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Posts Tagged ‘Archeology’


I wake up to do some birding. We see a Palm Tanager, who can be identified by his tanager shape and posture, but he is rather plain colored for these exuberant and enigmatic birds. We also spot a Golden-hooded Tanager. This bird is exceedingly beautiful with its rich blue body and bright yellow cap and throat patch. We only see him at some distance, so his colors are not as easily visible as they could be, but just the sight of this bird reminds me why it is worth it to come out here in the mornings.

Golden-hooded Tanager

Greg is badly ill with terrible stomach cramps and a fever. Courtney and Katelyn are in a similar situation. I hope it will pass soon.

After breakfast, we head up to Milton’s saw mill. In doing so, we passed over a thin suspension bridge dangling about thirty feet above the river. It is only just wide enough to let us through. The cables creak as we get on and the bridge itself wobbles, buckles and shakes. Only one car can pass at a time. And to think that this bridge supports cattle laden trucks!

The mill is a fascinating operation. Milton, the owner, is a nimble, quick-moving fellow. I notice that he is doing his work in sandals. He built many of the machines in the mill by hand, including the sugar cane press. His mill primarily produces lumber to be used for homes and furniture.

We set off to work in the nearby field, protecting a natural spring from erosion by planting one hundred threes around it. Hopefully, the roots will arrest the soil and prevent the spring from being filled. I chop grass with my machete, Allison follows me digging holes, and Kate plants the trees. The sun beats down upon us with no respite.

About half an hour into the work, Jeff shouts that he sees a terciopelo, a fer-de-lance, and that it was headed towards Sarah. Oscar quickly dispatches the serpent with his machete. This may seem cruel, but ecologically, killing this snake will not matter, and it is certainly safer than having a venomous viper slithering around the workers, who have little experience with snakes. I notice that from this point on, my grip on my machete tightens and my concentration increases. This increases my terciopelo count to two, as yesterday, I saw one grappling with a frog. It is surprising that he went for prey so much larger than himself, as venom is difficult for the snake to produce and the frog seemed to have escaped unscathed.

Terciopelo (Fer de lance) grappling with a frog

After two hours, we finish our planting. Back at the saw mill, Milton agrees to show us the process by which sugar cane is turned into brown sugar bricks. First, the sugar cane is crushed by pushing it through a grinder consisting of two rotating drums, one atop the other. This creates a pulpy, green juice. The juice is then put through at strainer to remove any particulates and then poured into the concave top of a giant kiln. After two hours of boiling,most of the water is evaporated, leaving a thick liquid, which is then poured into molds and let dry to a solid. The sugar is very sweet from beginning to end. We sucked on the cane, drank the juice, and sampled the finished product.

Gathering sugar cane

Back after lunch, I set out for a hike. I walk to about 200 meters, where I stop to watch a small lizard on a branch a few meters away from me. Then, in a flash, a large, dark shape enters my field of vision. It is a Double-toothed Kite. The large bird of prey grabs the lizard and flies further away to enjoy its meal. I am amazed by both the power and grace of this bird. I am also glad that I am too big to be considered a target for this hunter.

Further up, I see some poison dart frogs. I also note a bird nest at the end of a heliconia leaf. The nest is an inch wide and four inches deep. Unfortunately, before seeing the parent, I scare the mystery bird away. I do notice that there is a dime-sized white egg inside the nest.

Unknown (the owner shall be revealed in the next post) nest.

Pleased with myself, I head back down in order to go to church. I try to run there, but my shoulder still hurts too much as a result of the chopping. On the way there, I see a tree filled with vultures. I wonder what died nearby. Before mass, everyone gathers in front of the church to talk. In this way, the church serves both a religious and social function. The priest comes to Tres Piedras every two weeks. The church is small, barely the size of a classroom back home. It is also decorated very plainly with cloths and a sign with states that, “Your word, Lord, is my word and my salvation.” A tinny electric guitar supplies the music while a group of four women sings out of tune. The lack of formality (I am there in muddy clothes and bare feet) adds to the experience. Everyone is happy to be there. They clap during the songs and always respond with a gusto that is lacking in churches in the United States. We simply mumble the words in responses in order not to be “embarrassed.” There are no formal readers or long, wordy sermons. It is pure, sweet, and simple. I think that this is the way that mass should be done: children laughing and playing in the pews, a priest who laughs and smiles with his parishioners, and a church without gold. Despite the relative poverty of the area, people still give money during collection and dress in their best clothes. The gospel is that of the parable of the sower, who sows seeds on poor soil, thorns, rocks, and finally, fertile soil, the only place where they grow and produce yields. I cannot understand everything but my experience allows me to more or less follow along. The sign of peace is a particularly wonderful part of the mass here. Instead of simply nodding coolly to their neighbors without showing our emotions or, for that matter, our true self, the Ticos and Ticas get up out of the pews and address everyone with a hearty handshake, a hug, or a kiss. They smile and say “Peace be with you,” with great enthusiasm. Back in the US, this would be considered chaotic, but here, it is the only way things are, and in my mind, the way they should be.

