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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OR&R Responds to the Aftermath of Hurricane Sandy

NJ National Guard drives through the streets of Beach Haven, NJ on October 31, 2012.

New Jersey National Guard drives through the streets of Beach Haven, a community on Long Beach Island, New Jersey, on October 31, 2012.

As water levels recede and access improves after the major East Coast storm, the U.S. Coast Guard is getting more reports of pollution incidents and port damage. OR&R is actively supporting U.S. Coast Guard efforts with emergency responders and GIS experts on scene in New York. Recovery after hurricanes such as Sandy can take a very long time and OR&R will likely be active in the efforts to promote recovery in the months to come.

One of the challenges facing communities after a devastating weather event is information management. ERMA® (Environmental Response Management Application) is a web-based Geographic Information System (GIS) tool that assists both emergency responders and environmental resource managers in dealing with environmental impacts. OR&R scientists are ensuring that Atlantic ERMA is prepared to aid in the effort. See the latest updates on pollution response to Hurricane Sandy at IncidentNews.

For more information from NOAA on the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, see NOAA Storm Central 2012.

A screen capture from ERMA, showing Hurricane Sandy's progression over the East Coast of the United States.

A screen capture from ERMA, showing Hurricane Sandy’s progression over the East Coast of the United States.


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Post Tropical Cyclone Sandy Moves Northwest

A view out the back of a New Jersey Army National Guard cargo truck conducting relief operations October 29 in Atlantic City, N.J. during Hurricane Sandy.

A view out the back of a New Jersey Army National Guard cargo truck conducting relief operations October 29 in Atlantic City, N.J. during Hurricane Sandy. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Matt Hecht)

As Post Tropical Cyclone Sandy moves northwest, the storm is creating large waves and potential damage in the Great Lakes region. While water levels are subsiding on the East Coast, the combination of tides and the storm are still causing levels to be higher than normal.

This ERMA screen shot shows Hurricane Sandy's approach over the East Coast on October 29, 2012.

This ERMA screen shot shows Hurricane Sandy’s approach over the East Coast on October 29, 2012.

Office of Response and Restoration responders are watching closely and standing by to assist with the recovery efforts. Initial recovery efforts are focused on safety and restoring essential services, such as power and transportation.

One of the challenges facing communities is information management. ERMA® (Environmental Response Management Application) is a web-based Geographic Information System (GIS) tool that assists both emergency responders and environmental resource managers in dealing with environmental impacts. OR&R scientists are ensuring that Atlantic ERMA is ready to go should it be needed.

NOAA’s Scientific Support Coordinators and others from the Office of Response and Restoration are on standby and in communication with their counterparts at the U.S. Coast Guard and Environmental Protection Agency to address these challenges.

Get Hurricane Sandy updates at the National Hurricane Center and see real-time tide gauges from the National Ocean Service.


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Hurricane Sandy Hits the East Coast, NOAA Response Staff at the Ready

Storm surge at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, during Hurricane Sandy.

Storm surge at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, during Hurricane Sandy on the morning of October 29, 2012. (North Carolina Department of Transportation)

With Hurricane Sandy focused squarely on the Mid Atlantic and New England, responders are watching closely and standing by to assist with the recovery efforts. These initial recovery efforts will focus on saving lives and restoring essential services, such as power and transportation.

However, as was the case during Hurricane Isaac, the hurricane winds and flood waters are also expected to cause wide-spread environmental pollution from damaged coastal industries, ruptured petroleum storage tanks, sunken and stranded vessels, and other sources of pollution.

NOAA’s Scientific Support Coordinators and other responders from the Office of Response and Restoration are on-standby and in communication with their counterparts at the U.S. Coast Guard and Environmental Protection Agency to address these challenges after the storm passes.

Get Hurricane Sandy updates at the National Hurricane Center and see real-time tide gauges from the National Ocean Service.

Satellite image of Hurricane Sandy off the U.S. East Coast October 29, 2012.

NOAA’s GOES-13 satellite captured this visible image of Hurricane Sandy battering the U.S. East Coast on Monday, Oct. 29 at 9:10 a.m. EDT. Sandy’s center was about 310 miles south-southeast of New York City. Tropical Storm force winds are about 1,000 miles in diameter. (NASA GOES Project)


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National Marine Sanctuaries: How a Disaster Changed the Face of Ocean Conservation

This is a post by Office of National Marine Sanctuaries’ Matt Dozier.

Aerial view of oil rising to the ocean surface (upper left) near the drilling rig, during the Santa Barbara oil spill off the California coast in 1969.

