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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When Planning for Disasters, an Effort to Combine Environmental and Human Health Data

Two men clean up oil on a beach.

Workers clean oil from a beach in Louisiana following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill. (NOAA)

Immediately following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010, there was a high demand for government agencies, including NOAA, to provide public data related to the spill very quickly. Because of the far-reaching effects of the spill on living things, those demands included data on human health as well as the environment and cleanup.

In mid-September of 2014, a group of scientists including social and public health experts, biologists, oceanographers, chemists, atmospheric scientists, and data management experts convened in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, to discuss ways they could better integrate their respective environmental and health data during disasters. The goal was to figure out how to bring together these usually quite separate types of data and then share them with the public during future disasters, such as oils spills, hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods.

The Deepwater Horizon spill experience has shown government agencies that there are monitoring opportunities which, if taken, could provide valuable data on both the environment and, for example, the workers that are involved in the cleanup. Looking back, it was discovered that at the same time that “vessels of opportunity” were out in the Gulf of Mexico assisting with the spill response and collecting data on environmental conditions, the workers on those vessels could have been identified and monitored for future health conditions, providing pertinent data to health agencies.

A lot of environmental response data already are contained in NOAA’s online mapping tool, the Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA®), such as the oil’s location on the water surface and on beaches throughout the Deepwater Horizon spill, chemicals found in sediment and animal tissue samples, and areas of dispersant use. ERMA also pulls together in a centralized format and displays Environmental Sensitivity Index data, which include vulnerable shoreline, biological, and human use resources present in coastal areas; ship locations; weather; and ocean currents. Study plans developed to assess the environmental impacts of the spill for the Natural Resource Damage Assessment and the resulting data collected can be found at www.gulfspillrestoration.noaa.gov/oil-spill/gulf-spill-data.

Screen shot of ERMA mapping program showing Gulf of Mexico with Deepwater Horizon oil spill data.

ERMA Deepwater Gulf Response contains a wide array of publicly available data related to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Here, you can see cumulative levels of oiling on the ocean surface throughout the spill, shorelines affected, and the location of the damaged wellhead. (NOAA)

Health agencies, on the other hand, are interested in data on people’s exposure to oil and dispersants, effects of in situ burning on air quality, and heat stress in regard to worker health. They need information on both long-term and short-term health risks so that they can determine if impacted areas are safe for the communities. Ideally, data such as what are found in ERMA could be imported into health agencies’ data management systems which contain human impact data, creating a more complete picture.

Putting out the combined information to the public quickly and transparently will promote a more accurate representation of a disaster’s aftermath and associated risks to both people and environment.

Funded by NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center and facilitated by the University of New Hampshire’s Coastal Response Research Center, this workshop sparked ideas for better and more efficient collaboration between agencies dealing with environmental and human health data. By setting up integrated systems now, we will be better prepared to respond to and learn from man-made and natural disasters in the future. As a result of this workshop, participants formed an ongoing working group to move some of the best practices forward. More information can be found at crrc.unh.edu/workshops/EDDM.

Dr. Amy Merten, of OR&R’s Assessment and Restoration Division co-authored this blog.


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OR&R Defines the Issues Surrounding Oil Spill Dispersant Use

Oil floating on water's surface.

Oil on the water’s surface. (NOAA)

I recently had the opportunity to attend an interesting seminar on the use of dispersants in oil spill response. On August 8, 2014, OR&R Emergency Response Division marine biologist, Gary Shigenaka, and Dr. Adrian C. Bejarano, aquatic toxicologist, made presentations to a group of oil spill response professionals as part of the Science of Oil Spills class, offered by OR&R in Seattle last week.

Mr. Shigenaka introduced the subject, giving the students background on the history of dispersant use in response to oil spills, starting with the first use in England at the Torrey Canyon spill. Because the first generation of oil dispersants were harsh and killed off intertidal species, the goal since has been to reduce their inherent toxicity while maintaining effectiveness at moving oil from the surface of the water into the water column. He gave an overview of the most prevalent commercial products, including Corexit 9527 and Corexit 9500, manufactured by Nalco, and Finasol OSR52, a French product.

Aerial view of testing facility with long pool.

