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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Marine Life in Gulf of Mexico Faces Multiple Challenges

Editor’s Note: This is a revised posting by Maggie Broadwater of NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science that has corrected some factual misstatements in the original post.

photo of a bottlenose dolphin calf.

A bottlenose dolphin calf in the Gulf of Mexico. (NOAA)

Animals living in coastal waters can face a number of environmental stressors—both from nature and from humans—which, in turn, may have compounding effects. This may be the case for marine life in the Gulf of Mexico which experiences both oil spills and the presence of toxic algae blooms.

On the Lookout

Marine sentinels, like bottlenose dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico, share this coastal environment with humans and consume food from many of the same sources. As marine sentinels, these marine mammals are similar to the proverbial “canary in the coal mine.” Studying bottlenose dolphins may alert us humans to the presence of chemical pollutants, pathogens, and toxins from algae (simple ocean plants) that may be in Gulf waters.

Texas Gulf waters, for an example, are a haven for a diverse array of harmful algae. Additional environmental threats for this area include oil spills, stormwater and agricultural runoff, and industrial pollution.

Recently, we have been learning about the potential effects of oil on bottlenose dolphin populations in the Gulf of Mexico as a result of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in April 2010. Dolphins with exposure to oil may develop lung disease and adrenal impacts, and be less able to deal with stress.

Certain types of algae produce toxins that can harm fish, mammals, and birds and cause illness in humans. During harmful algal blooms, which occur when colonies of algae “bloom” or grow out of control, the high toxin levels observed often result in illness or death for some marine life, and low-level exposure may compromise their health and increase their susceptibility to other stressors.

However, we know very little about the combined effects from both oil and harmful algal blooms.

A barge loaded with marine fuel oil sits partially submerged in the Houston Ship Channel, March 22, 2014. The bulk carrier Summer Wind, reported a collision between the Summer Wind and a barge, containing 924,000 gallons of fuel oil, towed by the motor vessel Miss Susan. (U.S. Coast Guard)

A barge loaded with marine fuel oil sits partially submerged in the Houston Ship Channel, March 22, 2014. The bulk carrier Summer Wind, reported a collision between the Summer Wind and a barge, containing 924,000 gallons of fuel oil, towed by the motor vessel Miss Susan. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Familiar Waters

Prior to the Galveston Bay oil spill, Texas officials closed Galveston Bay to the harvesting of oysters, clams, and mussels on March 14, 2014 after detecting elevated levels of Dinophysis. These harmful algae can produce toxins that result in diarrhetic shellfish poisoning when people eat contaminated shellfish. Four days later, on March 18, trained volunteers from NOAA’s Phytoplankton Monitoring Network detected Pseudo-nitzschia in Galveston Bay. NOAA Harmful Algal Bloom scientist Steve Morton, Ph.D., confirmed the presence of Pseudo-nitzchia multiseries, a type of algae known as a diatom that produces a potent neurotoxin affecting humans, birds, and marine mammals. NOAA’s Harmful Algal Bloom Analytical Response Team confirmed the toxin was present and notified Texas officials.

When Oil and Algae Mix

Studying marine mammal strandings and deaths helps NOAA scientists and coastal managers understand the effects of harmful algal blooms across seasons, years, and geographical regions. We know that acute exposure to algal toxins through diet can cause death in marine mammals, and that even exposures to these toxins that don’t kill the animal may result in serious long-term effects, including chronic epilepsy, heart disease, and reproductive failure.

But in many cases, we are still working to figure out which level of exposure to these toxins makes an animal ill and which leads to death. We also don’t yet know the effects of long-term low-level toxin exposure, exposure to multiple toxins at the same time, or repeated exposure to the same or multiple toxins. Current NOAA research is addressing many of these questions.

A dolphin mortality event may have many contributing factors; harmful algae may only be one piece in the puzzle. Thus, we do not yet know what effects recent Dinophysis and Pseudo-nitzchia blooms may have on the current marine mammal populations living in Texas coastal waters. Coastal managers and researchers are on alert for marine mammal strandings that may be associated with exposure to harmful algae, but the story is unfolding, and is very complex.

Photo of volunteer with a microscope.

Galveston volunteer with NOAA’s Phytoplankton Monitoring Network helps identify toxic algae. (NOAA)

On March 22, 2014, four days after harmful algae were found in Galveston Bay, the M/V Summer Wind collided with oil tank-barge Kirby 27706 in Galveston Bay near Texas City, releasing approximately 168,000 gallons of thick, sticky fuel oil. The Port of Houston was closed until March 27. State and federal agencies are responding via the Unified Command. NOAA is providing scientific support and Natural Resource Damage Assessment personnel are working to identify injured natural resources and restoration needs. Much of the oil has come ashore and survey teams are evaluating the shorelines to make cleanup recommendations.

