The Bay was blanketed in fog on the morning of November 7, 2007 as the container ship M/V Cosco Busan steamed out of the Port of Oakland, toward the Golden Gate. Due to a chain of blunders by its crew, marine agencies, and a pilot who a court later determined had overdosed on prescription medication, the vessel’s hull scraped against a fender at the base of Bay Bridge support tower, tearing a 200-foot gash into its hull. More than 53,000 gallons of thick bunker fuel from two of the ship’s fuel tanks gushed into the Bay. It was the worst oil spill to occur here since 1984.
Along the coast the slick extended north nearly to Limantour Spit in the Point Reyes National Seashore, and south to Pillar Point Harbor. Inside the Bay oil extended from the San Rafael Bridge to Oakland Inner Harbor Channel, oiling the shorelines at San Quentin, Tiburon, Richardson Bay and Angel Island. An estimated 6,849 seabirds and waterfowl died as a result of the spill, according to a report prepared for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife Office of Spill Prevention and Response, and the oil reduced up to one-third of that year’s herring spawn.
In 2011 the ship’s owners and operators reached a settlement with federal, local and state officials to provide $44 million to attempt to repair the damage. In 2012 state and federal spill trustee agencies—the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, California State Lands Commission, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, and Bureau of Land Management—released finalized plans for the money aimed at improving roosting and nesting habitats, restoring eelgrass and oyster beds, trail-building, and other recreation infrastructure work.
One day in mid-March, Canyon Mansfield took his three-year-old yellow lab, Casey, on a walk into open scrubland behind his house in Pocatello, Idaho. It was the boy’s happy place. About 400 yards from his house, Mansfield bent down to inspect what looked like a sprinkler head sticking out of the dirt. When he touched the goop smeared on top of it, a stream of powder shot out. Some of it landed on Mansfield’s face and jacket, but a brisk wind sent most of the powder toward his dog.
The dog’s eyes quickly glassed over, he struggled to breathe as his mouth filled with red foam, and he started having what the boy describes as a seizure. In a manner of minutes, Casey stopped breathing. A short time later, when Mansfield’s father, a physician, arrived and wanted to try to resuscitate the dog, the boy yelled, “No, I think it’s poison.”
He was right. Casey died from chemical asphyxiation after inhaling sodium cyanide powder from the device, a baited trap called an M-44 that kills thousands of coyotes and red foxes each year in an effort to prevent livestock predation.
It seemed inevitable that the deadly 2010 explosion of the BP-operated Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling platform, which caused millions of gallons of oil to gush into the Gulf of Mexico, would eventually get the Hollywood treatment. It’s also unsurprising that a former Department of Justice lawyer would pen an account of the spill that is cast in nearly as dramatic fashion—“the story that neither BP nor the federal government wants heard,” according to its publisher, the Brookings Institute Press. Both were released this fall, within weeks of each other.
Unfortunately, neither the movie, Peter Berg’s Deepwater Horizon, nor the book, Daniel Jacobs’ BP Blowout: Inside the Gulf Oil Disaster, do justice to one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history. Where a dramatized account could at least convey the human side of the disaster to a wider audience, Deepwater Horizon feels more like an action movie with a side helping of workplace and familial drama. And where a nonfiction account could bring fresh facts and clarity, BP Blowout fails to deliver many new insights. That well from hell, as those who labored on the rig called it, still elicits more questions than answers.
If you’ve ever visited an iconic national park like Yellowstone, Yosemite or Glacier, your first glimpses of arresting, postcard-perfect vistas were probably framed by a car window. That’s how I first glimpsed Yosemite’s Half Dome. After driving through the tunnels on Big Oak Flat Road, the road curved and the valley came into view. Angels sang. I was so overwhelmed by that monolith’s grandeur and beauty that I had to pull over onto the shoulder and have a good cry.
Years later, I stuffed my backpack with supplies and headed out my front door, Yosemite bound once again. I walked 10 minutes to the nearest San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (Bart) station, which I rode east, to the Richmond station, and transferred to Amtrak. I used the train’s free Wi-Fi to get some work done during the scenic two-hour and 40-minute ride to Merced, California, where I waited a half hour for a Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System (Yarts) bus up to Yosemite, another two-hour trip.
In total, my fares were double what I’d have paid in gas, but bus riders are exempt from the park’s entrance fee ($20 then, $30 now). The trip took more than an hour longer than driving would have, though slogging through Bay Area traffic could have evened that scale. One less car in the crowded, summer-packed Yosemite Valley that day made an imperceptible difference to the park’s clogged roads and parking lots. But once I was inside the park, the free park shuttles and my own two feet took me everywhere I wanted to go. I experienced zero road rage and could have wept over Half Dome to my heart’s content without worrying about swerving off the road.
Journalists like to lean on anecdotes to tell stories about climate change, but for climate scientists, data is everything. But data collection is seldom a quick or inexpensive task, especially when that data is best acquired via a bird’s eye view of, say, an undulating coastline or a vast expanse of ice.
Fortunately, drones (also known as unmanned aerial vehicles [UAVs], or unmanned aerial systems [UASs]) can serve as robotic avian minions, filling niches for which the conventional methods of aerial data collection — like chartering planes or tapping into satellite data — are poorly suited.
Drones are not new, nor are climate scientists only now discovering their utility as research tools. “Back in 1998, we used what was considered a smaller UAV at that time” for studying ice cover in the Arctic, says James Maslanik, a research professor emeritus from the aerospace engineering sciences department at the University of Colorado-Boulder. “It was a cutting-edge system, it was way ahead of its time,” he says of the fixed-wing UAV they employed. It had a three-meter wingspan, a four-kilogram payload limit, and was gas-powered. Maslanik recalls having to drag 50-gallon drums of aviation fuel up to their research station in the Arctic just to get the UAV in the air.