries of the time scale—is taking seriously the question of whether or not to dub this geological moment on the planet the Anthropocene. Nobel prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer, an expert on ubiquitous microscopic algae (diatoms) used to study environmental change, proposed the designation at the turn of the millennium in the newsletter of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme. By their report, since all components of the earth system (atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, and rock sphere) had been changed, and would continue to be changed on global scales by human activities, an important step towards a maintaining a livable environment would be to acknowledge with nomenclature this fact.

When I served on the Council of the Geological Society of America, I was glad to learn that the wider geoscientific community was considering this action. But regardless of the results of the deliberations that Kolbert details—ones that will be difficult because, as Kolbert aptly points out we geologists designate periods of geological time on the basis of fossils enclosed in sedimentary rock strata that mark the extinction or new appearance of life forms—I believe that humankind can’t wait for the slow wheels of science to dub formally this new time period. Regardless of whether the legend of the Roman emperor Nero is true, this contemplative mode could be perceived as the geoscientific community fiddling while Rome burns. Indeed, in the past when geologists have worked to parse earth history into discreet episodes, extended debate perhaps arising from our understanding of deep time has characterized our thinking. Resolution of the Devonian controversy in which members of the London-based Geological Survey, Adam Sedgwick, Roderick Murchison, and Henry de la Beche argued over the disposition of sediments in Devonshire took years.

In fact, in his newest, no-nonsense book Eaarth: Making a Living on Tough New Planet, Bill McKibben, author of more than a dozen books including The End of Nature (1989), perhaps the first book for the layperson about climate change, and founder of 350.org, the grassroots global warming awareness campaign, avers that we have passed through the geological moment in which Earth has mutated into Eaarth, a planet “not as nice as the old one” but one on which we still have to live. Though he doesn’t name it as such, McKibben rightly asserts that we have moved from The Holocene Epoch—the most recent 12,000 years since the Earth emerged from the last major ice age—into Crutzen and Stoermer’s Anthropocene.

Of all the ideas I hope my geology students will grasp, the notion that humans have acted as geological agents at non-geological time scales is most important to me. Though I will watch with interest the attempts of my scientific community to codify and articulate the scale of contemporary global change, I feel comfortable calling this new Epoch the Anthropocene.  Here’s why.

Earth formed approximately 4500 million years ago, also known as 4.5 billion years ago. It’s difficult to get a good sense of this length of time but it is critical to the project of grappling with the reality of the Anthropocene Epoch, whether officially recognized or not. As all geologists know and as John McPhee following David Brower popularized, using a calendar year as a metaphor for the 4500 million years of Earth history and employing January 1, New Year’s Day, as the Earth’s birthday, it’s possible to calculate the location of any calendar date in an Earth Year and detail the life and environment that existed at that moment in Earth history. “This Date in the Earth Year,” my name for this mental accounting, can help others develop an informed opinion on the issue of the Holocene/Anthropocene boundary.

For example today, May 17, is day 137 out of 365 days in this (non-leap) year. With approximately one-third of a calendar year having elapsed, one might think that at this point in the Earth Year, some pretty complex organisms might have been roaming the planet. Not so. In geologic time, May 17 represents 2811 million years ago, the Archean, when the only living things around were bacteria and the atmosphere was rich in methane and ammonia while oxygen poor.

Skip ahead to September 14, day 257 of 365; this date in the Earth Year brings us to 1330 million years ago, the Proterozoic —the second of the two eons that comprise the immense stretch of time called the Precambrian. Many of the most important events in earth history took place during the Precambrian including not only the formation of life, the accretion of the earth’s first tectonic plates, and the evolution of eukaryotic cells (single-celled organisms with internal organization). Still, at 1330 million years—the middle Proterozoic—the only living things on Earth were ocean-dwelling single-celled organisms. It took hundreds of millions of years but single-celled oceanic organisms changed the composition of the atmosphere so that by this point in the Earth Year, there was enough oxygen to cause iron to rust.

