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BP Lands the '2010 Accidental Earth Experiment' Prize!!!

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Award Achieved Through Remarkable Corporate Focus on Negligence and Incompetence

While BP has distanced itself from responsibility
for last spring's oil rig disaster, anonymous sources say the company
is considering changing its stance since learning that TheGreenGrok has chosen BP for the "2010 Accidental Earth Experiment Award" in recognition of its starring role in the disaster.

And the "Accidental Earth Experiment Award" for 2010 goes to ... BP for its starring role in one of last year's most devastating experiments with the Earth system.

The award is bestowed on that entity whose negligence and incompetence cause such great environmental devastation that among its consequences is the emergence of unique data scientists can use to study the Earth.

Bill Chameides, dean of Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment, announced the award today, stating that "BP's negligence and incompetence in this instance were truly remarkable; the company sets a very high bar for future experimenters and purveyors of environmental disaster to try to top. We are hoping the CEO of BP will come to Duke on April 1st to accept the award."

For the Environmental Scientist, the Ultimate Lab Is Earth

Science is at its core an empirical endeavor. You can come up with all the clever and compelling theories you want, but data gathered from experiments are and will always be the ultimate arbiters of truth. That presents a problem for environmental and Earth scientists. The only laboratory that accurately replicates the thing we study is our little blue planet.

As a result, environmental scientists are forever looking for real-world events that, like a chemist's laboratory experiments, directly test specific aspects of the Earth system. For example, volcanoes that spew tons of small particles into the upper atmosphere and variations in sunspots provide unique experiments to test the accuracy of climate models built on the basis of our understanding of climate.

The Accidental Experiments

But natural events are not the only sources of environmental experiments. Humanity is now arguably the greatest driver of environmental change on the globe, and as a result is increasingly and inadvertently causing events that double as experiments for inquisitive environmental scientists.

Unfortunately these "accidental experiments" often carry devastating consequences, but nevertheless provide a kind of consolation prize in the form of unique data to learn about the Earth with.

Case in Point: The Oil Rig Blowout in the Gulf of Mexico Last Spring

We can all agree the Deepwater Horizon disaster was a mess. But let's not forget it's also a grand experiment. How else could we learn what happens when you dump billions of barrels of oil into the gulf roughly a mile below the surface?

We scientists pride ourselves on being objective observers of the natural world and so count ourselves as equal opportunity data consumers. We can't help it if a company like BP screws up royally, but if it does, we'll take advantage by viewing the whole sorry episode as an experiment we would otherwise never be deliberately party to.

Some of the data from the Macondo well blowout have provided answers but also raised questions. For example, we've learned that releasing tons of oil into the bottom of the ocean and then adding lots of dispersants to the mix results in sending lots of that oil into sediments on the ocean floor. What are the long-term consequences of this? That's a longer term experiment that will take years to play out.

All Hail A Bug's Life -- Maybe Another Award Is Due?

There has been some good news from the data mining.

For example, we've learned that some bugs that inhabit the gulf's waters have been effective in gobbling up the stuff the blown wellhead spewed into their home turf. A paper published last year in the journal Science by Terry Hazen of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and colleagues reported on the discovery of a heretofore unknown voracious hydrocarbon-eating microbe.

Just last week came another paper in Science, this one by John Kessler of Texas A&M University and colleagues, which showed that other microbes had also made short work of most of the natural gas released from the blowout.

This is a great example of the natural system's adaptability and ingenuity. Put a bunch of oil and gas in the ocean, and native bug populations swell to take advantage of it. I should note that we were somewhat lucky in this regard. The Gulf of Mexico was the beneficiary of an in situ population of bugs due to natural gas and oil seeps. Without these microbes the environmental consequences of the disaster (still the largest in marine history) would no doubt be worse.

Link to Global Warming

The fact that ocean microbes are efficient methane consumers suggests that one of the potential feedbacks that could exacerbate global warming may not be a concern. Methane is a very effective greenhouse gas (about 20 times more effective than the much more ubiquitous carbon dioxide, CO2), and enormous amounts of methane are trapped in frozen form on the seabed. Some have speculated that warming oceans could liberate that methane which, if it escaped into the atmosphere, would cause far more warming. This new study by Kessler et al. suggests that the methane might be consumed before that could happen.

Maybe that's one potential global warming catastrophe scenario that we can cross off our list. How can we be sure? There's only one sure-fire experiment: keep emitting CO2 into the atmosphere until oceans get warm enough to liberate all the methane and see where it goes. And you know, that could actually happen. Another grand experiment in the works and maybe another award -- this time for all of humanity.