Archive for the ‘environment’ Tag

Return to Medicine Bow

Two summers ago I posted about the mix of beauty and devastation in Wyoming’s Medicine Bow National Forest. It was a similar story upon returning this August: this year’s heavy rains and enduring snow packs meant another incredible burst of wildflowers. (As well as some tragic flooding.)

Sadly, the fallout from climate change also continues here. Because winter temperatures are no longer as cold, the bark beetle population continues to survive and thrive, killing off the pine forests. This was a typical sight in the vicinity of the Sugarloaf recreation area:

Bonus shot: Train tracks in Laramie.

See photos from the trip in 2009 and read more about climate change and the region’s bark beetle epidemic here.

Lake Mead’s dwindling waters

The future is looking parched for the roughly 30 million Americans who rely on the Colorado River, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. Denizens of Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles, this especially means you:

Water managers warn that Lake Mead, the West’s largest and most important reservoir, remains perilously near the level of 1,075 feet at which the U.S. Secretary of the Interior would likely declare a water shortage, for the first time in the nearly century-old history of the Colorado River system. Such a shortage would parch Nevada, Arizona and California with severe water-use restrictions. There alone, some 20 million people depend on Lake Mead’s supplies.

Despite this year’s rain-soaked winter and a modest rise in the lake, the region still faces a deep deficit from a 12-year drought: “Lake Mead’s water level now stands at 1,096 feet, near its lowest point since the reservoir began filling in the 1930s and 110 feet below when the drought began in 1999, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The lake last rose in 2005.”

Statistics can be elusive. One of the best ways to realize the change is from directly on the lake itself. Last August I took a houseboat trip with some friends on Lake Mead, where I snapped some photos showing the drop in the water line. The lake is enormous — but so is the space no longer filled with water:



In the west we’ve peered into the future, which is now. It is conservation.

(According to the water footprint “calculator” linked above, which uses criteria ranging from shower times to car washing to meat consumption, my household of two rates at approximately 12 percent below the daily average for water consumption across American households. Not bad, though as I suspected there’s still room for improvement. The site suggests specific areas for potential progress based on your questionnaire answers.)

The deep dark shades of BP’s Gulf oil spill

[Updates from Sat, Sun, Mon (2x) are below.]

The oil-drenched marine life preparing to testify on Barry Blitt’s June 7 New Yorker cover did not make me smile in the slightest. (I doubt humor, even the dark kind, was Blitt’s core intent.) It’s an effectively painful riff on the slow-motion horror story continuing to seep from the Gulf region. Like so many others over the last few weeks, I’ve been unable to look away from the gush of media coverage on BP’s oil spill calamity; what follows below is a roundup of things I’ve found to be the most illuminating or compelling along the way. As I suggested a week ago, I think this disaster — which will go from terrible to far worse before it’s over — will likely be a paradigm-changing event, one that will force a fundamental shift in U.S. energy policy. That is if, god willing, U.S. leaders and a great many of the people who elect them realize that such a shift must be the necessary outcome of this god-awful historic event.

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Blitt’s characters say it one way; these terribly vivid, awfully real pictures of moribund wildlife, from the AP’s Charlie Riedel, say it all.

ABC reported yesterday that, not long after the disaster began, BP and the Feds conspired to withhold footage indicating a much more massive oil spill than initially conveyed to the public.

There have been multiple reports this week that BP has tried to prevent the media from documenting animal deaths in the Gulf region.

The NOAA has been tracking the scope and movement of the devastation, including views of the spill from space. It’s huge.




The astonishingly tone-deaf CEO of BP, Tony Hayward, used Facebook to issue an apology, as if BP’s tapping into social media gives it or its inept leader any prayer of scrubbing clean their blackened names.

A guy who does damage control for Blackwater (since whitewashed as “Xe Services”) offered some “advice” to BP about dealing with a public relations disaster: “There are times when you have to man up and take your lumps, and this seems to be one of those times.”

