Stories tagged Earth and Space Science

Jun
15
2010

Internal BP documents were released today that seem to highlight decisions by the company to forgo safety precautions in favor of saving money and cutting time in drilling the now-leaking oil well. One of the documents, an email message from an engineer working on the project, refers to it as a "nightmare well," language that the press has really picked up on.

I'm hesitant to fixate too much on a phrase like "nightmare well," because the hyperbolic language used in informal emails isn't always super helpful if taken literally (e.g., "It smells like someone microwaved a goat in the break room. I'm gonna die. If I find out who did that, I will challenge them to a knife duel, ala Steven Seagal and Tommy Lee Jones in Under Siege. The first Under Siege, I mean.") But it does seem like the drilling of that well wasn't the best run operation, to say the least. Hopefully the investigation will determine the extent of BP's responsibility for the accident that caused the leak (or, possibly, the lack thereof).

The documents will very probably be brought up during Tony Hayward's (the CEO of BP) testimony to congress later this week. Should be interesting.

Jun
03
2010

Sophisticated forecast modeling tools developed at the Center for Coastal Margin Observation & Prediction (CMOP) were recently used to assist in the rescue of a disabled underwater glider.

CMOP researchers spent two days using a particle-tracking model to predict where and when their glider, nicknamed “Phoebe,” would drift ashore. This helped researchers understand how much time they had to stage a recovery operation.

Rescue planning: This is an example of the particle tracking model used to predict the direction the glider would drift. Red represents the glider GPS signals. Green represents the particle tracking forecast.
Rescue planning: This is an example of the particle tracking model used to predict the direction the glider would drift. Red represents the glider GPS signals. Green represents the particle tracking forecast.Courtesy CMOP

“Once Phoebe became a drifting glider, we treated her as a major piece of scientific instrumentation at risk and an opportunity to test our computer models in a sea emergency,” says Antonio Baptista, director of CMOP. “The forecasting system used for Phoebe is the same that we are currently transferring to the U.S. Coast Guard and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) for inclusion in their respective operational and emergency response systems.”

Phoebe is a bright yellow glider that moves through the water, gathering information, and sending satellite signals back to land each time she surfaces. She was sent out on her first mission of the year on April 16, 2010 to collect data in the waters off the Washington coast as a collaborative research effort with the Quinault Indian Nation.

Five days into her mission, Phoebe stopped communicating.

Katie Rathmell and Michael Wilkin, members of the CMOP field team in Astoria, Oregon, waited and hoped to receive a signal from her. Hours passed and still no signal. Then almost 24 hours later, Phoebe called home. She had surfaced and transmitted a GPS signal of her current location.

“We reviewed the files she sent and determined that she had gotten stuck at 8.4 meters below the surface and was unable to come up to the surface,” says Rathmell.

The team theorized that Phoebe got tangled in a kelp bed. After a pre-programmed period of time, she jettisoned her emergency ballast weight, which gave her enough buoyancy to escape the entanglement and surface. But having dropped the ballast weight meant she could no longer dive or maneuver. Phoebe was adrift in the ocean.

Rathmell and Wilkin started talking about how to stage a rescue. The challenge was the gale force winds offshore were making the seas too rough for ships to get out of the harbor. The team would have to wait until weather conditions improved.

Even though Phoebe was disabled, she was capable of transmitting a GPS signal every 30 minutes. This allowed the team to track her location. She was drifting south and getting closer to the Columbia River plume. They were concerned she might get caught in the incoming tide. This would pull her into the river and possibly crash her into the jetty. Currents and winds could also push her onto the beach and the surf could break up the glider. The problem was the team was unsure which direction she would drift.

That is when they made the decision to use CMOP’s modeling tools to help narrow down Phoebe’s potential drifting trajectories, possible threats, and windows of time for a recovery operation.

“The team hoped the weather would break in time for a successful recovery. The models helped predict how much time they had to recover Phoebe,” says Paul Turner, senior research programmer.