We leave soon afterward so that we can attend lecture. The lecture is about Indigenous people. Elise, Ricardo , Sarah, and I have a big discussion about indigenous people and their ability/need to exploit the natural resources for resources. Elise has the opinion that they would not, given the chance and means, exploit the natural resources.  Ricardo and Sarah said that they would, citing examples like Bronze Age Europe, the Easter Islanders, and the Aztecs. They think that it is simply a matter of human nature that they will do anything it takes to improve efficiency to survive. My own opinion lies somewhere in between the two. Part of me says that responsibility, self-restraint, and tradition would certainly prevent, to some extent, complete destruction of the resources, but history usually points in the other direction. We also discuss cultural relativism. Cultural relativism entails that your view of other cultures through the lens of your own culture, and because of this, you can never truly understand the other one. Thus, you should not judge them. However, most of us came to an agreement that some things are simply wrong on any and ethical or moral scale.

We go back to the cabin and check on the tarantula. Yesterday, we gave it a sacrifice of two cicadas. We capture no bugs except for cicadas. They are particularly annoying because they will sit on the wall for hours, buzzing loudly as if they were electrically charged, preventing any sleep. Also, they are the only insect that has a habit of flying into your face if you walk nearby, which is not only annoying, but also unsettling, as they are large bugs. Thus, we trap them under a cup while they rest on our wall and then place the cup over the hole where are tarantula lives. Then, during the night, the “Rancor” takes his meal. It has worked twice in the past two nights. After this, I promptly crash in bed.

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I go birding this morning and see no new birds. However, I do see a toucan and White-capped Parrot very well, as they are only a few meters from me.

After breakfast, we go near the bull fighting ring to Steven’s property, where the combination of cows overgrazing and heavy rainfall washed out a huge gully. The erosion dumped tons (literally) of sediment into the surrounding watershed. The gully must be about fifty feet wide and tall at its worst point. TFI comes in to plant trees, legumes, grasses, bamboo, and living fence posts (posts recently cut from trees which are stuck in the ground and embedded with barbed wire. These posts will resprout after some time, and as the tree grows, its roots will prevent erosion and hold the fencepost securely, preventing cows from entering the area, which would exacerbate the problem.) to control and prevent erosion.

I am charged with gathering bamboo sprouts to plant in the field. Chopping it is somewhat difficult, but, once the correct technique is mastered, becomes very easy. I chop one down. It is very heavy as it is about thirty feet high. Jeff chops one down and it become stuck in a tree branch. He does not think it will come down. I beg to differ. As I pull down, the bamboo snaps in half. One half which was under tension hits me in the head leaving a small cut and a nice bump. The other half bends in the other direction, slicing open my forearm and embeds a piece under my fingernail. I do not even notice the cut until Martin tells me that I am bleeding. I return to TFI and patch myself up. Too bad we did not see any leaf cutter ants, as indigenous people used their mandibles to close wounds.

I head back and help taking the bamboo shoots back to the truck. My finger hurts me more than anything else. The Chinese really knew what they were doing. We see army ants pouring across the road. Their aggression is frightening. They march over everything and kill and devour anything in their path. A caterpillar does not get out of the way of the swarm, and is soon covered by the large, black army ants. They are like the wolves of the arthropod world. We also find a strange slug. It is yellow and about three inches long. It has a forked tail and horn-like protrusions on his head, in addition to thin spikes on its back. Finally, we see an odd black and white arachnid on the bamboo which we cannot identify. It takes about two hours to plant everything.