Time will tell if the harmful algal toxins and oil in Galveston Bay have a major negative effect on the marine mammals, fish, and sea turtles that live in surrounding waters. Fortunately, NOAA scientists with a range of expertise—from dolphins to harmful algae to oil spills—are on the job.

Maggie BroadwaterMaggie Broadwater is a Research Chemist and serves as coordinator for NOAA’s Harmful Algal Bloom Analytical Response Team at the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science in Charleston, S.C.  Dr. Broadwater earned a Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the Medical University of South Carolina in 2012 and has a M.S. in Biomedical Sciences and a B.S. in Biochemistry.


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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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What Are Kids Reading About Oil Spills?

This is a post by Dr. Alan Mearns, NOAA Senior Staff Scientist.

Kids reading books in a book store.

Credit: Carolien Dekeersmaeker/Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic License

What are your children and their teachers reading? We might want to pay closer attention. The stories we tell our children are a reflection of how we see the world, and we want to make sure these stories have good information about our world.

I occasionally accompany my wife, a preschool teacher, to local children’s bookstores, and more often than not, find books about oil spills and other disasters.  Recently, I took a closer look at the quality of the information found in a sampling of children’s books on oil spills.

An Oil Spill Ecologist Dives into Kids’ Books

So far, the eight or so books I’ve looked at focus on one of the two major oil spills in the American mind: the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska or the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

A number are heart-warming stories about wildlife speaking about their experience in oil and the nice people who captured, cleaned, and released them. Birds, especially pelicans, and sea otters often play a starring role in telling these stories. Several present case histories of the oil spills, their causes, and cleanup. Some books place oil spills in the context of our heavy reliance on oil, but many ignore why there’s so much oil being transported in the first place.

One book’s color drawings show oil spill cleanup methods so well you can actually see how they work—and which I think could even be used in trainings on oil spill science.

Something that may not be top-of-mind for many parents but which I appreciate is the presence of glossaries, indices, and citations for further reading. These resources can help adults and kids evaluate whether statements about these oil spills are supported by reliable information or not.

Reading Recommendations

When reading a book—whether it is about oil spills or not—with kids you know, keep the following recommendations in mind:

  • Make sure the story informs, as well as entertains.
  • Ask where the “facts” in the story came from.
  • Look for reputable, original sources of information.
  • Ask why different sources might be motivated to show information the way they do.
  • Talk to kids about thinking critically about where information comes from.

Learn more about the ocean, pollution, and creatures that live there from our list of resources for teachers and students.

Dr. Alan Mearns.Dr. Alan Mearns is Ecologist and Senior Staff Scientist with the Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division in Seattle. He has over 40 years of experience in ecology and pollution assessment and response, with a focus on wastewater discharges and oil spills along the Pacific Coast and Alaska. He has worked in locations as varied as the Arctic Ocean, southern California, Israel, and Australia, and has participated in spill responses around the U.S. and abroad.


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Our Top 10 New Year’s Resolutions for 2014

In 2013, a NOAA team collected 14 metric tons of fishing gear, plastic, and other debris from the shoreline and waters around Hawaii's Midway Atoll. We're looking forward to keeping our coasts clean in 2014 too! (NOAA)

In 2013, a NOAA team collected 14 metric tons of fishing gear, plastic, and other debris from the shoreline and waters around Hawaii’s Midway Atoll. We’re looking forward to keeping our coasts clean in 2014 too! (NOAA)

With the end of 2013, many are reflecting on how the past year went. For NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, we think we handled things pretty well, despite seeing some unusual challenges come our way (e.g., grounded drilling rig, molasses spill, 70 foot stranded dock). After all, being prepared—and preparing others—for the worst is a major focus in our work.

Despite our many accomplishments of the last year, however, we know that we should always be striving to improve how we respond to oil and chemical spills, assess and restore damaged ecosystems, and reduce the threat of marine debris.

So, without further ado, here are our top 10 resolutions for 2014:

