NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution


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Put Me In, Coach: Why Emergency Responders Are Good at Being in Emergencies

NOAA and Coast Guard responders take water samples.

NOAA and Coast Guard responders take water samples after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill. Credit: NOAA.

While responding to a recent barge collision [leaves this blog], I heard a chilling story from one of the emergency responders—we’ll call him “John”—who nearly had his own collision driving to the command post that day.

John was in the middle lane of a crowded interstate highway when suddenly a wheelbarrow on its side appeared in his lane not far ahead. To the left and right, an uninterrupted line of cars and trucks continued to speed by at nearly 70 miles an hour; there was no safe way to stop or avoid the rapidly approaching wheelbarrow.

He started to brake, but not so quickly that he would be hit by the minivan following too closely behind him and create a pileup. His options were limited: depending on what he did, the wheelbarrow could be tossed spinning into the next lane of cars.

Fortunately, as he slowed his truck, he noticed that the wheelbarrow was positioned with the open top facing him. John chose to drive his truck’s right front tire into the open wheelbarrow, rolling up its sides like a ramp. Traveling around 15 miles per hour by then, the impact felt like hitting a speed bump. The partially crushed wheelbarrow became caught under the truck as John came to a controlled stop.

Traffic around him eventually slowed and stopped. What could have been a major accident had been avoided. John said, “It was just luck, plain luck, that the wheelbarrow had ended up like that.”

It was what John expressed next that really caught my attention: “I’m glad I was there.” Seeing puzzled looks, he added, “It could just have easily been a mom with two kids in a small car, or a different kind of vehicle than mine and that wheelbarrow would have been tossed into traffic, or they could have lost control spinning into speeding cars.” He was in a better position to minimize the overall threat to others on the highway.

What he said characterizes one of the reasons I love working with emergency responders so much.

Emergency responders, by nature of their vocation, are level-headed thinkers that do not panic during emergencies. While training and experience might build rapid assessment and decision-making skills, there is more to the attitude of a good emergency responder than that.

I believe it is much the same as that of a good baseball player, who wants to be there for the team during a game’s clutch situation. The hardest position for a good baseball player is usually sitting on the bench. Of course, in baseball, if you strike out, the game ends and it’s only a baseball game. In emergency response, failure can have much more deadly consequences to the public we protect.

I’ve spent most of my career working with emergency responders from a wide range of disciplines. I’ve noticed a few things about them.  They have confidence in their skills and are willing to make immediate hard decisions when needed. Emergency responders hate emergencies more than anyone, but when emergencies happen, they want to be “in the game,” while fully acknowledging the possible and serious consequences of their work.

Who are some of these emergency responders? The Coast Guard rescue swimmer willing to drop from a helicopter into a cold ocean to save a victim from a sunken fishing boat would be one example. A NOAA meteorologist at a Weather Forecast Office desk detecting the early signs of a tornado forming and quickly getting out a warning would be another.

The list is extensive, and perhaps, surprising: the NOAA HAZMAT chemist warning that adding water to a certain type of chemical fire on a cargo ship might actually lead to an explosion; the fireman directing the proper tactics to prevent a fire from spreading to an adjacent building not yet fully evacuated; the county emergency manager quickly recognizing a flashflood threat and coordinating the shutdown of threatened roadways.

You might not always think of some of these individuals as emergency responders, but they are. I’m often humbled seeing emergency responders work or hearing stories of their actions and insights, and I’m very proud to be their colleague.

After more than two decades, I recognize that I’m beginning to give up my team position to a member of a younger generation, and I try to pass on the wisdom that was passed to me by my mentors. I knew that I stood on that generation’s shoulders, and the next generation of responders will stand even taller. I’m excited because they are just like “John.”  You can see it in their eyes and hear it in their voice: Put me in, Coach. I’m ready.


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How Social Media Is Already Changing Ocean Science

All links leave this blog.

As threats to the environment continue to grow, so is people’s thirst for information about these issues. Today, perhaps more than ever, scientists and their institutions are the ones stepping up with ideas about how to meet this demand for information.

