Article: Randall Munroe (xkcd) on swimming with spent nuclear fuel rods

Randall Munroe, the man behind the xkcd cartoons that light up my world, blogs about ridiculous and unlikely scenarios at What If? He uses his physics knowledge and some wide-ranging research to answer hypothetical questions that couldn’t be answered with an experiment or by direct inference from actual events.

Scenario 29 answers the question:

What if I took a swim in a typical spent nuclear fuel pool? Would I need to dive to actually experience a fatal amount of radiation? How long could I stay safely at the surface?

It turns out that, as long as you stayed far enough away from the fuel rods while in the pool, you’d probably experience a lower dose of radiation than you would walking around outside the pool. The amount of radiation in the water halves with every seven centimetre increment away from its source. Divers are actually employed to perform tasks and service the equipment in these pools, so it can’t be that dangerous. There is a description of an accident, however, and it makes fascinating reading (follow the link too).

Read the scenario here.

Series: Deep Sea Salvage

Deep Seal Salvage
Deep Seal Salvage

The History Channel series Deep Sea Salvage ran for one season of six episodes in 2009. The series follows the activities of salvage teams employed by Bisso Marine, a family owned salvage company that has been operating along America’s Gulf Coast and (more recently) beyond, for over 100 years.

The first few episodes involve the land and surface-based salvage of some partially sunken vessels in the Mississippi River and surrounds, and a number of barges pushed far inland by a storm surge. I can’t prove it, but I strongly suspect that much of the mayhem that the salvage teams are required to fix occurred as a result of Hurricane Katrina.

Later episodes deal with salvage divers who venture (alone) 100 metres below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico to shackle giant chains to a wayward oil rig leg, or into murky, fast flowing river waters to determine whether a wrecked barge still contains toxic oil in addition to what’s already spilled out and polluted the river. The diving shown isn’t saturation diving.

The show is edited (I think) to make the action seem quite rapid and to take place over short periods, but in some cases there must be a lot of waiting – for weather, gear, support – involved. Tony and I would have liked to see more detail about the dive planning, the gas mixtures used (for the deeper ones helium seems to be involved, because the divers’ voices over the radio were hilariously squeaky) and the logistics of dealing with potential decompression sickness while on a crane barge out at sea. The show isn’t really about that, though; it’s concerned with the work the divers do underwater, but not so much how they get there and back. We were gripped by the dive footage, despite this.

Everything is enormous. The barges and oil rigs are colossal. The winches, cranes, chains, blocks and pulleys, ropes and other equipment such as inflatable bags (large enough to rest a barge on top of a few of them) are all giant-sized. Working with such massive gear requires planning; one can’t quickly pop back to the office to pick up a winch one has left behind, or quickly pick up a chain and move it out of the way of an earth moving machine. Out at sea the constraints are even more severe. Most of the jobs covered in the series were so mind-boggling to me that I would have ordered the vessels scrapped – one can’t even imagine that it’s possible to remedy some of the situations shown. And yet somehow it is, and the Bisso teams do.

Something else that makes this a fine series to watch is that one of the slightly senior salvage team members is called “Lunchbox”. You read that correctly.

You can buy the DVD box set here.

Different detergent

Having recently moved from a shoebox-sized duplex in the southern suburbs to what feels like a sprawling Downton Abbey-sized manor house in the south Peninsula, my interest in domestic cleaning products has increased (of necessity). There usually isn’t much to love, admire or inspire when it comes to detergents and tile cleaner, but a company in the United States called method is planning to do something quite special in this department.

Come November (quite soon), method will release a liquid dish and hand soap in a plastic bottle textured like a sea urchin shell. The bottle is special because 10% of the plastic it’s made from was collected from the beaches of Hawaii in a coastal cleanup, and the other 90% is recycled from other sources. The plastic is undyed.

This is very nice, and an excellent marketing manoeuvre by method – capitalising on the rising popularity of “green” products – but hopefully in amongst the marketing hype consumers will be able to pick out the important idea that our choices now matter very much to the future of the planet.

There’s a short article about the bottle here, and a picture. The headline is misleading – the “ocean garbage patch” is comprised of miniscule particles of plastic widely dispersed over a huge area. There is no way (currently) of retrieving that plastic and putting it to use. The plastic these bottles will be made from was collected on the beach.

