May 2010 Archives

Oil Spill--Big or Small?

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Several times in the last few weeks, I've heard executives from British Petroleum make statements that their spill (which, incidentally is now the largest in US history) is "small relative to the total volume of the ocean."  According to BP's original estimate of 5000 barrels per day, the spill has "only" released 185,000 barrels as of 5/27.  However, USGS just released a best estimate of 12,000 barrels per day (444,000 total), but says it could be as high as 25,000 barrels per day (925,000 total).  Using the USGS best estimate, 444,000 barrels amounts to only 0.000000000005% of the total ocean or 0.000000003% of the Gulf of Mexico.  As Nick put it, if the spill were actually big relative to the ocean, then we'd really be in trouble.

The problem with viewing the spill in this way is that it assumes the oil is spread evenly throughout the ocean.  Suppose the oil were confined to a layer 1m thick.  In this case, the oil would cover 0.07 square km.  This would be like covering 7.6 Fenway Parks with 1m of oil.  Again, doesn't seem like much, especially if you're a Yankee fan.  The problem, though is that reality is somewhere in between the "completely mixed" or "pure oil" alternatives.  


One of the things that struck me about the comments from BP, is that the oil slick can be seen from space.  In my opinion, anything that can be seen from space is probably not small.  Roffer's Ocean Fishing Forecasting Service is issuing regular updates on the position of the oil slick using regular satellite images.  By my crude counting of the "oily" squares in their latest images, the oil slick now covers 135,531 square km.  If we assume that the slick is 10m deep, then the slick is about a 0.000005% oil-water mixture.  To me, this provides a rough guideline for the concentration of oil necessary to cause some effect (or at least, to make the water look oily).  Using these numbers, the slick now covers 8.5% of the surface area of the Gulf of Mexico and 0.005% of its total volume.  To put this in a more local perspective, if the slick were in the Gulf of Maine, it would cover 72% of the surface and affect 5% of its volume.  Sounds like a big deal to me.

volumes & surfaces areas of World Ocean and Gulf of Mexico--wikipedia
flow rates of oil--New York Times

Defend Hudson Bay !

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A fun part of being a grad student, is making bonds beyond the regular "have-to-share-the-same-open-area-office" friendship. The challenges to overcome are so tough, the emotions shared are so strong than you can never break those bonds. So last week was emotional for me, as I assisted to the Ph.D. thesis defence of my last two buddies from my grad school modeling lab.

Both worked on the Hudson Bay system, a very exciting environment to work on. It's the southernmost Arctic sea, a transition zone between the Arctic Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean at the forefront of the impacts of the current global warming.

Pierre St-Laurent defended brilliantly the 17th of May his thesis entitled "Variabilité saisonnière et interannuelle des eaux douces dans les mers Arctiques : Le cas de la baie d'Hudson".

Pierre showed the audience how the fresh-water budget is regulated in the Hudson Bay. He tackled both liquid and solid (seasonal sea-ice) aspects of it. As an example of how great a tool is modeling in a well formed scientific mind, he first studied this issue with a realistic high resolution sea-ice / ocean 3-D circulation model of the Hudson Bay, developed in the numerical modeling lab of ISMER in Rimouski.

summer_tracer_river.pngHe then constructed an idealized system to sort out the relative importance of the various hydrological, atmospheric and oceanic forcing.


This allowed him to demonstrate for the first time the role of changing wind regimes in the periodic retention/expulsion of fresh water from the Hudson Bay towards the North-West Atlantic.


Pierre will soon lend his brain as a post-doc to the Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA

(He's too modest to agree for me to tell you that there is a tenure track position attached at the end of his 3 years as post-doc).

Virginie Sibert defended not less brilliantly the 20th of May her thesis entitled "Modélisation de la variabilité saisonnière et de la sensibilité au climat des productions glacielle et pélagique de la baie d'Hudson".

Virginie managed to build a model of primary and secondary production within the sea-ice in Hudson Bay.


She coupled this to the ice compartment of the same high-resolution 3-D circulation model than Pierre. After characterizing the spatio-temporal patterns of this system, she coupled it further with an NPZD pelagic production model to have a complete picture of the primary production in the system.

View image

After a rigorous validation process which guaranteed a good confidence in the model results, she finally tested one of the IPCC scenario of climate change (A2) for the Hudson Bay system.


A nice outcome of her work is that the Hudson Bay system would not, for its most part, pass a tipping point yet. Primary production of both ice algea and phytoplankton would increase, even if their respective blooms would occur sooner in the season.

Virginie has already brought her talent and charm as a post-doc in the IFREMER lab of Brest, France.

