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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April Showers Bring … Marine Debris to Pacific Northwest Beaches?

This is a post by Amy MacFadyen, oceanographer and modeler in the Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division.

Over the last few weeks, emergency managers in coastal Washington and Oregon have noted an increase in the marine debris arriving on our beaches. Of particular note, numerous skiffs potentially originating from the Japan tsunami in March 2011 have washed up. Four of these boats arrived in Washington over the Memorial Day weekend alone.

This seasonal arrival of marine debris—ranging from small boats and fishing floats to household cleaner bottles and sports balls—on West Coast shores seems to be lasting longer into the spring than last year. As a result, coastal managers dealing with the large volume of debris on their beaches are wondering if the end is in sight.

As an oceanographer at NOAA, I have been trying to answer this question by examining how patterns of wind and currents in the North Pacific Ocean change with the seasons and what that means for marine debris showing up on Pacific Northwest beaches.

What Does the Weather Have to Do with It?

Beachcombers know the best time to find treasure on the Pacific Northwest coast is often after winter storms. Winter in this region is characterized by frequent rainfall (hence, Seattle’s rainy reputation) and winds blowing up the coast from the south or southwest. These winds push water onshore and cause what oceanographers call “downwelling”—a time of lower growth and reproduction for marine life because offshore ocean waters with fewer nutrients are brought towards the coast. These conditions are also good for bringing marine debris from out in the ocean onto the beach, as was the case for this giant Japanese dock that came ashore in December 2012.

These winter storms are associated with the weather phenomenon known as the “Aleutian Low,” a low pressure system of air rotating counter-clockwise, which is usually located near Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. In winter, the Aleutian Low intensifies and moves southward from Alaska, bringing wind and rain to the Pacific Northwest. During late spring, the Aleutian Low retreats to the northwest and becomes less intense. Around the same time, a high pressure system located off California known as the “North Pacific High” advances north up the West Coast, generating drier summer weather and winds from the northwest.

Graphic showing the typical summer and winter locations of pressure systems in the North Pacific Ocean.

The typical location of the pressure systems in the North Pacific Ocean in winter and summer. “AL” refers to the low-pressure “Aleutian Low” and “NPH” refers to the high-pressure “North Pacific High” system. Used with permission of Jennifer Galloway, Marine Micropaleontology (2010). *See full credit below.

This summer change to winds coming from the northwest also brings a transition from “downwelling” to “upwelling” conditions in the ocean. Upwelling occurs when surface water near the shore is moved offshore and replaced by nutrient-rich water moving to the surface from the ocean depths, which fuels an increase in growth and reproduction of marine life.

The switch from a winter downwelling state to a summer upwelling state is known as the “spring transition” and can occur anytime between March and June. Oceanographers and fisheries managers are often particularly interested in the timing of this spring transition because, in general, the earlier the transition occurs, the greater the ecosystem productivity will be that year—see what this means for Pacific Northwest salmon. As we have seen this spring, the timing may also affect the volume of marine debris reaching Pacific Northwest beaches.

Why Is More Marine Debris Washing up This Year?

NOAA has been involved in modeling the movement of marine debris generated by the March 2011 Japan tsunami for several years. We began this modeling to answer questions about when the tsunami debris would first reach the West Coast of the United States and which regions might be impacted. The various types of debris are modeled as “particles” originating in the coastal waters of Japan, which are moved under the influence of winds and ocean currents. For more details on the modeling, visit the NOAA Marine Debris website.

The estimated arrival of modeled "particles" (representing Japanese tsunami marine debris) on the West Coast of the United States between May 2011 and May 2014.

The estimated arrival of modeled “particles” (representing Japanese tsunami marine debris) on Washington and Oregon shores between May 2011 and May 2014. (NOAA)

The figure here shows the percentage of particles representing Japan tsunami debris reaching the shores of Washington and Oregon over the last two years. The first of the model’s particles reached this region’s shores in late fall and early winter of 2011–2012. This is consistent with the first observations of tsunami debris reaching the coast, which were primarily light, buoyant objects such as large plastic floats, which “feel” the winds more than objects that float lower in the water, and hence move faster. The largest increases in model particles reaching the Pacific Northwest occur in late winter and spring (the big jumps in vertical height on the graph). After the spring transition and the switch to predominantly northwesterly winds and upwelling conditions, very few particles come ashore (where the graph flattens off).

