Daddy, Did you plug the hole yet?

As we all know, President Obama told the story that his daughter knocked on the bathroom door while he was shaving, and asked him, “Have you plugged the hole yet, Daddy?”

As science teachers we are reminded that this question is the kind of question our youth asks about important issues that face us today.  In today’s post on the New York Times, Thomas Friedman uses Malia’s comment suggest that this is the time to talk about energy futures.  He puts it this way:

This oil leak is not President Obama’s fault. Stopping the spill is BP’s responsibility; it both caused it and it has the best access to the best technology to plug it. Of course, as the nation’s C.E.O., Mr. Obama has to oversee the cleanup, and he has been on top of that. His most important job, though, is one he has yet to take on: shaping the long-term public reaction to the spill so that we can use it to generate the political will to break our addiction to oil. In that job, the most important thing Mr. Obama can do is react to this spill as a child would — because it is precisely that simple gut reaction, repeated over and over, speech after speech, that could change our national conversation on energy.

Friedman identifies three voices that shape the energy discussions: “petro-determinists (convince us that we can not break our addiction to oil),” “eco-pessimists (its too late to break it),” and “Obama-realists (walking lightly on a new energy plan).”   Friedman suggests that we need to think the way youth thinks, and perhaps be willing to answer questions such as these:

Answering those questions is the president’s great opportunity here, but he has to think like a kid. Kids get it. They ask: Why would we want to stay dependent on an energy source that could destroy so many birds, fish, beaches and ecosystems before the next generation has a chance to enjoy them? Why aren’t we doing more to create clean power and energy efficiency when so many others, even China, are doing so? And, Daddy, why can’t you even mention the words “carbon tax,” when the carbon we spill into the atmosphere every day is just as dangerous to our future as the crude oil that has been spilling into the gulf?

It is time to move on with a new approach to energy.

BP Gulf Oil Spill Images

The latest word on effort to plug the BP offshore oil well using the “Top Kill” procedure is that the effort is continuing, but the company has not determined whether it is working, or that it won’t work. According to a report in the New York Times, BP will continue with the procedure. The report suggested that BP used a “Junk Shot” last night which “involves pumping odds and ends like plastic cubes, knotted rope, and golf balls into the blowout preventer, the five-story safety device atop the well.” The “Top Kill” procedure continues at this time, and will continue until the spill is plugged following which cement will be used to seal it, or the procedure will be stopped, and BP will move on to its next procedure, which is in place.

Within the past hour BP announced (in a conference call with the White House) that the “Top Kill” procedure is not working to stop the oil flowing into the Gulf. About 19 million gallons have spilled in the waters of the Gulf. BP will now move to cap the well with a new procedure that, according to BP, is ready to go.

This procedure involved lowering a cap to placed over the well to collect the oil, and then siphon it to the surface. There is also the possibility that it will take until August to stop the spill, and this would be accomplished by the drilling of one or two relief wells. This was the method that eventually stopped the 1979 Ixtoc I oil well spill off the coast of Mexico, which was the world’s largest accidental oil spill to date.  By the time the Ixtoc I was stopped, 139,832,000 gallons had spilled into the Gulf of Mexico.  The BP spill could exceed the 1979 spill. If it takes until August, it is possible that more than 60 million gallons will spill into the Gulf.  But this figure is based on a conservative estimate of about 400,000 gallons per day being spilled.  Some scientists estimate it could be 1 – 2 million gallons per day.

The impact on the Gulf of Mexico and the Gulf Coast beaches and communities has been enormous. Here are some photographs from the Boston Globe (The Big Picture: News Stories in Photographs). If you click on the previous link it will take you to more than three-dozen images of the Gulf oil spill.

Oil Slick from the BP Gulf Oil Spill
Booms used to cordon off the oil
The impact on wildlife is staggering. Here a pelican beginning to lift off, is covered with oil.
The hundreds of miles of beach clean up will require a huge work force.
Beach clean up will require thousands of relief workers.
Oil can be easily scooped up out of the Gulf waters.

The BP Oil Spill Compared to Previous Spills

As I write this post, BP has begun their “top kill” maneuver to stop the flow of oil by plugging the well with mud. This technique has not been used at such great depths, and we’ll have to wait perhaps for a couple of days to find out the result of this approach to stopping this debacle.

As I’ve read the wrenching stories, and seen the awful scenes of oil in the water, and oil reaching the beaches and marshes, I’ve also wondered about previous oil spills, and what precedence there is for this calamity. Here is a chart of very large oil spills since 1967. Note that the largest spill was not accidental, but was done by Iraq during the first Gulf War. But the second largest spill was accidental and it happened in the Gulf of Mexico.

In 1979, the Ixtoc I oil well beneath the waters of the Gulf of Mexico (near the Bay of Campeche) blew out, and created the world’s worst accidental oil disaster in history. More than 3 million barrels of oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico, and it took nearly 9 months for the well to be capped. In the meantime, 162 miles of Texas beaches were affected, and thousands of birds were killed. According to SkyTruth President John Amos, the Ixtoc I is a perfect example of the present BP Gulf oil spill, and we should use it a model to help us understand the present oil spill.