Aerial view of oil rising to the ocean surface (upper left) near the drilling rig, during the Santa Barbara oil spill off the California coast in 1969. (U.S. Geological Survey)

The black ooze crept ashore on the waves, coating beaches and sea life with a sinister sheen. Residents watched, horrified, as relief workers labored to clean scores of oil-covered seabirds. Dead seals and dolphins washed up, poisoned by the toxic sludge.

This was the scene in Santa Barbara following the blowout of Union Oil’s Platform A on Jan. 28, 1969, just six miles from the California coastline. Over a period of 10 days, the damaged well leaked more than 3.2 million gallons of crude oil into the Santa Barbara Channel in one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history.

The spill was a catastrophe, but it would also become a catalyst for a new era of conservation. Galvanized by the widespread public outcry against offshore drilling and environmental pollution, Congress passed a flurry of environmental legislation in the years following the spill, including the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Coastal Zone Management Act.

One of those bills, the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act, was signed into law 40 years ago on October 23, 1972. It granted the Department of Commerce the authority to create a groundbreaking kind of protected area called a “national marine sanctuary” for the preservation or restoration of American waters with special “conservation, recreational, ecological, or esthetic values.”

Fittingly, one of the first marine sanctuaries would later be designated off Southern California, in waters once threatened by the oil spill that inspired the creation of the Sanctuaries Act. The Channel Islands, clearly visible from seaside towns like Santa Barbara and Ventura that had been tarnished by oil, are sometimes called the “Galapagos of North America” for their unique and fantastically diverse marine life.

Santa Cruz, the largest of the northern Channel Islands.

Santa Cruz, the largest of the northern Channel Islands. (NOAA Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary)

In the late 1970s, a coalition of local governments and citizens still outraged over the spill banded together to safeguard these jewels of the California coast from further harm. Viewing sanctuary designation as their best shot at permanently protecting the waters around the islands from offshore drilling, the group approached NOAA’s Office of Coastal Zone Management — then in charge of the sanctuary program — to nominate the Channel Islands for sanctuary designation in 1978.

President Jimmy Carter signed off on the designation two years later, making Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary the third addition to the fledgling National Marine Sanctuary System.

Over the last 40 years, the sanctuary system has grown from one sanctuary to 14 sites of all shapes and sizes, including the nearly 140,000-square-mile Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Today, the sanctuaries protect a wide range of diverse resources, from fantastic gardens of coral in the Gulf of Mexico to humpback whale breeding grounds in Hawaii. The sanctuary system even extends to the Great Lakes, where it protects immaculately preserved shipwrecks in Lake Huron.

Throughout their history, national marine sanctuaries have time and again proven to be the best option for preserving special places in our ocean and Great Lakes that are desperately in need of responsible stewardship. With four decades of experience to draw from, NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries will continue to provide lasting protection for our irreplaceable underwater treasures over the next 40 years and beyond.

Matt DozierFor the past six years, Matt Dozier has worked as a writer and editor for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries in Silver Spring, Maryland. He is involved with a wide variety of outreach projects and publications, including the magazine Sanctuary Watch, sanctuary brochures, social media outreach, and OceansLIVE streaming Web broadcasts. Matt holds a master’s degree in science-medical writing from Johns Hopkins University.


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An Insider’s Look at How NOAA Keeps Trash out of the Ocean

Most of us have seen marine debris in its smaller forms—water bottles, plastic bags and other consumer waste. But it can also take the form of abandoned vessels, drifting fishing nets, and even lost crab pots on the ocean bottom, still catching sea life long after they are lost.

Peter Murphy has some fun teaching a child about trash in our oceans.

NOAA marine debris expert Peter Murphy has some fun teaching a child about trash in our oceans. (NOAA)

Peter Murphy is the Alaska Coordinator for the NOAA Marine Debris Program, which supports national and global efforts to research, prevent, and reduce the impacts of marine debris. Murphy and his colleagues work to understand these impacts and communicate them to policy-makers, stakeholders, and the public. Alaska, with its massive and remote coastline, significant coastal resources, and strong marine economy and culture, is a dynamic and important part of the marine debris landscape.

Here, Murphy gives us the insider view of working at NOAA and what it takes to help keep trash off our coasts and out of the ocean.

Why is your work important?

Marine debris is an everyday, global problem that can have big impacts on natural resources, the economy, navigation, and even human health and safety. For example, derelict nets and traps can continue to fish for years after they’re lost, and microplastics can be ingested by many different species.