Slug

Arachnid

Army ants attacking a caterpillar

After lunch, we uncovered the biochar (terra pretta) pit. Unfortunately, we did not get the fire going hot enough and it failed at creating any charcoal, as the wood did not burn enough. Everyone disperses except Martin and I, who work to build up a roaring fire. The fire is so hot that when I bent over to put in a log, the heat singes my hair. I hear crackling and smell a strange odor: the smell of burned keratin. After that I dunk my head in a stream, as I did not quite believe Martin when he assured me that my head was not completely aflame. We then put another two layers of logs atop the fire and cover it with a thinner layer of soil. Atop that, we place banana leaves to prevent water seepage. Our previous attempt did not have enough fuel, buried the fire too thickly, and had the banana leaves compressed over the fire, smothering it completely.

After finishing our second attempt at biochar, we eat dinner and have a short lecture regarding Costa Rican history. Once this concludes, I go out on another night hike. On the water trail, I only see a spider eating a cicada, and a gecko. Next time I plan to take the normal trail up to the primary forest. Perhaps that will yield more wildlife.

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I wake up early to go bird watching. Surprisingly, Ricardo does not, so I go by myself. Unfortunately, this makes it much more difficult to identify birds. Well, this will be a trial by fire. I do see a few birds I know, like the Scarlet-rumped Tanagers, Tropical Kingbirds and a Blue-gray Tanager. My one new bird is a Black-shouldered Seedeater.

Tropical Kingbird

After breakfast, we work on our projects. We put in a few water bars on the trail. The water bars divert the flow of the water off the side of the trail and reduces the speed of the flowing water. The amount of erosion taking place is a function of water volume and speed. We cannot control volume, but with water bars, we can control speed to some extent. The bars must be at a certain angle so that they can be self-cleaning and not accumulate leaves and branches. There is no set formula for this in the tropics, however, and more often than not, we must work around trees and roots to install the water bars. We also move from 300-500 meters, clearing alternate routes, adding water boards, and new switch back trails. The last section of trail by the bean field is somewhat foreboding. The only solution is to bypass the section using switchbacks on a bit of ridge through the tick primary forest. Then we have to reconnect with the bean field trail. While scouting out a trail, I see signs of charcoal. This is odd because there was no terra preta done here and no fires in recent times. Also, I am treated to seeing a red and blue poison dart frog with a tadpole on her back deposit her offspring in a hollow of a tree filled with water. I follow her for about ten minutes as she hops around in the undergrowth, carrying her precious cargo. All the while, I am being eaten alive by the mosquitoes. This is the first time that I notice their size and ferocity. Their tenacity may be caused by their increased numbers following the rains we have been having. They seem to draw a pint of blood before my hand can reach them. I also spot a bird in the underbrush, but despite my crashing through the undergrowth, I am not rewarded with a better view. At least no snake bit me as I rushed in chase.

Red and blue poison dart frog with tadpole

Back at TFI, we eat lunch. After this, we try lighting a fire in a pit to produce charcoal for terra preta. Where Ricardo and Jeff failed, Martin and I succeeded. After inhaling smoke for about fifteen minutes, we light a nice fire. My lungs burn from being inundated by the thick fumes. I find it hard to breath as I am slowly smothered. Fortunately, the fire roars to life and I can get out to see the flames crackling and dancing between the logs.

Starting the fire for Terra Preta

Covering the pit to make charcoal

Terra preta, or biochar, was used by Native Americans in the Amazon region to add to the fertility of the soil. Despite the productivity of the rainforests, soil is very poor. Hydrolysis produces clays here, particularly aluminum and iron suscoxide, which have an expanding lattice structure. This allows them to absorb and hold nutrients and water. However, as they weather through hydration, the clays become amorphous. The lattice breaks down and the clay’s ability to hold nutrients and water is lessened. The only way anything grows here is due to tight and rapid nutrient cycling which can be bolstered with nitrogen fixing legumes and added nutrients from silt. The main limiting factor here is phosphorous, which the mycorrhizae provide to the plants in exchange for sugars. After the clays break down, their cationic exchange capacity, the ability to hold positively charged nutrients like phosphorous, is lessened. They then loose the nutrients, which are leeched out of the soil with rainfall. Indigenous people used charcoal to increase fertility of the soil. Charcoal binds to the nutrients and holds it there for a long time. Add this to slash and burn agriculture at a reasonable scale and a long enough fallow time and the large quantities of organic matter (usually lacking due to rapid decomposition) and extra nutrients and the soil becomes much more fertile.