This week, thousands of oceanographers from all over the world gathered at the 2012 Ocean Sciences Meeting in Salt Lake City to discuss the latest developments in ocean science. Yet a surprising portion of that dialogue centered on communicating science through mainstream media, the internet, and social media.

WikiScience
Margaret Leinen, Executive Director (and oceanographer) of Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, predicted that social media will actually change the scientific process itself, by enabling collaboration on a huge, unprecedented scale. She credits Michael Nielsen for furthering this change with his book, Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science.

She described one such dramatic experiment in social media, detailed in Nielsen’s book, in which a complex math problem was solved faster than anyone would have thought possible thanks to what is now known as the Polymath Project, an online collaboration of a large and decentralized group of mathematicians (both professional and amateur). And on a personal level, she commented on how quickly her colleagues seem to have adopted social media.

Blogging for Smarties
Another highlight came from Ken Kostel, a web science writer and editor at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. He directed two blogs from marine research cruises, one studying the effects of the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the other the 2011 Japan tsunami/Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster. The blogs incorporated personal impressions from researchers on the cruise as well as real-time data from the ship. I spoke with a graduate oceanography student who participated in the Fukushima cruise; she is now looking into a career that incorporates both science and communications.

Woods Hole Dive and Discover Blog.Kostel’s Dive and Discover blog, where the Gulf spill research cruise was recorded, is geared toward students and teachers. Here, you can see that he swears by the communications principle of “show, don’t tell” and strives for compelling visual elements. He also believes in brevity, using the help of communication professionals, and a lot of advance planning.

In an interactive workshop, graduate students Miriam Goldstein of Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Andrew Thaler of Duke University shared insights on running their respective science blogs, Deep Sea News and Southern Fried Science. They stressed the benefit of having a clear goal for the blog, of writing about what interests you, and the importance of maintaining a two-way conversation with readers. And naturally, they use Facebook to drive readers to their blogs.

The Gateway to the Public
With a slightly different approach, Heather Galinda spoke about what she has learned working for COMPASS,* an organization whose mission is to connect science with ocean policy-makers and the media. She’s part of a team of science communications professionals based at affiliate institutions across the U.S. She emphasized the huge role the media play in the transfer of scientific knowledge, describing them as “the gateway to the broader public” and “the gate-keepers to policy-makers.” She encourages scientists to connect with journalists through social media.

In between the flurry of presentations, Mary Scranton, a marine geochemist at Stony Brook University and a conference organizer, chatted with me about this increased emphasis on science communication at the Ocean Sciences conference. She attributes it to the public’s need for accurate information on the environmental issues that affect their lives. She also feels that there is more interest from science graduate students in pursuing careers outside of university research, such as at an aquarium, where the ability to communicate effectively to the public is a crucial skill.

Readers, what do you think? Do you want to see more science on what’s affecting the world around you? Let us know!


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Investigating Environmental Impacts: Oil on the Kalamazoo River

Posted sign closing river activity due to oil spill response.

The Kalamazoo River has been closed to the public since the spill in 2010. We’re examining how this has affected public recreation and tribal cultural uses. (Terry Heatlie, NOAA)

In late summer of 2010, while the nation was fixated on the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, an underground pipeline in Michigan also began gushing oil. My job has been to help investigate the environmental damage that spill caused when the oil flowed into the Kalamazoo River.

The Situation
More than 800,000 gallons of crude oil** poured out of the leaking pipeline before it was eventually shut off. It oozed through the soft, wet ground just outside of Marshall, Mich., before washing into the Kalamazoo River, one of the largest rivers in southern Michigan.

I was at a meeting in Milwaukee with my suitcase full of sandals and skirts — not exactly dressed for an oil spill — when I got called to the scene. I drove nearly nonstop to Marshall, with only a quick detour in Indiana to buy steel-toed boots and work pants.