The data for the particle tracking comes from the forecast models that CMOP runs on a continuous basis. Turner ran simulations for two days using the winds, currents and tides to predict where Phoebe might end up. He generated graphs that predicted drifting directions in one, two, three and four hour intervals.

“Paul Turner did a very good job of getting the modeling and drifter prediction tools working in a fashion that allowed the data to be useful for us,” says Wilkin.

The forecast model showed that time was running out for Phoebe. The prevailing winds and currents were pushing her closer to shore. It was imperative to rescue her soon.

For several days, the conditions were too dangerous to cross the Columbia Bar and get the glider safely aboard a ship. Then around 10:30 on Sunday morning, the research team received word there was a break in the weather and Captain Dan Schenk from Sea Breeze Charters in Ilwaco, Washington would take them out.

Rathmell and Wilkin boarded the “Nauti-Lady” and took a rough ride over the Columbia Bar en route to Phoebe’s last known location.

Finding Phoebe was a challenge. This time of year there are crab traps set out in the ocean and many of their floats are the same color as Phoebe. The team would spot something on the surface of the water that might be Phoebe but it turned out to be something else.

Then they spotted her tangled up in crab lines and floats. “She was surrounded by kelp, plastic, beer bottles, and all sorts of trash,” says Rathmell. They were successful in getting hold of her, removing the crab lines, and pulling her aboard the ship. The team safely returned Phoebe to shore.

Found!: "Phoebe" was found tangled in kelp and crab lines off the Washington coast.
Found!: "Phoebe" was found tangled in kelp and crab lines off the Washington coast.Courtesy CMOP

“The successful rescue of Phoebe, under difficult sea conditions, is a credit to the team work among the Astoria field team, boat operators, modelers and programmers,” says Baptista. “CMOP’s oceanographic knowledge, field observations, computer models, and cyber infrastructure all came together to allow people to make the right decisions at the right time.”

CMOP will use the lessons learned from Phoebe’s rescue operation to further improve their scientific and engineering infrastructure.

Jun
03
2010

After the failure of the "top kill" plan, BP stated that it would remove the broken riser from the blowout preventer on the leaking oil well—that is, they would cut off the long bent pipe from the machine that was supposed to stop an oil leak in the first place.

BP has now done just that, but, as usual, things didn't go quite as planned. Initially, BP engineers attempted to use a diamond-bladed saw to cleanly remove the riser, but the blade became stuck in the 21-inch steel pipe. Unable to free the blade and continue the operation, BP used a giant pair of shears to scissor off the riser. The shears worked, but the cut is not as clean as it would have been from the saw.

So what happens now? Well, the good news is that BP can move onto the next step of their containment plan. The bad new is that it doesn't seem like they're going to be using the original containment cap that was meant for this operation. (I take it this is because the riser was sheared instead of sawed?) Instead, they'll be using the "top hat." Remember the top hat? That was the plan after the huge containment dome plan failed, but apparently the top hat was sort of shoved aside while the tube-insertion plan was tried out. But now they're using it again.

I wonder how effective the top hat will be? When it was going to be deployed before, it was acknowledged that it would only capture a fraction of the oil from the leak it was placed over—just one of several leaks on the riser. Now that the riser has been cut, all the leaks have been consolidated... Anyway, BP isn't making any predictions about the effectiveness of the top hat here.

The other bad news is that the rate at which oil is leaking has probably increased now that the riser has been removed—perhaps by as much as 20%. The government's estimate prior to the removal of the riser was that perhaps 800,000 gallons of oil were leaking each day. That number could increase to almost a million gallons a day until the top hat is placed over the leak. (Considering that independent estimates have placed amount of oil leaking at over a million gallons a day even before the riser was cut, the flow rate could be much more than that, even.)

Hmm. Stay tuned.

May
30
2010

The Japanese government has announced plans to create a self sustaining base on the Moon. The downside? It doesn't include accommodations for meatbags like you and me. The base will be constructed by and for robot explorers.Japanese Robot Base: Rendering of the planned robotic moon base to be built by 2020
Japanese Robot Base: Rendering of the planned robotic moon base to be built by 2020Courtesy Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency

The plan is multi-phased, starting with a robot arriving around 2015. The robot will use HD video cameras to survey the area in preparation for the construction of the base. As far as I know, this will be the first high resolution video of the lunar surface (that is, taken from the surface).

