Sunday, May 30, 2010

That Fresh Forest Air

There's a faint smell of smoke hanging in the hazy air this morning here in Portland. I went to a local diner for breakfast and asked if there had been a fire somewhere in the city overnight, but nobody knew of one. Besides, it doesn't have the harsh, metallic odor of a burning building; it's a more woody smell, like a brush fire.

And indeed, that's what it appears to be. This morning's northwesterly winds seem to be carrying a plume of wood smoke across hundreds of miles, from forest fires in the boreal woods of Quebec and eastern Ontario.

Maine's Air Quality Forecast is predicting "Moderate - Limited Health Notice" levels of particulate pollution statewide today, with this explanation:
"Particle pollution values are very high this morning from smoke due to fires in the Province of Quebec. A number of these fires continue to burn out of control. Brisk northwest winds will be directing the smoke and particle pollution toward Maine today. Normally brisk winds cause a lot of mixing and the pollution levels lessen. However, the levels are so high that this turbulence will not be able to completely drop particle pollution levels. In addition, these brisk winds could easily cause these fires to burn more strongly."
As of 9 am, though, particulate pollution levels in Portland had exceeded 50 micrograms per cubic meter - a reading that far exceeds "Moderate" levels and approaches the code-red "Unhealthy" status in the federal Air Quality Index.

It's just my luck that I came down with a serious sore throat yesterday - this morning's bad air isn't helping matters.

Elsewhere in the nation, smoke from agricultural burns in the Mississippi River valley and the upper midwest is also blowing into cities across the southeast and midwest. At right is a snapshot of surface smoke in New England at 11 am today, courtesy of the National Weather Service's excellent Air Quality forecasting site.

Visit this link watch the smoke creep towards the ocean over a 12-hour loop of satellite images (choose "1 hour average surface smoke" from the drop-down menu).

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Real Dr. Frankenstein: Artificial Life Is Here

As of today, artificial life is real. Craig Venter, one of the founding fathers of genomics, has successfully created a new life form built from scratch from a synthetic, engineered genome.

According to Earth2Tech, "The researchers built a synthetic chromosome and inserted it into a living bacterial cell, where it — for the first time and published in the journal Science today — took over the cell and became a new life form."

So the world's first man-made life form is also a body-snatcher.

Venter's research is being funded largely on the hopes that it will produce new organisms to help convert sugars into ethanol, or to engineer a new algae that not only absorbs CO2, but also could be used as a transportation fuel. In fact, Venter's startup, Synthetic Genomics, Inc., has been operating in partnership with ExxonMobil's research and development office.

There's a strain of environmentalism that believes that climate change is catastrophic and unavoidable, and the best option for us now is not to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but to embark on large-scale "geo-engineering" projects to reverse-engineer the Earth's atmosphere into a cooler state. Ideas range from pumping smoke into the upper atmosphere to give us more shade, to seeding the oceans with iron to promote plankton growth.

These ideas horrify mainstream environmentalists because there's nothing to indicate that these ideas would work, or that they wouldn't inflict serious unforeseen consequences. To me, the worst thing about the geo-engineers is that they think it's a good idea to spend a lot of money and exert massive efforts in order to treat the symptoms of climate change - not the causes.

It seems to me that Dr. Venter's devotion to synthetic life has too much in common with the geo-engineers' perspective, even though his work is on a microscopic (instead of planetary) scale.

It's a huge effort, a science-fiction fantasy come to life, and for what? So we can fuel our minivans with the world's agricultural crops instead of with oil. Thanks, science - I guess.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Loop Current

In 1992, a container ship crossing the Pacific Ocean from China lost its cargo of nearly 29,000 rubber duck toys during a winter storm. In the nearly two decades since then, the toys - easily identified by the "First Years" brand name etched in the plastic - have washed up on the shores of Alaska, Chile, and Australia, drifted through Arctic pack ice, and - as of 2007 - started showing up on the shores of Europe.