The Challenges
When I arrived, the other scientists and I made plans to collect data on the oil’s damage. Heavy rains had caused the river to flood over its banks, and as the oil flowed approximately forty miles* down the Kalamazoo, it was also carried up onto the banks and into trees. As the flood waters receded, oil was left on overhanging branches and in floodplains.

As the flood water receded, oil was left behind on river vegetation and overhanging tree branches, as well as in yards and forested floodplains. Yellow containment boom is in the foreground. (Gene Suuppi, State of Michigan)

The river’s floodplains, full of forests and wetlands, are also home to sensitive seasonal ponds, which provide valuable habitat for fish and macroinvertebrates (aquatic “bugs” at the base of the food chain). Therefore, we needed to find out: how far did the oil make it into the floodplain, what did it contact while there, and how much oil was left?

The smell of oil was sickeningly strong at first. Residents evacuated the houses nearest to the leak, and workers within half a mile of the pipeline break had to wear respirators to protect them from inhaling fumes. Even a dozen miles downstream, I could smell the oil and feel the fumes irritating my eyes. These fumes were the light components of the oil evaporating into the air. The heavy components of the oil were left behind on the banks or gradually sank to the bottom of the river.

The sunken oil has proven difficult to clean up. This winter, spill responders have been working to quantify how much sunken oil is left and to develop and test techniques for cleaning it up.

The Science
Along with my team from NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the State of Michigan, and the Huron Band and Gun Lake Tribe of the Potawatomi joined together as trustees to assess damages that the spill caused to natural resources.

We’ve conducted a variety of studies to collect information on the impacts of the spill and repeated some of the studies to see how the environment is recovering. Now we’re gathering all this data for the official damage assessment. We’ve examined samples of fish, mussels, water, and sediments for evidence of oil-related chemicals. We’ve collected observations of oiled vegetation and records of the number and condition of animals brought to the wildlife rehab center.

Talmadge Creek cleanup crews on Aug 6, 2010.

Cleanup crews place absorbent pads to sop up oil at Talmadge Creek, near the source of the spill, on Aug 6, 2010. We also take into account the effect cleanup has on the environment. (Chuck Getter)

Unfortunately, cleanup-related activities have an environmental impact too. For example, extra boat traffic on the river during cleanup led to some riverbank erosion and crushed freshwater mussels. Our studies include these factors too. We’ll also look into the effect the spill had on public recreation (the river has been closed to the public since the spill) and on tribal cultural uses.

What Next?
We and the other trustees will seek out restoration projects that address the impacts caused by the spill, being careful to balance the projects with the results of our studies. We’ll take project ideas from the public and from watershed organizations to make sure that we choose projects that fit in well with other restoration work being done across the broader Kalamazoo River watershed.

Enbridge Energy, as the owner of the pipeline, will have the option to implement the projects themselves with oversight from us trustees, or could pay for the cost of these projects as part of a larger legal settlement.

Stay tuned and we’ll keep you updated as this story unfolds.

*Correction: This originally stated that the oil flowed thirty miles down the Kalamazoo River.

**This was later discovered to be an oil sands (or tar sands) product.


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Looking for NOAA Information on the Deepwater Horizon/BP Oil Spill?

NOAA employee taking notes of shoreline conditions.

GULF SHORES, Ala. - A NOAA employee records evidence of oil found below the water's surface, along with other shoreline observations, Sept. 20, 2010. (Petty Officer 2nd Class Lauren Jorgensen, U.S. Coast Guard)

Nearly two years ago, the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill forced government agencies to work together in ways unlike any previous spill. The government—and NOAA in particular—gathered an unprecedented amount of data and information on complex topics like seafood safety, the use of chemical dispersants, and oiled marsh cleanup.

As a result, we at NOAA have a wealth of resources that are free and available to the public.

To make it easier for you to pin down the data point you’re looking for or find the restoration project proposal you want to comment on, we’ve rounded up a couple key locations for these Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill materials. Check them out: [All links leave this blog.]