By 2020, the robot will establish a power supply along with the rest of the base. The details of what this base will actually be comprised of is unclear at this point, but there are plans to be able to send interesting specimens back to Earth.

You win this round, robots.

May
21
2010

Holy cow, Buzzketeers. The oil spill news just keeps coming! I can hardly keep up READING about it, much less BLOGGING.

So I'm going to leave you this weekend with a series of cool links, and you and I can read together.

Start with this mind-boggling plethora of interactive features and graphics from the NYTimes Gulf of Mexico oil spill multimedia collection.

An interactive map tracking the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, plus: video, graphics, and photos."

Size of oil spill underestimated, scientists say (5/13/10)

"Two weeks ago, the government put out a round estimate of the size of the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico: 5,000 barrels a day. Repeated endlessly in news reports, it has become conventional wisdom.

But scientists and environmental groups are raising sharp questions about that estimate, declaring that the leak must be far larger. They also criticize BP for refusing to use well-known scientific techniques that would give a more precise figure."

BP boss admits job on the line over Gulf oil spill (5/14/10)

"Tony Hayward, the beleaguered chief executive of BP, has claimed its oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is "relatively tiny" compared with the "very big ocean".

In an bullish interview with the Guardian at BP's crisis centre in Houston, Hayward insisted that the leaked oil and the estimated 400,000 gallons of dispersant that BP has pumped into the sea to try to tackle the slick should be put in context.

"The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume," he said."

Giant plumes of oil forming under the Gulf (5/15/10)

"Scientists are finding enormous oil plumes in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, including one as large as 10 miles long, 3 miles wide and 300 feet thick in spots. The discovery is fresh evidence that the leak from the broken undersea well could be substantially worse than estimates that the government and BP have given."

BP reports some success in capturing leaking oil (5/17/10)

"NEW ORLEANS — After more than three weeks of efforts to stop a gushing oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, BP engineers achieved some success on Sunday when they used a milelong pipe to capture some of the oil and divert it to a drill ship on the surface some 5,000 feet above the wellhead, company officials said."

Conflict of interest worries raised in spill tests (5/20/10)

"Local environmental officials throughout the Gulf Coast are feverishly collecting water, sediment and marine animal tissue samples that will be used in the coming months to help track pollution levels resulting from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake, since those readings will be used by the federal government and courts to establish liability claims against BP. But the laboratory that officials have chosen to process virtually all of the samples is part of an oil and gas services company in Texas that counts oil firms, including BP, among its biggest clients."

Agency orders use of a less toxic chemical in Gulf (5/20/10)

"GRAND ISLE, La. — Local and state officials here voiced desperation on Thursday as their fears became far more tangible, with oil from the BP spill showing up on shore as tar balls, sheens and gooey slicks.

In Washington, the Environmental Protection Agency said it had told the oil company to immediately select a less toxic dispersant than the one it is now using to break up crude oil gushing from a ruined well in the Gulf of Mexico. Once the agency has signed off on a different product, it said, the company would then have 72 hours to start using it."

Environmental fallout from Gulf oil spill (5/20/10)

"The release of millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico could have profound effects for wildlife and aquatic life, and now is threatening to go beyond the Gulf. Midmorning looks at the impact of the spill."

And last, but not least, here's the relevant page on the website of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, which has a nice aggregator of oil spill news, along with video from the ocean floor.

May
20
2010

Atlantis Lifts Off: Space shuttle Atlantis lifted off from Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on the STS-132 mission to the International Space Station at 2:20 p.m. EDT on May 14.
Atlantis Lifts Off: Space shuttle Atlantis lifted off from Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on the STS-132 mission to the International Space Station at 2:20 p.m. EDT on May 14.Courtesy NASA
I have been following with interest the last flight of the space shuttle Atlantis. I subscribe to the NASA image of the day site, and since the launch have been providing some cool photos of the mission that are below.