Interestingly, the model shows many fewer particles came ashore in the spring of 2013 than in the other two years. This may be related to the timing of the spring transition. According to researchers at Oregon State University, the transition to summer’s upwelling conditions occurred approximately one month earlier in 2013 (early April). Their timing of the spring transition for the past three years, estimated using a time series of wind measured offshore of Newport, Oregon, is shown by the black vertical lines in the figure.

The good news for coastal managers—and those of us who enjoy clean beaches—is that according to this indicator, we are finally transitioning from one of the soggiest springs on record into the upwelling season. This should soon bring a drop in the volume of marine debris on our beaches, hopefully along with some sunny skies to get out there and enjoy our beautiful Pacific Northwest coast.

*Pressure system graphic originally found in: Favorite, F.A., et al., 1976. Oceanography of the subarctic Pacific region, 1960–1971. International North Pacific Fisheries Commission Bulletin 33, 1–187. Referenced in and with permission of: Galloway, J.M., et al., 2010. A high-resolution marine palynological record from the central mainland coast of British Columbia, Canada: Evidence for a mid-late Holocene dry climate interval. Marine Micropaleontology 75, 62–78.

Amy MacFadyenAmy MacFadyen is a physical oceanographer at the Emergency Response Division of the Office of Response and Restoration (NOAA). The Emergency Response Division provides scientific support for oil and chemical spill response — a key part of which is trajectory forecasting to predict the movement of spills. During the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Amy helped provide daily trajectories to the incident command. Before moving to NOAA, Amy was at the University of Washington, first as a graduate student then as a postdoctoral researcher. Her research examined transport of harmful algal blooms from offshore initiation sites to the Washington coast.


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A River Reborn: Restoring Salmon Habitat along Seattle’s Duwamish River

Industrial river with part of a boat in the view.

Cutting through south Seattle, the Duwamish River is still very much an industrial river. (NOAA)

Just south of Seattle, the airplane manufacturer Boeing Company has created one of the largest habitat restoration projects on the Lower Duwamish River. Boeing worked with NOAA and our partners under a Natural Resource Damage Assessment to restore habitat for fish, shorebirds, and wildlife harmed by historical industrial activities on this heavily used urban river. We documented and celebrated this work in a short video.

What Kind of Restoration?

In this video, you can learn about the restoration techniques used in the project and how they will benefit the communities of people, fish, and wildlife of the Duwamish River. The restoration project included activities such as:

  • Reshaping the shoreline and adding 170,000 native plants and large woody debris, which provide areas where young salmon can seek refuge from predators in the river.
  • Creating 2 acres of wetlands to create a resting area for migrating salmon.
  • Transforming more than a half mile of former industrial waterfront back into natural shoreline.

Watch the video:

Why Does this River Need Restoring?

In 1913, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers excavated and straightened the Duwamish River to expand Seattle’s commercial navigation, removing more than 20 million cubic yards of mud and sand and opening the area to heavy industry. But development on this waterway stretches back to the 1870s.

Ninety-seven percent of the original habitat for salmon—including marsh, mudflats, and toppled trees along multiple meandering channels— was lost when they transformed a 9-mile estuary into a 5-mile industrial channel.

As damaged and polluted as the Lower Duwamish Waterway is today, the habitat here is crucial to ensuring the survival and recovery of threatened fish species, including the Puget Sound Chinook and Puget Sound Steelhead. These young fish have to spend time in this part of the Duwamish River, which is a Superfund Site, as they transition from the river’s freshwater to the saltwater of the Puget Sound and Pacific Ocean. Creating more welcoming habitat for these fish gives them places to find food and escape from predators.

Fortunately, this restored waterfront outside of a former Boeing plant will be maintained for all time, and further cleanup and restoration of the river is in various stages as well.

UPDATE 6/17/2014: On June 17, 2014, Boeing hosted a celebration on the newly restored banks of the Lower Duwamish River to recognize the partners who helped make the restoration a reality. Speakers at the event included NOAA, Boeing, the Muckleshoot Tribe, and a local community group. This also gave us the opportunity to share the video “A River Reborn,” which was well received.


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Watch Bald Eagle Restoration Come Alive in California’s Channel Islands

On the heels of Endangered Species Day, we take a look at the incredible recovery story of the Bald Eagle, which teetered on the edge of extinction in the second half of the twentieth century, in part due to impacts from people releasing the pesticide DDT into the environment.

