Friday, May 21, 2010

"And the sea was no more"

Deepwater Horizon: overview of a catastrophe
The Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on 20th April, killing eleven workers and injuring seventeen more. The well which it had been drilling was in water over 1.5km deep and descended another few kilometres into the sea floor into an oil field estimated to contain about 50 million barrels of oil (enough to supply the world's needs for less than a day, by the way). After the explosion, oil started gushing from the well into the deep waters of the Gulf and has continued to do so until today, over one month later.

After initially claiming that the oil slick on the surface was just from the sunken rig and not from the well, BP then offered an first estimate that about 1,000 barrels a day were leaking. This was revised up to 5,000 barrels a few days later by NOAA (National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration) and has remained the official government estimate. Scientists analysing the size of the visible spill on the surface put the figure at around 20-25,000 barrels a day, though this ignored the significant amounts of dispersant that BP was pumping into the oil as it exited the well (causing much of the oil to never make it to the surface) and the enormous oil slicks, some 10 km long, floating well below the surface.

Critics of BP started to point out numerous problems in their response, including their use of inferior and more toxic dispersants purchased from a company linked to BP (they have recently been ordered to find a less toxic alternative, having already employed 3 million litres of the stuff) and perhaps of greater concern, a pattern of trying to hide or minimise the extent of the problem. Under pressure, BP finally released some video footage of the underwater oil eruption, from which independent scientists estimated the flow rate at up to 70,000 barrels per day. More pressure from Senators lead to BP posting more videos, from which it has been estimated that it may be closer to 100,000 barrels per day, of which BP have now managed to siphon off up to about 5,000 barrels per day via a pipe they have managed to thread down the gushing hole. That is, it appears that the disaster is one hundred times greater than they first admitted. It is already the largest oil contamination in US waters and is moving up the charts towards the largest in the world. About one fifth of the waters in the Gulf are now off-limits to fishing and some of the oil has been caught in the Loop Current, pulling it towards Florida and the lower eastern states.

Tony Hayward, CEO of BP has been quoted calling the 38,000 square kilometres of visible surface spill "a drop in the ocean" when compared to the enormous volume of water in the Gulf. Despite numerous apparent serious breaches of safety protocol and a history of pollution infractions from the rig, he has called the disaster "unforseeable" and "inconceivable" and assured people that the environmental damage is likely to be "very, very modest".

This is not an oil leak, which sounds slow, nor an oil spill, which implies that the oil is pouring from a tank of a given size. This is an ongoing underwater oil gusher, filling an olympic swimming pool every four hours or so. Although efforts to stem the flow are ongoing, ultimately, it may not be stopped until a relief well is drilled, which is likely take a few months. Many commentators are beginning to suggest this may turn out to be the largest environmental catastrophe in US history.

Our dying oceans
However, this is just one of a number of deeply troubling problems facing the world's oceans, and despite potentially affecting the Gulf of Mexico for years to come, its effects are dwarfed in both scale and long term impact by a range of other threats to ocean life: acidification (from carbon dioxide), plastic pollution - including a floating garbage patch possibly larger than Australia, dead zones from agricultural run-off (the oil pollution is likely to exacerbate this problem in the Gulf of Mexico), warming causing coral bleaching, thermal stratification and other changes in marine life, indiscriminately destructive fishing techniques (trawling and dredging) and overfishing, global fish catch peaked in the 1980's and on current trends all commercial fish stocks will likely be depleted (unprofitable or extinct) in the next few decades.

For the authors of holy scripture, the ocean was a terrifying chaos, filled with monsters and a symbol of destruction. The vision of the new heavens and new earth in Revelation 21 includes the telling phrase "and the sea was no more", indicating an end to chaos and destruction.

But today, the picture is reversed. Our oceans are threatened and dying. It is we who are the chaotic (or perhaps all too systematic) destroyer.


Mike W said...

so the last hundred years or so have been a bit of a bummer for our environment. Who can teach us to live differently?

Mike Bull said...

Horrifying stuff.

BTW, the "Sea" in Revelation was the Gentile nations out of which the empires came in Daniel 7. Israel was the "Land." After AD70, the Land to be conquered was the entire world. All the symbols describe people.

Sam Charles Norton said...

Byron - did you read the Orlov piece arguing that this was to the US what Chernobyl was to the USSR?

Rich Griese said...

I am also interested in the study of very early christianity. I am currently reading, Adolf von Harnack's History of Dogma_. I have studied the topic for almost 20 years now. I have read a number of other of the great works on this topic like Strauss, Harnack, Schweitzer, a few Bauers (FC, Bruno, & Walter), and many many others, but this is my current read.

