Like most of us, I’ve been watching the latest developments from the Gulf of Mexico with growing alarm. Like a blight, like a creature bent on destruction, the black slick is growing, moving ever closer to the fragile Gulf coast, threatening every living creature in its path. The thing about oil spills (and bacteria, and galaxies, and mitochondria, and black holes) is that their scale is just too difficult to visualize. Our failure to really grasp the enormity, the complexity of the thing means that we fail to grasp its impact.
But with this oil spill we have a few, new visualization tools. And they’re not just in the hands of the experts – they are on our own computers and cell phones. Just this week, video was released of the actual source of the Gulf oil – spewing out of a broken well, nearly a mile below the ocean’s surface. Let me say that again. Video from a mile underwater. Whoa. Representative Edward Markey (Chair of the Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming) has posted a live feed of the spill (spill cam) on his web site. In addition to that we have amazing photographs, artfully portraying the scope and scale of the disaster. NASA satellite images, readily downloadable with a click give you a clear view of the spill – and you can watch it play out over time. Google Earth has now made NASA’s MODIS imagery available as a downloadable overlay for Google Earth. But to really give you a personal sense of scale – use Google Earth’s “Places of Interest” layer to look at the spill in situ, as it changes over time, and then place it over your own region of the globe. And here’s a nice one – “ifitwasmyhome“, where you can instantly overlay the spill on a map anywhere. See how far the slick stretches over landmarks that you know.