Susan D. Shaw, a marine toxicologist, suited up in some protective gear and swam directly into the spill. “What I witnessed,” she later wrote, “was a surreal, sickening scene beyond anything I could have imagined.”

MoJo’s industrious Mac McClelland has been reporting from the front lines and continues tweeting about it here.

Some imaginative work by “DIY mappers” has helped document the spreading fallout and build an independent data set of oil spill imagery.

And if the reality of this nightmare hasn’t yet sunk in… Boston.com’s “The Big Picture” has plenty of additional heartbreaking images.

UPDATE 6/5/10: Although for obvious reasons they’re unhappy about it, members of Wyoming’s Casper Petroleum Club recognize that the energy paradigm shift is coming.

The fallout has reached Florida, darkening the mood in the Tampa Tribune: “Forget ‘drill baby drill’ and realize it’s time we start shifting our fuel needs to safer alternatives. … This sickening slick will do more damage than we can imagine. It’ll affect us in ways we can’t consider. But the images now are burning deep in people’s minds. It’s going to be a long summer.”

UPDATE 6/6/10: Ian Urbina pulls together documentation and testimonials in the Sunday Times showing that nobody in the private sector was effectively in charge of BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig, either before the disaster or in its aftermath. The federal government also failed: “a hodgepodge of oversight agencies granted exceptions to rules, allowed risks to accumulate and made a disaster more likely on the rig, particularly with a mix of different companies operating on the Deepwater whose interests were not always in sync.” It appears nobody took the prospect of a blowout seriously: “The rig’s ‘spill response plan,’ provided to The Times, includes a Web link for a contractor that goes to an Asian shopping Web site and also mentions the importance of protecting walruses, seals and sea lions, none of which inhabit the area of drilling. The agency approved the plan.”

UPDATE 6/7/10: The New Yorker’s June 7 cover notwithstanding, even the blackest crisis needs its dark satirists; the most compelling stuff has been flowing from @BPGlobalPR since mid May. Here’s a semi-toxic sampling:

Try our cap operation at home! Hold a funnel over a firehose, sell what you catch and proclaim victory! #bpwins about 13 hours ago via TweetDeck

Words can not express how sorry we are. So we are going to stop apologizing and just give our investors 10 billion dollars. 7:48 AM Jun 5th via TweetDeck

Found driftwood that looks like Jesus crying oil. Not sure what it means but we’re charging 20 bucks to see it. #bpcares 9:27 AM Jun 4th via web

ANNOUNCEMENT: No one is allowed to look at our oil. All Gulf residents are required to close their eyes until this is over. 7:16 PM Jun 3rd via web

We’ve hired Dick Cheney’s former publicist to head up our PR dept. Hopefully she can make us as lovable as Dick Cheney. 12:18 PM Jun 1st via Twitterrific

OMG This isss ridciulsus. playing a drinking gamee where we drink a shot everytme we seeee an oily birdddd!!! LOL! so wasted!!11 #pbcares 5:03 PM May 31st via web

Flying Rand Paul in to consult. Evidently he’s an expert at keeping black out of places. #bpcares 8:06 PM May 27th via web

Of course, bp cares about the fishing industry as well. Now, all tuna from the gulf coast comes pre-packaged in oil. #you’rewelcome #yum 1:58 PM May 27th via web

UPDATE II – 6/7/10: Oh yeah, in case you’re wondering: A few days back the guy behind @BPGlobalPR, Leroy Stick, explained his schtick:

I started @BPGlobalPR, because the oil spill had been going on for almost a month and all BP had to offer were bullshit PR statements. No solutions, no urgency, no sincerity, no nothing. That’s why I decided to relate to the public for them. I started off just making jokes at their expense with a few friends, but now it has turned into something of a movement. As I write this, we have 100,000 followers and counting. People are sharing billboards, music, graphic art, videos and most importantly information.

Why has this caught on? I think it’s because people can smell the bullshit and sometimes laughing at it feels better than getting angry or depressed over it. At the very least, it’s a welcome break from that routine. The reason @BPGlobalPR continues to grow is because BP continues to spew their bullshit.