The Ohmsett facility is located at Naval Weapons Station Earle, Waterfront. The research and training facility centers around a 2.6 million-gallon saltwater tank. (Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement)

Shigenaka reviewed the U.S. EPA product schedule of dispersants as well as Ohmsett – National Oil Spill Response Research Facility in Leonardo, N.J. Ohmsett is run by the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. He showed video clips of oil dispersant tests conducted recently at the facility by the American Petroleum Institute.

The corporate proprietary aspects of the exact formulation of dispersants were described by Shigenaka as one of the reasons for the controversy surrounding the use of dispersants on oil spills.

Dispersant Use in Offshore Spill Response

Dr. Bejarano’s presentation, “Dispersant Use in offshore Oil Spill Response,” started with a list of advantages of dispersant use such as reduced oil exposure to workers; reduced impacts on shoreline habitats; minimal impacts on wildlife with long life spans; and keeping the oil away from the nearshore area thus avoiding the need for invasive cleanup. She followed with some downside aspects such as increased localized concentration of hydrocarbons; higher toxicity levels in the top 10 meters of the water column; increased risk to less mobile species; and greater exposure to dispersed oil to species nearer to the surface.

Dr. Bejarano is working on a comprehensive publicly-available database that will include source evaluation and EPA data as well as a compilation of data from 160 sources scored on applicability to oil spill response (high, moderate, low and different exposures).

Her presentation concluded with a summary of trade-offs associated with dispersant use:

  • Shifting risk to water column organisms from shoreline, which recover more quickly (weeks or months).
  • Toxicity data are not perfect.
  • Realistic dose and duration are different from lab to field environment.
  • Interpretation of findings must be in the context of particular oil spill considerations.

Dr. Bejarano emphasized the need for balanced consideration in reaching consensus for the best response to a particular spill.

Following the formal presentations, there was a panel discussion with experts from NOAA, EPA, and State of Washington, and the audience had an opportunity to ask questions. Recent research from the NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service/ Montlake Laboratory was presented, focusing on effects of oil and dispersants on larval fish. The adequacy of existing science underlying trade-offs and net environmental benefit was also discussed.

Read our related blog on dispersants, “Help NOAA Study Chemical Dispersants and Oil Spills.”


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Mysterious Oil Spill Traced to Vessel Sunk in 1942 Torpedo Attack

Aerial photo of an oil sheen on the ocean.

U.S. Coast Guard overflight photo, taken on July 17, 2014. (USCG)

A few weeks ago a North Carolina fisherman had a sinking feeling as he saw “black globs” rising to the ocean surface about 48 miles offshore of Cape Lookout. From his boat, he also could see the tell-tale signs of rainbow sheen and a dark black sheen catching light on the water surface—oil. But looking around at the picturesque barrier islands to the west and Atlantic’s open waters to the east, he couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. What was the source of this mysterious oil?

Describing what he saw, the fisherman filed a pollution report with the U.S. Coast Guard. On July 17, 2014, a U.S. Coast Guard C-130 aircraft flew over the site and confirmed the presence of a sheen of oil in the same vicinity. Based on the location and persistence of the sheens, the responders suspected the oil possibly could be leaking from the sunken wreck of the steamship W.E. Hutton, 140 feet below the water surface. Shortly after, archeologists confirmed that to be the case.

Balck and white photo of a ship in 1942.

A 1942 photo of the W.E. Hutton. (USCG)

At the Bottom of the Graveyard of the Atlantic

This area off of North Carolina’s Outer Banks is known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic. The combination of harsh storms, piracy, and warfare have left these waters littered with shipwrecks, and because of the conditions that led to their demise, many of them are broken in pieces. In the midst of World War II, on March 18, 1942, the W.E. Hutton was one of three U.S. vessels in the area torpedoed by German U-boats. Tragically, 13 of the 23 crewmembers aboard the ship were killed. The Hutton’s survivors were rescued by the Port Halifax, a British ship.

When the steam-powered tanker was hit by German torpedoes, the Hutton was en route from Smiths Bluff, Texas, to Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania, with a cargo of 65,000 barrels of #2 heating oil. An initial torpedo hit the starboard bow, and the second hit to the port side came 10 minutes later. The ship sank an hour after the first hit, eventually settling onto the seafloor. Today, it is reportedly upside down, with the port side buried in sand but with the starboard edge and some of its railing visible.

