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Living in the natural world

A Google's eye view of Antarctica

Want a cool sightseeing tour on a hot day? How about  Antarctica? Now you can see it without ever leaving the comfort of your chair. The University of Minnesota's Polar Geospatial  Center has teamed up with Google map so anyone (with a computer) can take a virtual tour of polar explorer Ernest Shackleton’s hut, or Falcon Scott’s supply hut.

The Geospatial Center uses new, state-of-the-art techniques from the geospatial field to help researchers and solve problems on the top and bottom of the world --  "the least mapped places on Earth."

For this project, research fellow Brad Herried took more than a dozen images of the historical huts, research stations and other places on Antarctica  between October 2011 and January 2012. He used a lightweight tripod camera with a fisheye lens that could withstand the harsh conditions and took the photos manually.

Google used them to expand its 360-degree imagery of Antarctica so us arm-chair explorers can see in breathtaking detail (note the dead penguin in Scott's hut) the South Pole Telescope, Shackleton's hut, the Cape Royds Adélie Penguin Rookery, the McMurdo Research Station and many other sites. All can be found at Google's World Wonders Project.


 Shackleton's Hut

 Scott's supply hut

Record fine for Michigan oil spill

It's been a bad week for Enbridge, the Canadian company that operates oil and gas pipelines in Minnesota.

Tuesday  the U.S. Department of Transportation recommended a$3.7 million fine against the company for the 2010 oil spill that sent 800,000 gallons of sticky tar sands oil into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, and which has so far cost $700 million to clean up. In a letter to the company, the agency listed 24 violations of hazardous liquid pipeline regulations, including failure to fix corrosion problems in the damaged pipe joint discovered as far back as 2004.

According to the federal report, a disorganized control room and bullying of inexperienced staff are allegedly to blame for the spill. The evidence includes records showing that employees took about 17 hours to shutdown the pipeline despite repeated alarms. Enbridge says its improved its safety systems since the spill.

Why does Enbridge's safety record matter here? 




AP photo. July, 2010: A worker monitors water in Talmadge Creek in Marshall Township, Mich., near the Kalamazoo River, after an Enbridge oil pipe broke, sending at lest 800,000 gallons of sticky oil into the water.


Enbridge operates a huge pipeline system in Minnesota. The same year oil filled the Michigan creek, Enbridge  completed two new pipelines here. One, known as the Alberta Clipper, carries tar sands oil to Superior, Wis., where it links with another pipeline and refineries in Chicago. The second runs parallel to it, but carries a highly toxic petroleum product back to Alberta, where it is used as a thinner for the viscous crude.

And the company has had its share of accidents and fines, here, too. Two of its employees were killed in 2007 when a pipeline leak resulted in an inferno fire near Clearbrook, Minn. The company was fined $2.4 million for that.

It's worth reading some of the in-depth stories that some have done on what happened in the Michigan spill. The most recent was published last week by Inside Climate News.

The spill happened in Marshall, a community of 7,400 in southwestern Michigan. At least 1 million gallons of oil blackened more than two miles of Talmadge Creek and almost 36 miles of the Kalamazoo River, and oil is still showing up 23 months later, as the cleanup continues. About 150 families have been permanently relocated and most of the tainted stretch of river between Marshall and Kalamazoo remained closed to the public until June 21.

The U.S. investigation has gotten a lot of attention in Canada, much more than here. But then the company is a big operator there, too. Which put it under the spotlight  for an altogether different reason this week after it  forced The Province, the Vancouver newspaper, to pull a spoof of one of the company's ads.

Enbridge is running an advertising campaign to promote a controversial pipeline proposal to move oil from Alberta’s oil sands to ports in British Columbia for shipment to Asia. After an existing pipeline in Alberta sprung a leak, the cartoonist for the newspaper spattered the bucolic watercolor animations with oil, along with a spoof commentary by a company executive.

The company threatened to pull its advertising if the newspaper didn't pull it from its web site. The newspaper complied, and apologized to the company. But in the meantime, the video spoof  can be seen on the New York Times web site.