Once the fire is burning, we add a layer of banana leaves and cover the pit with dirt to make the process anaerobic so wood does not completely burn.

Before dinner, we have a further lecture on biodiversity. Afterward, I work on drawing a mural in the common room. I draw some of the creatures which can be found here, including a red and blue poison dart frog, Common Potoo, trogon, heliconia, Violet Sabrewing, and a Chestnut-mandibled Toucan.

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Costa Rica Journal


Well folks, if you were wondering where I have been for the past month, let me clear that up.  I have been in Costa Rica for an internship/tropical ecology class/field work.  So, although I haven’t posted in quite a while, I think I can make it up to all of you by posting my experiences from my journal here.  I will add my pictures to that in order to show you the fantastic place I stayed and the wonderful ecosystem with which I fell in love.  Starting tomorrow, right here, I will post a day from the trip each day.  If you have been following this blog for long enough, then perhaps you remember my virtual trips through Africa and South America.  Well, this will be much like that, except it really happened.  I only hope I can convey, to one degree or another, just how spectacular this place is.  I hope you enjoy it.

Also, just let me know what you think of the new setup and tell me if you prefer this one or the old one.

The new one is up now and here is a picture of the old one.

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Science and Soul: Beyond Pestilent: BP Oil Leak Coverage


***UPDATE:  I will be updating this one post instead of writing twenty thousand little posts and continually adding to it.  So, if you wish to follow this, just scroll down and find out what you missed!***

###Update number 3 is up.###

For my first post back, I have decided to talk about BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  In order to understand what is going on now, we need to look to the past.

Certainly Not Beyond Politics

In 1913 the British took control of Iran’s Oil Fields though the Anglo Iranian Oil Company (AIOC).  The British government controlled 51% of the company’s stock.  In 1951, the Iranian people democratically elected progressive leader Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh.  Mossadegh ran a campaign whose main issue was the control oil fields.  Even though Iran had a huge amount of oil, the Iranian people weren’t getting their fair share of the profits from the AIOC.  So, when Mossadegh was elected, he made efforts to nationalize the oil fields.  Something along the lines of, “Iranian oil for Iranians.”  Not surprisingly, the AIOC wasn’t too happy about this.  In response, they funded SAVAK, the Iranian “domestic security and intelligence agency:” essentially a secret police infamous for its brutality.  In another interesting twist the CIA trained SAVAK forces and Washington DC gave them weapons.  In 1953, SAVAK helped Mohammad-Reza Shah Pahlavi take control of the government in a military coup, essentially overthrowing a democratically elected leader with a military tyrant.  Guess what AIOC decided to rename itself forty years later?  If you guessed British Petroleum (BP), then you guessed right.

But BP didn’t only destroy political stability in the past, but the environment and local people as well.

“To the lover of wilderness, Alaska is one of the most wonderful countries in the world.” –John Muir

Many people remember the Exxon Valdez oil spill which occurred 11 years ago in Prince William Sound of Alaska as a Exxon oil tanker ran aground.  Oil leaked from the tanker, fouling 3,200 miles of shoreline and 10,000 square miles of ocean.  This destroyed local communities who depended on the ocean for their livelihoods, killed countless fish, sea birds, and ocean mammals, and possibly permanently disrupting the ecosystem.  Exxon promised to pay for the damages to local communities (sound familiar?).  They were originally ordered to pay 5 billion dollars.  But after many court appeals, they cut the fee to approximately 500 million dollars.

Collateral damage of our energy greed.

The tanker was bound south from the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline.  The pipeline ran 800 from the oil fields of the North Slope to the port city of Valdez where tanker ships were filled.  This pipeline was established by a group of companies, collectively known as Aleyeska, which included (cue the intro music) BP!  BP was a part of the decision-making process which allowed the spill to occur.  Ecologists long warned that navigating the area would guarantee a catastrophic spill.  Again, the executives of Aleyeska took no heed of the warnings and careened down a dangerous path which ended in tragedy.

“There’s an old saying in Tennessee – I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee…that says, fool me once, shame on…shame on you. Fool me…you can’t get fooled again.”  –W

In 2005, one of BP’s oil refineries exploded in Texas City, Texas.  The explosion was caused by workers starting the process of separating light and heavy gasoline components without removing sufficient quantities of the resulting gasoline products.  A warning system which would have alerted the workers to the buildup of product was disabled.  The workers however, noticed the problem and opened the discharge valve, to little avail.  Combustible vapors leaked into the nearby area and a car’s ignition started the fire.  The fire and explosion killed 15 people and injured 170 more.  An analysis of the incident revealed that BP violated several safety measures.  Also, several similar incidents with combustible vapor leaks were reported, but corrective actions were not taken because funding was not approved to install safer systems.

