Aardvark and No Play

“aardvark” has a plausible summary of the state of play at the well site. Be sure to click through to the diagram while you read it. I am not saying that everything there is right (I am not qualified to say either way) but it certainly offers some insight into the flavor of the technical problem.

Comment 7 on this Dot Earth article is somewhat simpler, and also tells the story quite well.

Future of Climate – Talk Tomorrow in Houston

If you happen to have time and money on your hands in Houston this weekend, you may want to come hear me talk to the Gulf Coast MENSA regional meeting about future climate scenarios. Because of the nature of the audience, I have allowed myself some fairly wild concepts in the talk.

The talk might be of interest at science fiction conferences and the like. If anybody is interested, let me know.

I’ll post the slides next week.

The event is called SynRG; it’s at

Four Points Sheraton

11065 Katy Freeway

Houston TX, 77024

and I speak at 5 PM on Saturday. (Unfortunately I think they charge a hefty admission fee expecting you to attend the whole weekend event.)

Conflicting Reports re "Top Kill"

Not a bad interview for mass market TV with Dr. Groat below.

He confirms my impression that we aren’t getting a clear prognosis on the “top kill” at this time.

Nobody’s talking much about the period of time between a hypothetical failure here and a successful relief well on a time scale of a few months. Maybe there’s not much that can be done.

We are possibly facing a particularly fierce hurricane season, too, based on the usual heuristics for such things.


Update: The NYTimes quotes an anonymous worker on the scene declaring failure. It’s not clear that this is definitive. Some speculate that BP wants to defer the declaration of failure into the long weekend. (h/t RN: see comments)

Some Spill-Related Conversation at the Oil Drum

Lifted directly from The Oil Drum, and relevant to some of the recent themes here. Emphasis added by me.

Relevant to the shabby sensationalism at NPR and much echoed on green media:

shelburn on May 27, 2010 – 11:22am

AP News release

U.S. Geological Survey Director Dr. Marcia McNutt said Thursday that a government task force estimates that anywhere from 500,000 gallons to a million gallons a day has been leaking.

The new government estimate means at least 19 million gallons and maybe as much as 39 million gallons have leaked in the five weeks since an oil rig exploded and sank.

That would be about 12,000 to 24,000 bpd, way under the previous “scientific” estimates. And it is a range, not a flat number. Looks like the task force may be getting it right. No mention in the press release of the snapshot of time when the estimate was made.

Media of course grabs the number and multiplies by number of days starting 3 or 4 days before the blow out without any adjustment or mention of the flow starting out slow and steadily increasing.

That would make the Purdue number which was supposed to be accurate by +/- 20% off by 75% even using the task force’s high number, 87% using their low number. And he was on the task force. Be interesting if there is any follow up from the media about the overstatements.

It is still a terrible spill, almost certainly surpassing the Exxon Valdez (which may have actually be close to twice as much as Exxon reported) in quantity even if the top kill is successful.

…and right in line with the estimates posted here on TOD. Too bad the press didn’t come here for a little education – they would have been able to ask better questions and provide much better service to the public. I sent NPR a nasty note early on (before the flow-rate controversy) criticizing their superficial coverage, lack of informed analysis, etc. and pointed to the discussions here – not that it did any good…

The gas fraction wasn’t addressed in the press release was it?

One can hope that the report from the task force, when it is finalized, will include estimates of the rate over time from the beginning.

Overall the incident is a hard lesson for all sides. The industry needs to have effective procedures and techniques at the ready to handle repairs and disaster mitigation at depth if deep water drilling is to continue. Spill response needs to be improved. We need to understand what happens to oil released at depth and how it affects the ocean ecosystem. Is use of dispersants really the best of the bad alternatives?

Relevant to the technical competence of the response:

First post, so please forgive my ignorance and delete if inappropriate to this thread. Can anyone tell me why they waited over a month to attempt this top kill?

Mostly Amrita, it’s because the engineering to do this took a very long time to get right. The pressures and other difficulties under the water made this a logistic nightmare–it was unprecedented. Worse, it was a one-shot game–they screwed it up, this thing gushed until the pressure eased.