A trip to Seal Island (part III)

Seal Island
Seal Island

Neglected in all the white shark excitement in my other two posts about the trip I went on to Seal Island on the Shark Spotters research boat were the actual inhabitants of the island… Up to 70,000 Cape fur seals! I think there were closer to 40,000 at the time we visited (winter).

Seal Island has a few concrete structures remaining on it from prior human use
Seal Island has a few concrete structures remaining on it from prior human use

Fortunately the day was windless, so the aroma (or flavour – it’s that strong) of seal was not evident while we were on anchor. When we circled the island in preparation for departing the area, however, we were able to savour the whiff of the natural chum that this enormous population excretes into the waters of False Bay.

Seals low down on the rock
Seals low down on the rock

Adrian told us to look out for seals with red or pink marks, which would indicate a recent encounter with a white shark (unsuccessful, from the shark’s perspective). We also saw one with a green fishing net wrapped around it. These seals are photographed and the net is removed as soon as possible (I can’t remember who does this, but Adrian did mention it).

A seal with green fishing net around its body
A seal with green fishing net around its body

Also in evidence were a number of seabirds, most notably cormorants. There’s a really bad video (taken by me) of Seal Island here. It’s actually quite a pretty place, the vegetative barrenness notwithstanding. The seals are endlessly entertaining, and it’s easy to be jealous of their leisure as they bask on the rocks in the sun… But I do not envy the gauntlet they have to run in order to go out for a meal.

The research boat returns to Simon's Town
The research boat returns to Simon’s Town

The trip back to Simon’s Town was lovely, with rumours of dolphins in the distance, and a mirror-like sea. Not a bad way to spend a Wednesday morning, at all!

The research boat at the jetty
The research boat at the jetty

Friday poem: Mine

Here’s another poem by Lilian Moore. Is the plastic sand pail really what you want for your own…?

Mine – Lilian Moore

I made a sand castle.
In rolled the sea.
            “All sand castles
            belong to me—
            to me,”
said the sea.
I dug sand tunnels.
In flowed the sea.
            “All sand tunnels
            belong to me—
            to me,”
said the sea.
I saw my sand pail floating free.
I ran and snatched it from the sea.
            “My sand pail
            belongs to me—
            to ME!”

Bookshelf: A Sea in Flames

A Sea in Flames: The Deepwater Horizon Oil Blowout – Carl Safina

A Sea in Flames
A Sea in Flames

The memory of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is fairly fresh, as it’s been exactly two years since the rig exploded. Eleven men were killed, and unimaginable quantities of crude oil leaked out into the fertile fishing and tourist area where the rig was drilling. The rig was drilling in water 1.5 kilometres deep, and during the course of exploratory drilling, had made contact with deposits of natural gas and oil at a depth of over 6 kilometres under the sea floor. When a pressure test (basically to establish whether the well had been sealed properly) failed, oil and gas shot out of the well at incredible volumes and pressure. It took four months for BP (the rig’s owners) and Transocean (the rig’s operator) to stop the oil gushing out of the well.

Carl Safina has written three other books – Song for the Blue Ocean, Voyage of the Turtle, and Eye of the Albatross – establishing himself as a lyrical, sensitive author with a deep love for the creatures he writes about. This book is a radical departure from that writing style. It was penned swiftly, while the crisis was unfolding. Safina seethes with rage, drips sarcasm, and does not bother to hide his contempt for BP, the coastguard, and the US government’s handling of the spill. BP in particular receives frequent tongue lashings, displaying astonishing ineptitude, dishonesty and even contempt for the ecological and human tragedy that the spill unleashed. BP chief Tony Hayward eventually stepped aside, but not before embarrassing himself and enraging both the horrified public and the US government. BP’s report on the disaster can be found here, along with some very sanitised and bright  (and digitally manipulated) images and videos. This clip from the US Coastguard shows the immensity of the fire that ignited when the rig exploded (it went out two days later, when the rig sank).

There are ample other sources which describe the oil spill and its effects, the timeline of the spill, and the efforts made to stop the flow of oil. I will mention, however, what particularly struck me in reading this book.

First, it’s abundantly clear that while oil drilling and prospecting technology has progressed at an incredible rate over the last 30 years, cleanup and recovery equipment has not changed at all since 1970. Driven by the diminishing availability of oil reserves that are actually easily accessible, drilling has moved into the deep ocean and is a task of immense complexity and technological sophistication. As Safina observes, oil companies receive great rewards for finding and extracting new oil deposits. The risks, however, are almost entirely borne by the public and the environment, both of which suffer far greater losses when a spill occurs than the oil companies do.

