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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Oil Seeps, Shipwrecks, and Surfers Ride the Waves in California

This is a post by Jordan Stout, the Office of Response and Restoration’s Scientific Support Coordinator based in Alameda, Calif.

Tarball on the beach with a ruler.

A tarball which washed up near California’s Half Moon Bay in mid-February 2014. (Credit: Beach Watch volunteers with the Farallones Marine Sanctuary Association)

What do natural oil seeps, shipwrecks, and surfers have in common? The quick answer: tarballs and oceanography. The long answer: Let me tell you a story …

A rash of tarballs, which are thick, sticky, and small pieces of partially broken-down oil, washed ashore at Half Moon Bay, Calif., south of San Francisco back in mid-February. This isn’t an unusual occurrence this time of year, but several of us involved in spill response still received phone calls about them, so some of us checked things out.

Winds and ocean currents are the primary movers of floating oil. A quick look at conditions around that time indicated that floating stuff (like oil) would have generally been moving northwards up the coast. Off of Monterey Bay, there had been prolonged winds out of the south several times since December, including just prior to the tarballs’ arrival. Coastal currents at the time also showed the ocean’s surface waters moving generally up the coast. Then, just hours before their arrival, winds switched direction and started coming out of the west-northwest, pushing the tarballs ashore.

Seeps and Shipwrecks

It’s common winter conditions like that, combined with the many natural oil seeps of southern California, that often result in tarballs naturally coming ashore in central and northern California. Like I said, wintertime tarballs are not unheard of in this area and people weren’t terribly concerned. Even so, some of the tarballs were relatively “fresh” and heavy weather and seas had rolled through during a storm the previous weekend. This got some people thinking about the shipwreck S/S Jacob Luckenbach, a freighter which sank near San Francisco in 1953 and began leaking oil since at least 1992.

When salvage divers were removing oil from the Luckenbach back in 2002, they reported feeling surges along the bottom under some wave conditions. The wreck is 468 feet long, lying in about 175 feet of water and is roughly 20 miles northwest of Half Moon Bay. Could this or another nearby wreck have been jostled by the previous weekend’s storm and produced some of the tarballs now coming ashore?

Making Waves

Discussions with the oceanographers in NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration provided me with some key kernels of wisdom about what might have happened. First, the height of a wave influences the degree of effects beneath the ocean surface, but the wave length determines how deep those effects go. So, big waves with long wavelengths have greater influence at greater depths than smaller waves with shorter wavelengths.

Graphic describing and showing wave length, height, frequency, and period.

Credit: NOAA’s Ocean Service

Second, waves in deep water cause effects at depths half their length. This means that a wave with a length of 100 meters can be felt to a depth of 50 meters. That was great stuff, I thought. But the data buoys off of California, if they collect any wave data at all, only collect wave height and period (the time it takes a wave to move from one high or low point to the next) but not wave length. So, now what?

As it turns out, our office’s excellent oceanographers also have a rule of thumb for calculating wave length from this information: a wave with a 10-second period has a wave length of about 100 meters in deep water. So, that same 10-second wave would be felt at 50 meters, which is similar to the depth of the shipwreck Jacob Luckenbach (54 meters or 175 feet).

Looking at nearby data buoys, significant wave heights during the previous weekend’s storm topped out at 2.8 meters (about 9 feet) with a 9-second period. So, the sunken Luckenbach may have actually “felt” the storm a little bit, but probably not enough to cause a spill of any oil remaining on board it.

Riding Waves

Even so, just two weeks before the tarballs came ashore, waves in the area were much, much bigger. The biggest waves the area had seen so far in 2014, in fact: more than 4 meters (13 feet) high, with a 24-second period. If the Luckenbach had been jostled by any waves at all in 2014, you would think it would have been from those waves in late January, and yet there were no reports of tarballs (fresh or otherwise) even though winds were blowing towards shore for about a week afterwards. This leads me to conclude that the recent increase in tarballs came from somewhere other than a nearby shipwreck.

Where do surfers fit in all this? That day in late January when the shipwreck S/S Jacob Luckenbach was being knocked around by the biggest waves of 2014 was the day of the Mavericks Invitational surf contest in Half Moon Bay. People came from all over to ride those big waves—and it was amazing!

Jordan StoutJordan Stout currently serves as the NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator in California where he provides scientific and technical support to the U.S. Coast Guard and Environmental Protection Agency in preparing for and responding to oil spills and hazardous material releases. He has been involved in supporting many significant incidents and responses in California and throughout the nation.


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Progress at the Texas City “Y” Oil Spill in Galveston Bay

Photo of workers assessing shoreline.