But what could have been another banal contribution to the Pacific Garbage Patch instead became a valuable scientific experiment. Oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer has been spending the past two decades keeping track of where the rubber toys end up, and when, for a detailed insight into the nature of ocean currents.

Now, another petroleum-based consumer product is giving us a real-time lesson on how ocean currents work in the Gulf of Mexico. Here's a satellite view of the big oil slick from Monday, via NASA's Earth Observatory:

See that long tendril of an oil slick stretching out towards the southeast? That's the Gulf Loop Current, and here's where it's taking the oil next (via the Palm Beach Post):

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

When life gives you oil spills...

New street art from Priest, via Wooster Collective.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Disaster and Responsibility

At the beginning of this week, Paul Krugman wrote about the Gulf's oil spill as an old-fashioned, photogenic environmental disaster, one that might finally spur America's leaders to grow a backbone and fight for clean energy:
Environmentalism began as a response to pollution that everyone could see. The spill in the gulf recalls the 1969 blowout that coated the beaches of Santa Barbara in oil. But 1969 was also the year the Cuyahoga River, which flows through Cleveland, caught fire. Meanwhile, Lake Erie was widely declared “dead,” its waters contaminated by algal blooms. And major U.S. cities — especially, but by no means only, Los Angeles — were often cloaked in thick, acrid smog.

It wasn’t that hard, under the circumstances, to mobilize political support for action... [yet] as visible pollution has diminished, so has public concern over environmental issues. According to a recent Gallup survey, “Americans are now less worried about a series of environmental problems than at any time in the past 20 years.”

This decline in concern would be fine if visible pollution were all that mattered — but it isn’t, of course. In particular, greenhouse gases pose a greater threat than smog or burning rivers ever did. But it’s hard to get the public focused on a form of pollution that’s invisible, and whose effects unfold over decades rather than days.
So suddenly we have a very visible reminder of why we need alternatives to oil. Some good could come of this, right?

But there's a big problem with this line of reasoning. As terrible as this oil spill has been, and will be, the scale and impacts of this disaster don't come anywhere near the scale and impacts of global climate change. They are separate problems.

True, oil has been a trigger for both problems, and therefore, Krugman reasons, they might share a common solution: generate more clean energy, burn less oil.

Oil rigs under construction in Galveston, Texas in spring 2008.
These are huge, tremendously complex and expensive machines. BP may have been the organization responsible for the Deepwater Horizon rig, but we - the American motoring public - were the financiers.

But the fact that global warming and this oil spill are very different problems also means that they don't necessarily have to share the same solution. In fact, the dominating conclusion that people on the left have been jumping to is one that actually won't do a damn bit of good for the climate in the long term.

That knee-jerk "solution" is to ban offshore drilling, without doing much of anything to reduce our energy use or develop alternatives. This addresses the visible part of the disaster - the part that Krugman sees as the biggest opportunity. But it doesn't do anything to address the more insidious, less visible threat of climate change.

Attendant with this has been a lot of facile political mockery of the "drill baby drill" contingent. This may be fun, but it's not especially productive. The oil spill is creating a political spectacle as well as an environmental one:

Lisa Margonelli, an expert on oil supplies, explained one of the big problems with these reactions in a thoughtful New York Times op-ed last weekend:
Whether this spill turns out to be the result of a freakish accident or a cascade of negligence, the likely political outcome will be a moratorium on offshore drilling. Emotionally, I love this idea. Who wants an oil drill in his park or on his coastline? Who doesn’t want to punish Big Oil on behalf of the birds?