By the early 1960s Bald Eagles had disappeared from southern California’s Channel Islands after chemical companies near Los Angeles discharged into the ocean millions of pounds of the toxic chemicals DDT and PCBs [PDF], both of which stay in the environment for a very long time. Once DDT worked its way up the marine food chain to the eagles, it weakened the shells of their eggs, causing the parent eagles to crush the eggs before they could hatch.

However, thanks to the efforts of NOAA’s Montrose Settlements Restoration Program and our partners, including the Institute for Wildlife Studies, Bald Eagles have made a comeback in southern California’s Channel Islands.

Learn more about this notable conservation work in this Thank You Ocean Report video podcast:

“This program has been 30 years in the making and after that amount of time we have finally started to see natural hatching out on the islands,” says bird biologist Annie Little of the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program. “I think it shows the persistence of these types of chemicals in the environment and that restoration doesn’t happen overnight.”

But it does happen with a lot of hard work and dedication. Between 2006 and 2013, a total of 81 Bald Eagle chicks have hatched in the Channel Islands. You can watch the eagles’ recovery in real time as they build nests and hatch chicks on the islands via the Bald Eagle web cams.

Also from Thank You Ocean, here’s an everyday action you can take to protect the ocean and the animals dependent on it: “Avoid the use of toxic chemicals and keep trash and chemicals out of storm drains. Polluted water from storm drains flows into the sea and can harm marine life and the environment.”


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What Have We Done for Endangered Species Lately?

Floating brown pelican.

The brown pelican, a successfully recovered species, was removed from the Endangered Species List in 2009. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Endangered species have a tough time of it. These plants and animals have been trampled, hunted, contaminated, and pushed out of their homes by humans to the point that their very existence on this planet becomes dangerously uncertain. In the United States, this is when the federal government steps in to list a species as threatened or endangered under the 1973 Endangered Species Act.

Over 40 years later, this critical piece of legislation has had many successes in protecting native animals and plants and the natural areas where they live—perhaps most notably bringing back the national symbol, the bald eagle, from the brink of extinction. Yet with more than 1,500 types of animals and plants remaining threatened or endangered in the United States, we still have more work to do.

On May 16, 2014, we’re going to take the time to recognize this very important national conservation effort by celebrating Endangered Species Day and the many ways, big and small, each of us can help save our nation’s incredible array of plants and animals from extinction—like the now-recovered brown pelican!

Tools for Protecting Species During Oil Spills

So, what has NOAA been doing for endangered species? One example is the Office of Response and Restoration’s special data mapping tools that come into play during oil spills.

When an oil spill occurs along the coast, one priority for our office is identifying whether any threatened or endangered species live in the area near the spill. The responders dealing with the spill have to take into account factors such as what time of year these protected species are breeding or how they might come into contact with spilled oil or the response. This means knowing whether young Chinook salmon may be migrating out to sea through an estuary where a ship may have accidentally discharged fuel. Or knowing if the beaches where spill responders need to clean up oil are also important nesting grounds for a shorebird such as the piping plover.

Our biologists and ecologists help provide this kind of information during an oil spill response, but our office also produces tools to organize and display all of this information for both NOAA and oil spill planners and responders outside our agency. One of these tools is NOAA’s Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) maps. These maps characterize coastal environments and wildlife based on their sensitivity to spilled oil. The main components of these maps are sensitive wildlife, shoreline habitats, and the resources people use there, such as a fishery or recreational beach.

A related Geographic Information Systems (GIS) tool, the Threatened and Endangered Species Geodatabases, make up a subset of the original ESI data from our maps. These data focus on the coastal species and habitats that are federally and/or state listed as endangered, threatened, protected, or as a species of concern. These databases offer a more user-friendly option to access some of the most critical biological information for a region.

In the example below, you see a map of Great South Bay from the Long Island ESI atlas. The colored shapes (red, blue, green, and maroon) indicate where the piping plover, shortnose sturgeon, eastern mud turtle, and seabeach amaranth occur in June.

Screen capture of Environmental Sensitivity Map showing habitat of some threatened and endangered species, indicated by the blue, red, maroon, and green coloration, found in the Great South Bay of Long Island Sound, New York.

Habitat of some threatened and endangered species, indicated by the blue, red, maroon, and green coloration, found in the Great South Bay of Long Island Sound, New York. (NOAA)

Using the Threatened and Endangered Species Geodatabases allows oil spill planners and responders to easily gather complex information for a region, such as groupings of species with similar habitat preferences and feeding styles, threatened and endangered status, concentration, and life history summaries. This tool also features the ability to search for presence of a species in a particular month or season. You can take a look at these data, pulled from our many state and federal partners, for anywhere in the United States using this online map application.

