Can the Internet Help Tame an Oil Spill?

More Flickr photos, including the one above, from savethebay

As most of the country knows by now, the cargo ship Cosco Busan bashed into San Francisco’s Bay Bridge last week, cutting a 90-foot gash in its fuel tank and spilling 58,000 gallons of bunker oil into bay waters. The area’s infamous tidal currents did the rest, stretching the oil slick into miles-long ribbons that promptly washed onto shore. Many area beaches have become safety hazards covered in globs of tarry, toxic oil. If you’re downwind, just the fumes can be nauseating.

But this is Silicon Valley’s backyard, and people are putting the Internet to use. The San Francisco Chronicle has a customized Google Map that gives readers a bird's-eye view of spill locations complete with photographs and video. Check it out to see the extent of the damage as well as pictures of oil-bound Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge that are worth a thousand words. You can stay tuned to headlines on the newspaper’s Twitter feed.

Locals frustrated with the slow response and limited resources of official cleanup crews quickly began organizing through Craigslist and surfing blogs. On Flickr, there’s a demonstration of how to safely pick up an oil glob with a kitty litter scoop (other handy tools: mats made of hair clippings, jumpsuits made of Tyvek fabric). And YouTube is full of news clips: efforts to help oiled wildlife, harried officials trying to warn the public about the dangers of cleanup and stunning helicopter footage of the spill at area landmarks.

News reports emphasize the spill’s threat to migrating birds, but San Francisco Bay is also the winter home for hundreds of thousands of ducks, sandpipers and grebes. To these birds and the area’s resident cormorants, pelicans, gulls and marine mammals, the spill represents a much longer-lasting threat.

Oiled wildlife has washed up as far away as the Farallon islands, 30 miles offshore. The Point Reyes Bird Observatory reports collecting more than 30 seabirds including murres, grebes, pelicans and rhinoceros auklets--small, burrowing seabirds related to puffins.

This inexplicable accident is a reminder of how easy it is for bad luck and lapses in attention to wreck an ecosystem almost overnight. And that’s without nature flexing its muscles: This week, a storm on the Black Sea sank a Russian tanker, creating a spill measured in tons, not gallons, and oiling thousands of birds. Let's be careful out there.

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.