Louisiana May Be due For Bigger Spill: Aging Infrastructure Will Strike Again

An upcoming report intends to warn the Gulf Coast of a looming disaster that may dwarf the current BP gusher. 31,000 miles of under sea pipes move over a billion dollars of oil a day around the Gulf of Mexico, and much of it is crumbling apart. This new study suggests under water currents from a hurricane could be enough force to wreak havoc on an aging infrastructure that is being dug out of the ocean floor by the passage of time.

Based on unique measurements taken directly under a powerful hurricane, the new study’s calculations are the first to show that hurricanes propel underwater currents with enough oomph to dig up the seabed, potentially creating underwater mudslides and damaging pipes or other equipment resting on the bottom.

At least 50,000 kilometers (31,000 miles) of pipelines reportedly snake across the seafloor of the Gulf of Mexico. Damage to these pipelines can be difficult to detect if it causes only smaller leaks, rather than a catastrophic break, the researchers say. Repairing underwater pipes can cost more than fixing the offshore oil drilling platforms themselves, making it all the more important to prevent damage to pipelines in the first place.

The researchers, at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory at Stennis Space Center, Mississippi, got an unprecedented view of a hurricane when Hurricane Ivan, a category-4 storm, crossed the Gulf of Mexico in 2004. The eye of the storm passed over a network of sensors on the ocean floor, put in place to monitor currents along the continental shelf in the Gulf.

The research team found that strong currents along the sea floor pushed and pulled on the seabed, scouring its surface. “Usually you only see this in very shallow water, where waves break on the beach, stirring up sand,” says David Wang, co-author of the study. “In hurricanes, the much bigger waves can stir up the seafloor all the way down to 90 meters [300 feet].”

Ivan’s waves on the surface created powerful currents that dug up the seafloor. Acoustic measurements using sound waves showed that these currents lofted a lot of sediments, which clouded the water up to 25 meters (82 feet) above the seafloor. The team’s seafloor sensors tracking the pressure underwater experienced a big increase, as well. This showed that the ground was washed away beneath the sensors, causing them to sink into a lower, higher-pressure zone.

read more at Science Daily

Advertisements

Reap the Wind, or Reap the Whirlwind

Way back in 2003, I visited The Netherlands, and was amazed at how incredibly modern everything seemed – at least in comparison to Middle America. The cab I took from Schiphol International was a black, late-model Mercedes E-Type with an awesome flat-screen t.v. on which I could watch Dutch MTV – just like every other cab in the Dutch fleet. The contemporary architecture was cutting-edge and electric trams skirted down the cobblestone streets.  Not to mention the rather avant-garde attitude the Dutch held with regard to cannabis and prostitution.

What impressed me more than anything else, though, was the sight I beheld as the cab rode up to the top of those famous berms and dikes which keep the North Sea at bay. There, glinting in the sunlight, white and pinwheeling above the deep blue sea, was a forest of wind turbines, ineluctably carving the air in graceful circles like the world’s most profound modern art installation. That’s the future, I thought, smiling, and it is beautiful.

A little later, I talked to some Dutch townspeople. “We hate those wind turbines,” they said. “We think they’re ugly.” I had to stifle a guffaw. This was Holland, Great Land of Windmills! I mean, okay, 400 years ago Don Quixote mistook one for a monster, but aren’t those wind turbines just magnificent technological updates of the very same quaint rickety sorts that are Dutch national symbols? Aren’t they even prettier than the originals, now that they’re not merely obsolete fodder for postcards – but symbols of the clean energy future?

Well, change is tough on everybody, I suppose, and it just goes to show you that if the Dutch, of all people, can go NIMBY on wind turbines, then it’s going to be quite a sell for Americans. And indeed it is, as The New York Times reported today. This week is post-time for Obama’s decision on the big wind farm off the Massachusetts coast – in the works now for more than a decade – and our objections are looking even stupider than the Dutch.

Opponents have argued that the venture is too expensive and would interfere with local fishermen, intrude on the sacred rituals and submerged burial grounds of two local Indian tribes and destroy the view.