I’ve read a bunch of articles and blogs about this whole situation by publicists and marketing folk wondering what BP should do to save their brand from @BPGlobalPR. First of all, who cares? Second of all, what kind of business are you in? I’m trashing a company that is literally trashing the ocean, and these idiots are trying to figure out how to protect that company? One pickledick actually suggested that BP approach me and try to incorporate me into their actual PR outreach. That has got to be the dumbest, most head-up-the-ass solution anyone could possibly offer.

Do you want to know what BP should do about me? Do you want to know what their PR strategy should be? They should fire everyone in their joke of a PR department, starting with all-star Anne Womack-Kolto and focus on actually fixing the problems at hand. Honestly, Cheney’s publicist? That’s too easy.

Also dig Mr. Stick’s closing call to arms: “In the meantime, if you are angry, speak up. Don’t let people forget what has happened here. Don’t let the prolonged nature of this tragedy numb you to its severity. Re-branding doesn’t work if we don’t let it, so let’s hold BP’s feet to the fire. Let’s make them own up to and fix their mistakes NOW and most importantly, let’s make sure we don’t let them do this again.”

Robert Redford and the art of activism

Robert Redford usually draws media attention for his annual Sundance Film Festival in snowy Park City, where despite the accumulation of Hollywood hype he continues to champion the art of filmmaking. Less often remarked is his other great passion: the art of activism. Recently, Redford decided to make the Bay Area a new hub for his continuing work as a defender of social justice and the environment. Given the legacy of progressive politics in this region, it seems a natural choice for his new Redford Center, located in the heart of downtown Berkeley.

Earlier this month, during the center’s inaugural event at the Sundance Kabuki Theater in San Francisco, Redford honored two accomplished community leaders. Victor Diaz, the principal of Berkeley Technology Academy, spoke with a quiet kind of ferocity about his efforts to help at-risk minority kids get a better shot at education. Also impressive was teenager Avery Hale, who at age 13 started a project to deliver shoes to impoverished children in villages in Latin America and beyond.

Redford and Diaz conversing onstage, Feb. 4, in San Francisco. (Photo by Peter Klueger.)

Redford spoke at length about the crossroads of grassroots activism and the arts. At 73, he’s been at it for four decades. He made clear that his bet is now on those many decades his junior, emphasizing the creative potential among youth and “the small acts that lead to big results.” In considering where progressive change can come from, he pulled no punches about the “cartoon behavior” going on at present in Washington: “There’s not a whole lot to be optimistic about today, politically. You see how constipated it is at the top and nothing is getting done — it’s an embarrassment to this country. We’ve lost so much already, we’re losing more by the day.”

Global warming continues to trouble him — as it did in 1987, when he first took it on, traveling to the Soviet Union during Perestroika for a conference on the then relatively unknown issue. He recounted inviting a high-powered Soviet delegation to Sundance for further talks, which eventually resulted in a joint document, in 1989, aimed at reducing pollution. In hindsight, it marked both a high point and a low point. “It was too early,” Redford said. “I made a terrible mistake: I was naïve to think that it was such a verifiable document, that all I had to do was send it in to [the first] George Bush and Gorbachev. It was, ‘Thank you very much’ and stuffed into a drawer, and no one ever really heard about it.”

But Redford’s stark views on national and global politics were tempered by a focus on inspiration and action at the local level — the raison d’etre of the Redford Center — and ultimately his message was a warmer one of rebirth. He pointed to the youngest generation, including his grandchildren in the audience. “They’re the ones that are about to inherit what’s left of this earth,” he said, “and I sense that this new generation of young people coming on really does want to do something. And I hope they will.”

The “Mcfarthest” spot, mass air traffic and a Minnesota-size memory

I’ve always loved maps. They reward the longer gaze. Especially in these digitally frenetic times. Whether depicting authentic truths or questionable claims, or one of many shades in between, they tend to provoke expansive thinking about the world. Or they zoom you in on something unexpected and compelling. Their borders inherently are porous to the imagination. And they can be just plain cool to look at — hand me a copy of Oxford’s Atlas of the World and I’ll be entertained for a healthy chunk of time flipping through those oversized pages. No iPhone necessary.