However, there’s something people can do about it by making more sustainable choices in what they use, how they use it, and how they dispose of it. Doing research on the impacts and finding ways to communicate those findings to change behaviors is an important link that we work to make in the Marine Debris Program. I focus on Alaska, which has more coastline than the rest of the United States combined and a huge amount of natural resources, so there is even more opportunity for impact and for action.

What part of your job with NOAA did you least expect to be doing?

Working with detection technologies—satellites, radar, and especially sonar—was definitely an unexpected element of my work, but a very rewarding one. Translating sonar tracks into a map that guides divers to retrieve and examine crab pots 100 feet below the surface is a fun challenge.

If you could invent any tool to make your work more efficient and cost were no object, what would it be? Why?

First: A remote sensor that could definitively and reliably detect debris greater than one millimeter in size. One of our challenges is that we know there are areas of concentration in the open ocean, but when they go undetected, we don’t know if it is because there isn’t anything there to detect (unlikely) or because our sensors can’t pick up everything that’s there (more likely). Knowing that would help our work in assessing density, impacts, and behavior of debris.

Second: A small, sturdy, reliable, and inexpensive device to convert plastics (including Styrofoam) into liquid fuel. Small communities in Alaska often do beach cleanups, but have nowhere to put the debris—primarily plastics—that washes ashore from all over the Pacific Rim. This would give them a way to not only empty their landfills, but provide a direct benefit in the form of energy for the work they do.

How did you become interested in communicating about science?

As I learned more about the oceans and the fascinating interconnections across the many systems that make it all work, I wanted to be able to explain and share that information in an accessible way. Seeing a concept—derelict fishing gear, ocean circulation, or plastic degradation—click for somebody at a booth we’re hosting or during a presentation we’re giving is a great feeling.

When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in science?

I was always fascinated with how things worked. My grandfather, an engineer at Boeing, gave me a subscription to Popular Mechanics as a kid, and I became fascinated with how people worked to innovate and solve problems using science. That respect and fascination stuck with me all through school.


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Internet in the Restroom and Other Survival Tips from NOAA’s Disaster Response Center

Phone and internet ports in the restroom.

Phone and internet network ports located in the nearly tornado- and hurricane-proof restrooms allow responders to continue working in the NOAA Disaster Response Center even during severe weather. (NOAA)

Occasionally, newcomers at the NOAA Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center will ask me, “Why are there internet and phone hook ups in the restrooms?”

When I hear this, I reply with another question, “Have you noticed how even the smallest sounds seem to echo in those restrooms?” Some will nod in agreement, comparing the restroom to a cave or an underground tunnel, and they’re not far off.

The main restroom complex at the Disaster Response Center in Mobile, Ala., may not be underground, but it was built as a steel-reinforced concrete bunker, intended to function as a Force-5 tornado shelter. The amount of steel and concrete is so thick that you immediately lose cell phone reception upon entering. It is like being in a cave.

But why do we need to connect to a phone or the internet from the restrooms? Not because we love to multi-task, but this way, even if a tornado threatened the area, the staff and any visitors can take shelter in the restrooms while still being able to monitor the response situation outside. In fact, the entire facility is hardened to survive the kind of severe weather generated by a strong hurricane, though only the restrooms are built to withstand the damaging 200 mph winds of a Force-5 tornado. If you’re lucky (unlucky?) enough to be in the Disaster Response Center during a deadly tornado, head to the restrooms, where you’ll even enjoy the relative luxuries of the survival gear and emergency supplies stored there.

Rising from Rubble

U.S. Senator Richard B. Shelby joins NOAA leaders at Disaster Response Center ribbon cutting ceremony.

U.S. Senator Richard B. Shelby joins NOAA Fisheries Assistant Administrator Eric Schwaab (left) and NOAA National Ocean Service Assistant Administrator David Kennedy (right) in cutting the ribbon formally opening the new $11 million LEED silver standard Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center. (NOAA)

The vision for the NOAA Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center was borne out of the devastating 2005 hurricane season that included Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Congress recognized the need for and later funded a central NOAA facility and program in the Gulf of Mexico dedicated to preparing for, responding to, and recovering from all types of disasters in the area.

The new center, based in Mobile, Ala., was designed to expand NOAA’s regional presence and expand federal capacity to plan for and respond to all types of emergencies, both natural and man-made.

It is a testament to the need for this center that its construction began in 2010 shortly before the Deepwater Horizon/BP well blowout off the Louisiana coast and the formal dedication of the building took place on October 15, 2012, a little over a month after Hurricane Isaac swept through Louisiana and Mississippi.