  • The Deepwater Horizon Institutional Repository: A brand-new, searchable, online collection of Deepwater Horizon/BP spill data and information from NOAA’s data centers, libraries, and websites (and federal and state partners too). While still expanding what is currently available, this site will offer observational data, analytical reports, public briefings, images, and videos from response and restoration efforts in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • NOAA Deepwater Horizon Archive: An early online center for much of the information NOAA gathered during the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill response and restoration activities. This archive includes past oil movement forecasts, subsurface oil and ocean current data, and seafood safety data.
  • GulfSpillRestoration.gov: This is primarily a NOAA site for providing updates on our participation in the Natural Resource Damage Assessment for the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill. For example, here you can comment on draft early restoration plans, find a public meeting, and learn about how this spill has affected the Gulf’s natural resources.
  • ERMA Gulf Response: This interactive mapping platform is designed for oil spill responders and the public to access up-to-date and historical data on the oil spill, including oil observations, fishery closures and re-openings, wildlife reports, and Gulf Coast resources.
  • National Ocean Service Flickr Photo Gallery: This digital photo collection, hosted on Flickr.com, features NOAA photos from the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill response, including ones of oil, wildlife, and our scientists and responders at work in the field.

For non-NOAA information and updates on the response and recovery in the Gulf of Mexico, check out http://www.restorethegulf.gov/, the official U.S. government website for this spill.


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Calculating the Environmental Costs of Big Oil Spills

Closed beach sign at Crissy Field, San Francisco Bay.

Closed beach sign at Crissy Field, San Francisco Bay, after the 2007 Cosco Busan oil spill. Credit: Mila Zinkova, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License 3.0.

How do we deal with big spills along America’s coasts? In the latest podcast from NOAA’s National Ocean Service, scientist Greg Baker helps explain the flip side of cleaning up oil spills: Figuring out the environmental costs—and what it would take to fix them.

Listen to the podcast here, and read some highlights from the discussion below:

“When a spill happens, there’s a cleanup aspect to it, and then there’s this other aspect of damages. And shouldn’t the responsible party have to do more than just clean it up? Shouldn’t they have to fix the losses that occurred as a result of the spill? And that’s the role of the natural resource trustees — simply to advocate for the fish and the birds and the things that, on their own, really can’t file a claim against the company that caused the problem.”
–Greg Baker, Office of Response and Restoration

Who are these “natural resource trustees” who are speaking up for nature?

They’re the people whose everyday jobs are dedicated to taking care of public natural resources like the fish and the birds and the beaches. They work for the states and tribes affected by the spill as well as federal agencies like NOAA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of the Interior. When a big oil spill happens, they band together in a group known as “trustees” to act on behalf of the environment.

“And then we [the trustees] plan out what kind of data collection we need to conduct immediately. So what are the potential impacts given the size, the location, the season of the spill, what kinds of resources — fish, birds, wildlife — are we expecting are going to be impacted and, therefore, where should we plan to go out in the field and collect that information.”
–Greg Baker

Once they’re ready, they take a first look at the environmental damages, which can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months depending on the spill size. If things look bad enough, the trustees move ahead to the next phase: a long-term, full-blown damage assessment. Greg said that longer-term assessments are often needed because areas sometimes have to be studied over seasons and even over years to really understand what’s going on in the ecosystem.

That was the case with the Cosco Busan oil spill, which took two years to study. The spill occurred when the cargo ship Cosco Busan crashed into the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in November 2007, causing one of the largest oil spills in the history of San Francisco Bay.

NOAA scientists helped study the spill’s impacts on herring, which migrate into the Bay each winter to spawn. In places affected by the spill, their eggs turned up dead or deformed. Because of this, we studied another two seasons of herring spawning to uncover any lasting effects the oil might have had on these fish.

The point of all these studies is to calculate a dollar amount for what it will take to restore all the damages to fish, plants, and wildlife, to habitats, to shorelines, and to human recreation loss. For the Cosco Busan, the legal settlement came out to $44.4 million dollars [leaves this blog], the biggest settlement to date since the Oil Protection Act came into force.

Check out more National Ocean Service podcasts [leaves this blog] and subscribe on iTunes.

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