Of course, digital media allow mapmakers and collectors to take things to a next level. The Strange Maps blog is one great place to browse. A recent post featured the work of blogger Stephen Von Worley, who decided to chart America as fast-food dystopia by depicting McDonald’s ubiquity from coast to coast. The nagging question that was his point of departure: What’s the “McFarthest” one can possibly get from a Big Mac? Unsurprisingly, not very far at all, even in the relatively unpopulated West:

mapping-McDonalds

According to Von Worley’s calculations (per the summary at Strange Maps):

There are over 13,000 McDonald’s restaurants in the U.S., or about 1 for every 23,000 Americans. But even market penetration this advanced doesn’t mean that McDonald’s is everywhere. Somewhere in South Dakota is the McFarthest Spot, the place in the [continental] U.S. geographically most removed from the nearest McD’s. If you started out from this location, a few miles north of State Highway 20 (which runs latitudinally between Highways 73 in the west and 65 in the east), you’d have to drive 145 miles to get your Big Mac. (If you could fly, however, it’d be only 107 miles).

If you did decide to fly, you’d be contributing to some incredibly congested air traffic, especially if it’s during daylight. See this nifty depiction of 24 hours worth of planes flying the global skies:

Also worth watching is this feat of mapmaking by Senator Al Franken, who from memory composed one of the United States (while taking questions, no less) at the Minnesota State Fair:

Now if he and his comrades could only draw up a health care plan with such facility…

The spirit of Haida Gwaii

In late August I returned to the archipelago of Haida Gwaii, a place whose ancient, complex culture and astonishing natural beauty are inextricable. Earlier this week, in the village of Old Massett, the renowned Haida artist Robert Davidson hosted an epic two-day celebration commemorating the totem pole he carved here 40 years ago. The pole was raised in the village on August 22, 1969, replanting a vital Haida tradition that had nearly disappeared by the end of the 19th century. It was a privilege and joy to attend the festivities and to participate in documenting them. Here are a few images I captured (please do not reproduce them without permission), though they only begin to suggest the layers of landscape, art and ceremony that were on display.

The many performers included singers, drummers and dancers from Skidegate:
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Spruce-root woven and painted hats filled the community hall:
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The Tsimshian group Git-hoan, or People of the Salmon, were among the guests invited to perform:
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Eagle Transformation Mask, carved by Robert Davidson and danced publicly for the first time by the Rainbow Creek Dancers:
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Robert Davidson’s 40-foot Bear Mother pole (partial view), raised in Old Massett in August 1969:
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Despite devastation from decades of industrial logging, some majestic old trees still stand on Haida Gwaii. (Thanks to the tireless efforts of local advocates and defenders, the land increasingly has come under protection in recent years.) The temperate rain forests are home to towering cedar, hemlock and spruce:
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Along the banks of the Yakoun River, near where K’iid K’iyaas, the legendary Golden Spruce stood until its untimely demise in 1997. Every year the salmon come back to this essential river artery of Haida Gwaii. At least for now.
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A Supposedly Fun Thing That Seems to Kill Whales

I took notice back when David Foster Wallace chronicled the cultural dark side of going on a cruise. But ultimately it’s the environmental dark side of the industry that makes me know I’ll Never Do It at All.

Over the weekend, an adult fin whale — a threatened species in Canada — turned up dead in the waters at a cruise ship terminal in Vancouver. The rare marine giant was impaled on the bow of the “Sapphire Princess,” a Princess Cruises’ ship arriving from Alaska:

(Jenelle Schneider/Vancouver Sun)

(Jenelle Schneider/Vancouver Sun)

Tragic, gruesome and strange — the size of the ship really begins to sink in when you realize that the dead fin whale pictured above is approximately 70 feet long, a magnificent giant cruelly rendered small. (More photos here in the Vancouver Sun’s report, and more here on Flickr.) Consider, also, that soon the 2,670-passenger Sapphire Princess won’t even nearly measure up to the largest, most consumptive recreational beast riding the seas. That’ll be the stupefying Oasis of the Seas.

