Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Biological oceanography

I generally try to stay within my expertise here, but believe it or not I'm not going to far out of bounds by talking a bit about the ocean and the effects of the oil volcano at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. I have a master's degree in environmental policy, and I actually took some marine biology on the way to getting it.

It may surprise most people to learn that most of the ocean is what is called a biological desert -- it has very little biological productivity, and little life. The reason is that unless it is very close to freezing, warm water is less dense than cold water, which means that warmer surface water sits on top of colder water and the layers don't mix. Any possible nutrients that might support photosynthetic organisms and create a base for a food chain therefore sink below the depth where sunlight can reach. In the ocean depths, there are organisms that subsist on stuff that rains down, or on reactive chemicals that spew from hot vents along the mid-Atlantic ridge; but none of these are any fun to eat.

The only productive regions of the ocean, therefore, are cold arctic and antarctic waters -- yep, the cold parts of the ocean are more biologically productive than most of the warm parts, while more temperate waters can have seasonal productivity before the thermocline appears in late spring; upwelling zones, where deep currents hit a rise in the sea floor and shoot water upward (e.g. the Peruvian anchovy fishery); shallow coastal waters; and river estuaries and salt marshes. The latter are particularly important because they are highly productive, relatively sheltered places. Many species spawn there, and their larvae spend some time getting started before heading out to the open ocean.

That is why, bad as the effects of the disaster have already been, this is indeed worse news. Oil washing ashore from Port Fourchon to Grand Isle. "Councilman Tom Capella said this morning that oil from the BP rig explosion has washed up on Elmer's Island just west of Grand Isle. And Councilman Chris Roberts said oil was hitting the beaches in a wide area from Port Fourchon in Lafourche Parish to Grand Isle, which is the southern tip of Jefferson Parish. Even heavier oil can be seen just offshore, Roberts said."

Once those marshes and salt ponds are oiled, they will not come back to life for who knows how long. And the primary productivity they represent is irreplaceable.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Some readers may not be aware of the amount of offshore rigs in the GoM.

BP may now be shown up as the ‘worst’ Co, with reason for sure.

But the ‘bad apples’ argument obscures the complexity, technological iffiness, of offshore drilling; the tremendous financial stakes, the temptation, or even the ‘need’ to ‘cut’ corners in a highly competitive milieu, the ultimate difficulty for groups of humans to eliminate all ‘mistakes’, negligence, either by controlling themselves, their underlings or working partners, or machines.

TransOcean (owners of the rig) had a fantastic safety record. They were celebrating it on that day, I read (no idea if true) and there has been some speculation that the very presence of BP dignitaries contributed to the blow out.

Schlumberger helicoptered all its personnel out some hours before the blow-out after a quarrel - they were responsible for testing the efficacy of the cement plugs (though that is a low level formulation.)

The desperate hunt for black gold and the incredible rewards it can bring are obscured by ‘bad apple’, ‘more regulation’ arguments.

Companies like BP do, I am sure, calculate the potential costs of ‘failure’ or ‘blow-outs, spills’ (not to mention human lives, these are replaceable) against work-flow, timing, and the profits they make each day from their many enterprises.

This disaster if of course a worst-case. They don’t take out insurance because they are confident that their product and their expertise is so valuable that they will be, as the expression, goes, bailed out. (Maybe broken up for the public eye but then it is still BAU.)

The other lesson is that specialization combined with competition can be seen as having reached a kind of limit. BP, Halliburton, TransOcean, SLB, and others, compete amongst themselves and with others. And yet, they have to coordinate their efforts when they drill baby drill in the GoM. And they do. All of them fighting for a best slice of the pie, while tempered by the knowledge they can't 'go it alone.'

I realize I am veering away from public health, sorry, but energy is the life-blood of modern medecine, and the different actors in the ‘health’ sector are in much of the same pickle.

The oil cos. have the excuse that they provide a product that everyone needs and wants - Big Pharma is not quite yet in that position.