Thank you, Professor. I appreciate the level heads and technical knowledge on this site. Praying this works…

Unfortunately the media has done a poor job of explaining the timeframe, why, what, and how. It is juicier to report about how the experts don’t know what they are doing, the administration is sitting on their hands and talk about doomsday scenarios. This reporting is flat out wrong in many cases. It would have been much better if real experts and highly knowledgeable individuals like those on this site were the ones covering this.

Re: Shelburn’s “Be interesting if there is any follow up from the media about the overstatements,” place your bets, ladies and gents.

Oil Spill: Two Excellent Charts

While we’re holding our collective breaths about the top kill operation, the oil remains out there. The New York Times has two excellent maps giving a sense of the extent of the damage and the risk.

This one shows the shoreline that has been impacted.

This one shows the development of the floating oil over time. Comparing the daily maps makes it apparent, as I said last week, that much of it is dissipating, so keeping the oil at sea is a good plan, at least insofar as the coastal impact is concerned.

I realize there’s controversy about the booming strategy, but it seems to me that slowing down the progress of the oil to the shore has been a worthwhile proposition.

PS – Information I have just received while composing this is “So far the “top kill” effort, launched Wednesday afternoon by BP engineers, has pumped enough drilling fluid to block oil and gas spewing from the well”.

This doesn’t mark successful completion as I understand it, which admittedly is not that well. I believe they still have yet to kill the pressure at the surface. But it sounds like significant leakage is now, at least for the time being, stopped, and this is an important step to say the least. The prognosis for this amazing repair operation is now looking good.

Update: Here’s the clearest simple explanation of the “top kill” I have seen, and it’s consistent with the above.

Update: NASA time series video; h/t Andrew Sullivan and Houston Chronicle:

Image: clipped from the first New York Times link above

Go Read This, OK?

This one’s for Andy.

I don’t know Al Giordano from Adam, and I don’t know why he calls his site the “Narcosphere” and I don’t think I care. But he gets this so exactly right I’d like to quote the whole thing. That wouldn’t be fair, so here’s a good quote:

Without an easy solution in sight, and with the knowledge sinking in of just how harmful this oil gusher will be to the Gulf of Mexico, its shores, its fishing and tourism and quality of life, a lot of people seem to be screaming that somebody should yell louder and point their fingers harder.

Okay, just this once, I will point fingers. You know who is to blame in addition to BP and the government that allowed this oil rig to be built?

Go follow this link to find the answer to that question, and lots more about how you can help.

Update: My gripe is with people demanding that the mess be undone by Obama. As a commenter on Giordano’s site said, “I worked to elect a president, not a glorious magic dictator.”

Calling this Obama’s Katrina is ridiculous. Nobody expected Bush to reverse the hurricane. They just wanted water, food, medical support on the scene. In this case, everything feasible is being done after the disaster.

It is true that in both cases the disaster was caused by laziness in government administration tracing back to misallocation of resources by government policy. In both cases it was neglect of consequences of foreseeable events.

Update: Brad Johnson has a much sounder case here, when he argues that everything except capping the well should be taken over by the government, regardless of whether the capping operation works. There is a case to be made that BP’s problems aren’t just a matter of bad luck, but of bad process, and that it should therefore be ineligible for government contracts.

Brad’s focus on the “foreignness” of BP rubs me the wrong way, though. It’s not as if Americans expect or want US companies to be treated badly overseas, is it? If Exxon/Mobil had this record, should we treat them differently?

It’s clear that the incentive structure wasn’t sufficient to seriously get a safety-minded culture at BP, or at least at BP America. How best to handle that is interesting.

My view is that large corporations, which should not be considered “persons” for purpose of rights, should for comparable reasons not be considered “persons” for purposes of ethical responsibilities.

That is not to say that BP isn’t liable for damages or penalties. It is to say it is meaningless to get mad at BP; it is not a morally responsible entity. The incentive structure has to somehow go beyond the corporation and to the people who run it.

How? Social pressures and transparency where possible, and well-thought-out regulations and incentives.

It would not be impossible for a concerted effort to succeed in destroying or greatly diminishing BP as an organized entity over this. Would it be a good idea? I don’t know. I think it would depend a lot on how and why this was done.

Revkin Comes Up with the Ross Perot Solution

This approach solves every problem.