  1. Lose “wait.” That is, we’re increasing our capacity to process damage assessment cases and get dollars for restoration out the door more quickly.
  2. Get more mobile. We’re making several of our websites friendlier for mobile devices. In particular, stay tuned to response.restoration.noaa.gov and incidentnews.noaa.gov.
  3. Make more friends. We’re now on Facebook and Twitter, so don’t be shy about following us for the latest news and updates.
  4. Stay trendy. As trends change in what petroleum products America is importing and exporting, we’re working with the University of Washington to explore how this will affect our readiness to respond to the oil spills of tomorrow.
  5. Quit littering. Or rather, get others to quit littering. We’re always dreaming up better ways to change people’s behavior so that everyone’s trash, including plastics, stays out of our oceans.
  6. Get our ducks in a row. When Hurricane Sandy came racing toward the East Coast, it was bringing wind and waves that would literally reshape the shoreline. As a result, we’re updating our northeast Environmental Sensitivity Maps to reflect changes caused by the storm and to add information that would enhance the value of these geographic summaries of vulnerable coastal resources when another disaster strikes.
  7. Help others. We’re partnering with states impacted by Sandy to assess and remove marine debris from the storm, so that means getting funding out fast to those who need it.
  8. Update our look. This spring, we’ll be releasing a major update to our mapping program MARPLOT, which allows emergency responders such as firefighters to create, customize, and download maps for offline use. Users will see very high-quality base (background) maps, including the familiar sight of Google maps.
  9. Listen more. We’ll be looking forward to hearing your thoughts on restoration plans and projects around the country, starting with Deepwater Horizon public meetings across the Gulf of Mexico in January.
  10. Release a new GNOME. In 2014, we’ll be releasing GNOME 2, our next generation oil spill modeling system. GNOME 2 will offer a Web-based system for forecasting the path of spilled oil in pre-designated locations in the U.S., include better 3-D modeling support, and integrate our oil weathering model, ADIOS.

Thanks for helping us make 2013 a great year. We look forward to even more in 2014!


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Study Shows Gulf Dolphins in Poor Health following Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

A dolphin is observed with oil on its skin on August 5, 2010, in Barataria Bay, La.

A dolphin is observed with oil on its skin on August 5, 2010, in Barataria Bay, La. (Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries/Mandy Tumlin)

Barataria Bay, located in the northern Gulf of Mexico, received heavy and prolonged oiling after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. This area is also home to many bottlenose dolphins. In the wake of the spill, how healthy are dolphins living in this area? And how do they compare to dolphins living elsewhere?

As part of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, a team of more than 50 government, academic, and non-governmental researchers assessed the health of bottlenose dolphins living in Louisiana’s Barataria Bay, which received heavy oiling following the Deepwater Horizon spill, and in Florida’s Sarasota Bay, which was not oiled following the spill.

The team of scientists and veterinarians temporarily captured live dolphins, performed comprehensive health examinations on them at the site, and then released them. The health exam included measuring each dolphin’s length and weight; doing a physical exam; sampling skin, blood, and blubber; and performing an ultrasound to evaluate their internal organs, particularly their lung condition and pregnancy status. The team has published the results of this study in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science & Technology.

We spoke with two of the NOAA scientists involved, Dr. Lori Schwacke and Dr. Teri Rowles, to learn more about the research and what their findings mean for dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico.

Q: When did you conduct the dolphin health assessments and what did you observe?

Aug 2011: A veterinarian performs an ultrasound to assess a Barataria Bay dolphin’s health.

Aug 2011: A veterinarian performs an ultrasound to assess a Barataria Bay dolphin’s health. (NOAA)

The first health assessments were conducted in the summer of 2011 in Barataria Bay, La., and in Sarasota Bay, Fla. We found that the dolphins in Barataria Bay were in very poor health. Many of them were underweight and their blood tests showed a number of abnormal conditions such as anemia, elevated markers of inflammation, and increased liver enzymes.

Also, one rather unusual condition that we noted in many of the Barataria Bay dolphins was that they had very low levels of some hormones (specifically, cortisol) that are produced by the adrenal gland and are important for a normal stress response. Under a stressful condition, such as being chased by a predator, the adrenal gland produces cortisol, which then triggers a number of physiological responses including an increased heart rate and increased blood sugar. This gives an animal the energy burst that it needs to respond appropriately. In the Barataria Bay dolphins, cortisol levels were unusually low. The concern is that their adrenal glands were incapable of producing appropriate levels of cortisol, and this could ultimately lead to a number of complications and in some situations even death.

We also found significant lung disease. We looked for several different abnormalities based on studies that have been done on captive animals, and what we saw was most consistent with pneumonia. In some of the animals, the lung disease was so severe that we considered it life-threatening for that individual.

Q: How serious were the conditions observed in dolphins from Barataria Bay?

Some of the conditions observed in these dolphins were very serious. Some of the animals had multiple health issues going on, such as lung disease, very high liver enzymes, and indications of chronic inflammation. The veterinarians assigned a prognosis for each animal and nearly half of the Barataria Bay dolphins were given a guarded (uncertain outcome) or worse prognosis. In fact, 17 percent of them were given a poor or grave prognosis, indicating that they weren’t expected to live.

In comparison, in Sarasota we had only one guarded prognosis and the rest were in good or fair condition. Sarasota dolphins were much healthier than Barataria Bay dolphins.

Q: Have you been able to follow up on the status of any of the dolphins examined during these assessments?

We know one of them died. Y12 was a 16-year-old male that we examined in August 2011. He was underweight and many of his blood parameters were out of the expected range. The veterinary team assigned him a grave prognosis. His carcass was recovered by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries in January of 2012. So we know that he only survived a little over five months  after the health assessment was conducted. . But often carcasses aren’t recovered, and there were other dolphins that we examined that we didn’t expect to live for very long.

We’re also conducting photographic monitoring studies to monitor the survival and reproductive success or failure of the dolphins we sampled. Several of the females we sampled in Barataria Bay were pregnant so we’ve been monitoring them around and past their due date to see whether or not we see them with a calf. The gestation period for a dolphin is around 12 months, so these monitoring studies take a little bit longer. We hope to report those results soon.

Q: Are the disease conditions observed in Barataria Bay dolphins—lung disease, compromised stress hormone response—consistent with those expected from exposure to oil?

The decreased cortisol response is something fairly unusual but has been reported from experimental studies of mink exposed to fuel oil. The respiratory issues are also consistent with experimental studies in animals and clinical reports of people exposed to petroleum hydrocarbons.

Q: How do you know these health impacts weren’t caused by other lingering pollutants in the Gulf?

We analyzed the dolphins’ blubber to evaluate the levels of contaminants that have been previously reported in marine mammal tissues and then also linked with health effects. This covered a fairly broad suite of contaminants and included polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) as well as a suite of persistent pesticides that we know accumulate in dolphins over their lifetime, leaving a record of their exposure. We found that the levels of these pollutants in Barataria Bay dolphins were actually lower than the levels in Sarasota Bay dolphins. The levels from Barataria Bay dolphins were also low compared to previously reported levels in dolphins from a number of other coastal sites in the southeastern U.S. Therefore, we don’t think that the health effects we saw can be attributed to these other pollutants that we looked at.

Q: Are there more dolphin health assessments currently taking place or planned for the future?

Yes, in the summer of 2013 we repeated the studies in Sarasota Bay and Barataria Bay and expanded the studies to Mississippi Sound, where we assessed dolphins both in Mississippi and in Alabama waters. Those samples and data are still being analyzed.

Q: Was there anything about this study that you found surprising?

The magnitude of the health effects that we saw was surprising. We’ve done these health assessments in a number of locations across the southeast U.S. coast and we’ve never seen animals that were in this poor of condition.

Q: How does this study relate to or inform the investigation of the high number of marine mammal strandings observed along the Gulf Coast since February 2010 (the Unusual Mortality Event), which pre-dates the Deepwater Horizon oil spill?

Following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, numerous dolphins were documented encountering oil, such as those in this photo from July 2010.

Following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, numerous dolphins were documented encountering oil, such as those in this photo from July 2010. (NOAA)

The Unusual Mortality Event that’s underway is in the same general geographic area as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill response and overlaps with the Natural Resource Damage Assessment. These findings overlap with the high number of strandings, particularly in the Barataria Bay or central Louisiana area.

When you have a significant event like an oil spill or an Unusual Mortality Event, being able to study both live and dead animals provides more information about what might be going on as animals get ill and then die. Having access to findings from both of these studies enables us to look for commonalities between what we’re finding in the sick animals and what we’re finding in the dead animals to better evaluate causes and contributing factors.

Q: Outside of NOAA, who else did you work with to perform the health assessment?

This work was part of the Deepwater Horizon Natural Resource Damage Assessment being conducted cooperatively among NOAA, other federal and state trustees, and BP. This wouldn’t have been possible without the help of a number of our partners, including the National Marine Mammal Foundation, Chicago Zoological Society, and Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. Also, Seaworld and the Georgia Aquarium provided personnel to support our studies. Their expertise and experience were key to getting these studies done.

We greatly appreciate the efforts of researchers from the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program, which led the dolphin health assessments in Sarasota.

Watch a video of the researchers as they temporarily catch and give health exams to some of the dolphins in Barataria Bay, La., in August of 2011:


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Let Maps Open up the World Around You on GIS Day

Atlantic ERMA view of a grounded tanker after Post Tropical Cyclone Sandy.

In our online GIS tool Atlantic ERMA, you can see NOAA National Geodetic Survey aerial photography showing the derelict tanker John B. Caddell grounded on Staten Island, N.Y., following Post Tropical Cyclone Sandy. Red markers show field photos such as the image seen in the pop-up window in Atlantic ERMA. (NOAA)

Happy GIS Day! Today, GIS events are being hosted around the globe to highlight and celebrate the transformational role of Geographic Information Systems, or GIS.

GIS is mapping software that can display multiple sets of location-based information onto a single map. Viewing information this way can help you visualize lots of data and identify trends and relationships, such as the potential health impacts of living near power plants and major highways, or how many pizza places are within 10 miles of your house.

Like offices and agencies around the world, we in NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration use GIS in our everyday work. Take a look at a few of the ways we use GIS—and you can too—to reduce environmental threats from coastal pollution.

