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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Seattle: Blinded by a Science Festival

Seattle Science Festival 2012This June, Seattle is hosting a city-wide, month-long festival celebrating science, technology, and innovation in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Seattle World’s Fair. If you’re going to be in the Seattle area, you can find an overview and schedule of all the planned activities at seattlesciencefestival.org. The festival has three components: Science EXPO Day, Science Festival Week, and the Science Luminaries Series. NOAA is playing a part in all three, starting with the kick-off event on June 2.

Seattle Space Needle.

The Seattle Space Needle, first unveiled during the 1962 World’s Fair. Credit: Zoonabar/Creative Commons

Science EXPO Day, on Saturday, June 2, 2012, at the Seattle Center will feature more than 130 exhibitors with interactive activities, demonstrations, and science experiments. As part of a larger NOAA exhibit at Science EXPO Day, the Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) will showcase how we model oil spills by demonstrating our GNOME software application. (If you can’t make the Science EXPO, you can still download the GNOME model  for free and try it yourself!)

This model also has been valuable in developing possible scenarios of how debris from the 2011 Japan tsunami has traveled across the Pacific Ocean, towards Hawaii and the North American West Coast. Experts from the NOAA Marine Debris Program will be on hand to discuss ongoing efforts to address problems the debris could cause in the water and after landing on shore.

NOAA will celebrate Science Festival Week with an open house for the public on Friday, June 8, 2012, from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. NOAA staff will conduct a variety of guided tours through the Sand Point and Montlake campuses, giving visitors a chance to see first-hand the work that we do to protect endangered species, restore coastal and riverine habitat, forecast the weather, and more, right here in Seattle. The public can hear about these NOAA activities straight from our scientists and ask questions as they peek behind the scenes at how we study the ocean and atmosphere.

The Office of Response and Restoration’s “War Room,” a hub of activity when an oil spill occurs, will be one of the highlights. From there, our spill modelers will demonstrate the tools they use to create animated maps forecasting where oil might go to help responders during oil spills such as the recent Deepwater Horizon/BP incident in the Gulf of Mexico. There will be lots of maps, artifacts, and photos, along with experts on hand to discuss our work on oil spills, marine debris cleanup, and environmental restoration. Also, twice that day, OR&R’s Nir Barnea will join NOAA scientists Vasily Titov and Mark Koehn for a discussion of the 2011 Japan tsunami and the resulting marine debris. See NOAA Open House for more details.

The Science Luminaries Series consists of lectures and panel discussions by some of the nation’s greatest scientific minds, such as theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking and astronauts Bonnie Dunbar and George “Pinky” Nelson. Please visit the Science Luminaries Series for detailed schedules and information.

NOAA’s Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, a distinguished scientist (as well as a former astronaut) who serves as Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Environmental Observation and Prediction and NOAA Deputy Administrator, will be one of the featured speakers. Dr. Sullivan will share the stage on Wednesday, June 13, 2012, with Dr. Anthony Janetos, Director of the Joint Global Change Research Institute at the University of Maryland and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and Dr. Nicholas Bond, Washington State Climatologist and University of Washington and NOAA Atmospheric Scientist, to discuss climate change and what it could mean for the future. This event will take place at Kane Hall on the University of Washington campus at 7:30 p.m. For details on this exciting presentation, see Conversations About Our Changing Planet: Observations, Models and Implications.

If you had the chance, what part of NOAA’s work would you like to tour?


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Bringing Urban Waterfronts Back to Life: Philadelphia Edition

Lardner's Point Park sign.If you visit the waterfronts of many cities in the U.S., you will find a common scene: abandoned eyesores with artificial, hardened, and denuded shorelines. They attract trash, invasive species, and crime and repel just about everything else. But where some see ecological and economic wastelands, others envision tremendous opportunities for reviving coastal communities.

Back in October of 2008, I was part of a team that visited one of these waterfronts in northern Philadelphia—a ferry terminal that had been abandoned decades before, Lardner’s Point.

We were there at the invitation of the Delaware River City Corporation and Pennsylvania Environmental Council, two of a series of partners who were interested in transforming this urban wasteland into a jewel—a waterfront park that would provide the public with a rare amenity: safe and attractive access to the Delaware River. It also had the potential to serve as a model for reclaiming blighted city shorelines.

At the time, NOAA and co-trustee agencies from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were looking for restoration projects that could help offset the environmental impacts from the 2004 release of 265,000 gallons of oil from the tanker M/V Athos I. Some of the oil washed up on these shorelines, and we were interested in options for reversing some of the harm.

As we walked around and listened to the park’s proponents, I admit that it was tough to imagine how this dump site, full of concrete rubble and weeds, could be turned into a park. But the more we listened, the more we realized that they had a vision, a plan, and a passion for returning the shoreline to the people.

The trustees agreed to partner with the Delaware River City Corporation by contributing part of the settlement from the Athos oil spill to add a living shoreline to the park, including wetland plantings.