Fast-forward to November 10, day 314, approximately 629 million years ago. You think, “Ah, now we’re getting somewhere.” But that puts us only in the Vendian, the latest portion of the Proterozoic eon. Still, some rocks of this age, known most famously from the Ediacara Hills north of Adelaide, Australia, contain the earliest clear fossil evidence of multicellular animals; they indicate that these organisms, for the first time in earth history, have become a significant life form. Spindle-shaped, long and pointed at both ends; branching, tree-like or network-like structures; large, round, disc shapes; lumpy cabbage-like figures; and, frond-like leafy forms. The Ediacaran fauna was large and flat with lots of external surface area; their relation to younger life remains obscure. As a result, some paleontologists assign them to a completely separate kingdom of multicellular life.

“When do we get to us?” you ask. Well, November 17, day 321, marks the beginning of the Paleozoic Era when hard-bodied multicellular life began to proliferate and flourish. (Note that geologists also have debated the character and timing of this major boundary of the geologic time scale). But the entire Paleozoic Era, with its trilobites, brachiopods, and first land plants and animals is over by December 11, day 345. That’s 247 million years ago and we’re into the Mesozoic Era, the familiar age of dinosaurs. The Cenozoic Era began 65 million years ago on December 26. The Pleistocene, the epoch known as our most recent icy past—that which preceded the Holocene (now retired from my lexicon of the present)—occupies the waning hours of December 31. And that’s when we arrived and rapidly enriched Earth’s atmosphere in carbon dioxide, built mountains out of garbage, acidified the oceans, and melted the cryosphere.

Whether we place the Anthropocene’s beginning with James Watt’s invention of the steam engine in 1784 or the first atomic tests in the 1940s, we might well apply Henry de la Beche’s words from the Devonian controversy (as quoted by historian of science Martin Rudwick): “Let us hope that the day is past when preconceived opinions are to be set up, as good as arguments, against facts; because if they are, let that fact at least be clearly understood.” In our short tenure on Earth, we geological latecomers have swiftly and profoundly altered the planet. As McKibben asserts and Kolbert reiterates, we have built a new Eaarth. Like changes marking other divisions of the geologic time scale, whether tectonic, climatic, or organismal, Eaarth differs enough from Earth that we might as well acknowledge a new time as well as a new place.

George Kenney on the BP Oil Catastrophe May 16, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in BP/Deepwater Horizon oil catastrophe, disasters, fossil fuel, oil, oil spill.
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George Kenney, a former career U.S. foreign service officer who resigned in 1991 over U.S. policy toward the Yugoslav conflict, is a writer and consultant based in Washington, D.C.  He produces and hosts a podcast at Electric Politics and is on the Board of Editors of the magazine In These Times. The following comment is from his blog where, in addition to the kind words about my post, he states that he will not use the word “spill” to describe the catastrophe unfolding in the Gulf:

Word Power

Deepwater Horizon rig burningEvery now and then — well, probably more often than that — public discourse settles upon the wrong word to describe something important. Using the wrong word makes it much more difficult, if not impossible, to have an intelligent and productive exchange of ideas. Such is the case with the Gulf catastrophe. At some subliminal level I had hesitated a fraction of a second before using the word “spill,” but mentally shrugged and went ahead and used it anyway. Like everybody else. That was a mistake. As Jill Schneiderman points out, in an absolutely brilliant, perfectly simple observation, it’s not a spill: It’s a gusher, or a blowout, or something along those lines. The earth’s crust is cracked, a mind-boggling volume of oil has started to leak out. It might even leak a billion barrels. We just don’t know. And we really don’t know how to fix it… Thanks, Jill, and Kudos to you! The word “spill” shall now be retired, at least on this blog.

The Earth Day BP Oil Catastrophe: When Do We Say “Dayenu” (Enough)? May 14, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Barbados, BP/Deepwater Horizon oil catastrophe, Buddhist concepts, disasters, earth community, fossil fuel, oil, oil spill.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.

“What counts is not the enormity of the task, but the size of the courage,” says Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk and confidant of the Dalai Lama who was dubbed “Mr. Happy” after U.S. neuroscientists declared him the most content man they ever tested. Ricard’s statement resonated for me in light of continued developments in what I’ve come to think of as the Earth Day BP Oil Catastrophe. We’re going to need this kind of inspiration in order to deal with the Gulf of Mexico mess because the magnitude of the task before us—stopping the forcefully gushing oil, cleaning up devastated habitat, caring for injured or soon-to-be-harmed living beings in the path of the petroleum, protecting as yet unaffected regions—boggles the mind as it stirs the heart.