Moratoriums have a moral problem, though. All oil comes from someone’s backyard, and when we don’t reduce the amount of oil we consume, and refuse to drill at home, we end up getting people to drill for us in Kazakhstan, Angola and Nigeria — places without America’s strong environmental safeguards or the resources to enforce them.
It's worth noting that this disaster is happening in the Gulf Coast because the poorer states of the Deep South share a predilection for weak environmental laws, and therefore their coastlines are the only place in United States waters where drilling is allowed. Plenty of people who find drilling distasteful are only too happy to burn the fruits of the Gulf Coast's rigs and refineries: see "Exporting Pollution to Dixie," from December 2007.

Margonelli goes on to suggest that "we should throw our newfound political will behind a sweeping commitment to use less gas." But that, of course, would require more than political will: it would require environmentalists to set aside our Palin-bashing, "we told you so" grandstanding to actually accept our own personal responsibility for the oil we use, and do something foresighted and intelligent.

It would also require us all to share culpability for this oil spill, by acknowledging that everyone who burns gasoline shares responsibility for the thousands of oil rigs in the world's oceans, and the risks that those rigs create for our environment.

Personally, I'm not holding my breath for that outcome. Earlier in the same column, Margonelli notes that BP's ludicrous "Beyond Petroleum" slogan had been extremely successful, in part, because it "accurately reflect[s] drivers’ desire to buy unlimited gasoline while remaining 'beyond' all the mess" [side note: you may recall that BP was also the force behind Los Angeles's "green" gas station a few years ago].

The facile fantasies that banning offshore drilling will save our environment, or that it's all Sarah Palin's fault, are inextricably linked to the fantasy that driving hundreds of miles every week can ever be "sustainable" - the fantasy of the 20th-century American Dream.

Put another way: it's a lot easier to caricature evil corporations and score political points against stupid Republican slogans than to examine the lifestyle we take for granted, take personal responsibility for it, and work to change the economy that spends trillions of dollars to squeeze oil from our oceans.

It is "Commute Another Way" month, if anyone's interested in burning a little less oil.


Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Spill, Baby, Spill

Two weeks ago, my wife and I spent a weekend in Port Aransas, Texas for our the wedding of Katy and Zach, who love the beach as well as each other. For our first two days there, it was hazy and muggy and difficult to see very far. Still, in the evenings we could see lights out at sea.

But on the third morning, rain showers had cleared the air. When we looked out to the ocean, we were suddenly able to see dozens of oil rigs and platforms scattered along the horizon, as though they had just appeared overnight.

Port Aransas drilling platforms, by Flickr user austrini.

It might be because I grew up in Maine, but looking out at the ocean has never really inspired a sense of awe in me, the way it seems to for others. But seeing the oil rigs at Port Aransas made me feel differently. Looking at these huge machines as tiny blips on the horizon really impressed me with how huge the ocean really is. Each of these rigs had crews that would be flown in by helicopter to live there for month-long shifts. They're tiny villages isolated by miles and miles of ocean, like outposts on a watery and hostile prairie.

But the biggest feeling of awe didn't come from contemplating the vast ocean. It came from contemplating the tremendous wealth and social complexity necessary to plant thousands of these rigs and their crews miles out to sea.

A map of offshore oil and gas platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, from Wikipedia.

From Port Aransas we drove through a landscape of ride fields and petrochemical refineries to Houston, home to the headquarters of most major oil companies doing business in the United States, including BP. While we were there, BP's Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, operating in deep waters beyond the edge of the continental shelf, exploded and sank to precipitate what could become the worst oil spill in history.

But in those first few days, there wasn't much to indicate that it would be such a disaster. With thousands of oil rigs operating in the Gulf, accidents are inevitable. At the airport the next morning, we read through a discarded copy of the April 21st Houston Chronicle. I remember noting that the newspaper was lighter and smaller than it had been five years before, when I'd lived in Houston. But I don't remember any stories about the Deepwater Horizon. We wouldn't know the scale of the disaster until later. We probably still don't know.

How we respond reveals a lot about the state of environmentalism, energy policy, and our economy. I have a lot more to say on this - in the meantime, here's an old post about my visit to the Texas Star offshore oil rig museum in Galveston: