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An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution


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You Say Collision, I Say Allision; Let’s Sort the Whole Thing Out

Despite improved navigation aids, including charts and Global Positioning Systems (GPS), ships still have accidents in our nation’s waterways, and I regularly review notification reports of these accidents from the National Response Center. Sometimes I need to consult the old nautical dictionary I inherited from my grandfather (a lawyer and U.S. Navy captain) to figure out what they mean.

Nautical terms and marine salvage books.

Keeping it all straight. (NOAA)

The U.S. Coast Guard investigates ship accidents, but they use the terms “marine casualty or accident” interchangeably [PDF]. Mariners are required to report any occurrence involving a vessel that results in:

  • Grounding
  • Stranding
  • Foundering
  • Flooding
  • Collision
  • Allision
  • Explosion
  • Fire
  • Reduction or loss of a vessel’s electrical power, propulsion, or steering capabilities
  • Failures or occurrences, regardless of cause, which impair any aspect of a vessel’s operation, components, or cargo
  • Any other circumstance that might affect or impair a vessel’s seaworthiness, efficiency, or fitness for service or route
  • Any incident involving significant harm to the environment

Some of those terms are pretty straightforward, but what is the difference between grounding and stranding? Or foundering and flooding? And my favorite, collision and allision?

Here is my basic understanding of these terms, but I am sure that some of these could fill an admiralty law textbook.

Groundings and strandings are probably the most common types of marine casualties. A grounding is when a ship strikes the seabed, while a stranding is when the ship then remains there for some length of time. Both can damage a vessel and result in oil spills depending on the ocean bottom type (rocky, sandy, muddy?), sea conditions, and severity of the event (is the ship a little scraped or did it break open?).

Flooding means taking on excessive water in one or more of the spaces on a ship (e.g., the engine room), while foundering is basically taking on water to the point where the vessel becomes unstable and begins to sink or capsize. Note that “foundering” is different than “floundering,” which is to struggle or move aimlessly.

And collision and allision … These terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but technically, a collision is when two vessels strike each other, while an allision occurs when a vessel strikes a stationary object, such as a bridge or dock.

Close up of large damaged ship with Coast Guard boat.

A U.S. Coast Guard boat approaches the gash in the side of the M/V Cosco Busan after it allided (rather than collided) with San Francisco’s Bay Bridge on November 7, 2007, releasing 53,000 gallons of bunker oil into San Francisco Bay. (U.S. Coast Guard)

No matter the proper terminology, all of these incidents can result in spills, keeping us pollution responders on our toes because of the potential impacts to coasts, marine life, and habitats such as coral reefs and seagrass beds. But understanding these various nautical terms helps us understand the circumstances we’re dealing with in an emergency and better adapt our science-based recommendations as a result. And as my grandfather used to say, a collision at sea can ruin your entire day …


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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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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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Are We Prepared to Communicate Well During the Next Disaster?

Editor’s Note: September is National Preparedness Month. It is a time to prepare yourself and those in your care for emergencies and disasters of all kinds. NOAA and our partners are making sure that we are prepared in every regard for whenever the next disaster strikes. To learn more about how you can be prepared for all types of emergencies, visit www.ready.gov.

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Kate Clark.

Ever had a crisis? Did you have a plan for getting people the information they needed during that crisis? Chances are you answered first yes, then no. It is not often we are able to anticipate what our next crisis or disaster will be, but that doesn’t mean we should be caught off guard (however unusual the event).

The Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) is no stranger to dealing with crisis. Whether it’s an oil spill, influx of marine debris, or chemical release, we plan and prepare to deal with environmental disasters as a part of our work each day.

As environmental disasters continue to happen and media coverage becomes more instantaneous, we must also be prepared to communicate with the public about these disasters in a way that is factual, timely, and helpful.

On September 19, 2013, I was able to attend a crisis communications workshop sponsored by the Ad Council. It featured three esteemed and accomplished communication experts: Dee Dee Myers, Managing Director of the Glover Park Group and former White House Press Secretary; Camille Johnston, Vice President, Corporate Affairs for Siemens Corporation and former spokesperson for First Lady Michelle Obama; and Morgan Binswanger, Executive Vice President, Government Relations and External Affairs for the LIVESTRONG Foundation.

As OR&R works to improve our crisis communication strategy and strengthen our rapport with stakeholders, I thought these five pieces of advice from the seminar would help inform our efforts:

  1. Outreach. Using the time leading up to a crisis to educate the public, stakeholders, and the press about your mission can save a lot of valuable time during the crisis. This will allow for clearer and more germane dialogue when a crisis does occur.
  2. Plan ahead. What is the most likely crisis scenario? Who will speak for the organization? How we will disseminate information?
  3. Time is of the essence. Information is available through social media within seconds of an event occurring. This leaves a small window of time to react and respond.
  4. Be transparent. In today’s day and age, almost everything becomes public, so transparency and honesty in the very early stages are crucial to maintaining trust and credibility.
  5. Humility goes a long way. It’s OK to say, “We don’t know, but we are working very hard to get an answer.”

OR&R and the whole NOAA family is constantly learning and adapting to the changing pace of communications in today’s information landscape. Let us know how you think we’re doing. Where would you look for information from NOAA during a disaster, such as a hurricane or oil spill? This blog? Facebook or Twitter? NOAA.gov? Somewhere else?

We are thankful to the Ad Council for sponsoring this seminar and providing great reminders as we continually work to improve our dialogue with the people we work for—the U.S. public.

Kate Clark.Kate Clark is a regional resource coordinator for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, Assessment and Restoration Division. She has responded to and conducted damage assessment for numerous environmental pollution events for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, managed NOAA’s Arctic policy portfolio, and served as a senior analyst to the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling.


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Get Answers to All Your Questions about Japan Tsunami Marine Debris

The small boat which washed up on remote Spring Island, British Columbia, Canada, was positively identified as a vessel lost during the 2011 Japan tsunami. Credit: Kevin Head.

The small boat which washed up on remote Spring Island, British Columbia, Canada, was positively identified as a vessel lost during the 2011 Japan tsunami. Credit: Kevin Head.

What happened to the massive amounts of debris swept into the ocean by the tsunami that inundated Japan’s coast in March 2011? How much is out there? How has the NOAA Marine Debris Program, a division of the Office of Response and Restoration, been involved?

Learn the answers to these questions and more in the following NOAA video, infographic, and documents related to Japan tsunami marine debris.

Watch or download the .mov file for our video on Japan tsunami marine debris [97 MB].

Get a visual snapshot of the issue of in our Japan tsunami marine debris infographic [PDF]. Find out at a glance about subjects including what tsunami debris has been found, NOAA efforts to model its path, and the likelihood of debris carrying invasive marine species.

Learn more about the issue of Japan tsunami marine debris with this NOAA infographic. Click to enlarge and download.

Learn more about the issue of Japan tsunami marine debris with this NOAA infographic. Click to enlarge and download.

Share information about tsunami debris, get tips for cleaning up beaches, and more in our handy brochure [PDF].

If you think you have found tsunami debris from Japan, read our debris handling guidelines.

Join us during our TweetChat about tsunami debris with the Office of Response and Restoration’s Marine Debris Program Director, Nancy Wallace. She will be available on Twitter to answer questions about radioactivity, floating docks, and anything else you can think of related to Japan tsunami marine debris.

  • What: Use Twitter to chat with NOAA Marine Debris Program Director Nancy Wallace
  • When: Wednesday, March 6, 2013 at 3:00 p.m. ET
  • How: Tweet your questions to @NOAAdebris using hashtag #TsunamiDebris

Follow the conversation during or after the chat via the hashtag #TsunamiDebris on Twitter.


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Study Reveals D.C. Community near Anacostia River Are Eating and Sharing Contaminated Fish

A family fishes on the Anacostia River near Washington, D.C.

A family fishes on Washington, D.C.’s Anacostia River. According to a 2012 report, 74 percent of those fishing this river are eating or sharing fish possibly contaminated by cancer-causing chemical pollutants. Credit: Rebecca Harlan/All rights reserved.

An extensive study partly funded by NOAA has found that nearly half of the people living near Washington, D.C.’s Anacostia River are unaware of the dangers of eating its fish. The results are prompting a reexamination of how to communicate these important public health risks to a diverse, multilingual, and urban community.

The report uncovered further evidence that many local fishermen—who were disproportionately African American, Latino, or Asian—are catching, eating, and sharing potentially contaminated fish with family, friends, and others, greatly expanding the possible long-term health risks to the public. The study estimated some 17,000 people living near the Anacostia could be eating these polluted fish.

“Our research confirmed that contaminated fish are, indeed, being shared in the community,” said Steve Raabe of OpinionWorks, the company that did the survey. “What we could not have known, prior to embarking upon this effort, is the extent to which this sharing happens and the complex set of factors that drive it.”

Sign with a clean fish warning about possible pollutants inside.

When shown this ad during interviews with Anacostia River fishermen, one respondent answered, “This (ad) makes you just want to grill it!” This demonstrated “how difficult it is to break through to this audience with a message about unseen contaminants,” such as PCBs. (Addressing the Risk 2012 report)

A Dirty History

The Anacostia River, which runs through Maryland and the District of Columbia, has suffered from decades of pollution, mainly from runoff and hazardous waste sites. NOAA has been partnering to evaluate, clean up, and restore the Anacostia watershed since the late 1990s.

One of the most notable chemical pollutants in the river is polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which have immune, reproductive, endocrine, and neurological effects, and may cause cancer and affect children’s cognitive development. This and other chemicals build up in the river bottom, where they make their way up the food chain and become stored in the tissues of fish, posing a health threat if people consume them.

Even though the District of Columbia and Maryland have been issuing warnings about eating Anacostia River fish for more than twenty years, the majority of fishermen and community members surveyed were not aware of these advisories. While both governments tell the public not to eat any channel catfish or carp, this report exposed that these are some of the most commonly caught fish in the river.

Furthermore, over half the fishermen reported that “knowing about such a health advisory” would not change whether or how they ate their catch. Researchers found at least two misunderstandings playing into this. One was the fishermen’s mistaken belief that they would be able to see contamination on the outside of the fish. Another was their assumption that getting “sick” from the fish would be immediate, in the form of food poisoning, instead of a future risk of cancer.

Hungry Now or Sick Later?

A particularly surprising result from the study was that fishermen along the Anacostia River often are approached by people who ask them to share fish because they do not have enough food.

Warning sign reading: Danger: Eating fish from this river may cause cancer.

Researchers found that this kind of direct messaging got the attention of those fishing on the Anacostia River. But simply improving warning signs may not be enough to address the root of the problem. (Addressing the Risk 2012 report)

“They will ride around in their cars and look to see if we’re catching fish and ride up and ask, ‘Have you caught anything today? Are you going to keep them?'” said one Anacostia fisherman interviewed during the study about sharing his catch with those lacking food.

The community’s apparent lack of access to enough affordable food complicates the task of merely delivering a better message about health risks.

“The answer to this problem will be far more complex than simply telling anglers not to share their catch,” said Raabe. “How can you tell someone who is hungry today not to eat fish that may pose future health risks?”

With almost three-quarters of fishermen eating or sharing the fish they catch, those involved in the study are looking at a broad range of possible fixes to this complex problem:

  • Improving health-risk messages to those most affected.
  • Creating more and better opportunities for education, such as fishing tournaments.
  • Introducing healthier alternative protein options to the community, through aquaponics (“a farming technique that grows plants and fish in a recirculating environment”) and local fish subscription services (akin to community supported agriculture programs).
  • Increasing the amount of city food gardens and farmers markets in the area.

Along with NOAA, the following organizations were involved in this study: Anacostia Watershed Society, the Chesapeake Bay Trust, Anacostia Riverkeeper, District Government, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

You can download the complete report at www.anacostiaws.org/fishing, read about ways to reduce exposure to chemical contaminants when eating fish, and learn about efforts to cleanup and restore the Anacostia.


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NOAA Awards $500,000 to Research Projects Exploring Impacts of Chemical Dispersants on Marine Habitats

Female blue crab on a beach.

The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science in Baltimore, Md., has been awarded $150,000 to study the effects of dispersants and dispersed oil on the commercially important blue crab, a keystone species of the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic coast, and its larvae. A female blue crab (Callinectes sapidus) is pictured here on a beach on Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay. (NOAA)

Earlier this year I wrote about NOAA making funding available to study the effects of chemical dispersants on the marine environment.  NOAA partnered with the Coastal Response Research Center at the University of New Hampshire to make a formal call for research project proposals.

We received 36 proposals from researchers and universities across the U.S. and Canada and even a few from scientists in Europe. Those proposals were peer-reviewed this past summer and early fall, and while there were lots of great proposals, only three research projects could be selected for funding.

We’re pleased to announce that NOAA will provide grants, totaling $500,000, to the following studies [PDF], which will focus on:

  • Developing a worldwide quantitative database of the toxicological effects of dispersants and chemically dispersed oil.
  • Conducting research to improve understanding of chronic impacts of chemical dispersant and chemically dispersed oil on blue crabs, a commercially important species of marine life.
  • Researching public concerns and improving risk communication tools for oil spills and dispersants.

Over the next year we’ll get progress reports from the researchers, and all of the materials will be available online at the University of New Hampshire’s website.

Congress provided money for these grants out of supplemental research funding following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill.


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Eyes in the Sky to Boots on the Ground: Three Powerful Tools for Restoring the Gulf of Mexico

Volunteers. The Internet. Remote sensing. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration has been using all three to deal with the environmental aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. At Restore America’s Estuaries’ recent conference on coastal restoration [PDF], three of my colleagues showed how each of these elements has become a tool to boost restoration efforts in the Gulf.

Managing Data

OR&R scientist George Graettinger explained how responders can use remote sensing technology to assess damage after a major polluting event, such as the Deepwater Horizon/BP spill. He has helped develop tools that allow both Geographic Information Systems (GIS) specialists and responders to visualize and manage the onslaught of data flooding in during an environmental disaster and turn that into useful information for restoration.

Here, the ERMA Gulf Response application displays information gathered by SAR remote sensing technology to locate oil in the Gulf of Mexico following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP incident.

Here, the ERMA Gulf Response application displays information gathered by SAR remote sensing technology to locate oil in the Gulf of Mexico following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP incident. (NOAA) Click to enlarge.

The principle tool for this work is OR&R’s ERMA, an online mapping platform for gathering and displaying environmental and response data. During the Deepwater Horizon response, ERMA pulled in remote sensing data from several sources, each with its own advantages and disadvantages:

  • MODIS and MERIS, NASA satellite instruments which each day captured Gulf-wide oceanic and atmospheric data and photos during the Deepwater Horizon response. While very effective in the open ocean, these sensors do not perform well in coastal waters [PDF].
  • AVIRIS, another NASA sensor which took high-resolution infrared imagery from a plane to estimate the amount of oil on the water surface. Its disadvantages included being able to cover only a small area and being limited by weather conditions.
  • SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar), a satellite radar technology with super-fine spatial resolution. This technology actually transitioned from experimental to operational during the 2010 oil spill response in the Gulf of Mexico. While very effective at “seeing” through cloud cover to detect ocean features, SAR does not allow easy differentiation between thinner and thicker layers of oil on the water surface.

Managing People

Volunteers plant vegatation to restore a section of Commencement Bay, WA which was injured by hazardous releases from industrial activities.

Volunteers plant vegatation to restore a section of Commencement Bay, WA which was injured by hazardous releases from industrial activities. (NOAA)

“If you spill it, they will come,” declared Tom Brosnan, scientist and communications manager for our Assessment and Restoration Division, at his presentation. “They” were the hordes of volunteers offering their eager help after the 2010 well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico caused the largest oil spill in U.S. waters.

Brosnan outlined some of the many challenges of using volunteers productively during an oil spill: legal liability, safety, technical training, logistics, reliability. The National Response Team, a federal interagency group coordinating emergency spill response, has taken a strategic approach to these challenges by creating guidelines for incorporating volunteers into response activities [PDF].

Brosnan also pointed out other great opportunities for harnessing the energy of concerned citizens for environmental restoration. One example was partnering with Citizens for a Healthy Bay in Tacoma, Wash. This is a community group soliciting and overseeing volunteer efforts to maintain already completed restoration projects making up for the decades of industrial pollution around Tacoma’s Commencement Bay.

Managing Communications

And no less important, explained NOAA communications specialist Tim Zink, is keeping people engaged after an oil spill is out of the public eye. For the Deepwater Horizon/BP spill, this has been a challenge particularly during the environmental damage assessment process. Zink described the difficulties of continuing to communicate effectively after initial interest from the media has diminished, of many different government trustee organizations trying to speak with one unified voice, and of the need for communication with the public to be framed carefully within the legal and cooperative aspects of the case.

He cited something as simple as a well-run online presence: the Gulf Spill Restoration website. This is a joint effort representing no fewer than three federal government departments (Commerce, State, and Interior) and five state governments. Well-organized and user-friendly, this website serves as a one-stop source of information about the ongoing effort to evaluate and restore environmental injuries in the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon/BP spill.

Among the closing speakers at the conference, Dr. Dawn Wright, chief scientist at GIS software company Esri, reinforced the importance of communicating “inspired science” to policymakers, communities, and other stakeholders throughout the restoration process. As a GIS specialist, she spoke to the many types of sophisticated spatial analysis that are available to anyone with a smartphone. The average person now has unprecedented access to geographic data on earthquakes, flu epidemics, and sea level changes. However, it is up to us to decide how we use these data-rich maps—and other tools—to understand and tell the story of environmental restoration.


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

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

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

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

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

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

Why is your work important?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did you become interested in communicating about science?

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

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

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


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How Big Is the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”? Science vs. Myth

While everything may be bigger in Texas, some reports about the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” would lead you to believe that this marine mass of plastic is bigger than Texas—maybe twice as big as the Lone Star State, or even twice as big as the continental U.S.

For NOAA, a national science agency, separating science from science fiction about the Pacific garbage patch (and other “garbage patches”) is important when answering people’s questions about what it is and how we should deal with the problem. (For the record, no scientifically sound estimates exist for the size or mass of these garbage patches.)

Map of garbage patches and convergence zones in the Pacific Ocean.

Marine debris accumulation locations in the North Pacific Ocean.

The NOAA Marine Debris Program’s Carey Morishige takes down two myths floating around with the rest of the debris about the garbage patches in a recent post on the Marine Debris Blog:

  1. There is no “garbage patch,” a name which conjures images of a floating landfill in the middle of the ocean, with miles of bobbing plastic bottles and rogue yogurt cups. Morishige explains this misnomer:

While it’s true that these areas have a higher concentration of plastic than other parts of the ocean, much of the debris found in these areas are small bits of plastic (microplastics) that are suspended throughout the water column. A comparison I like to use is that the debris is more like flecks of pepper floating throughout a bowl of soup, rather than a skim of fat that accumulates (or sits) on the surface.

She’s not downplaying the significance of microplastics. They are nearly ubiquitous today—degrading into tiny bits from a range of larger plastic items* [PDF] and now turning up in everything from face scrubs to fleece jackets. Yet their impacts on marine life mostly remain a big unknown.

  1. There are many “garbage patches,” and by that, we mean that trash congregates to various degrees in numerous parts of the Pacific and the rest of the ocean. These natural gathering points appear where rotating currents, winds, and other ocean features converge to accumulate marine debris, as well as plankton, seaweed, and other sea life. (Find out more about these “convergence zones” in the ocean and a NOAA study of marine debris concentrations in the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone [PDF].)

Any way you look at these “peppery soups” of plastic in the Pacific, none of the debris should be there. The NOAA Marine Debris website and blog have lots of great information and references if you want to learn more about the garbage patch issue.

Next up, Morishige digs into how feasible it is to clean up the so-called garbage patches.

Looking for more information about the “garbage patches”?

*Updated July 10, 2012. **Updated Jan. 28,  2013 to correct a statement incorrectly identifying the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone as what is referred to as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.”

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