April 17, 2013

I have tried to stay calm, admittedly with marginal success, since the School of Oceanography was siphoned away from a clear role in what was the UW College of Ocean and Fishery Sciences to its new home in the College of the Environment.  It has not been an easy transition for our School or for me.  Was pretty easy to understand how we fit into the old college:  Oceanography mapped to Ocean and Fishery Sciences.  Has been much harder to see the mapping of Ocean to Environment, for we now are a basic science department in a college too strongly mapped to environmental sustainability and problem solving.  With most of our funding coming from the National Science Foundation, whose mission is transformational basic science, this is a strong disconnect.  Yet I try to be a good citizen.

The past week has put me over the edge.  We have had a high-end set of portrait photographers (and Benj and Sara, you are top notch!) taking portraits of our faculty for our new “edgy” college web site.  I was cooperative, on-time, wearing my Infectious Awareables E. coli tie.  Benj was impressed that I had cleaned my glasses just before coming.  And what seems like a couple hundred shots later, there were some I liked.

To me the meaning of the word faculty is a member of the faculty.  Certainly those that vote.  These include many exceptional young talents and older even more stellar talents all of whom do a significant share of teaching, full-time with a title in the Lecturer series.  I learned from the young talent in our school that she knew nothing about this photo happening.  I sent an e-mail to the assistant in the college office coordinating, and heard back within a hour or so from our Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Diversity explaining that 1) this was an expensive process and so 2) the project is “limited to those faculty who have grad faculty status with endorsement to chair “, so that 3) “there are a range of faces not represented in this group who are strong forces in the college”.

Yet the very reason given to me by her is that the project is “an attempt to sum up the scholarly diversity of the college with an eye towards prospective students, secondarily…”  So exactly how is it that the full-time, voting faculty members who actually teach a critical portion of our curriculum are ignored?  What should I think about my role if I am one of these faculty members?  What should I think if I am a student taking one of those courses?  What should I think if I am a parent of this student?  What should I think or my parents think as I consider our college as a prospective student?

Google thinks my word is new…we are the College of Hypenvironment.

Little Credibility Left

August 11, 2010

Bad enough that the federal agencies have put politics ahead of science in addressing the Deepwater Horizon event.  But attempting to discredit academic science?  From the St. Petersburg Times yesterday, this headline “USF says government tried to squelch their oil plume findings“.  Quoting briefly:

“I got lambasted by the Coast Guard and NOAA when we said there was undersea oil,” USF marine sciences dean William Hogarth said. Some officials even told him to retract USF’s public announcement, he said, comparing it to being “beat up” by federal officials.

The USF scientists weren’t alone. Vernon Asper, an oceanographer at the University of Southern Mississippi, was part of a similar effort that met with a similar reaction. “We expected that NOAA would be pleased because we found something very, very interesting,” Asper said. “NOAA instead responded by trying to discredit us. It was just a shock to us.”

To be fair, in an interview with the Washington Post yesterday, Hogarth made clear that the officials that told him to retract USF’s announcement were not from NOAA.

Hogarth said one agency had, indeed, asked him to retract the school’s announcement. But he wouldn’t say which agency–other than to say it wasn’t NOAA.

That should help bring about accountability.


And on the words count front, this from the very end of the Washington Post article:

But she [Lubchenco] said that the word “plume” had given the public the wrong impression: what was under the surface was really highly diluted oil droplets, not thick black concentrations of crude. NOAA prefers to call them “clouds,” instead of plumes.

Maybe it is the first “A” in NOAA that causes the confusion.  There is no question these are plumes.  Could this be why NOAA didn’t reach out to the broad scientific community that works on oceanic plumes?

75% of the Credibility Gone

August 8, 2010

I have been concerned this week, ever since the Wednesday press conference of NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco describing the government’s new “oil spill calculator”, the NY Times coverage here.  The spin was unmistakable, 75% of the oil has gone missing and there is reason for great optimism.

The primary government document is a short read.  From it you’ll learn that they can account for about 25% of the oil, burned or recovered.  Then the primary distortion:  the nearly half that is described as “chemically dispersed”, “naturally dispersed” and “evaporated or dissolved”.  It is no longer oil!  Kind of.  The dispersed category accounts for small droplets of oil, “finer than a human hair”, that will undergo biodegradation, but in the meantime remain a serious environmental concern.  Same for the hydrocarbons soluble in water.  Still there, still an environmental concern.

The Consortium for Ocean Leadership, of which UW is a member institution, responded Friday afternoon.  The Ocean Leadership statement reinforces my skepticism.  The conclusion:

The American public needs to understand that this problem is not rapidly going away and based on previous oil spills, significant impact to the Gulf environment, ecosystems and communities will continue for many years.