What You Can Do

If you’re not an oil spill planner or responder, how can you help protect endangered species? Learn what you can do, such as protecting habitat by planting native rather than invasive plants in your yard, in this podcast from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Or find an Endangered Species Day event this weekend near you.


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Who Is Biking to Work in America? NOAA Is!

May is National Bike to Work Month. As usual, those of us at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have been donning our two-wheelers and helmets to join in the fun that often starts this month but in Seattle can go year-round. In addition, this year the U.S. Census Bureau has released its first-ever report on biking and walking to work. It holds some interesting insights into the shifts occurring in how people get around town:

Although changes in rates of bicycle commuting vary across U.S. communities, many cities have experienced relatively large increases in bicycle commuting in recent years. The total number of bike commuters in the U.S. increased from about 488,000 in 2000 to about 786,000 during the period from 2008 to 2012, a larger percentage increase than that of any other commuting mode.

Take a look at the top 15 big cities for people biking to work:

Top 15 large cities with the highest percentage of people biking to work.

Top 15 large U.S. cities with the highest percentage of people biking to work.

As you can see, Seattle, Washington, is in the top five, and NOAA’s Seattle contingent is doing its part to help get there. In 2012, NOAA had 132 people riding bikes in the Northwest Federal Bike-to-Work Challenge, landing us the prestigious “Pink Jersey” award—referring to Italy’s Giro d’Italia bike race in May where the leader wears a pink jersey—for our overall participation among federal agencies in the region.

This year, about half-way into Bike Month, it looks like NOAA has roughly 139 people on 12 teams who have been biking to work already. We’ve logged more than 600 trips to and from work and ridden nearly 9,000 miles. That’s a lot of miles not driven in cars, pounds of pollution not emitted, and gallons of petroleum not burned. Let’s not forget the health benefits of integrating bicycling into an active lifestyle too. Many people who bike commute also enjoy being outside, hearing the birds, seeing the change of seasons, having more energy during the work day, and slowing down and unplugging after work.

Six people wearing bike helmets and standing next to bikes.

My Bike to Work Month team stopped for breakfast burritos and then rode in the rest of the way to work together on a brisk May morning in 2013.

Personally, I bought my bicycle about two weeks into my first Bike to Work Month in 2011 (better late than never!). I was a little nervous but more excited. Growing up in the car-friendly suburbs of the Midwest didn’t prepare me at all for biking in a city like Seattle. Fortunately, I had a friend to help ease me into biking, showing me how fun and easy it could be, along with introducing me to some simple biking protocols for staying safe. It also helped to live in Washington, which has been ranked the #1 most bike-friendly state seven years in a row.

That first month of biking to NOAA back in 2011, I was hoping to commute once or even twice a week if I could, but this year, I’m going for three, maybe even four times a week. While my commute isn’t super short—nearly 8 miles each way— I’m lucky enough that I can ride almost the entire way on the Burk-Gilman Trail, a dedicated bike path that “carries as many people during peak hours as a high-performing lane of a major freeway.”

A white bicycle and helmet.

My bike, when it was shiny and new. It’s still pretty shiny, but less new, and with more bike racks and fenders.

It was not so long ago that I thought, “Biking around town? Me? I’ll stick to the bus, thanks.” Now, thanks to a lot of support, I know it’s not a huge deal. The more people there are biking, the safer it becomes for everyone on the road [PDF]. I know I can ride my bike to work (and elsewhere) and I can even do it while wearing a dress and a smile.

Do you bike to work? What do you enjoy about it? Would you bike to work if you could?

Get even more data on biking to work from this video discussion between the U.S. Census Bureau and the League of American Bicyclists.


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How Will You Celebrate World Ocean Day?

Red-footed booby landing near edge of ocean atoll.

Red-footed booby at the Three Sisters at Pearl and Hermes Atoll in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. (NOAA)

World Ocean Day is June 8, and we’re only a month away. What will you do to celebrate and protect that big blue body of water that sustains our planet?

We have a few ideas to get you ready:

Look for even more ways to keep the ocean healthy and free of pollution, a small way of saying thanks for everything the ocean does for us.


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A Bird’s Eye View: Looking for Oil Spills from the Sky

This is a post by LTJG Alice Drury of the Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division, with input from David Wesley and Meg Imholt.

View over a pilot's shoulder out of a plane to ocean and islands.