Federal and local agency workers help clean up the beaches affected by oil spill on March 27, 2014. Cleanup efforts continue for the Texas City “Y” response, which resulted from a collision between a bulk carrier and a barge Saturday in the Houston Ship Channel. (U.S. Coast Guard)

POSTED: March 28, 2014 | UPDATED: March 30, 2014 –The March 22 vessel collision in Galveston Bay (see Kirby Barge Oil Spill, Houston/Texas City Ship Channel, Port Bolivar, Texas) that resulted in an oil spill of approximately 168,000 gallons caused the closure of the heavily trafficked Port of Houston for 3 days. Some oil came ashore near the collision site in the Galveston area, but northeasterly winds carried the remainder out of the Bay. Longshore currents then carried the oil to the west, some as far as 150 miles, were it stranded on Matagorda Island. A small fraction of the oil is still afloat off Mustang and Padre Islands.

Photo of a woman and a moan looking at paperwork on the beach.

Volunteers assess a three-mile stretch of shoreline at Stewart Beach in Galveston, Texas, on March 28, 2014. Workers and volunteers have been working Galveston shoreline in response to the Texas City oil spill. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Although most all of the oil is still thought to be stranded on shorelines between Galveston and Matagorda, overflights this morning noted sheens and tarballs further west than anticipated, near Aransas Pass. This oil could impact Mustang and Padre Islands and the need for additional trajectory forecasts is being reconsidered. Overflight observers also noted that shoreline oil on Matagorda Island is rapidly being buried under clean sand. Burial of oil is common on active shorelines, but increases the complexity of the response, especially in areas where mechanical cleanup methods are not feasible or inappropriate because of their environmental sensitivity.

NOAA is providing scientific support to the U.S. Coast Guard, including science coordination, trajectories, shoreline assessment, information management and common operational picture, overflight, weather, resources at risk, seafood safety, and marine mammal and turtle stranding personnel. The NOAA Weather Service Incident Meteorologist is on-scene.

See March 27 U.S. Coast Guard news release.


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Latest Research Finds Serious Heart Troubles When Oil and Young Tuna Mix

Atlantic bluefin tuna prepares to eat a smaller fish.

Atlantic bluefin tuna are a very ecologically and economically valuable species. However, populations in the Gulf of Mexico are at historically low levels. (Copyright: Gilbert Van Ryckevorsel/TAG A Giant)

In May of 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon rig was drilling for oil in the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico, schools of tuna and other large fish would have been moving into the northern Gulf. This is where, each spring and summer, they lay delicate, transparent eggs that float and hatch near the ocean surface. After the oil well suffered a catastrophic blowout and released 4.9 million barrels of oil, these fish eggs may have been exposed to the huge slicks of oil floating up through the same warm waters.

An international team of researchers from NOAA, Stanford University, the University of Miami, and Australia recently published a study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences exploring what happens when tuna mix with oil early in life.

“What we’re interested in is how the Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico would have impacted open-ocean fishes that spawn in this region, such as tunas, marlins, and swordfishes,” said Stanford University scientist Barbara Block.

This study is part of ongoing research to determine how the waters, lands, and life of the Gulf of Mexico were harmed by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and response. It also builds on decades of research examining the impacts of crude oil on fish, first pioneered after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. Based on those studies, NOAA and the rest of the research team knew that crude oil was toxic to young fish and taught them to look carefully at their developing hearts.

“One of the most important findings was the discovery that the developing fish heart is very sensitive to certain chemicals derived from crude oil,” said Nat Scholz of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

This is why in this latest study they examined oil’s impacts on young bluefin tuna, yellowfin tuna, and amberjack, all large fish that hunt at the top of the food chain and reproduce in the warm waters of the open ocean. The researchers exposed fertilized fish eggs to small droplets of crude oil collected from the surface and the wellhead from the Deepwater Horizon spill, using concentrations comparable to those during the spill. Next, they put the transparent eggs and young fish under the microscope to observe the oil’s impacts at different stages of development. Using a technology similar to doing ultrasounds on humans, the researchers were able create a digital record of the fishes’ beating hearts.

All three species of fish showed dramatic effects from the oil, regardless of how weathered (broken down) it was. Severely malformed and malfunctioning hearts was the most severe impact. Depending on the oil concentration, the developing fish had slow and irregular heartbeats and excess fluid around the heart. Other serious effects, including spine, eye, and jaw deformities, were a result of this heart failure.

Top: A normal young yellowfin tuna. Bottom: A deformed yellowfin tuna exposed to oil during development.