According to the Vancouver Sun, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans will conduct a necropsy to determine if the ship struck the fin whale while it was alive or if the whale had already been floating dead at sea and got caught on the bow. The latter seems the less likely scenario. A fisheries spokesperson, Lisa Spaven, appeared to acknowledge as much: “Vessel strikes are a very real threat to fin whales,” she told the Sun.

Moreover, an account I heard today from a source in Vancouver appears to contradict a statement put out by Princess Cruises this weekend regarding whales in the vicinity of the ship.

“It is unknown how or when this could have happened, as we have strict whale avoidance procedures in place when our ships are in the vicinity of marine life,” the statement from the cruise company said. “We are not aware that any whales were sighted as the ship sailed through the Inside Passage to Vancouver yesterday.”

But according to my source, two passengers who arrived on the Sapphire Princess in Vancouver this weekend said that several passengers on the ship had seen whales swimming around and under the ship as it traveled the Inside Passage cruise route just north of Vancouver Island.

Spaven, the DFO spokesperson, told the Vancouver Sun that she believes the whale was struck north of Vancouver Island, since fin whales aren’t normally found in the straits closer to Vancouver.

The Inside Passage is famously rich with marine wildlife and is a crucial habitat and migratory route for whales. As the Sun also reports: “This is the second time in the last 10 years that a cruise vessel has come into the Port of Vancouver with a whale caught on the bow. In that instance, in June of 1999, the Celebrity Cruise vessel MV Galaxy collided with an adult male fin whale, which likely happened as the ship transited the Hecate Strait north of Vancouver Island.”

For some compelling related reading, I strongly recommend Charles Siebert’s article “Watching Whales Watching Us,” published recently in the New York Times Magazine. It’s a deep, enthralling account that dives into some provocative thinking among marine biologists today about our evolving relationship with whales — which may yet hold hope, despite our terrible history of assault on one of the earth’s most sublime creatures.

PART 2:
There is more to Princess Cruises’ history with whales. In the summer of 2001, one of its ships slammed into a pregnant female humpback whale in the waters off Southeast Alaska, killing it. As Mother Jones reported two years ago via a National Park Service report, in January 2007 “Princess Cruise Lines pled guilty in U.S. District Court in Anchorage to a charge of knowingly failing to operate its vessel, the Dawn Princess, at a slow, safe speed in the summer of 2001 while near two humpback whales in the area of Glacier Bay National Park. The bloated carcass of a pregnant whale was found four days after the Princess ship sailed through the park. It had died of massive blunt trauma injuries to the right side of the head, including a fractured skull, eye socket and cervical vertebrae, all consistent with a vessel collision.”

You can read the rest of the report at the MoJo link above, including details of the six-figure penalty paid by Princess in a plea agreement. At the time of the agreement, the U.S. attorney’s office stated, “in this case we feel Princess has stepped up and made significant, voluntary operational changes that protect whales and the marine environment.”

Pending findings on the Sapphire Princess and the fin whale’s death, perhaps that assessment needs updating.

I’m compelled to add that I feel a particularly personal sense of investment in this story. Exactly a decade ago, I was fortunate to have an opportunity to travel into Glacier Bay, along with three good friends, on a 10-day sea kayaking trip. I’ve explored deep wilderness throughout my life, and Glacier Bay was among the most memorable places I’ve ever been. On a couple of days during the trip, we spotted cruise ships on the horizon. We were thankful to be far away from them. In this photo I took from my sea kayak in July 1999, you can see a large cruise ship in the distance (at the right-center edge of the image) heading north against the backdrop of the Fairweather Range.

MF-Fairweather GB

We camped on nearby shoreline that night, where an exquisite sunset perhaps hinted at what was to come on day nine of our trip.