Massive volumes of toxic chemical dispersants were sprayed onto the slick and injected into the plumes of oil under the ocean surface – the effects of these is unknown and has not been studied. The remainder of the relief effort involved floating booms (totally ineffective in the presence of waves or wind chop) as physical barriers, and manual cleanups of beaches and marshes. Disaster management plans for the Gulf of Mexico – a tropical environment inhabited by whale sharks, dolphins, turtles and shrimp – made mention of walrus and other creatures found only in Alaska. A lot of copy and paste, and very little thought, went into these plans.

Safina draws heavily (perhaps too heavily – this is very disappointing) on news reports of the spill, including much speculation about its extent and likely effects by journalists and media spokespeople. He describes the frustration and depression experienced by the inhabitants of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and the other areas affected by the spill, and the crushing uncertainty of whether the oil would wash up or pollute a given area. Ultimately most of the estimates of the spill’s effects were shown to be overwrought and overly pessimistic. Oil eating bacteria that occur naturally in the Gulf of Mexico (which is subject to natural oil seepage at the rate of a few thousand barrels per day – it’s an oil rich area with cracks in the seafloor that constantly admit tiny quantities of oil into the ocean) were able to consume part of the oil. Some of it evaporated naturally. Some of it was dispersed into droplets so small as to be invisible to the naked eye when mixed with seawater. A tiny amount was collected from the gushing well by vessels on the surface.

Much oil, however, was washed up on beaches, deposited on the seafloor or in marshes, and remains suspended in the water of the Gulf of Mexico. Thousands of sea birds, and hundreds of turtles and dolphins were oiled. Long-lived, slow growing creatures such as turtles, dolphins, and tuna will only show the effects that the spill has had on their populations in a decade or more’s time. Concerns that entire planktonic life cycle stages of creatures such as bluefin tuna were wiped out by the dispersant chemicals and low oxygen concentrations (caused by the growth of oil eating bacteria) will only be tested in years to come when the absence or diminution of a generation of tuna can be measured. Fish stocks in the gulf rebounded during the months in which the fishing grounds were closed, but fishermen are now reporting diminished catches, sickly and dying crabs, and stillborn dolphin calves as a matter of course. The oyster farming industry in the area has been all but wiped out. Consumer confidence in seafood from the affected area plummeted amid fears that fish and shellfish would be toxic or contaminated by oil and dispersant chemicals. Confidence has not recovered, and nor has tourism to the region.

While it seems that the worst case scenarios touted by the press during the spill were exaggerated (this opinion piece is an excellent analysis of the uncomfortable collision between scientists and the media), estimates of the spill’s extent proved to be very accurate. BP’s estimates of the rate of flow from the well were outright lies from the beginning, but mathematical models based on current, wind, and the area of ocean fouled by the oil over a given time period provided flow estimates that were later demonstrated to be spot on.

Safina’s primary conclusion is that we need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, starting immediately. Instead of pouring huge amounts of money into researching technology to reach ever more remote oil deposits, we should be channeling funds into clean alternative energy sources. He points out how we have lost any sense of the difference between price, cost and value (he writes a bit about the distinction here). We fail to recognise the value of the service provided by the world’s forests and oceans in absorbing carbon dioxide, for example, because they do not cost us anything in order to benefit from them. Thinking about the earth’s resources in these terms will enable us to be less cavalier about squandering the benefits they supply.

Safina also executes something of an about turn in his opinion of the US Coastguard’s handling of the spill. At various points as the disaster unfolded, it appeared that the coastguard was firmly in the pocket of BP, and was deferring to the criminal party in the management of the crime scene. A meeting with retired Admiral Thad Allen leads Safina to a more nuanced understanding of the events he witnessed, and his opinion of Allen’s handling of the catastrophe is much improved.

This book was written quickly, in the heat of emotion, and it’s very obvious. Even the title is somewhat overwrought, and I’m dubious about the merit of writing the entire book under a misconception that was only corrected at the eleventh hour by meeting with Admiral Allen. While Safina’s book provides an on the ground picture of what it was like to live among the communities that experienced the full effects of the spill, it isn’t easy to follow the chronology of the spill. He doesn’t go into much detail about what BP tried in order to stem the flow of oil (that information was, in any case, withheld from the public for the most part) and is not really concerned with a linear history of the spill. There is room for a reasoned, more clinical account of the spill and its effects, especially after enough time has passed to fully understand what those effects might be.