Now, four and a half years later, I was back on May 14 to witness the grand opening of Lardner’s Point Park. This 4.5-acre riverfront oasis is Philadelphia’s newest park and includes a river overlook, fishing pier, picnic tables, connections to a trail system, riverbank forest, and a living shoreline with tidal wetlands.

On that blustery day in May, the visionaries were out in force to recognize the accomplishment of a dream come true, including Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, Rep. Allyson Schwartz, former Rep. Robert Borski, and other state and local officials and community groups.

The famous Philadelphia Mummers provided entertainment. Another guest that showed up unannounced was a rare and threatened Pennsylvania red-bellied turtle, which was seen visiting the newly restored shoreline habitat.

In an effort to continue this momentum, NOAA is also coordinating with other federal agencies, the city, and community groups in preparing an application for Philadelphia to become an Urban Waters Federal Partnership site, a program under America’s Great Outdoors Initiative.

We look forward to future successes in restoring urban waterfronts and ecological and economic benefits to more coastal communities.


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What Happens After Abandoning Ship

Twenty three years after running aground on a reef in Alaska and causing one of the largest spills in U.S. history, the tanker Exxon Valdez is back in the news—this time to keep it from being intentionally grounded on a beach in India.

The Indian Supreme Court has ruled that the Exxon Valdez (now called the Oriental Nicety) cannot be grounded and cut apart on the shores of Gujarat until it can be cleaned of residual oils and other contaminants.

Workers scrap ships for parts and metal on a beach in Bhatiari, Chittagong, Bangladesh.

Workers scrap ships for parts and metal (“ship breaking”) on a beach in Bhatiari, Chittagong, Bangladesh. Credit: Naquib Hossain, Creative Commons License: Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0).

What’s known as “ship breaking” is a dirty business, and many of the world’s tired and obsolete vessels end up being grounded on beaches in India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan and cut apart for scrap steel.

In recent years the business of ship scrapping has become a major health and environmental concern. Many ship breaking yards in these developing countries have little or no safety equipment or environmental protections, and toxic materials from these ships, including oils, heavy metals, and asbestos, escape into the environment.

A derelict vessel grounded on a coal reef in Samoa.

A rusted-out derelict vessel still sits grounded on a coal reef in Samoa. (NOAA/Doug Helton)

Obsolete vessels and ship scrapping can also be a problem here in the U.S. Last year, the 431-foot S/S Davy Crockett made the news down on the Columbia River near Vancouver, Wash.

Mysterious oil sheens on the river were traced upriver to the former Navy Liberty ship that had begun leaking oil due to improper and unpermitted salvage operations.

Next week I will be at the Clean Pacific Conference in Long Beach, Calif., and presenting information on the challenges of dealing with abandoned and derelict vessels in the U.S. I know that the Davy Crockett and the issues it raised will come up.

Vessels are abandoned for all sorts of reasons, including storms (particularly hurricanes/typhoons which may damage large numbers of boats), community-wide economic stress or change (e.g., declining commercial fishing industries), and financial or legal issues of individual owners.  The high cost of proper vessel disposal can lead some folks to just walk away.

Hopefully we can help improve how we respond to these vessels and increase prevention programs to prevent abandonment. If you are interested in this issue, there is more information on NOAA’s Abandoned Vessel Program.


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Mapping Safety, the Free and Easy Way

This is a guest post by emergency planner Tom Bergman. All links leave this blog.

Many of you are familiar with Google Maps or MapQuest, examples of free online mapping tools that have probably saved you from driving around lost for hours. But I bet you haven’t heard of another free mapping tool, known as MARPLOT, which has definitely saved more than a few people’s lives.

Back in 1986, NOAA and Environmental Protection Agency staff created MARPLOT, along with several other programs in a software suite called CAMEO, to help emergency planners and responders deal with chemical spills. Even today, the CAMEO software programs remain popular tools for hazardous material releases worldwide. One of these programs, CAMEOfm, gives anyone the ability to create and place custom objects (like a hospital or school) on a MARPLOT map and link those objects to data (like the hospital’s emergency contact information) stored in the CAMEOfm database.

But I can tell you that this software doesn’t only come in handy when a truck full of chemicals tips over next to a hospital. MARPLOT, when linked up with the database application CAMEOfm, is regularly operated as a free and easy-to-use Geographic Information System (GIS). One of the attractive features of these two programs is that they operate independently of any internet or server connection. This can be critical for responders during emergencies, when internet and cell phone service may simply not be available.

Aerial view of tornado damage to downtown West Liberty, Kentucky.

An aerial view of the damage to downtown West Liberty, Ky, after the March 2, 2012, EF3 tornado hit the area. (NOAA/National Weather Service/Allen Bolling)

This was certainly the case on March 2, 2012, when a category EF3 tornado struck the Kentucky town of West Liberty with winds between 136–165 miles per hour.  When the Urban Search and Rescue team arrived on scene from Lexington, Ky., they discovered that the severe weather had disabled the area’s internet and cell phone service.