MF-GBsunset1 MF-GBsunset2

The next morning we paddled into the placid waters of Beartrack Cove to the east. We were sole representatives of humanity in a place that sees little of it. There were colorful marine birds, salmon returning to spawn in coastal streams… and suddenly that morning, one enormous humpback whale. It surfaced about 30 yards in front of our tiny, tiny boats.

The whale appeared to be feeding, its dark mass breaking the surface several times with its huge mouth open. We stopped paddling and tapped the rails of our boats gently to let it know our location. We watched in awe as it reappeared around us at various spots in the cove for about half an hour before it submerged for other waters.

It was the most glorious kind of nervous I think I’ve ever felt, a truly unforgettable experience.

Medicine Bow: A tale of beauty and devastation

Late last week, as world leaders were again failing to make progress on the rising threat of climate change, I was hiking to the top of Medicine Bow Peak in Wyoming. An unusually wet June produced a stunning sweep of wildflowers high upon the 12,000-foot mountain:

MF-Medicine Bow wildflowers

Combating global climate change is a complicated matter, to say the least, but I suspect that most people, attendees of G-8 summits included, would view the imperative in a whole new light if they were to witness the ecological devastation hitting this breathtaking region of the Mountain West. The fallout can be seen in the lush forests ringing Medicine Bow and other majestic snow-capped ranges in the area and in nearby Colorado — in the bleak, sprawling signature of an ongoing bark beetle epidemic. Warmer winters and drought in recent years allowed the insect population to explode, bringing destruction to more than 1.5 million acres.

“By about 2012, beetles will have killed nearly all of the mature lodgepole trees in northern Colorado and southern Wyoming,” reports the USDA Forest Service, “affecting water flows and watersheds, future timber production, wildlife habitat, recreation sites, transmission lines and scenic views. Beetle-killed trees also present a fuels build-up situation that could result in catastrophic wildland fires. These events pose threats to homes and property and could cause adverse economic impacts to communities.”

According to Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist in Laramie, the beetle infestations have been roaring on unabated because of climate change. “These infestations take place naturally on 20- to 40-year cycles,” he said in a news article early last year. “In the past, they’ve run their course until a bitterly cold winter took place. Studies show that you need a two-week cold snap at minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit to kill off the beetles. Nothing else works.”

For several years now, it hasn’t gotten cold enough.

The forests seen here in the distance from the top of Medicine Bow…

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… could soon resemble these seen in this recent aerial photo, taken in northern Colorado, from the USDA Forest Service:

USDA-beetlekill

Some other forested areas I saw last week in the vicinity of Medicine Bow (especially at lower elevations that stay warmer) are already riddled with dead and dying trees. The friends I was with, who’ve been coming to the area for the last decade, described the accumulating damage in dramatic terms — some pristine expanses that existed just a couple of years ago won’t be seen again in our lifetime.

It’s hard to know how bad it might get (it’s already bad), or whether anything can actually be done to slow or stop this particular disaster. But it’s one stark example of what climate change can bring, and why we have to pay attention. Over the weekend Timothy Egan argued that Michelle Obama should throw her political weight behind America’s increasingly marginalized national parks. Egan’s perspective was more cultural than environmental, but from what I saw in Wyoming, there’s no lack of pressing reason on the latter front, either.

Or perhaps, as Emerson suggested in his famous essay on nature, what’s ultimately at stake is an essential interdependence:

“The tempered light of the woods is like a perpetual morning, and is stimulating and heroic. The anciently reported spells of these places creep on us. The stems of pines, hemlocks and oaks almost gleam like iron on the excited eye. The incommunicable trees begin to persuade us to live with them, and quit our life of solemn trifles.”

Postcard from Wyoming

Did Joe Biden just give Israel the green light to attack Iran? Is Sarah Palin completely cuckoo? Have we reached the saturation point on Michael Jackson yet?