Some more opinions on the book can be found here and here. This article is a good read concerning the extent of the recovery in the region of the spill. Finally, this article describes the dramatically reduced catches of seafood in the Gulf region, and the horrible mutations and lesions that are being found in many of the species there.

You can purchase the book here if you’re in South Africa, and here if you’re not. If you want to read it on your Kindle, go here.

Eihatsu Maru aground on Clifton 1st Beach

We love a good shipwreck. Witness our obsession with the Seli 1, which ran aground at Blouberg a couple of years ago. It is thus with interest that we discovered that a Japanese-built, Chinese-run fishing trawler, the Eihatsu Maru, ran aground on Clifton 1st Beach on Saturday morning, as we were preparing to head home from Mozambique. We went down to Clifton on Sunday afternoon to check out the ship. Here’s a video showing the vessel, and the small tug on standby just offshore.

This second video shows a helicopter landing on the beach in front of the ship.

The ship apparently ran aground in thick fog, and it seems pretty miraculous that she missed all the boulders off the Clifton Beaches. Very miraculous indeed. Her hull was not damaged but she had nearly 100 tons of fuel on board which would cause some serious misery on this beautiful stretch of expensive real estate and pristine coastline should any of it leak out.

If you’re interested in visible shipwrecks, check out my ebook Cape Town’s Visible Shipwrecks: A Guide for Explorers!

Make a SEA Pledge tomorrow

Dr Ribbink at OMSAC
Dr Ribbink at OMSAC

A couple of weeks back Tony and I took our weary selves off to OMSAC to listen to a talk by Dr Anthony Ribbink of the Sustainable Seas Trust (SST). He and his team have spent a good couple of months on the road, travelling the length of South Africa’s coastline from Sodwana to Saldanha. They have been visiting yacht, boating, angling and diving clubs, and any other organisations related to use and enjoyment of the oceans.

Their aim is to encourage water users and coastal dwellers to make a SEA Pledge: a promise to take concrete, measurable steps to live in a more sustainable manner, decreasing their negative impact on the planet and increasing their positive impact. These pledges don’t have to involve massive steps – in fact, promising to do something that’s actually attainable will probably make it easier for you to keep your pledge! Examples of pledges could include:

  • Walking, cycling, taking public transport or sharing transport to work at least one day per week
  • Recycling the water from washing dishes to use on the garden (and using a biodegradable detergent, of course!)
  • Turning off lights as you exit rooms in your home
  • Using energy efficient lightbulbs
  • Eating sustainably fished seafood (from the SASSI green list)
  • Recycling glass, paper, and plastic
  • Safely disposing of expired medications and broken electronic equipment
  • Starting a worm farm in your garden for wet waste, to create compost
  • Purchasing a reusable water bottle and using it instead of buying bottled water
  • Showering rather than taking baths
  • Buying fruit and vegetables that are in season, and grown locally

The possiblities are only limited by your imagination. The best pledges are specific and list actions to be taken. Saying something like “I pledge to live sustainably and respect all living creatures,” while charming, will make it difficult for you to evaluate objectively in a year or a decade’s time whether you actually made a difference and kept your pledge.

This Saturday, 3 December, is the day chosen for individuals to make their SEA Pledges, co-inciding with the United Nations climate change talks (COP 17) that are taking place in Durban at the moment. If you’d like to make a pledge, you can visit the SST website to make one. Visit the Sea Pledge page on facebook for more. You can also participate in an event that is aimed at raising funds for SST. Indigo Scuba in Gordon’s Bay are doing boat dives and holding a braai on 3 December to raise funds for SST.

SST will also be delivering a petition to the United Nations asking the body to protect oceans and coasts. Everything I know about the UN makes me think it’s mostly fairly toothless, but one HAS to engage with governments and international bodies as well as taking action (i.e. a SEA Pledge!) on one’s own.

The Sustainable Seas Trust is a remarkable organisation that I am very glad to have heard about. Their work is far ranging and what I liked about their projects is that they recognise the complexity of the conservation issues related to the oceans. They work with coastal communities who would otherwise be forced to harvest (often illegally) ocean produce to survive, and through their SEAS Centres they provide education, skills training, healthcare services, and dignity to local residents. By uplifting the individuals who live close to the coast, the SEAS Centres will have a positive effect on the coastal environments that were formerly stressed by having to provide subsistence livelihoods to coastal dwellers. If you’re looking for a charity organisation to donate time or money to, or an organisation to support by means of your company’s social responsibility programs, SST is an excellent candidate. Go and browse their website to find out the full scope of their activities.