A normal yellowfin tuna larva not long after hatching (top), and a larva exposed to Deepwater Horizon crude oil as it developed in the egg (bottom). The oil-exposed larva shows a suite of abnormalities including excess fluid building up around the heart due to heart failure and poor growth of fins and eyes. (NOAA)

“Crude oil shuts down key cellular processes in fish heart cells that regulate beat-to-beat function,” noted Block, referencing another study by this team.

As the oil concentration, particularly the levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), went up, so did the severity of the effects on the fish. Severely affected fish with heart defects are unlikely to survive. Others looked normal on the outside but had underlying issues like irregular heartbeats. This could mean that while some fish survived directly swimming through oil, heart conditions could follow them through life, impairing their (very important) swimming ability and perhaps leading to an earlier-than-natural death.

“The heart is one of the first organs to appear, and it starts beating before it’s completely built,” said NOAA Fisheries biologist John Incardona. “Anything that alters heart rhythm during embryonic development will likely impact the final shape of the heart and the ability of the adult fish to survive in the wild.”

Even at low levels, oil can have severe effects on young fish, not only in the short-term but throughout the course of their lives. These subtle but serious impacts are a lesson still obvious in the recovery of marine animals and habitats still happening 25 years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill.


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Update on the Texas City “Y” Response in Galveston Bay

Photo of workers deploying boom.

Workers deploy boom around the site of the oil spill in the Houston Ship Channel near the Texas City Dike, March 24, 2014. More than 71,000 feet of boom has been deployed in response to the oil spill that occurred Saturday afternoon, after a bulk carrier and a barge collided in the Houston Ship Channel. (U.S. Coast Guard)

 

POSTED MARCH 25, 2014 | UPDATED MARCH 27, 2014 –The Saturday vessel collision in Galveston Bay (see “Vessel Collision and Spill in Galveston Bay”) that resulted in an oil spill of approximately 168,000 gallons, caused the closure of the heavily trafficked Port of Houston for 3 days. The Houston Ship Channel is now open, with some restrictions. There is a safety zone in effect in cleanup areas.

Photo of absorbent material in spilled oil.

Absorbent material is deployed near the Texas City Dike, March 24, 2014. More than 71,000 feet of boom has been deployed in response to the oil spill that occurred Saturday afternoon, after a bulk carrier and a barge collided in the Houston Ship Channel. (U.S. Coast Guard)

As predicted, strong southerly winds stranded much of the offshore oil overnight in the Matagorda region and these onshore winds are expected to bring ashore the remaining floating oil off Matagorda Island by Friday morning. Closer to the collision site, there have been very few new reports of remaining floating oil in Galveston Bay or offshore Galveston Island. However, new shoreline impacts may still be occurring in those areas due to re-mobilization of stranded oil or remaining scattered sheens and tarballs.

NOAA is providing scientific support to the U.S. Coast Guard, including trajectory forecasts of the floating oil movement, shoreline assessment, information management, overflight tracking of the oil, weather forecasts, and natural and economic resources at risk. Marine mammal and turtle stranding network personnel are responding. The NOAA Weather Service Incident Meteorologist is on-scene, as are additional NOAA personnel. Natural resource damage assessment personnel are at Galveston Bay and are initiating preassessment activities. The preassessment period is an on-scene evaluation of what the type of oil is, where it has gone, where it may be going and what resources are or may be at risk.

See the latest OR&R trajectory forecast map, showing the likely areas of oiling tomorrow.


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Vessel Collision and Spill in Galveston Bay

photo of tugs and barge in water.

A Coast Guard response boat patrols the Kirby Barge 27706 during cleanup efforts near Texas City Dike, March 23, 2014. The oil spill occurred, Saturday, after a collision between a bulk carrier and the barge. (U.S. Coast Guard)

On March 22, 2014, at approximately 12:30 pm, the 585 foot bulk carrier M/V Summer Wind collided with the oil tank-barge Kirby 27706. The incident occurred in Galveston Bay near Texas City, Texas. The barge contained approximately 1,000,000 gallons of intermediate fuel oil in multiple tanks.

The #2 starboard tank was punctured, spilling approximately 168,000 gallons of oil. The barge is aground and the remaining oil was lightered (removed) late Sunday. The M/V Summer Wind is stable and not leaking oil. As of March 23, the Houston Ship Channel and Intracoastal Waterway was closed to traffic, including ferries and cruise ships. U.S. Coast Guard, NOAA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Texas General Land Office and other agencies are responding.

NOAA is providing scientific support to the U.S. Coast Guard, including forecasts of the floating oil movement, shoreline assessment, information management, overflight tracking of the oil, weather forecasts, and natural and economic resources at risk. Marine mammal and turtle stranding network personnel are also standing by. The NOAA Weather Service Incident Meteorologist is on-scene, as are NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration personnel. Natural resource damage assessment personnel will be at Galveston Bay to initiate studies that could be used to identify injured resource and restoration needs.