Since I’ve just returned from a weeklong Jewish Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Training retreat, I’ve been away from the news of this calamity. But sad to say, my geologist’s perspective leaves me unsurprised by broadcasts of impotent efforts of oil industry professionals to handle the tragedy. Why? Because I’ve been sitting for the last week paying attention to body sensations, I’ll just say that we earth scientists feel in our guts the vast scales of Earth time and space; (it’s why I write about them). As Congress and a federal panel in Louisiana begin their inquiry into the situation not one person should be perplexed by the sequence of events that follow the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon oilrig. Here’s why.

First of all, this event is much more than just another “oil spill.” To me, the word spill suggests flow from a confined space and implies a finite amount of liquid. The monster in the Gulf of Mexico is a gusher, a blowout, an uncontrolled flow of oil from a well bored into the earth, what drillers call a “wild well.” Dr. Frankenstein has put a spigot in the Earth and can’t shut it off.

When in September 2009 BP announced its discovery of the Tiber oilfield—what the workers on the Deepwater Horizon were boring into when it exploded—they characterized it as “giant” and meant to convey that their find contained between four and six billion barrels of oil; this contrasts with a “huge” oilfield usually considered to contain 250 million barrels of the stuff. Regardless of whether it’s giant or huge, this Gulf of Mexico event is more than a spill. Basically we’ve tapped into a source of oil that will not be exhausted quickly. Isn’t that ironic?

It’s impossible to conceptualize such vast quantities, and as the crude oil continues to spew for the 24th consecutive day at daily rates reported to be 210,000 gallons, I’d like to help. Check out a Google Earth map website by Paul Rademacher that will allow you to compare the horizontal extent of the oil with the geographic size of your city, county or state. I checked Barbados, the tiny island on which I currently live; the crude oil would blanket it completely.

Ditto my home county—Dutchess in New York. It’s way bigger than Rhode Island, our convenient measuring rod for environmental disaster (Remember the Larsen Ice Shelf? The 220 meter thick—three football fields—chunk of ice “the size of Rhode Island” that disintegrated in 2002 after having been stable for up to 12,000 years.) Check the places that matter most to you and sense in your gut the feeling caused by the spatial comparison.

And speaking of space, oil and gas executives crowed about their record-setting achievement, touting it as one of the deepest wells ever achieved by their industry—drilled 35,055 feet deep into the Earth’s crust beneath 4,132 feet of water. You may wonder, “Just how deep into the earth is that?” Let’s put it this way, transcontinental flights cruise at that elevation above the Earth’s surface. Next time you are in an airplane, picture a pipe connecting your jet to the surface of the Earth and you’ll have a picture of the distance that BP went to access the Tiber Oilfield black gold.

Would that these innovators had gone to such extremes in order to apply to their work an ethical code that includes the Precautionary Principle:

“When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”

Regrettably, precautionary action has been the exception rather than the rule in U.S. environmental policy. Perhaps it has operated to the frustration of some in decisions concerning disposal of high-level radioactive waste at Yucca Mountain, but the Earth Day BP Oil Catastrophe demonstrates the virtue of Vorsorgeprinzip, German for “precautionary principle.” Literally, Vorsorge means “forecaring” and conveys forethought and preparedness—not simply “caution.” I say that a plan to bore “the deepest well ever” into the Earth, should be accompanied by accurately scaled and well-tested models for responding to unexpected contingencies. Ahimsa, first do no harm.

The first homework assignment of my Jewish Mindfulness Teacher Training program was to read Jack Kornfield on the five basic Buddhist training precepts. Number two, “we undertake the precept of refraining from taking that which is not given,” strikes me as particularly apt given the circumstances in the Gulf. We consent to not take that which does not belong to us. We agree to bring consciousness to the use of all of the earth’s resources in a respectful and ecological way.

When will we, like Job, clap our hands to our mouths with the realization that human beings occupy an infinitesimal place within a divine whole? When will the “knowledge” of modernity succumb to the wisdom of the ancients? Could the answer to Job’s question of how long must his people suffer, “Till towns lie waste without inhabitants, and houses without people; and the ground lies waste and desolate (Isaiah 6:11),” be also the answer to the question, when will the oil stop gushing? The chutzpah of humans got us into this mess; humility will help us out of it. We will need clear mind, wise heart, and sizable courage to say dayenu, enough.

