A couple days ago I received this note:
“There was an article in the Huffington Post not long ago about an extreme worst case scenario with the oil spill – that a giant methane bubble bursts through the sea floor, ignites, causes a huge supersonic tsunami that would wipe out all of Florida, followed by a vaporization tsunami.
I’ve heard this described as “disaster porn”, and certainly, the scenario smacks of it. But, there have been extreme natural disasters in the past, and not being a geologist, I can’t help but feel some alarm at this, as I’m currently a resident of Tampa. I have been trying to get a sense of the validity of these fears, but nearly everything I see only states that these are fears citing this article, and does not provide an in-depth critique of it. Could you or a well-informed colleague comment on this?”
A little quick research showed the epic-methane-disaster-theory to be spreading across the internet, blog to blog, in something of a viral fashion. Or at least a hyperbolic one, , if I go by titles such as “How the Ultimate BP-Gulf Oil Disaster Could Kill Millions.” And posts such as “All Gulf residents LEAVE NOW.”
If you look at these posts – and I’ll start with the ridiculous one on Huffington Post – you’ll notice that there’s lots of references to “some geologists” warning of the risk, without providing any names of said geologists. There are so-called references at the bottom but if click on the one for “methane driven oceanic eruptions and mass extinctions” I only get an error message. And if I do further research on the subject I find a speculative scenario that doesn’t any way resemble the current situation – it requires a body of water saturated with methane and then a handy asteroid event to ignite it.
Now granted, that reputable scientists have been saying from the beginning that the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is also a massive methane leak. But the concerns related to that don’t seem to be of the asteroid-ignited-explosion variety. I find instead worries about chemical reactions leading to depletion of oxygen and, thus, the creation of major dead zones. But none of this is direct response to the millions dead in the Gulf scenario; I can find no evidence that U.S. scientists or scientific organizations or science agencies have made any effort to debunk this nonsense, even with sometime as basic as explaining that the geology of the Gulf sea floor is not a hollow chamber that houses bubbles but a complex network of rock and sediment layers.
Which brings me to “Warriors Against Claptrap”, a session presented yesterday at the Euroscience Open Forum in Torino, Italy. ESOF is a European version of the popular science meeting hosted every year in the U.S. by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Just to throw one more acronym into this paragraph, I’ve been attending as the North American board member of the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ).
The warriors session is not about on the efforts of journalists like myself to debunk pseudoscience. It derives from the work of a U.K. charitable trust, Sense About Science, which has the mission of promoting “good science and evidence for the public.” Scientists affiliated with this program have publicly entered controversial discussions about everything from vaccines to climate change. The claptrap session was organized by the trust’s wonderfully activist program Voice of Young Science, which bands together smart, articulate and dedicated researchers early in their careers – often a time when scientists tend to be extremely cautious – who wish to make a difference in public perception of science.
Regarding the methane claptrap being circulated about the Gulf oil spill, where-oh-where are the comparable U.S. scientists? I don’t know why I continue to be so naive on this subject but after I received the alarmed e-mail, I went to the obvious government science agency sites looking for some rational information on the subject that I could pass along. Figuring that if people along the Gulf coast were unnerved, our own warrior scientists would want to reassure them.
At one level, of course, this is an irresponsible internet rumor. But at another – and even a journalist like myself can get this – it’s a great opportunity to educate people about the real risks – such as dead zones – about methane itself, and about the kind of research now underway to understand those dangers.
We absolutely need more warrior scientists in the U.S. Because when we hide from these confrontations, when we pretend we’re too smart for the discussion, when we presume that we exist best above the fray, we concede the war to purveyors of claptrap.
(ps more about methane in the next post)