Mapping Environmental Sensitivity

One of our teams is developing Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) maps using GIS technology to integrate and share information about sensitive shoreline resources, such as birds, wildlife, fisheries, and public beaches. Historically used for oil and chemical spill response and planning, these maps have become effective tools in preparing for and responding to storms, hurricanes, and other coastal disasters.

ESI data are published in a variety of GIS formats, including a file geodatabase and map document, that simplify their use within the GIS program ArcMap. Users can query data for their region to see what species are present in January, where threatened and endangered species live, what shoreline types are present, etc. You can download ESI data and ESI tools from our website and use them yourself.

Mapping Resources during a Disaster

MARPLOT is the mapping component in CAMEO, our software suite of tools for chemical spill response, which we develop with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It’s a free and easy-to-use GIS system that emergency responders and planners use to display information from other programs in the CAMEO suite. This could mean mapping estimates of high-risk areas for toxic chemical clouds (from ALOHA) or the locations of chemical production and storage facilities in relation to schools and hospitals (from CAMEOfm).

MARPLOT can also be used as a general mapping tool, which allows users to add objects, move around the map, and get population estimates. Some users have adapted MARPLOT, which operates without an Internet connection, for use during tornado response, search and rescue operations, and emergency planning. The development team is working on a major revision to MARPLOT, which will include access to global basemaps, enhanced web-based features, and additional data management capabilities.

Mapping Environmental Response

Web mapping for environmental response, such as oil spills, has come a long way in the past decade. NOAA is a leader in this digital mapping revolution with ERMA®, the Environmental Response Management Application, which we designed with the University of New Hampshire’s Coastal Response Research Center and the EPA. It’s an online mapping tool offering comprehensive access to environmental response information and is customized for many coastal areas of the U.S.

ERMA integrates both static and real-time data, such as ESI maps, ship locations, weather, and ocean currents, in a centralized map for use during a disaster such as an oil spill or hurricane. It provides environmental responders and decision-makers with up-to-date information for planning, response, assessment, and restoration activities. The application incorporates data into a convenient, web-based GIS mapping platform that can be accessed simultaneously by a variety of users via the Internet.

ERMA Deepwater Gulf Response is currently assisting with the ongoing response operations for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Data related to this oil spill is displayed here and updated daily. In the northeast, Atlantic ERMA provided support to the Post Tropical Cyclone Sandy pollution response along the coast of New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut.

To the far north, Arctic ERMA has been used to integrate and display response-related information from oil spill technology demonstrations aboard an icebreaker in the remote Arctic Ocean and to display the data and high resolution imagery of the ShoreZone project, which seeks to map all 46,600 miles of Alaska’s coastal habitat and features. You can view all of the regional ERMA sites on our website.

Discover Your World

GIS DayYou can explore on the GIS Day website some of the amazing stories that GIS can help tell:


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Deep Sea Ecosystem may take Decades to Recover from Deepwater Horizon spill

Sample Cylinders into Gulf

Sample Cylinders into Gulf – Multicorer sampling operation in Gulf of Mexico on the RV Gyre. (Credit – with permission from: Texas A&M-University Corpus Christi, Sandra Arismendez.)

Scientists publish first analysis of post-spill sediment ecosystem impacts surrounding well head

The deep-sea soft-sediment ecosystem in the immediate area of the 2010’s Deepwater Horizon well head blowout and subsequent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico will likely take decades to recover from the spill’s impacts, according to a scientific paper reported in the online scientific journal PLoS One.

The paper is the first to give comprehensive results of the spill’s effect on deep-water communities at the base of the Gulf’s food chain, in its soft-bottom muddy habitats, specifically looking at biological composition and chemicals at the same time at the same location.

“This is not yet a complete picture,” said Cynthia Cooksey, NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science lead scientist for the spring 2011 cruise to collect additional data from the sites sampled in fall 2010. “We are now in the process of analyzing data collected from a subsequent cruise in the spring of 2011. Those data will not be available for another year, but will also inform how we look at conditions over time.”

“As the principal investigators, we were tasked with determining what impacts might have occurred to the sea floor from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill,” said Paul Montagna, Ph.D., Endowed Chair for Ecosystems and Modeling at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies, Texas A&M University Corpus Christi. “We developed an innovative approach to combine tried and true classical

Processing Core Sample Cylinder from Gulf

Processing Core Sample Cylinder from Gulf – Rick Kalke Harte Research Institute processing multicorer sediment sample aboard the RV Gyre. (Credit – with permission from: Texas A&M-University Corpus Christi, Sandra Arismendez.)

statistical techniques with state of the art mapping technologies to create a map of the footprint of the oil spill.”

“Normally, when we investigate offshore drilling sites, we find pollution within 300 to 600 yards from the site,” said Montagna. “This time it was nearly two miles from the wellhead, with identifiable impacts more than ten miles away. The effect on bottom of the vast underwater plume is something, which until now, no one was able to map. This study shows the devastating effect the spill had on the sea floor itself, and demonstrates the damage to important natural resources.”