The wreck of the W.E. Hutton also is located in the NOAA Remediation to Undersea Legacy Environmental Threats (RULET) Database. Evaluated in the 2013 NOAA report “Risk Assessment for Potentially Polluting Wrecks in U.S. Waters,” this wreck was considered a low potential for a major oil spill because dive surveys “show all tanks open to the sea and no longer capable of retaining oil.”  However, as the fisherman could observe from the waters above, some oil clearly remains trapped in the wreckage.

This shipwreck was described by wreck diver and historian Gary Gentile as having “enough large cracks to permit easy entry into the vast interior.” Another wreck diver and historian, Roderick Farb, noted that the largest point of entry into the hull is “about 150 feet from the stern,” through a “huge crack in the hull full of rubble, iron girders, twisted hull plates and other wreckage.”  This wreck is the closest one to the spot where the fisherman first saw the leaking oil, and given the Hutton’s inverted position and such cracks, we now realize the possibility that the inverted hull has been trapping some of the 65,000 barrels of its oil cargo as well as its own fuel.

An image of the wreck of the W.E. Hutton laying on the ocean floor.

A multibeam scan of the wreck of the W.E. Hutton taken in 2010. (NOAA)

Solving the Problems with Sunken Shipwrecks 

On July 21, 2014, a commercial dive company contracted by the U. S. Coast Guard sent down multiple dive teams to the Hutton’s wreck to assess the scope and quantity of the leaking oil. The contractor developed and implemented a containment and mitigation plan, which stopped the flow of oil from a finger-sized hole in the rusted hull. It is not known how much oil escaped into the ocean or how long it had been leaking before the passing fisherman noticed it in the first place.

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, led by Scientific Support Coordinator Frank Csulak, provided the U.S. Coast Guard access to historical data about shipwrecks off of North Carolina, survey information, including underwater and archival research, and the animals, plants, and habitats at risk from the leaking oil. Our office frequently provides scientific support in this way when a maritime problem occurs due to sunken wrecks. They may pose a significant threat to the environment, human health, and navigational safety (as an obstruction to navigation). Or, as in this case, shipwrecks can threaten to discharge oil or hazardous substances into the marine environment.

Last May, our office released an overall report describing this work and our recommendations, along with 87 individual wreck assessments. The individual risk assessments highlight not only concerns about potential ecological and socio-economic impacts, but they also characterize most of the vessels as being historically significant. In addition, many of them are grave sites, both civilian and military. The national report, including the 87 risk assessments, is available at “Potentially Polluting Wrecks in U.S. Waters.” Several of those higher-risk wrecks also lie in the Graveyard of the Atlantic, but as we discovered, it is difficult to predict where and when a rusted wreck might release its oily secrets to the world.

OR&R’s Doug Helton and Frank Csulak contributed to this post.

 


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Two Unlikely Neighbors, Orphans and Industry, Share a Past Along the Delaware River

Sign in a grassy field, in front of an old brick building.

An EPA sign marking the Metal Bank Superfund Site stands near the old St. Vincent’s Orphanage building. (EPA)

When NOAA environmental scientist Alyce Fritz talks about her first visit to the Metal Bank Superfund Site back in 1986, she always mentions the orphanage next door. St. Vincent’s Orphans Asylum, as it was named when it was opened by the Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia in 1857, is separated from the Metal Bank site by a stormwater outfall that drains into the Delaware River just north of the former orphanage.

The Metal Bank Superfund Site and St. Vincent’s are located several miles north of the center of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on the banks of the Delaware River in an industrial district that is part of the historic Tacony neighborhood. Located on 29 acres along the river, St. Vincent’s looks like a beautiful old park. What Fritz remembers clearly on that first visit was the children’s playground equipment placed near the river’s edge.

Large brick building with St. Vincint's over the door.

St. Vincent’s, as it appears today on the Delaware River in the Tacony neighborhood of Philadelphia.

On the adjacent 10 acre Metal Bank site, a company called Metal Bank of America, Inc., owned and operated a salvage facility where scrap metal and electric transformers were recycled for over 60 years. Part of the recycling process used by Metal Bank of America, Inc. involved draining oil—loaded with toxic compounds including PCBs—from the used transformers to reclaim copper parts. PCBs are considered a probable cause of cancer in humans and are harmful to clams and fish found in the mudflats and river next to the site.