Apologies, dear readers, but I don’t have a lot to say about current affairs at the moment. (Anyway, Palin’s baffling resignation speech more than speaks for itself.) What I do have are a few photos I took during recent travels with friends in the great state of Wyoming. Enjoy…

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July 4th festivities in the town of Saratoga:
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At the bar inside the Hotel Wolf:
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Twilight commemoration involving ignition:
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Thunderstorm approaching over Laramie:
TstormLaramie

At the base of Medicine Bow peak:
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A Titanic for these times

The June issue of the Atlantic has a look at the mind-blowing Oasis of the Seas, a gargantuan ocean liner forthcoming from cruise company Royal Caribbean International. Its unprecedented scale of apparent luxury surely required feats of engineering. But any awe that inspires would seem to wash away with apprehension of the ship’s untold economic and ecological hubris.

A decade ago, a large cruise ship typically carried in the neighborhood of 2,000 passengers and 1,000 crew members. But in an industry intently focused on swelling its profits no matter the non-fiscal costs, bigger is always better. Ordered in 2006 for $1.4 billion (on the crest ahead of the economic meltdown), the Oasis leaves those old numbers far in its wake. “In November,” writes Rory Nugent, “Royal Caribbean will take delivery of a true sea monster. Now in its final phase of construction, the Oasis of the Seas will be the biggest (longest, tallest, widest, heaviest) passenger ship ever built — and the most expensive. It will dwarf Nimitz-class aircraft carriers and cast shadows dockside atop 20-story buildings. A crew of 2,165 will tend the expectations of up to 6,296 passengers.” (Photos from the official Oasis site.)

Oasis2-Nov08 Oasisfloatout-Nov08

According to the Atlantic, the ship has 21 swimming pools onboard, circulating more than 600,000 gallons of water. Passengers are expected to consume another 560,000 gallons per day, including daily production of 110,230 pounds of ice cubes — more than the weight of nine adult male elephants. The Oasis will also function as “its own utility company” with a 100-megawatt electrical grid — which will consume 12 tons of diesel fuel per hour and generate enough juice to power 105,000 homes.

There is a 1,380-seat playhouse onboard, though it’s not even the main attraction. That would be the outdoor “AquaTheater,” which apparently is “wrapped in its own wind-shielded microclimate” and uses nearly 2,000 nozzles to spray water in concert with a Las Vegas-style light show.

Oasis-Atlanticmap

A good many people enjoy this kind of thing, the decadent vacation cruise. (Enough of them to support an industry with annual revenues in the tens of billions of dollars.) Based on the intuition that the experience might feel a bit like feasting on a nine-course meal in the middle of an Ethiopian refugee camp, I’ve never had any intention of trying it. David Foster Wallace famously once did. It’s a safe bet that the Oasis of the Seas would have left him royally retching. (His great essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” originally published in Harper’s in 1996 as “Shipping Out,” was made available online by the magazine after his tragic death last fall.)

From Florida to Alaska, the consumptive ships of Royal Caribbean have been in the news before. Seven years ago federal investigators determined that the cruise company had covered up massive environmental malfeasance, despite a case focusing on one of its ships, the Norway, that resolved with a $1 million slap on the wrist. As USA Today reported in November 2002:

Now, some of the federal agents who investigated the case say the company’s pollution went on for much longer and was much worse than the light fine suggests. Environmental Protection Agency agents say — and court records support — that the Norway not only poured hundreds of thousands of gallons of oily bilge water into the ocean. It also dumped raw sewage mixed with hazardous, even cancer-causing, chemicals from dry cleaning and photo development into the waters near Miami for many years.

In the late 1990s, according to that USA Today report, Royal Caribbean had eventually pleaded guilty to 30 criminal charges in Miami, New York, Puerto Rico, Los Angeles, the Virgin Islands and Alaska, and had paid $27 million in fines in 1998 and ’99. By the 2002 news report, it had “implemented a companywide environmental compliance program.”

About to embark with its new mega-ship (click on the first link in this post to zoom in on the above graphic), has it since cleaned up its act? A year ago this week, a Royal Caribbean cruise ship dumped 20,000 gallons of contaminated water just off the coast of Southeast Alaska.