Alewives - the damariscotta fishladder

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Yesterday, I went up to Damariscotta to check out the alewives. I was planning to throw a scuba tank on and jump in with them as they migrated in from Great Salt Bay up the fish ladder into the river that connects to Damariscotta lake, but the fish weren't cooperating. There weren't any moving under the bridges between the bay and the river. Lucky for me, there were some already in the ladder.
Here are some photos of the alewives making their way up the ladder:

alewives gathered in a pool

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gathering in the shade below a walkway

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swimming up over the top of a jump in the ladder to join the next pool

Check out the following link with more information on the fish ladder and alewives
Damariscotta Mills Fishladder


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I just received this morning an automatic e-mail alert which made a nice follow-up on my last blog entry ("Happy bearthday !").
An important scientific editor (Springer) announced the first issue of "Waste and Biomass Valorization" Journal.

The editor-in-chief was "delighted to announce the first journal dedicated solely to waste and biomass valorization. This journal will gather and disseminate cutting-edge research and experiences on the conversion of waste and biomass to energy, fuels and other useful materials, with particular focus on environmental indicators and sustainability goals. The concept that covers such areas is called valorization."

I don't think I have to convince anybody that it's a significant event when a scientific journal is dedicated to a new field of science and industry. A valorized waste is not a waste anymore. Hence we may, actually, get rid soon of the very concept of waste...

GMRI bulkhead time lapse

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A video of the past 5 days of construction on our bulkhead:

Bulkhead Construction, May 10-14 from Nicholas Record on Vimeo.


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I want to quickly share a couple of snapshots from my trip to Halifax last week.

The main purpose of the trip was a day with Brooke Ocean / Odim / Rolls-Royce -- the maker of our LOPC (that's LASER optical plankton counter; see previous posts).  Our instrument was under repair/upgrading.  I had a very nice visit, and a productive day.  They greeted me with Timbits and showed me around the facility.  Then we went to work on the LOPC.  Here is a picture of the guts of one:


Ours was opened up like a surgery patient.  By the end of the day, we got everything smoothly working.  Let's hope we have the same luck when we're bobbing at sea.  Hijinks to follow later this summer.

While I was in Halifax, I stopped by the Bedford Institute of Oceanography.  I had a very productive day there as well--some great jam sessions with other scientists.  It's good to get out of my bubble and add some new sparks to ideas that are starting to go into dormancy.  One of the best parts of visiting a DFO building is touring the labs.  Here are a couple of snapshots.

Tubes of delicious phytoplankton cultures.

A big blue lobster donating its life to science.

Happy bearthday !

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Today, I just turned 31.

I was born in a world where the ratio of our Ecological Footprint (EF) to the Biocapacity (BC) of the planet was still below one, around 0.9 (Niccolucci et al. 2009). This simple metric means that I was born in a world where the total demand of humanity remained within the regenerative capacity of the Earth. The economic metaphor is probably timely nowadays: in 1979, we could still live on the dividends in the form of renewable flows of ecological resources and services, without touching the ecological capital. This is not the case anymore. Today, we are in a situation of serious ecological debt. This debt built up as the exponentially increasing human population and standard of life since the end of WWII consumed more and more natural resources which could not be compensated by the natural capacity of production of the ecosystems (
I'm not even talking about non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels).

This situation of chronic ecological deficit led from the mid 80's to a depletion of the ecological capital, hampering its recuperation. For example, if some fish stocks are overexploited, the following year the marine ecosystems will be able to produce less fish, from which however it is still expected to replenish the stocks while sustaining our fisheries. Unfortunately, contrary to its economic counterpart, an ecological debt cannot be bailed out until we find another habitable planet.

So what do we do? Because humans are swarming and agitating more and more every day, we should agitate in the right direction. One out of several promising avenues has its roots in the very functioning of ecosystems. What if we get rid of the concept of waste ? Simple and feasible, according to the American designer McDonough and the German chemist Michael Braungart who elaborated a complete economic philosophy around the concept of "cradle to cradle", first put forth in the 70's. The idea is to design from the conception products that will circle again and again in the production lines. Out the plastic clips, in the stainless steel screws.


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Use the type on the left (a great canadian design...), and not the incredibly dumb one-way head on the right, please !

Today, I enjoyed my birthday party with my two children. They were born at a time when the ecological debt we created was steadily increasing. Incidentally, we watched together "Happy Feet". It's a sign, when a popular kids movie depicts humans as aliens pillaging the ecosystem of Antarctica... My wish this year is to begin the journey toward a future where my kids will witness the ending of this movie coming true (Just watch it, it's a fair animated musical...).

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