Archive | November 2012

With friends like these, who needs anemones?

Rotifer

A rotifer. Image: Georgia Institute of Technology

Here’s your environmental LOLZ for the day: Gulf of Mexico clean-up makes 2010 spill 52-times more toxic — mixing oil with dispersant increased toxicity to ecosystems

That’s right. It turns out that, according to a study by Georgia Tech and the Universidad Autonoma de Aguascalientes (published in the journal Environmental Pollution), the dispersant chemicals BP used to deal with the crude oil may have ended up making the Deepwater Horizon spill 52 times more toxic than it would have been otherwise.

It’s not like nobody was concerned about this at the time. After all, if you’re trying to protect important marine ecosystems, the last thing you would normally do is spray detergent all over them. But you weigh your choices, and both BP and EPA felt it was better to try breaking up the oil slick into smaller globlets that, well, dispersed more easily and might be carried away from vulnerable coastlines.

Little blobs of oil also have way more surface area than one contiguous slick, which means that the blobs might be more quickly broken down by plankton and bacteria. Many types of small ocean critters will eat crude oil — another recent study by several Alabama institutions indicates that plankton populations increase when exposed to crude — and the authorities wanted to make the oil as bite-size-snackable as possible for the little guys.

Unfortunately, though, it’s hard for our planktonic pals to eat up your crude oil when you have killed them all off, and the GT-UAA study shows that the dispersant BP used, Corexit, is extremely toxic to planktonic rotifers when combined with oil. The Alabama study found that many types of plankton died when exposed to mixtures of Corexit and crude oil. Since these animals are mostly producers and primary consumers, a mass die-off could have reverberations throughout the Gulf food web. We haven’t seen evidence that this is happening on a large scale, but given that BP used more than 1.8 million gallons of dispersant in the Gulf, and given that effects of oil spills may not show up until years later, I wouldn’t count my baby rotifers before they hatch.

IMPORTANT FACT: It was EPA regulations that required BP to use dispersants. Obviously they need to review such policies in light of these studies. And in light of being sued by several environmental groups. But hey — at least there was ONE THING that wasn’t BP’s fault, right? It’s not like they knew this would happen, and they did their best to ensure that they harmed the environment as little as possible … right?

Weeeeeell, kind of. Except that Corexit was known to have major toxicity issues — more so than available alternatives. In fact, according to a Popular Science article and a more recent AP article, EPA tried to tell them to use a less-toxic dispersant, but BP refused and said, basically, “You don’t know it’s that bad.”

I’m sorry, aren’t you the guys who said the Deepwater Horizon rig was safe?

On the other hand…

If you’re a fan of classical tragedies, this might cheer you up: http://www.climatecentral.org/news/sea-level-rising-faster-than-average-in-the-u.s.-northeast-15129

Or — if your house is currently underwater after Hurricane Sandy — possibly not.

Houses in Bellmar, NJ

Houses in Bellmar, NJ – Photo by Peter Ackerman, Asbury Park Press

 

Just in case you needed more bad news on climate change…

Oh yeah, so it turns out that all these climatic effects are interconnected, and previous models of climate change and sea-level rise are missing some key positive feedback loops (at least, according to William Hay of the University of Colorado) — which might explain why they keep being wrong.

“You would expect negative feedbacks to creep in at some point,” says Hay. “But in climate change, every feedback seems to go positive.”

**To tell you the truth, I’m not sure I understand the part in the ScienceDaily article about Arctic ocean circulation — possibly because I haven’t seen the GSA lecture. I thought freshwater inputs from melting sea ice were supposed to inhibit heat transport to the Arctic, not cause warmer water to flow in. But I’m done thinking for today, it’s already 6 p.m.**

Yet another reminder that the global climate is ridiculously complex. Good luck, climate-modeling guys! I’ll be here hitting myself on the head with a spoon.