Bookshelf: Eye of the Albatross

Eye of the Albatross: Visions of Hope and Survival – Carl Safina

Eye of the Albatross
Eye of the Albatross

Carl Safina‘s second book (which I read after his first – Song for the Blue Ocean – and third – Voyage of the Turtle) is superficially concerned with seabirds, but, as is usual for him, dealing on a deeper level with the health and future of the world’s oceans and the life they support.

Amelia, a Laysan albatross fitted with a satellite transmitting tag, is at the centre of the book. Safina recounts the voyages she makes from Tern Island, an island in the French Frigate Shoals of the northwestern Hawaiian islands. Her chick having hatched, Amelia spends up to a few weeks at a time away from him, flying thousands (literally) of kilometres looking for food for both her chick and herself. Beautiful maps detail her circular routes.

Safina speculates as to her activities while she is away foraging, based on knowledge about the diet and habits of albatross. I was amazed at how she found her way home – often flying on a perfectly straight course after turning back towards Tern Island – and how she made her way along the edges of undersea canyons and along the tops of seamounts that she had no way of seeing. Instead, her sense of smell guided her to places where deep water wells up bringing nutrients, and attracting diverse sea life that would be suitable for food.

Like the tuna fish Safina describes in Song for the Blue Ocean, albatross are superlatively constructed and magnificently adapted creatures. They spend up to 95% of their lives at sea, mostly in flight, and are uniquely built for this. Their wings lock open, and require no muscular effort to keep them unfurled. They seldom fly higher than 15-20 metres above the sea surface, and take advantage of natural wind patterns to cover vast distances. Food – particularly in the clear, warm Pacific – is scarce, but this is where they breed and lengthy trips north are thus required to find squid, jellies, and other tasty albatross snacks.

Safina also meets and lives with researchers involved with seabirds, Hawaiian monk seals, and turtles, and even spends time on a fishing boat off the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, which is where Amelia came foraging on one of her several-thousand mile trips. (Unlike in his other two books, Safina does not include a passage glorifying sport fishing, which is refreshing. He even seems to feel something as he watches a sablefish die.) I read Tony the entire section on Alaskan crab fishermen – while Safina doesn’t actually meet any, the Alaskan fishermen he does meet describes them as “brutal people” and says that it’s rare to find anyone over 30 on the deck of a crab boat. It was an interesting confirmation of what we’ve seen on Deadliest Catch, although seeing the men only on board ship doesn’t really let us decide how brutal they are! (The fact that every boat seems to boast at least one crew member with a recent criminal record should have tipped us off, though.)

Unfortunately, as in almost every other book I’ve read about the ocean, the Japanese do not come off covered in glory. Japanese ships systematically wiped out albatross on several Pacific islands, killing hundreds of thousands of birds for their wings and for the feathers on their breasts. The corpses – wingless – were left to rot. Since albatross return to breed where they were born, these populations will never recover. The cultural antagonism this rouses in me – fanned by what I know about Japanese whaling, tuna fishing and their respect for international conservation laws and bodies – is intense, and I would like reasons to feel otherwise.

The scope of this book is massive, and, as with his other work, Safina does not apologise for apparent digressions. His descriptions of the life of a fieldworker on a remote island – whether studying seals, birds or marine life – are fascinating, and the characters he describes add dimension to the book. While this kind of work often involves immense privation and isolation, the rewards and opportunity to spend time so close to wild things are very special. It is upsetting that, even on the most isolated islands, masses of plastic rubbish washes up daily on the beaches, and alien species such as grasses, rabbits, and rats have decimated local plants and animals unaccustomed to the competition and predation. No spot on earth is the pure, untouched paradise one hopes is lurking out in the ocean somewhere.

Safina’s writing is extravagant, detailed and sweeping. If you want a scientific treatise on seabirds, this isn’t it. There’s a lot of information here, but Safina’s concern is more with evoking an emotional response and intellectual wonder, than with presenting a highly organised set of facts.

I cannot wait to see an albatross!

The book is available here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here. If you want to read it on your Kindle, go here.