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This entry was created by Jill S. Schneiderman, posted on May 14, 2010 at 11:17 am and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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Pandora’s Oil Well May 11, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in BP/Deepwater Horizon oil catastrophe, disasters, fossil fuel, geologic time, oil, oil spill.
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This piece is cross-posted at truthout and CommonDreams.org.

It has also be re-posted on Peninsula Peace and Justice Center.

Technical jargon conceals by confusion. The immense scale of the problem surrounding the sinking of the Transocean drilling rig, “Deepwater Horizon,” requires that the public stay alert when confronted with slick lingo.  So, I’d like to help readers understand from a geologist’s viewpoint the sad absurdity of the Gulf of Mexico situation—one that is much more than yet another “oil spill.”

In September 2009 BP announced their discovery of the “giant” Tiber oilfield and crowed that drilling a 35,055 foot deep well into the earth’s crust under 4,132 feet of water made it one of the deepest wells ever achieved by their industry. Less than one year later, BP had to alert the public to an explosion and fire onboard the semisubmersible drilling rig—a “unit” floating above the seafloor that when flooded causes the contraption to submerge a desired depth and produce relative stability while drilling for oil and gas in rough waters. The rig was mining oil from the “Mississippi Canyon 252 well” that British Petroleum (BP) owns. And on Earth Day 2010, we learned that BP had “activated an extensive oil spill response” and was working with Transocean using remotely operated vehicles to assess the condition of the Tiber well and the “subsea blowout preventer.”

A critical distinction here is between an oil spill and a blowout. I tried to look up the definition of “oil spill” in OilGasGlossary.com and found the following: “Sorry, but we can’t found (sic) the definition of Oil Spill in our Oil Gas Glossary.” I don’t mean to be disingenuous. I really just wanted to have confirmed my instinct that the vernacular meaning of spill, to flow from a confined space, implies a finite amount of oil. In contrast, the Glossary told me that a blowout is an uncontrolled flow of oil, water, or gas from a well bored into the earth. It suggests to me a comparatively unlimited quantity of the black gold. When BP announced their discovery and termed it “giant” they meant to convey that the Tiber oilfield contained somewhere between four and six billion barrels of oil; this contrasts with a “huge” oilfield usually considered to contain 250 million barrels of the stuff. Regardless of whether it’s giant or huge, this Gulf of Mexico event is more than a spill.

What we have beneath the Gulf of Mexico is a gusher folks. Only unlike 1859 when drillers greeted gushers with celebratory hoots, in 2010 BP confronts the Mississippi Canyon blowout with a relief well—that’s another well drilled near and into the well that is out of control. BP doesn’t use the phrase but drillers call the continuously spewing wells, “wild wells.” Forgive me, but it’s hard to feel reassured by the company’s assertion that they’ve begun to remedy the subsurface problem—oil escaping with great force from inside the earth to the planet’s watery surface—in this manner.

I’m reminded of the Centralia, Pennsylvania underground coal seam fire that has been burning since 1962. Like other coal seam fires, it may continue to burn underground for decades or even centuries until the fuel source is exhausted.  So too the polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), banned by the U.S. Congress in 1979 yet still leaking into the Hudson River three decades later from fractures in rock beneath the General Electric facilities at Hudson Falls and Fort Edward, New York where the company utilized PCBs in the manufacture of capacitors.

The time and space scales of the earth dwarf those of us mere humans, yet we tinker with the Earth’s resources, manipulate them for our purposes, and underplay the risks we take. We scramble at the surface of the Earth to curtail the disastrous upshots of our inane technological “achievements.”

When Prometheus stole fire from Mount Olympus and gave it to people living on Earth, he angered Zeus. The king of the Olympians exacted revenge on humans by ordering the creation from earth of Pandora who would be a vehicle for bringing misery to mortals. According to the myth Pandora’s box (jar)—a present from the Gods—loosed upon earth all the sorrows and plagues then known to humanity. In 2010, we’ve opened Pandora’s well—Mississippi Canyon 252—spewing oil, sowing suffering, and defying control.

The Earth Strikes Back? May 1, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in climate change, earthquakes, volcanic hazards.
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A former student of ours in the Vassar College Department of Earth Science and Geography, Ian Saginor, has a nice editorial on CNN, “Are Earthquakes Getting Worse? No!”

It answers questions that I suspect may occur to readers of EarthDharma.