When the Deepwater Horizon oil rig blew in 2010, it spewed some 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. In order to break up the slick, another 1.84 million gallons of dispersant was added to the mix. This one-two punch of toxic chemicals devastated coastal ecosystems [pdf], but how would such a chemical bombardment affect underwater ecosystems like coral reefs? According to a new study, the
picture is no prettier.
Researchers at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida tested the effects of Deepwater Horizon-type oil and the dispersant used to clean it up, Corexit® 9500int, on coral larvae in the lab to replicate what may have happened following the spill. Larvae colonize reefs by sampling a surface, sticking to it and then changing into a polyp to get growing. They do this based on chemical cues in the water. Adding oil and dispersant, it turns out, severely hinders this sensitive settlement process.
Using carbon nanotubes and a dash of boron, scientists at Rice University have created a sponge that only absorbs oil. The superabsorbent sponge may not be of much use in the kitchen, but selective sucking of oil could be very helpful in cleaning up oil spills in the ocean. Other perks: the nanosponge is attracted to magnets, so that’s they’re easily controlled, and they’re reusable. At the end of this video, grad student Daniel Hashim shows how to extract energy from the oil-soaked nanosponge by burning it. Then you’re left with just the nanosponge, all ready to absorb oil again.
What’s the News: After running aground last week on a remote island off the coast of South Africa, a freighter has leaked over 800 tons of fuel oil, coating an estimated 20,000 already-endangered penguins. “The scene at Nightingale [Island] is dreadful as there is an oil slick around the entire island,” said Tristan Conservation Officer Trevor Glass said in a statement. But even worse, authorities fear that the rats from the soybean-toting ship will swim to the island and destroy the bird population.
What’s the Context:
The Future Holds: Though a salvage tug left Cape Town, South Africa, last Thursday, the earliest it will arrive to help remove fuel is this Wednesday. With little to salvage, authorities say that cleanup is now the main task at hand. As Jay Holcomb, the director emeritus of the International Bird Rescue Research Center, told the New York Times, “Many of the birds have been oiled for over a week, which limits their chances of survival.”
Image: Wikimedia Commons / Arjan Haverkamp
This weekend in watery Venice, Italy, MIT scientists will demonstrate a creation called Seaswarm, a fleet of autonomous swimming bots intended to skim the water’s surface; each bot would drag a sort of mesh net to collect the crude sitting there. According to their creators, the machines will be able to find oil on their own and talk to one another to compute the most efficient way to tidy it up.
The Seaswarm robots, which were developed by a team from MIT’s Senseable City Lab, look like a treadmill conveyor belt that’s been attached to an ice cooler. The conveyor belt piece of the system floats on the surface of the ocean. As it turns, the belt propels the robot forward and lifts oil off the water with the help of a nanomaterial that’s engineered to attract oil and repel water [CNN].
What do you get when you mix oil and dispersants? A mixture that doesn’t seem to be more toxic than oil alone, the EPA said yesterday. Their statement came after a second round of testing eight oil dispersants.
The EPA tested the response of two sensitive Gulf species, the mysid shrimp and a small fish called the inland silverside, which they exposed to mixtures of dispersants plus oil and to oil alone.
The results indicate that the eight dispersants tested are similar to one another based on standard toxicity tests on sensitive aquatic organisms found in the Gulf. These results confirm that the dispersant used in response to the oil spill in the Gulf, Corexit 9500A, is generally no more or less toxic than the other available alternatives. [EPA statement]
Perhaps remembering the company’s repeated failures to stanch the flow over these past months, some officials are calling the maneuver only one possible solution. National Incident Commander Thad Allen said:
“Static kill is not the end all, be all.” [The Telegraph]
Still some hope it is; said Darryl Bourgoyne, director of the Petroleum Engineering Research Lab at Louisiana State University:
“It could be the beginning of the end.” [AP]
Temporary fix or permanent plug, here’s how BP will do it:
In early July we brought you news of the Great Sea Turtle Relocation–an ambitious plan dreamed up by conservationists to scoop up some 70,000 sea turtle eggs from Gulf Coast beaches, to prevent the hatchlings from crawling straight into oil-fouled waters. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service noted that the plan carried considerable risks to the unborn turtles, but said it was the best chance of preventing the die-off an entire generation.
Now the update: Over the past week, the plan has gone into action, and baby turtles are now swimming free in the Atlantic Ocean. But some experts question whether the launched turtles have a chance.
On Alabama and Florida beaches workers are carefully digging up nests, marking the eggs with “this end up” symbols, and packing them in styrofoam coolers for the truck ride to a Kennedy Space Center warehouse. The eggs belong mostly to threatened loggerheads, along with some endangered green, leatherback, and Kemp’s ridley turtles.
Check out a photo gallery of the turtle rearing and release operations after the jump.
Do you hear that? That’s the sound of oil not gushing uncontrollably into the Gulf of Mexico from BP’s leak, for the first time in nearly three months. BP is still running tests on the new cap the company installed this week, but at least for now there’s some for slight optimism.
The flow stopped yesterday afternoon, and BP video feed of its leak site showed quiet containment.
The view on Thursday afternoon was eerily tranquil, just the slate blue of the deep interspersed with small white particles floating across the screen. Though the exact amount of the oil that has poured out of the well may never be known, it was suddenly and for the first time a fixed amount. The disaster was, for a little while at least, finite [The New York Times].
The task now is a pressure test, which will take place over two days. Lower pressure inside the well would mean the surrounding rocks are leaking a little; high pressure would indicate the well is sealed off.
Alex was by no means a whopper, reaching category 2 status at its height and blowing with winds just over 100 miles per hour. While mild by hurricane standards, it meant that only the largest ships, like those doing the relief well drilling and oil capturing, could stay out at sea.
Hundreds of shrimp boats that were converted into oil skimmers now sit in port, and the tall waves tossed boom that was holding back the oil onto the beaches of Grand Isle, La. The beaches are now too dangerous even for cleanup crews. “Those booms, they don’t seem like they were designed for this kind of wave action,” said Matthew Slavich, an oyster fisherman hired by BP for cleanup efforts. He was out on the open water trying to lay boom today, but didn’t stay long [ABC News].
Besides hampering cleanup efforts, Alex also negated some of the work crews already did.
Hurricane predictors warned us this season could be a bad one, and could bring unknown consequences for the ongoing BP oil spill. We may soon find out what those consequences are, as Tropical Storm Alex moves toward the Gulf and may reach hurricane status today.
Supposing Alex reaches the spill, it might not be all bad.
Waves churned up by Alex — as high as 12 feet — could help break up the patches of oil scattered across the sea. The higher-than-normal winds that radiate far from the storm also could help the crude evaporate faster. “The oil isn’t in one solid sheet. It’s all broken up into patches anyway. It will actually work to break those patches down,” said Piers Chapman, chairman of the oceanography department at Texas A&M University [AP].