Beyond Prosecution

Part of the Prudhoe Bay Oil Spill

In 2006, BP’s oil pipeline in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska leaked nearly 270,000 gallons of crude oil into the Alaskan tundra: the largest oil spill on the Alaskan North Slope.  The North Slope boasts high biodiversity, with many species endemic to the area.  It also contains most of Alaska’s oil.  Fortunately, if such a word can be used to describe an oil spill, the incident occurred during the winter while the land was frozen.  Had it occurred during the summer, cleanup would have been much more difficult with oil leaking into the Beaufort sea.  Analysis of the pipeline revealed large amounts of corrosion, to which management did not pay heed.  Warnings were sent by inspectors and workers.  BP claimed that the lack of action was caused by a lack of available funding.  Interesting, seeing as how they made $22,000,000,000 in profits that year.  Hmmm…it seems that BP has a habit of cutting costs without paying heed to the possible implications of their decisions.

The EPA was in charge of the investigation surrounding the spill.  Investigators learned that several workers along the pipeline were concerned about the corrosion and state of the pipeline and alerted authorities.  They did this at their own risk, as BP has a history as a vengeful company where workers who reported such issues could very well be laid off.  Unfortunately, there was little governmental oversight of the Alaskan pipeline at the time.  This information proved that the upper tiers of the company knew about the problems, but opted not to fix it, choosing instead for the risky cost-cutting strategy: criminal negligence.  EPA investigators dug deeper into the issues, but their efforts were constantly being undermined by BP’s stalling and cover-up.  When legal teams asked the workers who spoke up before, they were very unforthcoming, which is understandable, considering the vindictive nature of the company.  After the grand jury was used to obtain the witnesses’ testimonies, the legal team were forced to use a subpoena to obtain documents regarding the pipeline.  BP buried them in quite literally millions of pages of documents in order to slow down prosecutors, many of which were not necessary.  The final death blow to the investigation was dealt in August of next year.  The US State Attorney under Bush’s administration asked the EPA investigators what they could prove at that point in time.  The investigators admitted that due to BP’s efforts to hamper the process, they could only prove a criminal misdemeanor at that given time.  This was a far lesser offense than what could have and should have been tried.  They they added that they would still need more time to complete the investigation.  The State Attorney’s office then ordered them to close the investigation.  This was an unbelievable decision which was unheard of before that time.  An EPA investigator was never prevented from completing their course of action.  Well, unheard of before the Bush/Cheney years.  At any rate, BP later paid only $20,000,000 in fines out of the possible $800,000,000.  Apparently, this slap on the wrist did not really cause BP to change their ways.

It is worth mentioning that BP had 760 willful egregious safety violations in the last three years according the Occupational Health and Safety Administration.  Which is 759 more than Exxon (they had 1).  Exxon!

New Sheriff in Town

The Minerals Management Service is an agency of the Department of Interior charged with…

charged with the management of the renewable energy, oil and gas, and mineral resources on the federal outer continental shelf in an environmentally sound and safe manner, and to collect, verify, and distribute, in a timely fashion, mineral revenues generated from federal (onshore and offshore) land and Indian lands.

The agency is often accused of being in bed with oil, coal and gas industry corporations.  For example,  Paul Stang was a supervisor for the Mineral Management Service, or MMS, but later went on to work for Shell (an oil company).  Jim Mayberry was Special Assistant to the Associate Director of MMS for three years.  After he left, he created an energy consulting company and negotiated a contract with guess who: the MMS.  He was later convicted in violation of conflict of interest law. Other administrators received “gifts” from oil and gas execs.

Ken Salazar: New Sheriff in Town

But then everything was changed, because, in his words; not mine, Ken Salazar was, “the new sheriff in town.”   In reality, not much changed.  He allowed the Grey Wolf to be removed from the Endangered Species List in Montana and Idaho, opening them for hunting.  Evidently, 95 breeding pairs of wolves in the country is enough.  It’s not like they are incredibly important to the ecosystem or anything.  He also upheld the Bush junta decision not to allow greenhouse gases to be regulated by the Endangered Species Act.  Even though he himself said that melting sea ice due to global warming is the leading threat to polar bears, this was not the place or time to act.