Too expensive? True, it’s twice as expensive to develop offshore; but we’ve already seen T. Boone Pickens’ plans for a giant Texas windfarm deep-sixed when it became apparent that hooking up the grid to the farm made the whole plan go wildly over-budget. Offshore wind farms positioned near major population centers means no such problem.

Interfere with local fishermen? Okay, so wind turbines that are placed, on average, a half-mile apart interfere with large-scale trawling; but isn’t large-scale trawling the primary cause of extinction-level overfishing? The Masshole anglers might have issues, but over in Rhode Island, the Fishermen’s Energy Company is collaborating with local fishermen. After all, they know the ocean bottom better than anyone, and bringing them in not only reduces the costs and fishery impact of offshore wind farms, but gives the fishing companies a tidy consultancy fee, and investment in the project – not to mention the energy savings in their coastal towns.

Indian tribes? The Wampanoag tribe of Nantucket has important sunrise rituals that, apparently, depend upon an unbroken view of the horizon. Now, normally I’m all for Native American rights and think the idea of the ceremony is beautiful. But I also remember this PSA from the ’70s:

Finally, finally we’re getting off our asses and preventing pollution – and – and –– Hell. Give ’em stock. Give ’em casinos and tobacco-trading posts on the service gantries. Sorry for the callousness, folks, but this is a pretty classic example of not seeing the forest for the trees. Or rather, not seeing the protection of the environment from some pinwheels on the horizon. Eminent Domain has been used to such nefarious ends in our recent history, and we can’t use it to facilitate a clean-energy future? I am appalled by this nation’s past, but there should be limits to its limitations on our future.

I just wish people could see those wind turbines with my eyes, spinning gracefully in the brash winds, glinting the sunlight with melodious reflections, counterpointing the sunlight glinting off the bluerough steel waves – and in each turn, speaking: clean, clean energy; clean, clean energy; now, later, onward.


Well, That’s One Way to View Central Park

A new study out today has determined that if New Yorkers drove as much as Americans in other urban locales, we’d need a parking lot as big as Manhattan to fit all the cars!

Well, Gothamites, let’s get to work! We could singlehandedly revive Detroit, put loads of people to concrete and asphalt work, and find a perfectly good use for that Midtown eyesore.

It’s Not Just Nazca! Ankgor Downfall Tied to Water, Drought

Ta Prohm, Angkor / Photo: Robert Clark for National Geographic

A while ago, we told you how the ancient Nasca civilization of Peru (which created the famous Nazca Lines) fell because of bad water management. Just like the ancient builders of the Moai on Easter Island. Now, there is scientific evidence that a similar fate befell Angkor, the great religious city of the Khmer Empire in Cambodia.

It wasn’t their fault, though: this immense spiritual metropolis (pop. 1 million, the largest city in the world 1,000 years ago) was a “Hydraulic City” carefully designed to collect water – with miles of dikes, irrigation canals, reservoirs, and diverted rivers. Tree-ring analysis of immense banyans like the one above has shown, however, that even the most advanced schemes are under the thumb of Mother Nature. Two huge droughts (in the 13th-14th centuries and in the 15th-16th centuries) alternated with vicious monsoon backlashes. The combination destroyed the infrastructure. The full story is available at Discover Magazine‘s superb Not Exactly Rocket Science blog.

Water catastrophes didn’t completely seal Angkor’s fate – “by the time the droughts kicked in,” says Not Exactly Rocket Science, “the city was already weakened by social, economic and political strife.” It’s clear, though, that in the recent revelations about Easter Island, the Nazca, and Angkor as well, science is revealing history we need to learn: that social values and cultural practices, in combination with natural-resource management and climate, is what makes civilizations – and what breaks them too.


“Newsflash”

I was traveling via Los Angeles International Airport — LAX — last week. Walking through its faded, cramped domestic terminal, I got the feeling of a place that once thought of itself as modern but has had one too many face-lifts and simply can’t hide the wrinkles anymore. In some ways, LAX is us. We are the United States of Deferred Maintenance.

Why is Thomas Friedman absolutely, completely, the last person to understand anything?