Apparently the understanding of the American public is not going to be helped by its federal government.   David Gregory quizzed Carol Browner, President Obama’s Senior Advisor on Energy and Climate Change, on NBC’s Meet the Press this morning.  Asked twice about dispersed oil, in the context of her part of the spin during her appearance on NBC’s Today on Wednesday morning, she ran around the question continuing to distort the reality:  75% is not gone–75% is in the environment, most in the Gulf of Mexico, the remainder in the atmosphere.

Can we manage to keep our eye on the ball?

Whose Ass to Kick?

June 8, 2010

A NYT article this morning reaffirms the continuing harm of not knowing how much oil is discharging from Deepwater Horizon, though with blame put oddly on BP:

Rate of Oil Leak Still Not Clear, Puts Doubt on BP:  “On Monday, BP said a cap was capturing 11,000 barrels of oil a day from the well. The official government estimate of the flow rate is 12,000 to 19,000 barrels a day, which means the new device should be capturing the bulk of the oil.  But is it? With no consensus among experts on how much oil is pouring from the wellhead, it is difficult — if not impossible — to assess the containment cap’s effectiveness. BP has stopped trying to calculate a flow rate on its own, referring all questions on that subject to the government. The company’s liability will ultimately be determined in part by how many barrels of oil are spilled.”

Certainly BP is acting to serve its own interests and is not being at all helpful.  But what about the official government estimate?  I advocate for a different close to the headline: “Puts Doubt on BP and FRTG”.  For while it is wonderful that BP is managing to capture over twice as much oil per day as they claimed was being discharged, FRTG by publicly releasing what is a minimum to the flow while calling it the “best estimate” should share blame for this debacle.  And so finally the national press is bringing some of the nuance to the forefront:

“In fact, a subgroup that analyzed the plume emerging at the wellhead could offer no upper bound for its flow estimate, and could come up with only a rough idea of the lower bound, which it pegged at 12,000 to 25,000 barrels a day.”

Later in the story, the focus turns to the White House:

“I don’t sit around just talking to experts because this is a college seminar,” Mr. Obama told the show’s host, Matt Lauer, in an interview in Kalamazoo, Mich. “We talk to these folks because they potentially have the best answer so I know whose ass to kick.”

We are being misled, not just by BP, but by the way in which FRTG is reporting its results.  And so don’t forget to kick some ass of the government handlers of the FRTG.  For starters why is MMS represented?  How about some independence not just from BP but from the governmental entity that was asleep at the wheel?

You Can’t Handle the Truth!

May 30, 2010

Apparently all “official” authorities (BP and now FRTG) believe we can’t handle the truth.

There is still a factor of five-ten range in the estimates of discharge, with the FRTG range of estimates at the low end.  (Some news accounts claim the FRTG estimate is meant to be a lower bound, but I simply can’t find that in the Department of Interior press release which begins by calling the work of the group an “independent, preliminary estimate of the amount of oil flowing from BP’s leaking oil well.”)

The news tonight is that, with the failure of “Top Kill”, instead of a few more days discharge from the well will continue perhaps a couple more months, putting estimates of duration at three times than earlier in the week.

The time is past to get serious about discharge and duration.  This is the reason we have the National Academies, instead of the continuing ad hoc approaches intertwining high quality science with wishful thinking and management of public opinion.

Has this event become 20-fold worse than it was a week ago? No, only our perception.  We can handle the truth.

The Oil Spill: Will The Government Do Better?

May 30, 2010

Don’t let the title of the post mislead.  This is not a comprehensive analysis.  Rather my thread here returns (mostly) to one theme of my post last week.  I wrote about the work of my friend Tim Crone and his colleagues on determining the quantity of oil discharging from Deepwater Horizon.  A point they had made is that knowing how much oil is discharging is critical to scaling a response and to assessing the efficacy of  BP’s attempts to stop the flow.  So there is good reason to care and clearly BP did not.

As I drive to work, I often listen to Dave Ross on KIRO 97.3.  Dave is “the crusader for common sense”; he used to promote “drive-by wisdom for the masses, one listener at the time” but maybe that had gang connotations?  Much of this week’s crusade has been analysis and opinion concerning  the outcry from across the political spectrum that government is not doing its job and needs to seize control of the situation from BP.   The irony of small government, tea party folk calling for (magically) right-sized government is no more than a call for a government that can do everything by not being there:  less is more after all.   (On a lighter note, I really enjoyed a replay of a tirade from a nationally syndicated, liberal commentator worrying about the effect of the oil on coastal communities like Atlanta, which by my measure is a good 235 miles from the nearest coast.)   A critical point Ross covered was the reality that US law assigns responsibility for handling spills to those that create them, a risk most often pooled and managed through hiring response contractors.  I know quite a bit about this…our department operates a 3000-ton research vessel and we retain the services of a response contractor, just as does BP.   UW at most can only spill 3000 tons (and that is if we were carrying nothing else!) so the responders we contract with have the capacity to do something meaningful, anywhere on the globe.  The failing is that BP was not required to have a response capability that scaled to their ability to spill prodigious quantities of oil.

