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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NOAA Again Joins Coast Guard for Oil Spill Exercise in the Arctic

This is a post by NOAA Environmental Scientist Dr. Amy Merten.

Large ship offshore.

U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy.

It is no mystery anymore that the Arctic is undergoing unprecedented change and the extent of summer sea ice continues to shrink. As the ice contracts, shipping within and across the Arctic, oil and gas exploration, and tourism likely will increase, as will fishing, if fisheries continue migrating north to cooler waters. With more oil-powered activity in the Arctic and potentially out-of-date nautical charts, the region also will see an increased risk of oil spills.

Although the Arctic may have “ice-free” summers, it will remain a difficult place to respond to spills, still facing conditions such as low visibility, mobilized icebergs, and extreme cold. Much of the increased activity exploits the longer amount of time between the sea ice breaking up in the spring and freezing up in the fall. Accidents on either end of this longer window could mean responding to oil spills complicated by sea ice.

Ready, Set, (Pretend to) Spill

With these challenging circumstances in mind, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration again will be sending spatial data specialists aboard the Coast Guard icebreaker Healy for Arctic Shield 2014, a month-long scientific expedition to the Arctic Ocean to demonstrate and evaluate oil spill tools, technologies, and techniques. The ship leaves for the edge of the sea ice from Seward, Alaska, on August 8. We will be working with the U.S. Coast Guard Research and Development Center (RDC) to operate Arctic ERMA, our mapping tool geared at oil spill response. Normally an online tool, a special internet-independent version of ERMA, known as Stand-alone ERMA, will serve as the common operational picture for scientific data during Arctic Shield.

NOAA provides scientific support to the Coast Guard during oil and chemical spills, and ERMA is an extension of that support. Arctic Shield is an opportunity to work with the Coast Guard in as realistic conditions as possible—on a ship in the Arctic Ocean. Once the Healy makes it far enough north, the Coast Guard RDC will deploy a simulated oil spill so they can test oil spill detection and recovery technologies in ice conditions. The team will test unmanned technology platforms (both airborne and underwater) to detect where the spilled “oil” is and to collect ocean condition data, such as sea temperature, currents, and the areas where oil is mixing and spreading in the water column. In this case the simulated oil will be fluorescein dye, an inert tracer used for other simulated spills and water transport studies in the ocean and rivers. (Other simulated spilled “oils” have included peat moss, rubber ducks, and oranges.)

Ship with small aircraft in front of it.

NOAA’s remote-controlled Puma aircraft. (NOAA)

One major objective is for NOAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems group to fly their 8.5 foot wingspan, remote-controlled Puma, instead of an airplane with a human observer, to delineate the extent of the “oil” plume. ERMA’s job will be to display the data from the Puma and other unmanned technologies so all of the team can see where measurements have been taken and identify insights into how they could hypothetically clean up a spill in the remote, icy environment.

Arriving at the Arctic

In many ways, our office is a newcomer to the Arctic, and we still have a lot to learn about past research and current ways of life in the region. As the NOAA co-director for the Coastal Response Research Center (a joint partnership with the University of New Hampshire), I worked with my co-director, UNH professor Nancy Kinner, to promote understanding of the risks the Arctic is facing. In 2007, we participated in a joint industry study which brought me to the Arctic at the SINTEF lab on Svalbard in Norway. Here, I saw firsthand how difficult it can be to find oil mixed in ice and then try to do something about it, such as burn it. The temperature extremes in the Arctic limit mobility and the amount of time one can be outside responding to a spill—if you can get to the spill in the first place.

At the same time, we were developing ERMA® (Environmental Response Management Application), a web-based mapping tool for environmental response, which is customized for various regions in the United States. As NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration began developing strategies for working in the Arctic, support emerged for customizing ERMA for the Arctic region. We worked with several organizations, including Arctic communities, to develop Arctic ERMA, taking care to make connections and build relationships with the people who live in and know the region and its natural resources. ERMA also will use the Healy’s onboard satellite communications to relay data back to the live Arctic ERMA website, allowing people outside the vessel to stay up-to-date with the mission.

