Environmental disaster from space

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May 6 2010 1:30 PM

Environmental disaster from space

The leaking oil pipeline in the Gulf of Mexico is gearing up to be the worst environmental disaster in American history. It's still second to the Exxon Valdez incident, but at this rate it will pass the Alaska spill soon. Reading about this is breaking my heart, and angering me a lot. It's difficult to express in words how truly awful this is... so maybe a picture will help.

aqua_oilleak

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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This image, taken by NASA's Aqua satellite, shows the slick as it was on May 4 -- well over 50 km (30 miles) long and growing. An earlier image shows the slick when it was half that size, just three days earlier. "Alarming" is a terribly understated word to say the least. Against the natural browns and greens of the land, and the steely blue of the Gulf waters, the gray of the oil is threatening, menacing, sick. It reminds me of The Black Thing from A Wrinkle In Time. Efforts are underway to mitigate the leak -- more on that in a later post -- but I want to point out that these satellite images are useful to those on the ground, so to speak, to track the growth and spread of the oil. The efficacy of space exploration may not spring to mind when contemplating environmental disasters, but it's there nonetheless.

I have one more thing to add, which is somewhat contrary to my point above. There is an irony here: Some images of the leak from space almost make this disaster look less impacting. Here is a shot taken by astronaut Soichi Noguchi, as the space station flew past the Gulf on May 5:

soichi_oilleak

This picture is actually lovely, which is such a disturbing dichotomy from reality! It's difficult to see how truly apocalyptic 200,000 gallons a day of crude oil gushing up from the sea floor is when looking at this -- and it may get far worse.

I am not implying any deeper meanings to this second image, though you may feel free to take away whatever metaphor you wish. But pictures themselves are only telling us a story. It's up to us to interpret them, and to extract what useful information we can.

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