The MMS has played a key role in the BP oil spill as well.  In March of 2008, they sold the rights to drill to oil in an action to BP.   In 2009, they decided that acoustically controlled shut off valves aren’t really required against underwater spills at the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil drilling site.  It was only the deepest offshore well in history at 35,000 feet below water.  Finally, the MMS, exempted BP from having to file environmental impact statements.  The MMS justified this claiming that the risk from offshore oil drilling was practically nonexistent (to be fair, so did Obama; oops).  They also allowed BP, as well as other oil companies to drill in the Gulf of Mexico without obtaining permits from NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  NOAA assesses the threats of activities to endangered species.  Apparently, oil drilling is not very threatening.  The MMS overruled staff biologists and engineers who brought up issues about the safety and environmental impact of  drilling proposals in the Gulf of Mexico and on the North Slope of Alaska.  In fact, the MMS allowed industry officials to fill out their own inspection reports and file them.  In a final slap in the face, after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and spill, the MMS approved 27 new offshore drilling projects.  2 of them were for our favorites: BP.

“We’re Never Out of Our Depth”

The Deepwater Horizon offshore oil drilling rig is owned by a company named Transocean, the world’s biggest offshore drilling contractor.  Their motto is: “We’re never out of our depth.”  Depsite the comforting slogan, Transocean has a checkered past (well, to be fair, most offshore drilling contractors do).  In 1979, a Transocean oil rig blew out in Campeche in the Gulf of Mexico.  It was capped just under a year later.  During that time 71,500 barrels of oil impacted 162 miles of U.S. beaches.  It was the third largest spill in history.  In six years before the Deepwater Horizon rig blowout, 12 people were killed in accidents on Transocean rigs.

Look Familiar: Bay of Campeche Oil Spill

Them Again?

Oh, and Halliburton is involved in all of this.  They were the service provider to the rig.  We all know about their business transgressions (you know, Cheney…CEO of Halliburton…Vice President…Iraq…service provider in Iraq…etc.  They also had a number of environmental transgressions.  Toxics Release Inventory reports show that Halliburton’s Farmington, New Mexico facility generated a toxic cloud of gas to evacuate their homes.  They have also been implicated in the oil spills in the Timor Sea in 2009.  They also had a part to play in the BP spill.

And They All Came Tumbling Down

In February of last year, BP filed an environmental impact plan for the Deepwater Horizon to the MMS.  The company came to the conclusion that even though a oil spill would occur as a result of drilling, the well was far enough offshore to prevent severe impacts.  Thanks to 2008 regulation changes, they did not have to file a contingency plan.   The BP well was fitted with a blowout preventer, but was not fitted with acoustically-activated alert triggers.

In March 2010, the oil rig had problems with drilling mud and gas releases.  In the same month, the blowout preventer was damaged.  This damage was never reported.  and it was found that the last inspection was in 2005.  Workers interviewed after the blowout said that they did see warning signs pointing to a potential catastrophe, but they were afraid of being fired if they alerted authorities.

sdf

Deepwater Horizon Burns

On April 20,2010, pressure in a marine riser, a temporary extension of a subsea oil well to a surface drilling facility, expanded the pipe, causing an explosion.  This was followed by an inferno.

According to an unnamed witness, Deepwater Horizon installation manager Jimmy Harrell, an employee of Transocean, was speaking to someone in Houston, Texas when the fire started, and was heard screaming, “Are you fucking happy? Are you fucking happy? The rig’s on fire! I told you this was gonna happen.”

The Coast Guard airlifted all but eleven workers out of the rig.  The remaining eleven, after intense searching, were declared dead.  The rig sank two days later.  The oil officially began to spill from the well on that day.  Two robotic submersibles tried to cap the well, but ultimately failed.

BP somehow only calculates 1,000 barrels leaking into the Gulf of Mexico each day.  In only three days, an oil slick covering 580 square miles was formed.  The slick was only 30 some odd miles from shore at that time.  Booms were set up to prevent the oil from hitting the coast.  Three days after that, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates the leak flowed at 5,000 barrels or 210,000 gallons each day.  It appears that BP made another slight miscalculation.  To cut their losses, BP tried to burn the oil off of the surface of the water.  It didn’t work.  And, on April 30, oil washed ashore at Venice, Louisiana.