Workers load boom into the water.

Responders work together to load hundreds of feet of boom onto vessels at the Texas City Dike, March 23, 2014. More than 35,000 feet of boom has been deployed in response to the oil spill that occurred Saturday afternoon, after a bulk carrier and a barge collided in the Houston Ship Channel. (U.S Coast Guard)

Expected Behavior of the Spilled Oil

Intermediate fuel oils are produced by blending heavy residual oils with a light oil to meet specifications for viscosity and pour point. Their behavior can be summarized as follows:

  • IFO-380 will usually spread into thick slicks which can contain large amounts of oil. Oil recovery by skimmers and vacuum pumps can be very effective, particularly early in the spill.
  • Very little of this is likely to mix into the water column. It can form thick streamers or, under strong wind conditions, break into patches and tarballs.
  • IFO-380 is a persistent oil; only a relatively small amount is expected to evaporate within the first hours of a spill. Thus, spilled oil can be carried long distances by winds and currents.
  • IFO-380 can be very viscous and sticky, meaning that stranded oil tends to remain on the surface rather than penetrate sediments. Light accumulations usually form a “bath-tub ring” at the high-water line; heavy accumulations can pool on the surface.
  • Floating oil could potentially sink once it strands on the shoreline, picks up sediment, and then is eroded by wave action.

The incident occurred just inside the entrance of Galveston Bay. Northeasterly winds are expected to carry the oil out of the Bay, but onshore winds expected midweek could bring the oil back along the ocean beaches. The oil, likely in the form of tarballs, could be spread over a large section of ocean beaches.

Find more updates on the oil spill response from the Unified Command.


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Remembering the Exxon Valdez: Collecting 25 Years of Memories and Memorabilia

On May 24, 1989, NOAA marine biologist Gary Shigenaka was on board the NOAA ship Fairweather in Prince William Sound, Alaska. It had been two months since the tanker Exxon Valdez, now tied up for repairs nearby, had run aground and spilled nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil into the waters the Fairweather was now sailing through.

A man in a tyvek suit stands on a ship next to a life preserver with mountains and water in the background.

NOAA marine biologist Gary Shigenaka in 1989 aboard the tanker Exxon Valdez itself. In retrospect, Shigenaka joked that he should have made off with the ship’s life preserver for his eventual collection of artifacts related to the ship and spill. (NOAA)

That day Shigenaka and the other NOAA scientists aboard the Fairweather were collecting data about the status of fish after the oil spill.

Little did he know he would be collecting something else too: a little piece of history that would inspire his 25-year-long collection of curiosities related to the Exxon Valdez. Shigenaka’s collection of items would eventually grow to include everything from tourist trinkets poking fun at the spill to safety award memorabilia given to the tanker’s crew years before it grounded.

This unusual collection’s first item came to Shigenaka back on that May day in 1989, when the NOAA scientists on their ship were flagged down by the crippled tanker’s salvage crew. Come here, they said. We think you’re going to want to see this.

Apparently, while the salvage crew was busy making repairs to the damaged Exxon Valdez, they had noticed big schools of fish swimming in and out of the holes in the ship.

So Shigenaka and a few others went aboard the Exxon Valdez, putting a small boat inside the flooded cargo holds and throwing their nets into the waters. They were unsuccessful at catching the fish moving in and out of the ship, but Shigenaka and the other NOAA scientists didn’t leave the infamous tanker empty-handed.

They noticed that the salvage workers who had initially invited them on board were cutting away steel frames hanging off of the ship. Naturally, they asked if they could have one of the steel frames, which they had cut into pieces a few inches long so that each of these fish-counting scientists could take home a piece of the Exxon Valdez.

After Shigenaka took this nondescript chunk of steel back home to Seattle, Wash., he heard rumors about the existence of another item that piqued his interest. The Exxon Shipping Company had allegedly produced safety calendars which featured the previously exemplary tanker Exxon Valdez during the very month that it would cause the largest oil spill in U.S. waters at the time—March 1989. Feeling a bit like Moby Dick’s Captain Ahab chasing down a mythical white whale, Shigenaka’s efforts were finally rewarded when he saw one of these calendars pop up on eBay. He bought it. And that was just the beginning.

This young biologist who began his career in oil spill response with the fateful Exxon Valdez spill would find both his professional and personal life shaped by this monumental spill. Today, Shigenaka has an alert set up so that he is notified when anything related to the Exxon Valdez shows up on eBay. He will occasionally bid when something catches his eye, mostly rarer items from the days before the oil spill.