I am always interested in meeting others that are interested in the study of earliest christianity to have ongoing conversations and share reading lists, etc... you can contact me by email at

Do you have specific aspect of the study that interest you, that you might be interested in discussing, and perhaps having on going discussions on the topic in general? Feel free to email me to talk about it.

My main interest is the very earliest period. Perhaps from the modified Messiah idea that may have begun around the time of the Maccabean revolt through the beginnings of christianity itself, till the Council of Nicea in 325CE, and perhaps a few years after that as some of the results of that council took effect. I have a list of some specific topics that interest me here;


byron smith said...

"The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at or repair." - Douglas Adams.

Mike W - who indeed...

Mike B - Yes, I agree that this may well have echoes of Daniel 7 and the beasts arising from the sea (=foreign tyrannous powers arising from the surrounding nations), but I'm not sure that the symbolism of the sea is exhausted by this echo. That is, I think the sea is also the realm of the great sea monsters and of chaotic floods and so on.

Sam - Yes, and it is an interesting comparison. Although occasionally Orlov can be quite idiosyncratic, I generally appreciate his insights. For those who might be interested, see here. Orlov is a Russian-born US citizen who (amongst other things) explores parallels between the USSR just before its collapse in the 1990s and contemporary USA (and argues that Russia was ironically better prepared for collapse than the US in a variety of ways).

Rich Griese - I am indeed interested in early Christianity (my brother is currently completing a PhD in ancient history looking at early Christianity). However, I'm not quite sure how your comment relates to this post.

byron smith said...

The amount of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico remains unknown. Hence, campaigns like this are worth supporting.
Join me in getting BP to open up

BP is hiding information – data it’s already tracking -- that would assist in the response to the Deepwater Oil Disaster.

The secrecy must stop.

It was independent reviews by scientists across the country that first showed that the oil leak may be many times worse than the original estimates – and that only occurred after BP reluctantly released video clips it had all along.

Could you join me in sending a message to BP and helping build public pressure for BP to spill the truth, and make all its data public?


byron smith said...

Why are BP so reluctant to release data on the volume of oil polluting the Gulf? This could be one reason.

byron smith said...

– Tony Haywood, BP CEO: “I think the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to be very, very modest. It is impossible to say and we will mount, as part of the aftermath, a very detailed environmental assessment as we go forward.” [5/18/10]

– Haywood: “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.” [5/14/10]

– Lamar McKay, President of BP America: “The volume estimates are based effectively on surface expression, because you can’t measure what’s coming out at the seabed.” [Senate testimony, 5/12/10]

– Tom Mueller, BP: “We’re not going to take any extra efforts now to calculate flow there at this point. It’s not relevant to the response effort, and it might even detract from the response effort.” [5/14/10]

– Doug Suttles, BP COO, Global Exploration: “Since the beginning, we’ve said it’s almost impossible to get a precise number. But ourselves and people from NOAA and others believe that something around 5,000 — it’s actually barrels a day — is the best estimate.” [ABC News, 5/14/10]

byron smith said...

Now Tony Haywood has changed his mind: "This is clearly an environmental catastrophe. There is no two ways about it," he told CNN. "It's clear that we are dealing with a very significant environmental crisis and catastrophe."

byron smith said...

More denial from Tony Haywood (full story here:
BP's chief executive, Tony Hayward, said it had no evidence of underwater oil clouds. "The oil is on the surface," he said. "Oil has a specific gravity that's about half that of water. It wants to get to the surface because of the difference in specific gravity."

Hayward's assertion flies in the face of studies by scientists at universities in Florida, Georgia and Mississippi, among other institutions, who say they have detected huge underwater plumes of oil, including one 120 metres (400ft) deep about 50 miles from the destroyed rig.

byron smith said...

Noise pollution from human activity affects fish as well as mammals.

byron smith said...

Here is a decent summary of where things are at with BP, with plenty of links to follow for those interested.

byron smith said...

Haywood apologises for saying "I want my life back", and BP becoming more vulnerable to a takeover.

byron smith said...

Mapping the oil spill.

byron smith said...

a recent issue of the journal Oceanography [...] said unconstrained growth of emissions is likely to leave the current era of human planetary dominance "as one of the most notable, if not cataclysmic, events in the history of our planet."

Read more.

byron smith said...

Another report putting together some of the dots.

byron smith said...

Another fairly dire report on the state of the oceans: "oceans face a 'fundamental and irreversible ecological transformation' not seen in millions of years".

byron smith said...

And another focussing on the impacts from climate change on the oceans.

byron smith said...

Hour long talk by Jackson about human impacts on the oceans here.

byron smith said...

The Conversation: Marine debris - biodiversity impacts and potential solutions.

byron smith said...

Guardian: US government suppressed images of wildlife in the vicinity of the spill.

Here are some images.