You just get the experts into a room, and ask them what to do! And then you do that!
Ross Perot ran for US President on this theory, but Revkin is just acting in an unappointed advisory capacity when he says:

To my mind, if the “ top kill” procedure being prepared for midweek fails, Obama must step forward far more forcefully and publicly engage an oil-well SWAT team drawing on the country’s leading lights in hydraulics, deep-ocean engineering and geology, from the Pentagon outward.

Brilliant, Andy! Thanks so much! Where would we be without you?
Dude, if the top kill fails and the junk shot fails, we spend a couple months drilling relief wells, hope the pressure drops, and grin and bear it meanwhile.
That’s the size of it according to the “leading lights”, as I understand it.
I really think “ask smart people” is not especially helpful. Does Revkin really think the Pentagon is better at dealing with broken oil wells than the oil industry?
If you know a sufficiently smart person with a realistic idea that isn’t already on the table, speak up. Otherwise, the bleachers are over there, sonny. Go get yourself some popcorn, settle in, and watch the game.

Update: From another excellent piece on The Oil Drum:

As the complexity of the job becomes evident there are also reports that the Government are stepping back from taking over the problem, should this try fail.

After days of lambasting the company’s handling of the spill, the Obama administration appeared to step back from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s threat on Sunday to “push out” BP if it did not do enough to plug the leak.

The U.S. government needs BP’s deepwater technology to try to shut off the oil well, said Carol Browner, President Barack Obama’s adviser on energy and climate change.

“Obviously, we need the BP technology, but we are not relying on them … we have our own minds in there,” she told CNN, referring to the team of government scientists working with BP to battle the disaster.

How silly. The government should appoint Revkin to take over. That would be so much better. He would get smart people in the room and ask them what to do!

Horizon – Backing Off Optimism

OK, so first of all, somebody I’ve heard of (a physical oceanographer whose opinion on such matters I’d trust more than my own) is worrying about long-range transport of oil:

Niiler is not speculating. He has studied the way ocean currents and winds moved hundreds of “drifter” buoys around the Gulf. In the drifters’ 90-day lifespan, he has seen them scatter to all parts of the Gulf with the help of a tropical storm with 40-knot winds.

Some drifters were found as far west as Texas and others were caught in the Loop Current that carries Gulf water out and around to the East Coast of North America.

What’s more, said Niiler, there’s no evidence that oil will be diluted by the time it reaches the East Coast.

“We see Mississippi water in the Loop Current all the way to Cape Cod,” said Niiler. “It’s not mixed up.”

And neither will any oil slicks that are sucked into the Loop, he said, unless there is something causing the water to mix, like a hurricane. A powerful hurricane can cause the ocean waters to mix down to 150 meters.

Is this right? I’m not sure. The Mississippi delivers more than 100 K barrels/day. So the fact that Mississippi water is detectable offshore in the east doesn’t settle the question whether the oil will be noticeable, never mind troublesome.

Actually, this brings me to one of the things I’ve been thinking about. We really need to think about four sorts of oil in this situation:

  1. oil in colloidal suspension in the deep
  2. oil in two dimensional configuration on the surface
  3. oil in two dimensional configuration on the sea floor
  4. oil in linear configuration on a beach
Each of these will have different impacts. So far, it seems like we are getting a lot of #1, and I still think this is a lucky break. Suppose for the sake of argument we have 100,000 barrels divided into four equal parts of 25,000 barrels each. So each portion is about a million gallons (four million liters). Now suppose a gallon of oil is floating in a thin film, about a centimeter thick, it will cover about a third of a square meter. The whole mess will cover 33000 m^2 or an area of about 181 meters on a side. Of course, it doesn’t do us the kindness of staying in a neat square. So suppose we consider a coverage of about 1/1000; that will probably be enough to provide a sheen on everything. The mess will cover a square about 5.7 km on a side and will be very depressing.
Now let’s distribute that same amount of oil over the water column. This will be those “plumes” we are talking about. Presume the water column is 2000 meters thick. Here we have a gallon of oil over 1000 m^2 * 2000 m = 2,000,000 m^3. What is the density of oil in the column? Well a gallon is 4 liters is .004 m^3, so the concentration of oil in the water column is .004/2e6 = 2 parts per billion. Ho hum.
Of course, that is a bit generous. Suppose the plume is constrained to a 2 meter thickness instead of a 2 km thickness. 2 parts per million. Still hard to lose sleep over. Here, the dimensionality of the problem is on our side. So if these plumes get into the loop current, they will get sheared out and nobody will ever hear of them again.
The question is whether the colloidal suspension is stable on time scales comparable with the surface weathering of oil. I guess some of it is buoyant and gets to the surface. I get the impression that it is.
On the other hand, there is the sea floor. If some of the oil gets there, or some of the colloid settles down to the bottom, the lifetime is probably very long. And if a significant amount of colloid gets dragged past the coral formations off the Florida Keys, surely that won’t help the corals which are already stressed by lots of things. Both of those things convert from 3 D back to 2 D.
But the dimensionality of the problem cuts the other way on the shoreline. If a gallon is essentially trivial in a 3D column, and unpleasant on a 2 D surface, it is catastrophic on a shoreline. There, 25,000 barrels of oil can make a huge mess. The entire Santa Barbara spill amounted to 100,000 gallons. If we are approaching such quantities on a daily basis, the amount of shoreline damage can be spectacular.
This is why it has been such good news that the oil has been kept offshore until the last couple of days, and such bad news that it is beginning to accumulate.
So I’m not as optimistic as I was a few days ago. But I’m sticking to my guns on this part: I think the main issue is the shoreline. The bottom is a secondary issue. Stuff that remains in suspension is not a big worry, and so the exact measure of the flux through the hole is not an immediate concern. Some aquatic birds and animals will get oiled at the surface, but not many.
We will be able to measure things better when it all settles down. Certainly it’s important to do that, to gain experience if this ever happens again.
On the other hand, most of what I’ve seen indicates that this was entirely avoidable. Like Chernobyl, it tells us how bad things can get if people really screw up badly. That’s pretty bad, so the best thing to do is to avoid screwing up. So I still think the measurement issue is a red herring.
This isn’t to defend or attack BP’s post-spill actions. I really don’t have the information or skills to judge, much as I enjoyed the forthrightness of the f***ing booming rant.
I think it’s important to understand that the engineers are not pleased. I think it’s important to understand that an entity the size of BP is a lot of people and a lot of decision-makers. Inevitably with an organization of that size some of its members take their responsibilities more seriously than others do. The culpability and liability of the organization itself I leave to the lawyers and others who like to cast blame at inanimate objects.

Image: NASA via SkyTruth h/t Hank. Note that the darker area in the east is not oil, but rather an area of calm water where the waves are too small to reflect sunlight directly to the satellite.

Eschenbach has Half a Point

This isn’t to justify most of what Willis Eschenbach does, but he has a point in yesterday’s WUWT article “On Being the Wrong Size”, or at least a half a one.

GRACE measures the gravity of the planet, and it provides information that the size of the Greenland ice sheet is declining. Eschenbach’s half a point, quoting an article on Grist by Seth Shulman:

So the next time you read something that breathlessly says …

“If this activity in northwest Greenland continues and really accelerates some of the major glaciers in the area — like the Humboldt Glacier and the Peterman Glacier — Greenland’s total ice loss could easily be increased by an additional 50 to 100 cubic kilometers (12 to 24 cubic miles) within a few years”

… you can say “Well, if it does increase by the larger estimate of 100 cubic km per year, and that’s a big if since the scientists are just guessing, that would increase the loss from 0.007% per year to around 0.010% per year, meaning that the Greenland Ice Cap would only last until May 23rd, 12010.”

OK, so scientists aren’t “just guessing”, let’s leave that aside. And it really isn’t clear what the prior expectation was.

In fact the story is not the rate of ice loss, nor the ice sheet as a whole, but the confirmation of estimates of accelerating mass loss at the fringes:

The team found that uplift rates near the Thule Air Base on Greenland’s northwest coast rose by roughly 1.5 inches, or about 4 centimeters, from October 2005 to August 2009. Although the low resolution of GRACE — a swath of about 155 miles, or 250 kilometers across — is not precise enough to pinpoint the source of the ice loss, the fact that the ice sheet is losing mass nearer to the ice sheet margins suggests the flows of Greenland outlet glaciers there are increasing in velocity, said the study authors.


“When we look at the monthly values from GRACE, the ice mass loss has been very dramatic along the northwest coast of Greenland,” said CU-Boulder physics Professor and study co-author John Wahr, also a fellow at CU-Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences.