The new center itself is an environmentally friendly, 15,200-square-foot, hardened structure built away from storm surge threats, designed to withstand the wind assault of a major hurricane, and providing a physical location to pre-stage and coordinate post-disaster response activities. The NOAA Disaster Response Center aims to streamline coordination and communication of disaster planning and preparedness information. In between actual emergencies, the center serves as a coordination and training hub for federal, state, and local response preparedness activities.

To better support federal and regional emergency planners and managers, the facility will improve the accessibility, redundancy, and distribution of NOAA data, information, and tools to the people who most need them during disasters. Here, we can share with the Gulf of Mexico response community the broad range of products and services NOAA provides before, during, and after emergencies, whether it’s a grounded ship or a tropical storm.

A Melting Pot of NOAA Knowledge

Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center.

In addition to office space, the NOAA Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center, located in Mobile, Ala., includes a training room, conference rooms, and a large multifunction space that can be used for emergency response operations and drills. (NOAA)

The mission of the new center may be very large in scope, but those of us who work full-time here are small in number—only eight at present, but that number is expected to double. However, hundreds of NOAA staff are spread across the five states that boarder the Gulf of Mexico, working hard each day to protect the public and our natural resources. These men and women are the NOAA front line.

Prior to accepting the director position for the Disaster Response Center, I was one of them, coordinating scientific support for oil and chemical spills and several hurricanes in the western Gulf of Mexico for 13 years. During that time, one of the first things I learned is that you learn something new from each disaster, and you have to put that hard-earned knowledge back into planning for the next one—no matter how many oil spills you’ve worked on.

We are setting up the Disaster Response Center to be the gathering place for that information and expertise gleaned from each experience. The goal is to make NOAA better prepared to deal with whatever crisis may strike the Gulf of Mexico next.

I hope to never have to take shelter in the center’s restroom during severe weather—or resort to plugging my laptop into one of the network ports there—but I take comfort knowing there is a secure place for my staff just in case. Tornadoes, droughts, harmful algal blooms, oil spills, chemical accidents, wildfires: These events are part of life for those living along the Gulf of Mexico coast. The Gulf isn’t unique in this way; every part of our nation faces some sort of risk. No matter where you live, you are wise to plan for the worst and hope for the best (the NOAAWatch website is a great resource for that). We’re no different; that is our plan as well.


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The Never-ending History of Life on a Rock

Mearns Rock boulder in 2003.

The boulder nicknamed “Mearns Rock,” located in the southwest corner of Prince William Sound, Alaska, was coated in oil which was not cleaned off after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. This image was taken in 2003. (NOAA)

In 1989 when Dr. Alan Mearns first caught sight of a certain seaweed-encrusted boulder in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, he had little idea he would be visiting that chest-high, relatively nondescript rock year after year … for the next two decades. Or that, along the way, the boulder would eventually bear his name: Mearns Rock.

This particular rock—like many others in the southwest corner of the sound—was coated in oil after the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on nearby Bligh Reef and flooded the salty waters with nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil in March 1989. For the next ten years, Mearns and other NOAA biologists examined how marine life in these tidal areas reacted to the Exxon oiling. Some of the rocky areas in their study had been oiled; others had later been cleaned of oil using high-pressure, hot-water hoses, while still others, serving as a “control” or baseline comparison, had been untouched by oil or cleaning efforts—as if the Exxon Valdez had never disemboweled its oily innards at all.

Looking Under a Rock

Over the years, Mearns and his fellow biologists were able to observe [PDF] the many faces of “normal” for this intertidal ecosystem—a dynamic habitat on the edge of land and sea and exposed to the rigors of both. In doing so, they and other scientists found that this ecosystem showed signs of recovery from oiling after about three or four years [PDF].

When the ten-year monitoring study ended, the NOAA team shifted to a smaller-scale, experimental phase of research that continues today. As part of this field-based research, Mearns (or occasionally one of his colleagues) still returns to Mearns Rock and up to eight other rocky sites to record an annual snapshot of the ecological processes there. He has observed the ebb and flow of the mussels, barnacles, and various seaweeds populating these boulders, which are set on sections of beach alternately flooded and drained by the Pacific Ocean’s tides.

