A thick layer of BP oil remains on the Gulf of Mexico seabed, where it has "devastated" bottom-dwelling marine life, scientists reported this weekend. That contradicts a recent claim by BP spill-payout czar Kenneth Feinberg, who said the Gulf will almost fully recover by 2012 — and it doesn't seem to jibe with federal assurances that "most of the oil is gone," either. Oil-eating microbes have devoured lots of oil and gas from the 2010 Gulf oil spill, but University of Georgia marine scientist Samantha Joye says they still have a long way to go. "There's some sort of a bottleneck we have yet to identify for why this stuff doesn't seem to be degrading," she said at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "Magic microbes consumed maybe 10 percent of the total discharge; the rest of it we don't know."
While some experts paint much rosier pictures, Joye suggests the sea floor within 40 miles of BP's Macondo oil well is a bleak, oily landscape devoid of normal life — and she has proof. Joye and her colleagues collected 250 core samples of sea-floor mud during five expeditions, most recently in December, that spanned a total of 2,600 square miles. They've chemically "fingerprinted" the grime as oil from the Macondo well, and have found it caked onto dead crabs, brittle stars and tube worms. "Filter-feeding organisms, invertebrate worms, corals, sea fans — all of those were substantially impacted," Joye tells the BBC. "And by 'impacted,' I mean 'essentially killed.'" Joye's leading theory for why so much oil remains on the sea floor involves what she calls "microbial spit": Microbes that eat oil also produce compounds to help them digest it, and as this sticky slime accumulates, it begins picking up cells and other debris, eventually becoming heavy and sinking to the bottom. Joye has even tested this hypothesis, recreating it in the lab by dropping Macondo oil into sea water collected from the Gulf.
Meanwhile, BP is rebuilding itself in the wake of last summer's spill by acquiring a more global portfolio, the New York Times reports. After recently inking a $7.8 billion deal with Russia's Rosneft to drill in the Siberian Arctic, the British oil giant today announced a new $7.2 billion deal to buy India's largest energy business. BP will take a 30 percent stake in nearly two dozen oil and gas fields run by India's Reliance Industries, the Times reports, marking a sweeping strategy shift as the company tries to buffer itself against its strained relationship with the U.S. "This partnership meets BP's strategy of forming alliances with strong national partners, taking material positions in significant hydrocarbon basins and increasing our exposure to growing energy markets," BP chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg said in a statement.
Yet another big winter storm began pushing across the central U.S. this weekend, bringing more than a foot of snow to swaths of the upper Midwest from the Dakotas to Wisconsin. The National Weather Service has issued winter storm watches or warnings across a distance of more than 1,800 miles, stretching from Montana to New England. "Presidents Day will be a great day for shoveling snow," Weather Channel meteorologist Mark Ressler tells USA Today.
With more than 13 inches of snow reported in parts of South Dakota, officials have warned against travel across most of the state where roads aren't already closed, and similar conditions quickly began developing in Minnesota on Sunday, too. Up to 15 inches are expected to fall in Minnesota through midday today, while nearly a foot is also forecast for parts of Wisconsin, where wintry weather has already hampered the ongoing collective-bargaining protests at the state Capitol in Madison. Strong winds are also complicating the situation, blowing snow around near ground-level and reducing visibility even further. "There is a lot of blowing snow out there, it's real tough to measure when you have the snow blowing at 20 to 30 miles per hour," NWS meteorologist Tony Zaleski tells Reuters. Winter-weary airlines are also taking a hit, with Delta already canceling 700 flights at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, USA Today reports, with more cancellations expected today in cities across the country.
This latest storm follows a brief respite of warm temperatures in much of the U.S., but it picks up a broader trend since December of overwhelming snowstorms. The National Weather Service has already warned about flood risks in parts of the Midwest where snowfall totals have reached or exceeded records, and this week's blizzards will likely pile onto that problem. In the Twin Cities, for example, heavy snow over the last three months has already pushed winter totals beyond 61 inches, making 2010-'11 the cities' fifth-snowiest on record.
The planet is losing its "lions" of the ocean, the Washington Post reports, as centuries of overzealous fishing has killed off many of the biggest high-seas hunters like sharks and tuna, letting smaller fish like sardines and anchovies take over. This is creating an ecological imbalance, potentially triggering irreversible changes in the Earth's oceans. "Think of it like the Serengeti, with lions and the antelopes they feed on," Villy Christensen of University of British Columbia tells the Post. "When all the lions are gone, there will be antelopes everywhere. Our oceans are losing their lions and pretty soon will have nothing but antelopes."
This news was presented over the weekend at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, during a panel discussion titled "2050: Will there be fish in the ocean?" The panel concluded that, yes, there will still be fish in the ocean in 40 years, but suggested there will be far fewer of them, and that they'll likely be much smaller than they are today. That's based not only on the number of large, predatory fish that have gone belly-up in recent decades, but also the rate at which their die-offs have increased: According to scientists at the conference, more than 54 percent of the decline in large predator fish has occurred in the last 40 years. "It's a question of how many people are fishing, how they are fishing, and where they are fishing," Christensen says.
Much of the blame falls on Asian countries, experts say, especially some of the larger nations in East Asia. China easily leads the pack in driving up seafood demand — while roughly half of all the increased demand comes from East Asia, a whopping 42 percent of it comes from China alone, according to a researcher with the International Food Policy Research Institute. And that could be complicated by another environmental problem in which China plays a leading role: global warming. "China is a driver of both the demand and the supply side. That is really why the management issue becomes so important," the IFRPI's Siwa Msangi tells the Post. "Projections about future fish populations decline further, however, when coupled with forecasts about the impact of climate change." As Christensen adds, "Our study indicates indeed we may get a double whammy from climate change. Higher water temperatures are going to mean fewer fish in the ocean and less plant life for them."
The Australia Zoo is struggling to stay afloat without legendary "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin at the helm, Australia's news.co.au reports. The zoo became an icon of tourism and wildlife conservation for Australia as Irwin (pictured, in center) rose to global stardom during the 1990s and early 2000s, but now, less than five years after his untimely death, the organization is reportedly cash-strapped and short-staffed.
"They have blown millions on poor planning and poor execution," former curator Bruce Murdock tells the news agency. "Steve had a lot of dreams, but they were massive dreams that only he could fund." Zoo management has confirmed that at least 22 staff members were recently laid off due to a drop in tourism, but some former employees and local residents of Beerwah, Queensland, say the true number of laid-off workers is much higher. The recent problems reportedly also are unrelated to the global financial crisis or record-breaking floods that have hit Queensland, former workers say, and have more to do with the zoo having lost its most famous — and most marketable — spokesman.
"They are trying to do it on the back of Bindi and Terri," Murdock says, referring to Irwin's daughter and wife (also pictured above). "But I don't think they can support it." According to a former receptionist who spoke to the Australian news agency, the Australia Zoo faces closure barring some kind of immediate action.
Photo (dead crab in Gulf floor): National Undersea Research Program, Louisiana University Marine Consortium/AP
Photo (frozen bluefin tuna at Japan's Tsukiji fish market): ZUMA Press
Photo (Terri, Steve and Bindi Irwin in 2002): Globe Photos