Fortunately, the local emergency manager was able to supply search and rescue team commander Gregg Bayer with a laptop computer which had MARPLOT installed with local map data and aerial photos of the affected region. They quickly were able to organize their search efforts and create customized maps by drawing search zones and map symbols directly on top of aerial photos. The MARPLOT program was instrumental in helping the emergency responders get familiar with the area, document suspected paths of destruction, and obtain 2010 U.S. Census estimates for the number of people and buildings affected—all without internet, cell phone, or server access.

A month later, on April 4, 2012, an even stronger tornado (rated EF4) ravaged northeastern Oklahoma and southwestern Kansas. Several area counties used MARPLOT and CAMEOfm to track the path of the tornado and then document and manage information related to recovery efforts, including photographs and videos of the storm damage.

Since 2009, a school district in Orlando, Fla., has been making extensive use of these free tools to develop high quality maps for emergency planning activities. To prepare for Florida’s not-unusual hurricanes, the district’s emergency manager, Joe Mastandrea, combines school facility information in MARPLOT with predicted storm paths imported from the hurricane-tracking program HURREVAC 2010. This helps the school district know which schools might be affected (and to what degree) by an approaching storm and be ready to keep everyone safe.

Map view of schools possibly affected by severe weather.

In this view of MARPLOT, you can see two schools which might be affected by a severe weather event in Orlando, Fla.

Another, completely different, application of this software has started recently in a number of Oklahoma counties: taking inventory of their road signs. The county evaluates each of its road or highway signs using a “reflectometer,” an instrument that predicts the sign’s anticipated lifespan. The information from the reflectometer is imported into MARPLOT, which plots the sign’s location and allows users to search and display the data for each sign. By tracking when each sign needs to be replaced with a new, more reflective sign, the counties can make roads safer for drivers traveling at night.

In the reality of counties with only 3,000 people and no paid firefighters, emergency staff can’t afford to hire GIS specialists (much less the fancy software) to do this kind of work. Fortunately, they can afford to download the free MARPLOT and other CAMEO suite software and easily put it to use.

The CAMEO staff at NOAA and EPA are constantly revising and improving all the CAMEO programs. Do you have your own experiences using the CAMEO programs?  You can post and read stories about CAMEO software suite usage at www.cameotraining.org. For more information about obtaining the CAMEO programs, visit http://response.restoration.noaa.gov/cameo and http://www.epa.gov/osweroe1/content/cameo/index.htm.

Tom Bergman is the author of the CAMEO Companion and host of the www.cameotraining.org website.  Tom is the EPCRA (Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act) Tier 2 Program Manager for the State of Oklahoma and has been a CAMEO trainer for many years.  He has conducted CAMEO training courses in Lithuania, Poland, England, and 43 U.S. states.


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Help NOAA Study Chemical Dispersants and Oil Spills

A plane releases chemical dispersant to break up an oil slick.

A plane releases chemical dispersant to break up an oil slick on the water surface below. Photo courtesy of the National Commission on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling.

Help NOAA expand what we know about the effects of chemical dispersants on both spilled oil and the marine environment: funding for research projects is now available [leaves this blog].

The explosion and subsequent well blowout on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig on April 20, 2010, led to the largest oil spill in United States history.

The unprecedented use of chemical dispersants on and below the ocean’s surface during this oil spill raised scientific, public, and political questions about both their effectiveness and their potential consequences for ecosystems and marine life in the Gulf of Mexico.

To help answer those questions, NOAA is partnering with the Coastal Response Research Center at the University of New Hampshire to fund research on dispersants and dispersed oil. The focus will be in the following areas: 1) dispersants and risk communication; 2) degradation of dispersants and dispersed oil; and 3) biological effects of dispersants and dispersed oil on surface and deep ocean species.

The request for research proposals is available at the Center’s website [leaves this blog]. Researchers interested in submitting a proposal need to turn in a letter of interest by May 15, 2012.

The Coastal Response Research Center was established in 2004 as a hub for oil spill research, development, and technical knowledge transfer. The Center is a partnership between the University of New Hampshire and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Office of Response and Restoration. The Center collaborates with other federal, state, and local research and development programs to promote effective protection, assessment, and restoration of coastal areas and resources.

The overall goal of the Center is to reduce both the potential for, and the consequences of, spills and other hazards threatening coastal environments and communities. Advances in science and technology relating to spills will be applied to other types of threats to coastal environments and communities, when possible.

Preventing a spill is always the preferred scenario, but as long as we explore, drill, and transport oil, there will be a chance for spills. And once oil is spilled, we can no longer prevent harm from happening to the marine environment, but we can reduce that harm through a combination of response measures. With our partner at the Coastal Response Research Center, we hope to improve the science of spill response before the next oil spill happens, so that when it unfortunately does occur, we are better prepared to deal with it.

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