“The tremendous biodiversity of meiofauna in the deep-sea area of the Gulf of Mexico we studied has been reduced dramatically,” said Jeff Baguley, Ph.D., University of Nevada, Reno expert on meiofauna, small invertebrates that range in size from 0.042 to 0.300 millimeters in size that live in both marine and fresh water. “Nematode worms have become the dominant species at sites we sampled that were impacted by the oil. So though the overall number of meiofauna may not have changed much, it’s that we’ve lost the incredible biodiversity.”

The oil spill and plume covered almost 360 square miles with the most severe reduction of biological abundance and biodiversity impacting an area about 9 square miles around the wellhead, and moderate effects seen 57 square miles around the wellhead.

The research team, which included members from University of Nevada, Reno, Texas A&M University Corpus Christi, NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science and representatives from BP, is conducting the research for the Technical Working Group of the NOAA-directed Natural Resource Damage Assessment.

Others working on the study with Montagna, Baguley, and Cooksey were NOAA scientists, Ian Hartwell and Jeffrey Hyland.

The PLoS One paper can be found online.

The NOAA Office of Response and Restoration supported parts of this study through both its spill response and Natural Resource Damage Assessment operations. 

Contacts:
Texas A&M University Corpus Christi, Cindy McCarrier, 361.825.2336/361.871.0837, Cynthia.McCarrier@tamucc.edu; Gloria Gallardo, 361.825.2427 or 361.331.5093 (cell); Cassandra Hinojosa, 361.825.2337 or 361.658.5829 (cell)

University of Nevada, Reno, Mike Wolterbeek, 775.784.4547, mwolterbeek@unr.edu

NOAA, Ben Sherman/Keeley Belva, 301.713.3066, Ben.Sherman@noaa.gov, Keeley.Belva@noaa.gov


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NOAA Data on Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Plume Now Available Online

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Ben Shorr and Mark Miller.

Fighting the flames on the Deepwater Horizon drill platform in 2010.

Fighting the flames on the Deepwater Horizon drill platform in 2010. (NOAA)

NOAA Physical Scientist Ben Shorr: It was late April 2010, in the first few days of the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill response. It was clear that, in addition to a tragic loss of life, this oil spill was going to be a major event. As I was heading down to the Gulf of Mexico to join my colleagues who were beginning to assess environmental injuries from the spill, I got a call from my supervisor Amy. A research vessel was heading out to collect samples near the leaking wellhead—could I hop on the boat the next day?

That’s how my journey into this oil spill response began and I ended up on the first federal scientific vessel collecting oceanographic and environmental samples, including those from the underwater oil plume. Now, the finalized and standardized analytical chemistry data have been released in NOAA’s online archive. Here’s more about it from the press release:

The dataset, collected to support oil removal activities and assess the presence of dispersants, wraps up a three year process that began with the gathering of water samples and measurements by ships in the Gulf of Mexico during and after the oil release in 2010. NOAA was one of the principal agencies responding to the Macondo well explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, and is the official ocean data archivist for the federal government. While earlier versions of the data were made available during and shortly after the response, it took three years for NOAA employees and contractors to painstakingly catalog each piece of data into this final form.

This Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill dataset, including more than two million chemical analyses of sediment, tissue, water, and oil, as well as toxicity testing results and related documentation, is available to the public online at: http://www.nodc.noaa.gov/deepwaterhorizon/specialcollections.html. A companion dataset, including ocean temperature and salinity data, currents, preliminary chemical results and other properties collected and made available during the response can be found at: http://www.nodc.noaa.gov/deepwaterhorizon/insitu.html.

The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill response involved the collection of an enormous dataset. The underwater plume of hydrocarbon — a chemical compound that consists only of the elements carbon and hydrogen — was a unique feature of the spill, resulting from a combination of high-pressure discharge from the well near the seafloor and the underwater application of chemical dispersant to break up the oil. …

The effort to detect and track the plume was given to the Deepwater Horizon Response Subsurface Monitoring Unit (SMU), led by NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, and included responders from many federal and state agencies and British Petroleum (BP). Between May and November 2010, the SMU coordinated data collection from 24 ships on 129 cruises.

While on this scientific sampling cruise, I found myself working closely with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency scientists, the ship’s captain and oceanographic technicians, BP’s scientific lead and contractors, and NOAA’s Natural Resource Damage Assessment representative. There were also experts from Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans aboard. The work our team began quickly became the basis for the Subsurface Monitoring Unit within the spill response, which coordinated and provided scientific expertise for sampling, analysis, and mapping of the underwater hydrocarbon plume. Our team was made up of NOAA staff, in addition to others from the EPA, U.S. Geological Survey, and Gulf states.