STS-132 (the flight number of the current mission) launched from the Kennedy Space Center on May 14 and docked with the International Space Station (ISS) on May 16. The primary payload on board the shuttle is the
Russian Rassvet Mini-Research Module along with an Integrated Cargo Carrier-Vertical Light Deployable (ICC-VLD).

An interesting tidbit: On board Atlantis is a 4-inch long wood sample of Sir Isaac Newton's apple tree. This piece is from the tree that supposedly inspired Newton's theory of gravity.The wood is part of the collection of the Royal Society archives in London, and will be returned there following the flight. Neat. Also weird.

Atlantis Performs a Back Flip: The International Space Station (ISS) crew snapped this image of the underside of Atlantis' crew cabin, during a survey of the approaching space shuttle prior to docking with the ISS.
Atlantis Performs a Back Flip: The International Space Station (ISS) crew snapped this image of the underside of Atlantis' crew cabin, during a survey of the approaching space shuttle prior to docking with the ISS.Courtesy NASA

Atlantis' aft section: This view of Atlantis' aft section includes the main engines, part of the cargo bay, vertical stabilizer and orbital maneuvering system pods and was taken by the ISS crew during a survey as the shuttle approached the station prior to docking.
Atlantis' aft section: This view of Atlantis' aft section includes the main engines, part of the cargo bay, vertical stabilizer and orbital maneuvering system pods and was taken by the ISS crew during a survey as the shuttle approached the station prior to docking.Courtesy NSAS

A Feat of Daring: Astronaut Garrett Reisman continued his work during the first of three planned spacewalks for the last Atlantis mission.
A Feat of Daring: Astronaut Garrett Reisman continued his work during the first of three planned spacewalks for the last Atlantis mission.Courtesy NASA

Docked at the Station: This image features the Atlantis' cabin and forward cargo bay and a section of the International Space Station while the two spacecraft remain docked, photographed during the STS-132 mission's first spacewalk.
Docked at the Station: This image features the Atlantis' cabin and forward cargo bay and a section of the International Space Station while the two spacecraft remain docked, photographed during the STS-132 mission's first spacewalk.Courtesy NASA

May
14
2010

Some of you may have said to yourselves over the years, “Yeah, yeah. Climate change. Hug a tree. Save the polar bears and manatees. Whatever. I’m just SO over the sexy megafauna, appeal-to-emotion approach.” Well, have I got a story for you!

In April, the University of Wisconsin, Madison’s Jonathan Patz, who holds a medical doctorate and a masters degree in public health, gave a riveting lecture at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment on how climate change affects public health. And pretty much everybody wants to live long and prosper, so I’m guessing you care about your health just as much as I do and want to know more…

Well, basically, there is increasing scientific evidence that climate change is hazardous to your health.

The end.

Just kidding!

The logic is that basic changes in the Earth’s physical environment affect public health. Take one example, as warmer climates trigger species migration, vector-borne diseases like malaria and Lyme disease will leave traditional zones to infest new land areas. That’s good news for some people, but bad news for others.

Yuck!: Polar bears might make better poster-children for climate change afterall
Yuck!: Polar bears might make better poster-children for climate change afterallCourtesy Scott Bauer, USDA

Let’s break that idea down: global climate change suggests that some regions will experience warmer annual temperatures. Mosquitoes (that carry malaria) and ticks (bringers of Lyme disease) are cold-blooded, which means they don’t make their own heat and have to “steal” heat from their surroundings. Regions with warmer annual temperatures are attractive real estate for cold-blooded critters. As climate change increases annual temperatures, tick and mosquito habitat ranges will shift. Like many people, mosquitoes and ticks will move into warmer, better neighborhoods. Unfortunately for their new neighbors, the baggage of these insects causes fever, vomiting, and diarrhea (malaria) or rash, joint pain, and numbness (Lyme disease). Yikes!