To commemorate the 25 years since the Exxon Valdez oil spill, take a peek at what is in Gary Shigenaka’s personal collection of Exxon Valdez artifacts.

Read a report by Gary Shigenaka summarizing information about the Exxon Valdez oil spill and response along with NOAA’s role and research over the past 25 years.


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Detecting Change in a Changing World: 25 Years After the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

Life between high and low tide along the Alaskan coast is literally rough and tumble.

The marine animals and plants living there have to deal with both crashing sea waves at high tide and the drying heat of the sun at low tide. Such a life can be up and down, boom and bust, as favorable conditions come and go quickly and marine animals and plants are forced to react and repopulate just as quickly.

But what happens when oil from the tanker Exxon Valdez enters this dynamic picture—and 25 years later, still hasn’t completely left? What happens when bigger changes to the ocean and global climate begin arriving in these waters already in flux?

Telling the Difference

Two people wearing chest waders sift for marine life in shallow rocky waters.

In 2011 NOAA marine biologist Gary Shigenaka (right) sifts through the sediments of Alaska’s Lower Herring Bay, looking for the tiny marine life that live there. (Photo by Gerry Sanger/Sound Ecosystem Adventures)

In the 25 years since the Exxon Valdez oil spill hit Alaska’s Prince William Sound, NOAA scientists, including marine biologist Gary Shigenaka and ecologist Alan Mearns, have been studying the impacts of the spill and cleanup measures on these animals and plants in rocky tidal waters.

Their experiments and monitoring over the long term revealed a high degree of natural variability in these communities that was unrelated to the oil spill. They saw large changes in, for example, numbers of mussels, seaweeds, and barnacles from year to year even in areas known to be unaffected by the oil spill.

This translated into a major challenge. How do scientists tell the difference between shifts in marine communities due to natural variability and those changes caused by the oil spill?

Several key themes emerged from NOAA’s long-term monitoring and subsequent experimental research:

  • impact. How do we measure it?
  • recovery. How do we define it?
  • variability. How do we account for it?
  • subtle connection to large-scale oceanic influences. How do we recognize it?

What NOAA has learned from these themes informs our understanding of oil spill response and cleanup, as well as of ecosystems on a larger scale. None of this, however, would have been apparent without the long-term monitoring effort. This is an important lesson learned from the Exxon Valdez experience: that monitoring and research, often viewed as an unnecessary luxury in the context of a large oil spill response, are useful, even essential, for framing the scientific and practical lessons learned.

Remote Possibilities

As NOAA looks ahead to the future—and with the Gulf of Mexico’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in our recent past—we can incorporate and apply lessons of the Exxon Valdez long-term program into how we will support response decisions and define impact and recovery.

The Arctic is a region of intense interest and scrutiny. Climate change is opening previously inaccessible waters and dramatically shifting what scientists previously considered “normal” environmental conditions. This is allowing new oil production and increased maritime traffic through Arctic waters, increasing the risk of oil spills in remote and changing environments.

If and when something bad happens in the Arctic, how do scientists determine the impact and what recovery means, if our reference point is a rapidly moving target? What is our model habitat for restoring one area impacted by oil when the “unimpacted” reference areas are undergoing their own major changes?

Illustrated infographic showing timeline of ecological recovery after the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Tracking the progress of recovery for marine life and habitats following the Exxon Valdez oil spill is no easy task. Even today, not all of the species have recovered or we don’t have enough information to know. (NOAA) Click to enlarge.

Listening in

NOAA marine biologist Gary Shigenaka explores these questions as he reflects on the 25 years since the Exxon Valdez oil spill in the following Making Waves podcast from the National Ocean Service:

[NARRATOR] This all points back at what Gary says is the main take-away lesson after 25 years of studying the aftermath of this spill: the natural environment in Alaska and in the Arctic are rapidly changing. If we don’t understand that background change, then it’s really hard to say if an area has recovered or not after a big oil spill.

[GARY SHIGENAKA] “I think we need to really keep in mind that maybe our prior notions of recovery as returning to some pre-spill or absolute control condition may be outmoded. We need to really overlay that with the dynamic changes that are occurring for whatever reason and adjust our assessments and definitions accordingly. I don’t have the answers for the best way to do that. We’ve gotten some ideas from the work that we’ve done, but I think that as those changes begin to accelerate and become much more marked, then it’s going to be harder to do.”


Read a report by Gary Shigenaka summarizing information about the Exxon Valdez oil spill and response along with NOAA’s role and research on its recovery over the past 25 years.

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