During the first several months of the response, our team worked closely with EPA and other partners to establish common data management protocols that would allow us to coordinate and collect data including chemistry samples, acoustics, particle size, and oceanographic measurements from federal, BP, and academic scientific cruises in the Gulf of Mexico. These datasets were quickly analyzed and used by the scientific advisors and U.S. Coast Guard to make decisions about directing spill response clean-up operations. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration and National Coastal Data Development Center (a division of the National Oceanographic Data Center) formed a close partnership, working with federal, state, and university scientists to gather, organize, process, and analyze oceanographic data—in addition to archiving and making these datasets publicly available.

NOAA Physical Scientist Mark Miller: In October of 2010, shortly after returning from Coast Guard headquarters where I worked during the oil spill, I was asked to help prepare for public release the data collected by the Subsurface Monitoring Unit on the research vessels such as the one my colleague Ben Shorr was on. A few months later in January of 2011, I picked up where Ben left off on coordinating this effort.

Now, I had been involved in database development and deployment for 20 years, so I felt prepared for this task. This was naïve. While at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, DC, I had been closely involved with the group that used some of the same Subsurface Monitoring Unit data to prepare operational reports for the National Incident Commander, Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen.

Yet, I did not realize the scope and depth of the data collected on these research cruises. When told later in the project that there were over 2 million records collected, I quickly gained a much greater appreciation of the long, rigorous process involved in preparing and making this information public. The National Oceanographic Data Center has been releasing and updating this response data on a dedicated public website since early in the spill, and this process is finally complete. Because these data will be archived for at least 75 years, they will be available to help researchers for decades to come.

Ben Shorr has been a Physical Scientist with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration since he came to Seattle (mostly to ski and sail) in 2000. Ben works on a range of topics, from cleanup, damage assessment, and restoration to visualization and spatial analysis. In his spare time, he enjoys hanging out with his 5 and 3 year old kids, which means riding bikes, skiing, and sailing too.

Mark Miller has been with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration in the Emergency Response Division for 25 years, starting the year before the Exxon Valdez oil spill. When not wrestling with data from the Deepwater Horizon/BP spill, he supervises the in-house programming staff and is the NOAA Program Manager for the CAMEO software suite used extensively by fire services across the country to respond to chemical release incidents.


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Why You Should Thank a Hydrographer

NOAA's Office of Coast Survey created this digital terrain model of the wreck of the freighter Fernstream, a 416-foot motor cargo vessel that sank near San Francisco, Calif., in 1952. The different colors indicate water depth and helps inform us on the structural integrity of the wreck, which may still have stores of oil aboard. (NOAA)

NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey created this digital terrain model of the wreck of the freighter Fernstream, a 416-foot motor cargo vessel that sank near San Francisco, Calif., in 1952. The different colors indicate water depth and helps inform us on the structural integrity of the wreck, which may still have stores of oil aboard. (NOAA)

World Hydrography Day is celebrated each year on June 21. But before we start thanking hydrographers, we first should explain: What is a hydrographer?

Basically, a hydrographer measures and documents the shape and features of the ocean floor and coasts. These scientists then create charts showing the ocean’s varying depths and the location of underwater obstructions, such as rocky outcroppings or shipwrecks. As our fellow NOAA colleagues at the Office of Coast Survey (an office full of hydrographers) further elaborate, “hydrographic surveying ‘looks’ into the ocean to see what the sea floor looks like,” with most of the work “primarily concerned with water depth.”

Mariners, unlike drivers on a dangerous road, can’t see the whole picture of the path their ships are taking. Is this harbor deep enough for a large ship to enter safely? Where should they avoid sensitive coral reefs? They rely on NOAA’s nautical charts to show them what is on the sea floor and where there are objects or areas to avoid.

Sometimes, however, ships do run afoul with underwater features—which, for example, could be coral reefs, pipelines, or damaged oil service platforms—leading to oil spills or crushed coral reef habitats. That brings our office into the picture to help minimize the environmental damage and then work to restore it.

This is why we at the Office of Response and Restoration are grateful for the hydrographers who are diligently creating and updating the charts that keep our ocean and its travelers safe. Beyond that, here are a few more reasons why we (and hopefully you) would want to thank a hydrographer.

Modeling Leaking Shipwrecks

Remote sensing data from hydrographic surveys are, in many instances, the first picture we have of a shipwreck and give us some sense of what state the ship is in before NOAA sends down divers or remotely operated vehicles (ROV). We know that even ships broken into two or three sections can still hold a significant amount of oil (from fuel or cargo). Recently, we worked with NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries to evaluate the thousands of shipwrecks in U.S. waters for those with the potential to leak oil still onboard. In a report to the U.S. Coast Guard, we highlighted 17 wrecks, in particular, that should be assessed further and possibly have any remaining oil removed.

