Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Tropical Tuesday: June 1 BP Oil Update

Fifty years from now, will locals look back ... and marvel at our own rank stupidity in failing to heed half a century of warnings about the nation's oil dependency?
1. Petroleum Path.

Both the local TV station in Pensacola last night and Troy Moon's contribution to today's newspaper lead with the latest oil leak forecast like this: "Oil Path Points at Mobile." The northeastern edge of the oil projection field shows the giant oil slick "heading almost directly toward the mouth of Mobile Bay on Wednesday."

Coincidence? Perhaps. Maybe Troy had the Tee-Vee on in the background last night as he banged out his story. Or, maybe he's moonlighting for WEAR. Nevertheless, one point to Channel 3. One-half point to Troy for this:
Santa Rosa county spokesperson Joy Tsubooka said the latest forecast changes little for the county."We'll continue to monitor and take appropriate actions as needed," she said. "But our trigger point for action is 72 hours. So hopefully we won't see impact in the next few days."
2. Rank Gamblers.

The ominous forecast makes it appear almost inevitable we'll be seeing tarballs washing up on Pensacola beaches about the same time we start celebrating the 451st anniversary of Tristan De Luna's ill-fated landing on the shores of Pensacola. Who can deny the poetic justice?

As one source aggressively abridges the De Luna story, after most of his fleet was sunk in a hurricane the hapless Spanish explorer and his ill-prepared survivors--
turned to the nearby Nanipacna Indians along the Alabama River for food. The local Indians, remembering DeSoto, stayed away. The colonizing effort was replaced with a desperate need to stay alive. After a winter of near starvation, the settlers tried to plant crops on the sandy coastal soil and gave up. The expedition was canceled.
A 1989 monograph by Charles Hudson, Marvin T. Smith, Chester B. DePratter, and Emilia Kelley describes DeLuna's exploration in some detail ["First Encounters: Spanish Explorations in the Caribbean and the United States, 1492-1570"]. Driven by greed, self-aggrandizement, and misplaced confidence in the power of his religion, DeLuna relied on faulty information, went on the cheap for the number of people he had brought along, and planned his project badly.

After a hurricane sank most of De Luna's ships in Pensacola Bay, he embarked on a variety of make-shift maneuvers, sending conquering parties all over the deep Southeast to steal food and treasure from the natives while trying to "Christianize" them.It was all in vain. In the end, the De Luna expedition was a miserable failure and any natives the conquistadors didn't kill outright soon died off from diseases contracted from the Spanish.

Fifty years from now, will locals look back at how we celebrate DeLuna's folly today, and marvel at our own rank stupidity in failing to heed half a century of warnings about the nation's oil dependency, just as we marvel at DeLuna's imprudence?

3. Risky Business.

Like DeLuna, who took many foolish risks leading to disaster, the evidence is mounting that BP Corp. made a series of terrible decisions which escalated the known risks of an oil well blow-out. Late last week, the New York Times reported on one of the worst:
Several days before the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, BP officials chose, partly for financial reasons, to use a type of casing for the well that the company knew was the riskier of two options, according to a BP document.

The concern with the method BP chose, the document said, was that if the cement around the casing pipe did not seal properly, gases could leak all the way to the wellhead, where only a single seal would serve as a barrier.

Using a different type of casing would have provided two barriers, according to the document, which was provided to The New York Times by a Congressional investigator.

Workers from the rig and company officials have said that hours before the explosion, gases were leaking through the cement, which had been set in place by the oil services contractor, Halliburton. Investigators have said these leaks were the likely cause of the explosion.

A number of experts agree, says the Times, that BP’s decision was “without a doubt a riskier way to go.”

4. Hurricane Seasonings.

This being June 1, and the official start of Hurricane Season, it's worth noting that the first disaster to befall the DeLuna expedition was a hurricane. As it happens, hurricane forecasters are predicting for us a "very active" storm season similar to 1995 (hurricanes Erin and Opal) and even 2005 (Dennis and Katrina).

El Nino is weakening as Pacific waters cool. Tropical and Atlantic ocean waters are an average of four degree warmer than normal for this time of year. Hurricane experts are warning:
The 2010 hurricane season could see activity comparable to a number of extremely active seasons since 1995. If the 2010 activity reaches the upper end of our predicted ranges, it will be one of the most active seasons on record.

We estimate a 70% probability for each of the following ranges of activity this season:

* 14-23 Named Storms,
* 8-14 Hurricanes
* 3-7 Major Hurricanes
While NOAA's Hurricane Center does not make specific geographical landfall predictions, it also darkly points out that "the historical probability for multiple U.S. hurricane strikes, and for multiple hurricane strikes in the region around the Caribbean Sea, increases sharply for exceptionally active seasons."
Historically, all above normal seasons have produced at least one named storm in the Gulf of Mexico, and 95% of those seasons have at least two named storms in the Gulf. Most of this activity (80%) occurs during August-October. However, 50% of above normal seasons have had at least one named storm in the region during June-July.
The Colorado State University team of Klotsenbach and climate-change denier Dr. William Gray, if anything, are predicting an even worse hurricane season.

And, they're not shy about making landfall predictions. For Pensacola and vicinity, they peg the chances of a named storm making landfall in Escambia County at 5.5 percent, and for an "intense hurricane coming ashore somewhere in "Region 3" at a whopping 25.2 percent.

They have designated Region 3 as ranging, essentially, from central Louisiana to Destin, Florida; or, in other words, the same coastal area you see today as the breadth of NOAA's 72-hour oil forecast at the top of this page:
5. Oil and Hurricane Water.

Hurricanes are never fun for Pensacola Beach. Even a strong tropical storm -- never mind a hurricane -- can be crippling to the beach and buildings that line the shore.

The added hazard of oil mixed with water is fearsome to contemplate. As with BP's oil leak itself, we simply don't know enough to be sure what effects it will have. What's worse, we scientists can't be sure what the combination of oil, hurricane surges, and BP's toxic dispersants may have. The oil company is dumping unknown tons of dispersants on the surface and into the depths of the Gulf, with unknown consequences for human and environmental health.

As the Associated Press warns today, it is "the oil spill disaster we can't see, hidden in the Gulf of Mexico's mysterious depths; the ruin of a world inhabited by enormous sperm whales and tiny, invisible plankton."

National Public Radio previewed the tentative, contradictory thinking of scientists about this toxic combination of hurricanes, oil, and dispersants almost two weeks ago. Click here to listen to the podcast.

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