According to SkyTruth, which uses remote sensing and digital mapping help us understand environmental consequences of human activities, the estimate of the spill is much larger than released by BP. According to BP, there are 5,000 barrels of oil being leaked into the Gulf daily; SkyTruth believes it is closer to 26,000 barrels of oil per day, more than five times as large!

The SkyTruth map below gives some perspective to the extent of the oil slick that has extended to an area about the size of South Carolina throughout the Gulf Coast area. It is causing damage to beaches, wildlife, and marches up and down the Gulf.

How Much Oil is Spilling into the Gulf?

There is enormous frustration setting in as the BP Gulf oil spill continues into its second month devastating vast areas of the American gulf coast. To this date, we do not know how much oil is spilling into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The original estimate (established by BP) was 5,000 barrels per day. Keep in mind that there are 42 gallons in a barrel, so this initial estimate means that 210,000 gallons of oil were spilling into the ocean.

But some scientists estimate, based on the size of the pipe through which the oil is gushing and the rate of flow of the escaping oil, that there might be as much as 70,000 barrels of oil spewing into the water, or in gallons: 2.94 million per day. This is an enormous difference.

PBS created this widget that we can use to estimate the spillage of oil into the Gulf. You can move the slider to adjust the rate of oil spillage per day to see the devastating impact of this oil disaster. Watch what happens as you move the slider to the right increasing the rate of flow.

Why is important to know how much oil is pouring into the Gulf. Lisa Suatoni, in her blog, reports that it is important to know about the extent of the leaking oil because it will influence the response that we will take, and that the law managing damage assessment requires that the government know the extent of the spill. There is also a financial penalty associated with this disaster, but with accurate measurements of the spill, one can not attach an acceptable penalty.

There is evidence that this is a huge disaster, and that it is a further reminder that the U.S. energy future can not continue to maintain the status quo. It is crucial that the oil age needs to end, not because we run out of oil, but because we need to implement and support a new energy paradigm. Thomas Friedman speaks to this problem in one of his posts this week. Friedman suggests that the present administration needs to think big, and imaginatively, and support the energy bill that is being developed in the Senate that would lead to the end of our addiction to oil, and forcefully move us in the direction of wind, solar, electric cars, and high speed rail.

The Importance of Geology in Science Teaching

Since January, we have experienced a number of geological events that have caused havoc and misery to many people around the Earth.  On January 12, Haiti was rocked with a magnitude 7 earthquake causing the destruction of the many cities and towns including the capital, Port-au-Prince.  Then, on February 27, a magnitude 8.8 earthquake occurred off the coast of the Maule region of Chile, causing enormous damage to property and life.  In late March, Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupted for the first time in 200 years, and volcanologists predict that the activity could last for months.  We all know the havoc that was created when European airspace was shut down stranding thousands of people.  Then on April 20, the catastrophic explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon occurred resulting in the death of eleven platform workers and injury to many others, and to perhaps the worst oil spill in U.S. history.  A month later, and the oil is still gushing out (link to a live cam of oil spill) of the Gulf at rate that probably exceeds the estimated 210,000 gallons/day.

In each of these cases, the destruction to property, and the loss of life varies from one disaster to the other, but they all have impacted the environment of vast regions of the earth and millions of people.  In the case of the earthquakes and volcano, students’ understanding of theory of plate tectonics will help them understand how these geological events occurred.  The geology of the Haiti and the Chile earthquakes provide students with a deeper understanding of plate tectonics, and how the earth’s crust works.  Iceland’s volcano occurred along the interface between two tectonic plates, where new crust is moving to the surface from deeper in the crust of the earth.  It is at this interface that these two huge tentonic plates are moving away from each other.  Quite different from the compressional activity of the tectonic plates that come into play in the case of the Haiti and the Chile earthquakes.

Earth's tectonic plates

A few month’s ago the Governor of Louisiana wondered why the EPA had funds in its budget for “volcano monitoring.” He lashed out at this as an example of government funding gone amuck.  In a post I wrote after that entitled Volcano in your backyard, the mayor of Vancouver begged to differ with the governor.   Because of the BP’s horrendous oil spill, the governor now finds himself in the middle of a very significant environmental disaster.

The U.S. produces about 9 million barrels (1 barrel = 42 gallons) of crude oil per day, and imports about 13 million barrels of crude.  The BP oil spill is spewing 5,000 barrels (view this Youtube clip) of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico per day (210,000 gallons).  These are BP estimates, and there many geologists who think the spillage is much greater.  Nevertheless, this is a huge amount of oil that is being pumped into the Gulf, and is threatening the entire Gulf Coast, and some fear that the oil could move up the East Coast of the U.S.

The Gulf Oil spill provides the context for a powerful STS teaching and learning experience for middle and high school students.  To help students understand the oil spill, you might explore the visualizations shown on this website including what a 5,000 barrel/day oil spill looks like, how oil is explored beneath the ocean, how big is Deep Horizon oil spill, and many other questions.

A recent paper by Bulunuz and Jarrett in the Eurasia Journal of Mathematics, Science, and Technology Education explored the research on teachers’ understanding about Earth and space science concepts.  The paper has implications for us as teachers, and also science teacher educators.