Coast Survey recently finished surveying one of these wrecks, the freighter Fernstream [PDF], which sank after colliding with another ship near San Francisco Bay in 1952. One of their physical science technicians then created a vibrant three-dimensional model of the wreck, with the colors representing different water depths detected by multibeam sonar. From this kind of information, maritime archaeologists can interpret how the wrecked ship might be oriented on the sea floor and estimate where oil tanks could be located.

Mapping Environmental Responses

Bathymetry, or water depth measurement, data is one of the primary data sets we use as a base layer in ERMA®, our online mapping tool for environmental planning and response. We often display high resolution bathymetry data in ERMA to better understand areas of interest, such as the site of a ship spilling oil. ERMA can readily pull in bathymetry data feeds from NOAA and university partners to help our scientist refine models of the water column and classify aquatic habitat. High resolution bathymetry data was particularly useful for visualizing the area surrounding the damaged wellhead for the Deepwater Horizon wreckage and has aided in assessing risk to nearshore habitats on the Gulf Coast.

In this view of the online mapping tool, ERMA Deepwater Gulf Response, the multi-colored bathymetry, or water depth measurement, data are shown for estuaries off the coast of Louisiana and Alabama. This information aided in assessing risk to nearshore habitats on the Gulf Coast after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill. (NOAA)

In this view of the online mapping tool, ERMA Deepwater Gulf Response, the multi-colored bathymetry, or water depth measurement, data are shown for estuaries off the coast of Louisiana and Alabama. This information aided in assessing risk to nearshore habitats on the Gulf Coast after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill. (NOAA)

During the response to an oil spill or ship grounding, we sometimes work with hydrographers who may be able to do new underwater surveys of the affected area. In addition, with access to huge databases of bathymetry data, they can offer much more detailed information than what is on the average nautical chart, helping us guide response decisions, such as where response vessels can be anchored safely. For example, when Shell’s Arctic drilling rig Kulluk ran aground off Kodiak Island, Alaska, on Dec. 31, 2012, a Coast Survey specialist, using detailed nautical charts and data, helped us identify nearby Kiliuda Bay as a suitable safe harbor to relocate the rig.

Detecting Submerged Hurricane Debris

After a hurricane, lots of debris from on land, including oil drums, shipping containers, and chemical tanks, can get swept into the ocean. This has been a notable issue following Hurricane Sandy in the fall of 2012. Currently, Coast Survey is collecting hydrographic data to update their charts from North Carolina to Connecticut, the states affected by Hurricane Sandy. We will be focusing in particular on the data they gather for New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut and whether they find items on the sea floor larger than one cubic meter in size (about 35 cubic feet). That survey data then will be processed by the University of New Hampshire’s Joint Hydrographic Center. Their analyses will inform our Marine Debris Program’s future efforts to prioritize and remove the submerged debris items detected in these surveys.

Thanks also go to the Office of Response and Restoration’s Doug Helton, Michele Jacobi, and Jason Rolfe and the Office of Marine Sanctuaries’ Lisa Symons for contributing to this post.


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Help Us Plan Early Restoration for the Deepwater Horizon/BP Oil Spill

Restoring a wetland in Louisiana. (NOAA)

Restoring a wetland in Louisiana. (NOAA)

The federal agencies and states acting as natural resource trustees* have announced new opportunities for the public to engage in restoration planning for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. We plan to prepare a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, or PEIS, to evaluate the potential environmental effects of early restoration projects. We have initiated the public scoping process to assist in preparing the PEIS.

The PEIS will include an evaluation of the potential effects of restoration types—and specific projects—proposed as part of future phases of early restoration. It will also look at the cumulative impacts of early restoration.

Early restoration was initiated by the April 2011 $1 billion Framework Agreement with BP. Projects could include:

  • creating or improving wetlands.
  • restoring barrier islands and beaches.
  • restoring and protecting bird, fish, turtle and other wildlife habitat.
  • enhancing recreational experiences.

Read a list of the next phase of early restoration projects to be proposed.

The development of the PEIS for early restoration begins with a public scoping period, from June 4 to August 2, 2013. The trustees will hold meetings—one in each of the Gulf states and one in Washington, DC. We are asking for public input on the scope, content, and any significant issues we should consider in developing the PEIS for early restoration.

You can also comment on the PEIS for early restoration online, via e-mail, or by sending your comments to:

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
P.O. Box 2099
Fairhope, AL 36533

We initiated development of a comprehensive Gulf Spill Restoration PEIS in February 2011, and work on that PEIS is ongoing. The PEIS announced today is focused specifically and more narrowly on early restoration.

Check back often for progress updates and to submit your own restoration project ideas.

This story was originally posted on www.gulfspillrestoration.noaa.gov.

*Editor’s note: This statement originally included “Indian tribes” but no tribes are involved in this damage assessment case.

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