In the 1970s the U.S. Coast Guard discovered oil releases in the Delaware River and traced them back to the site. Throughout the 1980s, the Metal Bank site’s owners used an oil recovery system to clear the groundwater of PCB-laced oil. However, oil continued to seep from an underground tank at the site. As a result, PCBs and other hazardous substances were left in the soil, groundwater, and river bed sediments at the Metal Bank site and adjacent to St. Vincent’s.

In 1983 the Metal Bank site was placed on the National Priorities List (the Superfund program) and slated for federal cleanup. During the course of the federal cleanup process, various parties were identified as being liable for the contamination at the site, including a number of utility companies that transported their used electrical transformers to the Metal Bank site for disposal or otherwise arranged to dispose of their used electrical transformers at the Metal Bank site.

Federal and local agencies collaborated on a design for cleanup of multiple contaminants of concern at the Metal Bank site. Found in the soil, sediment, groundwater, and surface water, these contaminants included but were not limited to:

  • PCBs.
  • polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (a toxic component of oil).
  • semi-volatile organic compounds.
  • pesticides.
  • metals.

The cleanup, which began in 2008, included excavating soils and river sediments contaminated with PCBs, capping some areas of river sediment, installing a retaining wall near the river, and removing an old transformer oil storage tank. Most of this work was completed in 2010.

Panorama of Metal Bank Superfund Site from the top of steps by the river to the mudflats in 1991. The view is looking south on the Delaware River past St. Vincent’s property. (NOAA) A view of the outflow where water runs into the Delaware River to the south of the Metal Bank site in 2013. (NOAA) A riprap sampling station near an oil slick in 1993 in front of the Metal Bank site. (NOAA) A view of the Delaware River across the mudflats on the Metal Bank Site. (EPA)

Panorama of Metal Bank Superfund Site from the top of steps by the river to the mudflats in 1991. The view is looking south on the Delaware River past St. Vincent’s property. (NOAA) A view of the outflow where water runs into the Delaware River to the south of the Metal Bank site in 2013. (NOAA) A riprap sampling station near an oil slick in 1993 in front of the Metal Bank site. (NOAA) A view of the Delaware River across the mudflats on the Metal Bank Site. (EPA)

As part of the required 5-year review period, monitoring of the Metal Bank site continues. This is to ensure the cleanup is still protecting human health and the environment, including endangered Atlantic Sturgeon and Shortnose Sturgeon. Through successful coordination among the EPA, other federal and state agencies, and some of the potentially responsible parties (PRPs) during the Superfund process, the cleanup has reduced the threat to natural resources in the river and enhanced the recovery of the habitat along the site and St. Vincent’s property.

Over the years, the role of St. Vincent’s has evolved too, from serving as a long-term home for orphans toward one of providing short-term shelter and care to abused and neglected children. Prior to the early 1990s, children who came to St. Vincent’s spent a significant part of their childhood as residents of the institution. In a 1992 article in the Philadelphia Daily News, Sister Kathleen Reilly explained that the children currently cared for by St. Vincent’s range in age from two to 12 years of age and are placed at the home temporarily through an arrangement between the City of Philadelphia Department of Human Services and Catholic Social Services. Today St. Vincent’s serves young people mostly through day programs. One thing hasn’t changed though—the lush grounds along the river are still beautiful.

Playground swings at St. Vincent's. Statue of St. Vincent with a child in front of large brick building. Elaborate locked iron gate with a cross. Pavilion with trees and river view.

From top left: A recent photo of part of the play area behind St. Vincent’s on the grounds facing the Delaware River. (NOAA) An old photo of a statue in front of St. Vincent’s Orphan Asylum, as it was originally named. (U.S. Library of Congress) The main building of the historic institution in Northeast Philadelphia that first opened its gates in 1857 as St. Vincent’s Orphans Asylum. Photo was taken in 2013. (NOAA) An old photo of a pavilion in the recreational area behind St. Vincent’s main building. The Delaware River and playground equipment is visible in the background. (U.S. Library of Congress)

The federal and state co-trustees for the ongoing Natural Resource Damage Assessment at the Metal Bank site include NOAA’s Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; and multiple Pennsylvania state agencies. Collectively, the trustees are working together to further engage with the potentially responsible parties and build upon what has been accomplished at the site by the cleanup.

The trustees have invited the potentially responsible parties to join them in a cooperative effort to improve habitat for the injured natural resources (such as habitat along the river and wetlands) that support the clams, fish, and birds using the Delaware River. In addition, there is the potential for a trail to be routed through the property to a scenic view of St. Vincent’s and the river (an area which is now safe for recreational use). The trustees hope that the natural resources at the Metal Bank site can evolve to become a vibrant part of the historic Tacony neighborhood once again too.


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With NOAA as a Model, India Maps Coastal Sensitivity to Oil Spills

This is a post by Vicki Loe and Jill Petersen of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.

Boy running on beach.

Scientists in India have used NOAA’s Environmental Sensitivity Index maps as a model for preparing for oil spills on the west coast of India. (Credit: Samuel Kimlicka/Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License)

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, which is why we were thrilled to hear about recent efforts in India to mirror one of NOAA’s key oil spill planning tools, Environmental Sensitivity Index maps. A recent Times of India article alerted us to a pilot study led by scientists at the National Institute of Oceanography in India, which used our Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) shoreline classifications to map seven talukas, or coastal administrative divisions in India. Amid the estuaries mapped along India’s west coast, one of the dominant shoreline types is mangroves, which are a preferred habitat for many migratory birds as well as other species sensitive to oil.

Traditional ESI data categorize both the marine and coastal environments as well as their wildlife based on sensitivity to spilled oil. There are three main components: shoreline habitats (as was mapped in the Indian project), sensitive animals and plants, and human-use resources. The shoreline and intertidal zones are ranked based on their vulnerability to oil, which is determined by:

  • Shoreline type (such as fine-grained sandy beach or tidal flats).
  • Exposure to wave and tidal energy (protected vs. exposed to waves).
  • Biological productivity and sensitivity (How many plants and animals live there? Which ones?).
  • Ease of cleanup after a spill (For example, are there roads to access the area?).

The biology data available in ESI maps focus on threatened and endangered species, areas of high concentration, and areas where sensitive life stages (such as when nesting) may occur. Human use resources mapped include managed areas (parks, refuges, critical habitats, etc.) and resources that may be impacted by oiling or clean-up, such as beaches, archaeological sites, or marinas.

Many countries have adapted the ESI data standards developed and published by NOAA. India developed their ESI product independently, based on these standards. In other cases, researchers from around the world have come across ESI products and contacted NOAA for advice in developing their own ESI maps and data. In the recent past, Jill Petersen, the NOAA ESI Program Manager, has worked with scientists who have visited from Spain, Portugal, and Italy.

By publishing our data standards, we share information which enables states and countries to develop ESI maps and data independently while adhering to formats that have evolved and stood the test of time over many years. In addition to mapping the entire U.S. coast and territories, NOAA has conducted some of our own international mapping of ESIs. In the wake of Hurricane Mitch in 1998, we mapped the coastal natural resources in the affected areas of Nicaragua, Honduras, and Ecuador.

Currently, we are developing new ESI products for the north and mid-Atlantic coasts of the United States, many areas of which were altered by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The new maps will provide a comprehensive and up-to-date picture of vulnerable shorelines, wildlife habitats, and key resources humans use. Having this information readily available will enable responders and planners to quickly make informed decisions in the event of a future oil spill or natural disaster.

For further information on NOAA’s ESI shoreline classification, see our past blog posts: Mapping How Sensitive the Coasts Are to Oil Spills and After Sandy, Adapting NOAA’s Tools for a Changing Shoreline.


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A Pennsylvania Mining Town Moves Beyond Toxic History of Denuded Mountains and Contaminated Creeks

Palmerton, a small town in eastern Pennsylvania’s coal region, had its beginnings largely as a company town. In fact, it was incorporated in 1912 around the area’s growing zinc mining industry, which began in 1898. For many years, the New Jersey Zinc Company was the largest U.S. producer of zinc, which is used to make brass and construction materials. The town actually was named after Stephen Palmer, once head of the company. But this company left more than just a name imprinted on this part of Pennsylvania. It also left a toxic legacy on the people and the landscape.

One of the New Jersey Zinc Company's abandoned factories, located on the west side of the site in Palmerton, Penn.

One of the New Jersey Zinc Company’s abandoned factories, located on the west side of the site in Palmerton, Penn. Credit: Dennis Hendricks/Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic License.

The backdrop for this industrial town of just under 5,500 people is Blue Mountain, a few miles from the Appalachian Trail, and Aquashicola Creek, which drains into the Lehigh River, used extensively for transporting the region’s coal and a tributary of the Delaware River.

As a result of the industrial activities that took place in Palmerton for more than 80 years, the town was left with an enormous smelting residue pile called the “Cinder Bank.” The Cinder Bank is what is left of the 33 million tons of slag (rocky waste) left by the New Jersey Zinc Company as a byproduct of their mining operations. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), this pile extends for 2.5 miles and is over 100 feet high and 500 to 1000 feet wide.

Lehigh River runs between a mountain and ridge with a town in the background.

Palmerton and the former zinc smelters are located near the Lehigh River, which flows through a valley between Blue Mountain (left) and Stony Ridge. (Christine McAndrew/Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic License)

In addition, the smelting operations, a high-heat process that extracts metals from ore, released heavy metals, including cadmium, lead, and zinc, into the air and waters of the surrounding area. These activities killed off vegetation on 2,000 acres of Blue Mountain and allowed contaminants to flow into the Aquashicola Creek and Lehigh River. According to the EPA, children in this area tested over the years showed elevated levels of lead in their blood. Horses, cattle, and fish were also shown to contain contaminants.

Because of a declining market for zinc and increased attention to hazards of environmental contamination, zinc smelting in Palmerton stopped in 1980. The Palmerton site was added to the Superfund National Priorities List on September 8, 1983. Cleanup of the town, Blue Mountain, and the Cinder Bank, overseen by U.S. EPA Region 3, has been going on since 1987. It has included activities such as grading, revegetation, cleaning of residences, cleanup of surface water, and water treatment.

People standing on both sides of a state game lands sign in a field.

In August 2013, the Natural Resource Trustee Council members and guests celebrated the acquisition of more than 300 acres for state game lands and the Cherry Valley National Wildlife Refuge. (NOAA)

NOAA and other federal and state agencies, comprising the natural resource trustee council for this Superfund site, reached a settlement for damages to natural resources in 2009. Over $20 million in cash and property have been paid to compensate the United States and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for the natural resource damages to the Aquashicola Creek and Lehigh River watershed. Throughout this process, the Office of Response and Restoration’s Peter Knight and the National Marine Fisheries Services’ John Catena have been providing scientific review and input on the environmental cleanup and restoration plans for this site.

In August of 2013, the Palmerton Natural Resource Trustee Council and its partners announced the acquisition of more than 300 acres for state game lands and the Cherry Valley National Wildlife Refuge, home to the endangered bog turtle, and located just 30 minutes from Palmerton. Other properties designated for restoration include habitats along Aquashicola Creek and its tributaries. Acquiring and protecting these lands and waters are part of the larger restorative effort making up for the loss of both natural areas and their benefits due to Palmerton’s mining activities.

After many years of collaboration by a number of organizations and individuals, today the Lehigh River is popular with rafters and Blue Mountain is home to a lush 750 acre nature preserve and a 12 lift ski resort. According to its Chamber of Commerce, Palmerton is again a growing town and making incredible progress in moving beyond the once-tainted shadow of its history.

Agencies represented by the Palmerton Natural Resource Trustee Council include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Pennsylvania Game Commission, Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. The Office of Response and Restoration represents NOAA on this council.


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Changing Technology Changing Science Changing Us

Ice on a river with a bridge crossing it in a city.

The frozen Chicago River outside of the AAAS Annual Meeting. (NOAA)

Freezing temperatures and blackened piles of snow along the Chicago streets were the backdrop to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting on February 13–17.

Alongside the thousands of scientists, journalists, and other professionals, I was there mostly to learn about the latest technology and trends in science communications, but was pleased to discover that the need for better communication was a theme throughout this science conference, even in sessions that had little to do with communications per se.

Evolving Access to Science and its News

Highlighted in the science communication seminars were differences in how today’s audiences receive information and how changing technology plays into that. In the symposium, “Communicating Science: Engaging with Journalists,” Carl Zimmer, science writer at the New York Times, talked about how scientists are now able to post their papers directly to field-specific archive sites, which, rather than being restricted to small and specific audiences, are available for anyone to see not only the paper but the subsequent comments and discussion. This represents a huge change from the older model for scientific journal articles, which are critiqued by other scientists in that discipline (“peer reviewed”) before being published, instead of after.