Other symptoms of climate change (i.e. extreme weather and rising sea levels) have the potential to increase the severity of diseases like heat stress, respiratory diseases like asthma, cholera, malnutrition, diarrhea, toxic red tides, and mental illness (due to forced migration and overcrowding).

Not to be a downer, Patz pointed out that tackling global climate change might be the greatest public health improvement opportunity of our time in terms of number of lives saved, hospital admissions avoided, and ultimately health care cost decreases (which everyone needs!).

Is there any other good news?? Uh, besides less frostbite? No, seriously: on the bright side, warmer weather should increase the amount of physical activity of the average person (not many of us like to run in the dead of winter, you know), and, as Russia’s Vladimir Putin put it, "…an increase of two or three degrees wouldn't be so bad for a northern country like Russia. We could spend less on fur coats, and the grain harvest would go up.” So, yeah, there is some good news, but the real question is: does it outweigh the bad stuff?

May
05
2010

With forty-four percent of our 3.5 million miles of rivers and streams degraded due to sedimentation and excess nutrients, stream restoration has become big business in the United States. Estimates show that over $1 billion has been spent on stream restoration projects in the U.S. in every year since 1990.

Trouble is, the field of stream restoration lacks a lot of scientific rigor, making the prediction of successful restoration strategies difficult. Take, for example, one of the most commonly used tools of the trade—the in-stream structure. Man-made, in-stream structures (think small wall jutting out into the water from a stream bank) are frequently used in stream restoration and management to try to stabilize beds and banks or to improve aquatic habitat. Despite the frequency with which they are used however, engineering standards for the design and installation of the structures are inadequate, a problem that would be good to remedy if we are to make reliable predictions about whether a given stream restoration strategy or project will succeed.

Establishing comprehensive, quantitative engineering guidelines for in-stream structure installation and maintenance is far from simple though. The underlying physical processes that govern the behavior of a stream and its inhabitants are very complex. To deal with the complexity, researchers at the National Center for Earth-surface Dynamics (NCED) have come up with a novel approach—build a near-field scale experimental stream and a computational “virtual” stream to help elucidate the underlying interactions of water, sediment, and biota.

The experimental stream is the Outdoor Stream Lab (OSL) that sits right on the Mississippi River. The virtual stream is the (surprise, surprise) “Virtual StreamLab” (VSL) that exits as code within massively parallel supercomputers. This past summer, NCED researchers were able to complete their first simulation of a real stream (the OSL) using the VSL (see the video above). The simulation involved mapping more than 90 million data points into the computer model. The result was the most accurate model of a real stream to date.

The ability to simulate water flow over topography with this degree of realism will provide researchers with the insights necessary to improve sustainable stream restoration strategies and help to optimize techniques to fight erosion, prevent flooding, and restore aquatic habitats. NCED researchers are currently using their simulation to develop comprehensive, quantitative design, installation, and maintenance standards for in-stream structures.

With so many miles of degraded streams and rivers in the United States, the VSL is a good step in the right direction for the design and use of in-stream structures specifically, and for the field of stream restoration generally.

Apr
20
2010

Physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said,

"If you're scientifically literate, the world looks very different to you. And that understanding empowers you."

(You can hear Mr. Tyson "sing" this line in the Symphony of Science/Poetry of Reality video below.)

Earthquake: Are you going to listen to the guy who tells you this happened because of a ghost? A pact with the Devil? Because God is angry with unveiled and unchaste women? No, thanks. My money's on the well-understood science of plate tectonics, and I'll be looking to the science peeps for the solutions, too.
Earthquake: Are you going to listen to the guy who tells you this happened because of a ghost? A pact with the Devil? Because God is angry with unveiled and unchaste women? No, thanks. My money's on the well-understood science of plate tectonics, and I'll be looking to the science peeps for the solutions, too.Courtesy United Nations Development Programme

I've been thinking about that idea a lot today after hearing two stories:

  1. In the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake, Protestants, Catholics, and practitioners of Voodoo are trying to increase followers by placing blame for the quake on supernatural causes. Some blame it on Voodoo, claiming that the earthquake is the price for a centuries old covenant made on the eve of the Haitian revolution. Others say Voodoo isn't at fault, but the consequence of not properly burying Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a hero of the Haitian revolution. (And you don't have to be living in Haiti to believe some of this stuff -- just listen to Pat Robertson).
  2. And in Iran, one of the most earthquake-prone places on Earth, Senior Cleric Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi was recently quoted saying, "Many women who do not dress modestly ... lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which (consequently) increases earthquakes. ... What can we do to avoid being buried under the rubble? ... There is no other solution but to take refuge in religion and to adapt our lives to Islam's moral codes."

Huh?

The cause of the Haitian earthquake is clear--100% explainable without having to invoke pacts with the Devil or martyr's ghosts. Same in Iran -- geologic activity in the area will continue whether or not women are veiled and chaste.

The solution is not "to take refuge in religion." The wrangling over unverifiable, supernatural causes for things diverts very needed resources and attention from real world solutions to very urgent problems.

The solution is to take refuge in science. Michael Shermer (yup, he "sings") says,

"Science is the best tool ever devised for understanding how the world works."

The Earth hasn't changed. People have. We're seeing quake activity with big consequences because there are more of us than ever before, many, many of us live in developing countries where large populations live in dense communities with lax building codes, and communications technology means that we know what has happened, not because we're paying a geological price for not living our lives correctly.

So what do we do? We innovate. We devise new and better monitoring and warning systems. We develop building techniques that are both locally appropriate and safer in the event of a quake. We teach people how to protect themselves in an emergency and how to react afterwards.

Richard Dawkins (my current nerd crush; you can watch him "sing" in the video, too.) said,

"Science replaces private prejudice with publicly verifiable evidence."

How can you not get behind an idea like that?

Apr
17
2010

Meteorite: I traded out this meteorite at the Science Museum of Minnesota Collectors Corner. That is one inch on the ruler.
Meteorite: I traded out this meteorite at the Science Museum of Minnesota Collectors Corner. That is one inch on the ruler.Courtesy ARTiFactor
The fireball of a meteor blazing across the sky last Wednesday night was so spectacular that when my wife saw it, she pulled off the road. She was driving west on Ramsey Blvd. approaching highway 10 and said "it was the same as the green in the traffic light."

Meteor lands in Wisconsin

Our Buzz blogger, "mdr", wrote about this event, Light show over Iowa.

When the meteor exploded, it unleashed as much energy as the detonation of 20 tons of TNT, NASA scientists said. Their analysis found that the parent meteor was about 3.3 feet (1 meter) wide before it blew apart. Space.com

If you want to look for pieces of this meteorite, don't go to Iowa, join the rush around the Livingston area in Wisconsin, between Platteville and Avoca.

Similar meteors fall every day

Most meteors burn up before reaching Earth, though. This one did not break up till it was close to the surface. We know this because found fragments are burnt on one edge only. The meteorite is described as an "H type" stony meteorite, a fairly common variety. The stereotypic iron meteorite is more rare.

Telling a meteorite from a meteor wrong

The University of Wisconsin at Madison Geology Museum has a useful webpage helping visitors determine a meteorite from a meteor-wrong (click on link to learn how).

Learn more about meteorites

You can see photos of meteorite fragments here and here (U of Wisconsin analysis of meteorite).
Photos of more Wisconsin meteorite fragments and info are to be found in a blog by Astro Bob.

UW-Madison meteorite experts Noriko Kita and Takayuki Ushikubo used a scanning electron microscope and X-ray spectrometer to begin to analyze the surface mineral composition of the rock. They identified the presence of magnesium, iron, and silica-containing compounds, including the common minerals olivine and pyroxene. They also found iron-nickel metal and iron sulfide, which are often seen in primitive meteorites.

Trade for meteorites @ Collector's Corner

We now have over 30 meteorites for trade at Collector's Corner at the Science Museum of Minnesota. Come get one before they are all gone.