California notebook: New highs, new lows

dojeradicationSan Francisco’s Tom Ammiano, a former city supervisor turned state assemblyman, wants to go green to help bail out the state from fiscal crisis. His plan would boost weed farms not wind farms. He introduced a bill Monday to legalize recreational marijuana and regulate it in a manner similar to alcohol, with a potential tax windfall of more than $1 billion. (The fragrant green stuff is thought to be a $14 billion cash crop in the state. Then there’s the potential savings in law enforcement costs in the hundreds of millions.) Not likely to fly, despite California’s reputation for cutting-edge policy and a devastating $42 billion deficit. But credit the San Francisco maverick for thinking creatively in a time of crisis. And credit the political opposition with the Most Mangled Cliché Award — said Calvina Fay, executive director of Save Our Society From Drugs, in the LA Times: “This would open another door in Pandora’s box.” (What’s she been smokin’?)

It’s been raining in the Bay Area for almost a week straight, happy news after a bone-dry January. But 2009 is on track for a third straight year of drought in California, with reservoirs still sitting at alarmingly low levels. It’s not just the prospect of shorter showers and less lush front lawns. As Jesse McKinley reported on the front page of Sunday’s New York Times, the twin calamity of recession and drought is hitting the Central Valley, the nation’s biggest agricultural engine, hard. Even as your income may be headed south, you’ll soon be paying more if you want almonds and avocados.

The once venerable San Francisco Chronicle may be the next casualty of the besieged newpaper industry. The paper lost more than $50 million in 2008 and is on pace to fare worse this year. Its owner, the Hearst Corporation, is demanding deeper cuts among an already downsized staff. If that doesn’t stem the tide of red ink, Hearst execs say, “we will have no choice but to quickly seek a buyer for The Chronicle, and, should a buyer not be found, to shut down the newspaper.” As with many others the publication’s reporting capacity has been shriveling as it struggles to survive the industry’s upheaval. But San Francisco without its oldest and largest newspaper? At the very least, another clarion call for digital journalism 3.0 to really get cranking.

Update: David Cay Johnston explains how the Chronicle, tellingly, failed to report adequately on its own serious situation.

From decadent to ominous in Dubai

Laid-off foreigners are fleeing Dubai as the emirate’s economy collapses, according to Thursday’s New York Times. Thousands of their abandoned cars reportedly now sit at the Dubai airport, while dark rumors spread about luxury developments sinking (literally) and lavish hotels turning decrepit.

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Long ago I was astonished by the development-cum-decadence of Dubai — the excess seemed nuts even in unprecedented oil-boom times. (The desert as home to the world’s largest indoor snow park? A 154-story skyscraper sired by a “cybersheik”? A giant artificial island whose palm-tree-shaped land cost north of $12 billion in reclamation alone?) It couldn’t end well.

Now it may well be ending. What’s most haunting about the Times report isn’t the opening tale of a young French expat who leveraged herself with a $300,000 apartment and may have to flee the country or face debtors’ prison. It’s the circumstances of Hamza Thiab, a 27-year-old Iraqi who relocated from Baghdad to Dubai in 2005, and who lost his job with an engineering firm six weeks ago:

Mr. Thiab was sitting in a Costa Coffee Shop in the Ibn Battuta mall, where most of the customers seemed to be single men sitting alone, dolefully drinking coffee at midday. If he fails to find a job, he will have to go to Jordan, where he has family members — Iraq is still too dangerous, he says — though the situation is no better there.

What happens with all of those frustrated young men when the shaky economies of the Middle East really implode? (It seems unlikely the price of oil will scale Burj Dubai-esque heights again any time soon.) In the early days of the Obama presidency we’ve been terribly preoccupied with our own reeling economy, and understandably so. But the peril clearly is global (never mind that silly theory of “decoupling” in vogue not long ago) and certain areas of the world are looking increasingly explosive just beneath the surface. It’s all stimulus bills and Obama’s economic team in the headlines of late, while only a few voices have drawn an explicit connection between economic and national security. But soon enough we may be hearing a whole lot more from Obama’s Director of National Intelligence and Joint Chiefs of Staff.

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