Sign from the AAAS Meeting.The upside of this, according to Zimmer, is that it is easier for journalists to find information on new developments from papers on these “pre-print servers.” The downside is the possibility that the information is not yet valid to report. David Baron, another panelist and science editor for PRI’s “The World” radio podcast, sees a bigger role for science foundations as alternative sources for finding objective information.

Robert Lee Hotz, science writer at the Wall Street Journal, talked about the span of what he calls the “digital age,” starting with Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak introducing the Apple II computer in 1977, to the advent of 24/7 news in 1987, to the mass availability of free news via the Internet at present. He pointed out however, that there are roughly the same amount of professional science journalists in this country now as then—40,000, a fact which indicates to him that despite increased availability of news sources, “more and more people are getting less.” At the same time as these changes in coverage are happening at traditional media, many people have stopped going to traditional media for news. This trend has created opportunities for alternative science news models, demonstrated by the creation of 172 non-profit online news sites since 1980, including ProPublica, the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy newsletter, and InsideClimateNews.

David Baron advocates a storytelling approach to communicating about science issues, as audiences are more likely to be engaged longer by a narrative style. He cited a recent episode about climate change on the radio program This American Life. Instead of just presenting facts and figures, the narrative follows Nolan Duskin, state climatologist of Colorado, as he talks with ranchers at a farm conference to illustrate the challenges of climate change in the context of everyday life.

Paula Apsell, Senior Executive Producer of NOVA at WGBH Boston, sees more choices on TV but less science now than in the past, and describes the NOVA of today as not just a popular science TV series but a broader media brand extending online. The majority of NOVA consumers are going to the online archives from search. This is consistent with the current expectation for media to be on more platforms all the time. The challenge, according to Apsell, is to alter the style to these other platforms without “dumbing down” the substance. With so much information now available on the Web, there are also increased opportunities for error. As a result, Apsell emphasized the need for skepticism when researching science stories and rigorous cross-checking.

MASHing Science with Dating

A man gesturing on a stage.

Plenary speaker (and M*A*S*H star) Alan Alda discussed science communication, which he teaches at Stony Brook University, to an audience of about 1500 at the AAAS Annual Meeting in Chicago on February 15, 2014. (Alan Kotok/Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License)

From my perspective as a science communicator, the highlight of the conference was “Getting Beyond a Blind Date with Science,” a plenary session presented by Alan Alda, actor and the director of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York. The Center grew out of Alda’s interest in science and 12 years of experience hosting the show Scientific American Frontiers on PBS, which he calls “the best thing I ever did in front of a camera.” Alda is also well known for his role as Captain Pierce in the 1970s TV series M*A*S*H (1972-1983). However, his work on Scientific American Frontiers convinced him that while many researchers have fascinating stories to tell, they are deeply involved in the complexities of their work, which can inhibit their ability to effectively communicate to non-scientists.

He uses the phrase “curve of knowledge” to describe “when you know something so well that you forget what it is like to not know it.” Alda compares the stages of a blind date to the steps in building a relationship with the audience in order to communicate science effectively. When a couple first meets, there is a deficit of trust before they begin to know one another. In the attraction stage, body language and tone are more important than language. The next stage, infatuation, incorporates emotion and memory. Finally, commitment is the stage where both parties are listening to and understanding each other.

He asks his scientist students to keep focusing on what it is about their work that they wish people could understand clearly. They do improvisation to learn to tell their stories in a more personal and engaging way, using emotion to create a memory.

Science Needs to Get Social

On my last day at the conference I attended a multidisciplinary presentation about satisfying food demands for the over 9 billion people expected to inhabit the Earth by 2050—and how we will accomplish this despite climate change, land degradation, and loss of environmental resources. The panel discussion was moderated by Dr. Kathy Sullivan, Acting NOAA Administrator.

During the discussion, panelist Dr. Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University underscored the need for societal understanding of these growing challenges. He emphasized that this problem isn’t a new one: scientists have been warning about global resource shortages in the face of a growing population, climate change, and depleted resources since the 1960s. The problem, he says, is that people still do not understand the implications of these issues for the future and he predicts that social science will need to play a much larger role if society is to take the actions necessary to alleviate these growing pressures on our planet

For more information on the conference, visit the AAAS 2014 Annual Meeting website.

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