“This is a phenomenon that was undocumented before this study,” said Wahr. “Our speculation is that some of the big glaciers in this region are sliding downhill faster and dumping more ice in the ocean.”

As you see, this isn’t “just guessing”, and GRACE has higher resolution than the subcontinental scale that Eschenbach is going on about. The press release doesn’t provide maps. Here’s a nice little piece at geoinformatics.com that does.

Here’s what Grace sees:

Here’s some independent evidence about the melt season, which you can see maps nicely onto the GRACE data and gives you a good idea of the resolution of GRACE.

What we see is Greenland softening at the edges. Ice is sort of a glassy substance, that flows much faster as it warms, so we see the beginnings of a possible failure mechanism for the whole ice cap structure. That is what we should be worrying about, and it means that Eschenbach is, willingly or unwillingly, performing some sleight of hand here.

But ultimately, he is objecting not to the press release, but to Grist’s take on it. And here Eschenbach’s point stands on its own.

Finally, the original article that got my blood boiling finishes as follows:

The good news for Luthcke is that a separate team using an entirely different method has come up with measurements of Greenland’s melting ice that, he says, are almost identical to his GRACE data. The bad news, of course, is that both sets of measurements make it all the more certain that Greenland’s ice is melting faster than anyone expected.

Oh, please, spare me. As the article points out, we’ve only been measuring Greenland ice using the GRACE satellites for six years now. How could anyone have “expected” anything? What, were they expecting a loss of 0.003% or something? And how is a Greenland ice loss of seven thousandths of one percent per year “bad news”? Grrrr …

I’ll stop here, as I can feel my blood pressure rising again. And as this is a family blog, I don’t want to revert to being the un-reformed cowboy I was in my youth, because if I did I’d start needlessly but imaginatively and loudly speculating on the ancestry, personal habits, and sexual malpractices of the author of said article … instead, I’m going to go drink a Corona beer and reflect on the strange vagaries of human beings, who always seem to want to read “bad news”.

Yuppers. There is something to what he says.

But it’s only half true. Pretty much exactly half true.

I’m not fond of false symmetries, it makes for such an easy target for an essay. In this case, I’ll make an exception; I see a very close to perfect symmetry here.

Lots of other people cherry pick information to support their point of view. The site Eschenbach writes for is a fine example. If only he weren’t guilty of cherry-picking in the opposite direction, if only other people didn’t only want to read “good news”, we might be able to make some progress.

Greenland is melting detectably and contributing detectably to sea level rise. The quantity is now reasonably well constrained. That’s good news, scientifically. It’s slightly bad news as far as sustainability is concerned (the change might still have been undetectable, but it isn’t.) It’s too early in the record to detect any acceleration (*). If and when it accelerates, we’ll be in a position to detect that, too. Grist does not have a real basis for “faster than anyone expected”, but Eschenbach does not have a basis for being sanguine about it either.

By the way, you will note the increase in mass in the Greenland interior. That is increased snowfall. While this mitigates the net melt and the sea level rise a bit, it’s consistent with expectations from global warming: increased winter temperature =>increased winter column moisture => increased snowfall. It is a negligible term in the force balance so far, but in the long run it would also increase the pressure gradient and tend to further accelerate the glacial flow.

Update: (*) It’s clear that Greenland once must have been in mass balance just from basic mathematical principles, so arguably any loss at all must be an acceleration. In fact, early measurements in the mid 20th c. did seem to show mass balance, though they were very crude.

My point is that the GRACE record itself shows no acceleration of mass loss over a decadal time scale. I’m basing that on this figure, from Velicogna and Wahr, which I believe is a mass total, not a mass flux. Sorry if this was unclear.

I have little doubt that ice sheet mass is retreating and accelerating. The retreat is not yet rapid, and this is the closest thing to a legitimate point of Eschenbach’s. The GRACE record is just too short to provide a convincing demonstration of acceleration in itself, though it certainly is suggestive.

Some of these guys are just down the hall from me. I guess I should just ask them!

Update: It’s looking a little stronger on “acceleration”; thanks to a correspondent. Here’s the latest Velicogna. I don’t call this a slam dunk, myself.

: Gavin has a really nice piece on RC that addresses some of the issues raised here.