So here we are:  BP probably must remain at the center of stemming the flow unless the government wants to seize the well and hand it over to say Exxon/Mobil (maybe there is a role here for application of maritime salvage law?)  But as to the environmental consequences, BP isn’t trusted because it has downplayed the magnitude of the spill.  They (including their response contractor) don’t have adequate infrastructure to respond in a meaningful way.  And so it becomes the government’s operational problem, even if BP eventually reimburses all costs.  Will the government do better?

There is not a FEMA for oil spills.  If there were, instead of Obama taking heat, it would be deflected to the people filling the Chertoff/Brown roles during Katrina.  Certainly evident is that MMS is the ocean floor equivalent of the USFS and BLM, enough said.  That leaves USGS and NOAA.

USGS is primarily an agency of scientists.  Marcia McNutt, Director of USGS (and a graduate school classmate of mine), is leading a governmental “Flow Rate Technical Group” but it seems focussed on providing “a number” rather than both “a number” and deployable technologies to measure how that number is changing through time and where the oil is in space.  And maybe they don’t even care about the number:

“Dr. McNutt, who is the chair of the FRTG, … emphasized that since day one, the Administration’s deployments of resources and tactics in response to the BP oil spill have been based on a worst-case, catastrophic scenario, and have not been contained by flow rate estimates.”

(An aside: I’ll leave to politically-attuned folk an analysis of the government membership on FRTG and its relevance to solving versus obfuscating…)

If there is a FEMA for oil spills, it is the NOAA Emergency Response Division of the Office of Response and Restoration (located nearby to me in the NOAA complex at Sand Point in Seattle).  A story in Crosscut describes their role in the Deepwater Horizon response.  What caught my eye was the portion of the story concerning how much oil.  And specifically this excerpt from the several paragraphs on this topic:

“At some point, the actual volume doesn’t matter,” [Helton] says. “We don’t know the number, and if we did there is nothing we would do any differently.”

So is the government any different than BP?   The essence: “we’ve got a big problem and we are doing everything we can to solve it, but we won’t be bothered with actually figuring out how big the problem is”.  I am having a great deal of difficulty wrapping myself around this kind of thinking.

For my taste, way too much is being made of this being Obama’s Katrina, for a vast majority of the dialog is highly partisan gamesmanship and nothing to do with how the lessons of the Katrina response bear on the present situation or what I hope is a real difference between God and BP.  An outcome of Katrina, not surprisingly, was a thorough review of lessons learned for FEMA.  A 218-page report was issued by the Inspector General of Homeland Security.  In it the IG wrote: [The government] “received widespread criticism for a slow and ineffective response” …”much of the criticism is warranted.”   One of the criticisms is that it took three days for FEMA to grasp the magnitude of the [disaster], hobbling adequate response.  Oh my, the lesson has not been learned.

Hot Springs and Oil Spills

May 23, 2010

It has been a bit over three months since I’ve added a post, a gap that I’ll explain eventually.  But I was inspired yesterday when I searched out what I knew was coming…this opinion piece in the New York Times:

“The Measure of a Disaster…On Thursday, BP was finally forced to acknowledge that far more oil is escaping from its damaged well into the Gulf of Mexico than the oft-repeated estimate of 5,000 barrels per day…”

I knew it was coming for Tim Crone is the third author.  Tim completed his Ph.D. working with my colleague William Wilcock.  The three of us collaborated on one chapter of Tim’s dissertation developing the methods that Tim used in his analysis of the continuing discharge from the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout.  More recently we wrote a paper applying these methods to understand the connection of earthquakes and flow of hot water from seafloor hot springs.

Despite BP’s public stance that knowing the rate of discharge wouldn’t change the response being taken:

“Without knowing the flow’s true magnitude, how can anyone judge the success of any approach? Without determining how much oil is beneath the ocean’s surface and how much is floating toward land, how can we best direct response efforts?”

And so I am glad (and proud) that Tim was able to use our past efforts as a way for helping address this pressing environmental problem.  Indeed, what the four co-authors of the op-ed hold in common are knowledge of disparate tools and approaches that are widely adaptable.   Their experience speaks to the importance of basic research.  Often curiosity-driven, basic research may not always lead somewhere or ever be applied to societal needs.  But when it unexpectedly becomes a foundation of responding to crisis, it validates the investment in expanding knowledge for its own sake.  Equally it speaks to what our “Research I” (Carnegie RU/VH) universities must be doing for the environment, the best science possible.