In Memorium

Jason Anderson, 35, Midfield, Texas; Aaron Dale Burkeen, 37, Philadelphia, Mississippi; Donald Clark, 34, Newellton, Louisiana; Stephen Curtis, 39, Georgetown, Louisiana; Gordon Jones, 28, Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Roy Wyatt Kemp, 27, Jonesville, Louisiana; Karl Klepping, 38, Natchez, Mississippi; Blair Manuel, 56, Eunice, Louisiana; Dewey Revette, 48, State Line, Mississippi; Shane Roshto, 22, Franklin County, Mississippi; and Adam Weise, 24, Yorktown, Texas.

Well, that takes us through April.  Next week, I will discuss the cleanup efforts that occured in May and June, and are still ongoing.

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John Cleese on Science


Sorry, so little to do and so much time.  Sorry.  Strike that.  Reverse it.  And we’re off…

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Science and Soul: Bloom Box


I admit, I have been absolutely awful about posting as of late.  I apologize.  Work and assignments have kept me very busy indeed.  Now that spring break has rolled around, I am back…at least for a little while.

Perhaps you saw the 60 minutes segment as well, but if you didn’t, I am going to write about the Bloom Box.

Bloom Box inventor, KR Srihdar, with his new invention.

This new technology is a type of fuel cell.  A fuel cell, simply put, is a cell capable of generating electricity from chemical reactions.  Although fuel cells have been around for many years, this one promises to be quite interesting.  The Bloom Box is a small tower of these metal alloy fuel cells packaged together.  It is said that one can power a European home and 2 can power an American home (yeah, we use more energy).   These are then placed in a larger unit.  This piece of equipment takes in oxygen and some kind of raw fuel, and will then react in a chemical reaction to produce electricity.  There are no carbon emissions as a result of the reaction, and it eliminates the need for the large-scale power grid currently in place.  Each home would have its own.  Magic…

Hmm….sounds too good to be true.  Now, I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade, but in some senses it already is, and could be even more so.

First off, the Bloom Box still needs some kind of fuel input, be that fossil fuels, biomass, or alternative energy.  The box itself doesn’t combust the fuels, but it does need some energy to start the chemical reaction.  Now, using fossil fuels would negate any benefits to the fuel cell.  Biomass, quite frankly, isn’t much better due to the environmental costs associated with accumulating it.  However, assuming that we use alternative energy like a rooftop solar panel then this could be an energy-efficient mechanism.  When speaking about energy efficiency, we must remember energy is not lost, it is simply converted into another form.  Energy can either be kinetic (in motion) or potential (stored).  Kinetic energy forms include electricity (movement of electrons), heat, light (electromagnetic waves), sound, and motion.  Potential energy comes in the form of chemical, gravitational (function of height and mass), mechanical (tension), and nuclear (the energy holding together atoms).  Also, net energy yield decreases with each energy of conversion.  So, for example, lets say we take solar energy and use it to generate steam (thermal energy), to turn a turbine (mechanical energy), to produce electricity.  This wastes much more energy in the conversions than just taking chemical energy and producing electrical energy (like in the Bloom Box).

Secondly, it’s the economics, stupid.  The Bloom Box currently costs about 2,000 USD per unit.  This is not something most people want to spend on a relatively new, and experimental technology.

Third, nobody besides the inventor, KR Sridhar, knows exactly how it works.  The company has remained oddly secretive about their new product, only announcing it recently.  The exact fuel conversion process is also unclear.

Finally, the Bloom Box, as clean as it is, may cause some negative unintended consequences.  The law of unintended consequences states,

“Any intervention in a complex system may or may not have the intended result, but will inevitably create unanticipated and often undesirable outcomes”.

In this case, everybody may think, “Hey!  I’ve got all this clean energy now.  Let’s waste this stuff like there is no tomorrow!”  Well not exactly that, but people might conserve much less energy once they think it is “greener.”  And that kind of defeats the purpose of creating an alternative energy, as energy conservation, for me, is equal parts prevention of climate change and pollution, and controlling yourself and becoming a better, more efficient, less wasteful person.

So, although I love the idea of this new technology, further development will be needed to perfect the process, and drive down prices. Oh, and it would help to know whether it actually works.  But who knows, perhaps the little, decentralized Bloom Box will be the energy of the future.

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