View over the pilot’s shoulder on the first visit to the Chandeleur Islands in the Gulf of Mexico after Hurricane Katrina to see how much the shoreline had been altered. (NOAA)

During an oil spill, responders need to answer a number of questions in order to protect coastal resources: What happened? Where is the oil going? What will it hit? How will it cause harm?

Not all of these questions can be answered adequately from the ground or even from a boat. Often, experts take to the skies to answer these questions.

Aerial overflights are surveys from airplanes or helicopters which help responders find oil slicks as they move and break up across a potentially wide expanse of water. Our oceanographers make predictions about where a spill might go, but each spill presents a unique combination of weather conditions, ocean currents, and even oil chemistry that adds uncertainty due to natural variability. Overflights give snapshots of where the oil is located and how it is behaving at a specific date and time, which we use to compare to our oceanographic models. By visually confirming an oil slick’s location, we can provide even more accurate forecasts of where the oil is expected to go, which is a key component of response operations.

Trained aerial overflight experts serve as the “eyes” for the command post of spill responders. They report critical information like location, size, shape, color, and orientation of an oil slick. They can also make wildlife observations, monitor cleanup operations, and spot oceanographic features like convergence zones and eddies, which impact where oil might go. All of these details help inform decisions for appropriate cleanup strategies.

Easier Said Than Done

Finding and identifying oil from the air is tricky. Oil slicks move, which can make them hard to pin down. In addition, they may be difficult to classify from visual observation because different oils vary in appearance, and oil slick appearance is affected by weather conditions and how long the oil has been out on the water.

False positives add even another challenge. When viewed from the air, algal blooms, boat wakes, seagrass, and many other things can look like oil. Important clues, such as if heavy pollen or algal blooms are common in the area, help aerial observers make the determination between false positives and the real deal. If the determination cannot be made from air, however, it is worth investigating further.

During an overflight, it takes concentration to capture the right information. Many things can distract the observer from the main mission of spotting oil, including taking notes in a notebook, technology, and other people. Even an item meant to help, such as a camera or GPS, can lose value if more time is spent fiddling with it rather than taking observations. The important thing is to look out the window!

Safety is paramount on an overflight. An observer must always pay close attention to the pilot’s instructions for getting on and off the aircraft, and not speak over the pilot if they are talking on the radio. While it’s not a problem to ask, a pilot may not be able to do certain maneuvers an observer requests due to safety concerns.

The Experts—And Becoming One Yourself

The Emergency Response Division of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) has overflight specialists ready for quick deployment to do this job. These specialists have extensive training and expertise in aerial overflights.

View of airplane wing, clouds, and water.

Looking out of an observer window on a Coast Guard C-130 airplane during the Hurricane Katrina pollution response. (NOAA)

When I joined OR&R in 2011, I learned from the best before doing real-life observations myself. One of the first things I did was take a Helicopter Emergency Egress course to make sure I could safely exit an aircraft that had made an emergency landing over water. Then I took the Science of Oil Spills course, where I learned more about observing oil from the air. In preparation for my first overflight I also had one-on-one conversations with our trained aerial observers. Since then, I have done aerial observations for oil spills including a sunken vessel in Washington’s Penn Cove, the Post-Tropical Cyclone Sandy pollution response, and the Texas City “Y” oil spill in Galveston Bay.

OR&R provides training opportunities for others who may need to do an overflight during a response. Throughout the year, OR&R offers Science of Oil Spill classes across the country. In March 2014, more than 50 oil spill responders learned about aerial observing, and many other spill response skills, at OR&R’s Science of Oil Spills class at NOAA’s Disaster Response Center in the Gulf of Mexico. For those interested in becoming an overflight specialist themselves, OR&R even offers a one-day, in-person course on the topic throughout the country a few times per year.

OR&R has also created the online module, “Introduction to Observing oil from Helicopters and Planes,” to make training even more accessible. We even have a job aid for aerial observation of oil, a reference booklet conveniently sized to take on an overflight!

Alice Drury.

LTJG Alice Drury.

LTJG Alice Drury graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in Environmental Studies in 2008 and shortly thereafter joined the NOAA Corps. After Basic Officer Training Class at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y., LTJG Drury was assigned to NOAA Ship McArthur II for two years. LTJG Drury is now assigned as the Regional Response Officer in OR&R’s Emergency Response Division. In that assignment she acts as assistant to the West Coast, Alaska, and Oceania Scientific Support Coordinators.

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