Photographic Memory

The NOAA-led study team observes Mearns Rock (left of center) in Prince William Sound, Alaska, on June 5, 2012. (NOAA)

This collection of annual snapshots adds up to an ecological photo-journal of sorts, while also serving as a much less labor-intensive method of research. By taking the same photograph around the same time each year, Mearns is able to examine and compare the general year-to-year variability of the plants and animals living on Mearns Rock. You can see the progression of these annual changes occurring on Mearns Rock in a photo slideshow.

But 24 years into this experiment, Mearns decided it was time for this kind of enduring, localized scientific observation to take on new energy. In January 2012 at the annual Alaska Marine Science Symposium in Anchorage, Alaska, he and Office of Response and Restoration colleague John Whitney presented a poster describing the decades of environmental trends at Mearns Rock.

The two hoped to garner the attention of others interested in turning this annual photo-surveillance of Mearns Rock and the other boulders from the original study—nine in all—into a volunteer-led project.

“It worked,” Mearns reported. “Scientists and students stopped by to chat. At one point a half dozen of us gathered at the poster and several offered to visit sites in the summer of 2012.”

But science requires consistency: everything needs to be done the exact same way. Mearns pulled together a reference guide for these volunteers, which would direct them to the study sites; tell them precisely where, when, and how to take photos at each location; and provide samples of past photos for comparison.

Passing the Torch

Locations of Mearns' study sites in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Inset map of relative location of Prince William Sound.

The locations of intertidal boulders in Dr. Alan Mearns’ study in southwest Prince William Sound, Alaska. The Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred in the northeast corner of the sound (not on map). Key: Yellow sites were oiled and cleaned with high pressure, hot-water washing in 1989. Green sites were oiled but not cleaned in 1989. Blue sites were not oiled in the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Inset: Relative location of Prince William Sound. Click to enlarge.

On an exceptionally clear and calm morning this past June, Mearns, other NOAA scientists, and a couple Coast Guard staff cruised across the waters of Prince William Sound aboard a 30-foot charter vessel. They visited three different locations around the sound, including Mearns Rock.

But unlike in the past, the crew wasn’t alone in their efforts. Mearns and Whitney had successfully recruited volunteers to help photograph the other six study areas in the sound.

In fact, the first volunteer, David Janka, skipper of Auklet Charters in Cordova, Alaska, had already taken photos the month before at three NOAA sampling sites on the northern end of Knight Island, which was heavily oiled during the Exxon Valdez spill. Janka was no stranger to this project; he had taken the annual snapshot of Mearns Rock several times in the past when Mearns was unable to venture out there himself.

First for Mearns and his crew on that June day, however, was stopping at an unoiled rocky site at Eshamy Bay Lodge, near Whittier, Alaska. It had been several years since their team had been able to photograph a site that had escaped the Exxon oiling, and Mearns was anxious to re-establish this one. While there, they worked on recruiting the manager of the nearby lodge to photograph that boulder in the future. Afterwards, they sped off to a second study site and finally to Snug Harbor, location of Mearns Rock.

A few weeks later, Dr. Thomas Dean, a marine biologist from San Diego working in Prince William Sound, joined the effort and, using Mearns’ reference guide, was able to photograph the seventh site, one on Knight Island’s Herring Bay. With only two study sites left to visit in 2012, Dr. Rob Campbell of the Prince William Sound Science Center pitched in to check off the eighth site. While out doing herring surveys, he stopped by the study site in Shelter Bay long enough to snap photos of two boulders the NOAA team had nicknamed “Bert” and “Ernie.”

Finally, thanks to a tip from Dr. Campbell, Mearns reached out to Kate McLaughlin, a scientist and educator living in Chenega Bay, a Native village only a mile from the untouched Crab Bay control site on Evans Island. She happily agreed to help, and in July, she and her dog made a couple trips to that corner of Prince William Sound to secure the last photos.

An Unexpected Legacy

Yet Mearns and his research have managed to inspire an even larger effort which would expand on this type of coastal monitoring in Alaska. John Harper at Coastal and Ocean Resources, Inc. in Victoria, British Columbia, is leading an initiative to engage citizen scientists around the Gulf of Alaska.

One of the goals of this initiative, known as the Three Amigos Intertidal Sampling Program, is “to collect information on the condition of rocky intertidal communities and changes that occur over time.” Supported by the Oil Spill Recovery Institute, Harper and his colleagues in this endeavor are developing a protocol and model for community-based environmental monitoring and admitted that their proposed approach for this program is inspired directly by Mearns Rock—an exciting legacy for an otherwise average boulder patiently setting at the ocean’s edge, year after year.

Dr. Alan Mearns contributed to this blog post.

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