A Year of Spills

In mid-spring it appeared that 2010 would become the Year of the Spill—grim recognition of the gunk staining the Gulf of Mexico. President Barack Obama called the BP (BP) leak "the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced," and for a while the gusher seemed unstoppable. Every time you turned on cable news, there it was, pouring forth.

Finally, it was plugged, and with surprising speed the surface of the Gulf returned to something approximating normal. Despite the release of 4.9 million barrels of crude—more than five times as much as the Exxon Valdez spilled in 1989—three-quarters of the discharge had vanished by late summer. The oil, according to government scientists, had been captured at the wellhead, burned, broken up chemically, evaporated by the hot sun, digested by hungry bacteria, or dissolved into microscopic droplets. Fisheries reopened, and the White House urged Americans to feast on Louisiana seafood. Whew!

But what about the rest of the oil? The journal Science reported in August that a residual plume deep in the Gulf could threaten wildlife for years to come. The main column curls 3,000 feet below the surface, extending for 20 miles southwest of the capped well. On the ocean floor, researchers discovered oily sediment stretching across many square miles. The residue could kill marine life that provides food for innumerable fish. All that means it's way too soon to forget about the Gulf spill.

Leakage resurfaced as a 2010 theme in the anarchic persona of Julian Assange. The WikiLeaks impresario spilled a volume of secrets about American foreign policy not seen since the days of the Pentagon Papers. A master media manipulator, Assange embarrassed and angered diplomats worldwide. Next to trickle out, he threatened before turning himself in to British police, will be the confidences of a major financial institution.

In the stock market, the big splash came on May 6. Debt worries in Europe, combined with superfast computerized trading in the U.S., caused shares to plummet in the space of minutes. Stock prices recovered almost as quickly, but the Flash Crash left Wall Street badly shaken.

Courtesy of Twitter, the drip-drip-drip of trivia was part of the year's soundtrack. Sarah Palin "refudiated" critics, Kanye West bared a bruised and solipsistic soul, and NFL stars (mostly wide receivers, for some reason) embraced the microblogging site as their go-to medium for narcissism dumps. A graphic designer in Japan let loose the world's 20 billionth tweet. Fittingly, the communication lacked any clear substance: "So that means the barrage might come back later all at once." Elsewhere, the government of North Korea denied press reports that it had taken to tweeting anti-Western propaganda under the cryptic handle @uriminzok. A spokesman for the North decried a surfeit of "misinformation, speculation, and sensationalism." It was the sanest-sounding comment to spill out of Pyongyang in 2010.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.