Responding to Reality

image of broken ice on the water's surface. (NOAA)I’m excited for my ERMA colleagues, Jill Bodnar and Zach Winters-Staszak, to experience this extreme and special environment firsthand. Academically, you can think through the challenges a spill in the Arctic would present, but actually experiencing it quickly reveals what will and will not work. Partnering with the Coast Guard is helping those of us at NOAA be proactive responders in general, and in particular, is teaching the ERMA team how to pull into this tool data from multiple platforms and improve response decision-making.

We’re all connected to the Arctic; weather and oceanographic patterns are changing world wide because of the rapidly changing Arctic. Oil and gas coming from the Arctic will fuel the U.S. economy and current way of life for the foreseeable future. We hope that Arctic Shield and other oil spill exercises will better prepare us for whatever happens next.  Follow along with NOAA’s efforts during Arctic Shield at http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/arcticshield/.

Amy Merten with kids from Kivalina, Alaska.

Dr. Amy Merten is pictured here with children from the Alaskan village of Kivalina. She was in Alaska for an oil spill workshop in the village of Kotzebue.

Amy Merten is the Spatial Data Branch Chief in NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. Amy developed the concept for the online mapping tool ERMA (Environmental Response Mapping Application). ERMA was developed in collaboration with the University of New Hampshire. She expanded the ERMA team at NOAA to fill response and natural resource trustee responsibilities during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill. Amy oversees data management of the resulting oil spill damage assessment. She received her doctorate and master’s degrees from the University of Maryland.

 


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National Research Council Releases NOAA-Sponsored Report on Arctic Oil Spills

Healy escorts the tanker Renda through the icy Bering Sea.

The Coast Guard Cutter Healy broke ice for the Russian-flagged tanker Renda on their way to Nome, Alaska, in January of 2012 to deliver more than 1.3 million gallons of petroleum products to the city of Nome. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Responding to a potential oil spill in the U.S. Arctic presents unique logistical, environmental, and cultural challenges unparalleled in any other U.S. water body. In our effort to seek solutions to these challenges and enhance our Arctic preparedness and response capabilities, NOAA co-sponsored a report, Responding to Oil Spills in the U.S. Arctic Marine Environment, directed and released by the National Research Council today.

Several recommendations in the report are of interest to NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R), including the need for:

  • Up-to-date high-resolution nautical charts and shoreline maps.
  • A real-time Arctic ocean-ice meteorological forecasting system.
  • A comprehensive, collaborative, long-term Arctic oil spill research program.
  • Regularly scheduled oil spill exercises to test and evaluate the flexible and scalable organizational structures needed for a highly reliable Arctic oil spill response.
  • A decision process such as the Net Environmental Benefit Analysis for selecting appropriate response options.

In addition, the report mentions NOAA’s ongoing Arctic efforts including our Arctic Environmental Response Mapping Application (ERMA), our oil spill trajectory modeling, and our innovative data sharing efforts. Find out more about OR&R’s efforts related to the Arctic region at response.restoration.noaa.gov/arctic.

Download the full National Research Council report.

This report dovetails with NOAA’s 2014 Arctic Action Plan, released on April 21, which provides an integrated overview of NOAA’s diverse Arctic programs and how these missions, products, and services support the goals set forth in the President’s National Strategy for the Arctic Region [PDF].

In addition, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report [PDF] in March of 2014, which examined U.S. actions related to developing and investing in Arctic maritime infrastructure. The report outlines key issues related to commercial activity in the U.S. Arctic over the next decade.

Get a snapshot of the National Research Council report in this four minute video, featuring some of our office’s scientific models and mapping tools:


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How Do You Solve a Problem Like Abandoned Ships?

This is a post by LTJG Alice Drury of the Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division.

Two rusted ships partially sunk in water and surrounded by containment boom.

The old fishing vessel Helena Star has been allowed to become derelict, leaking oil and pulling down its neighboring vessel, the Golden West. (NOAA)

A rusted green hull, punched full of holes and tilted on its side, sits forlornly in the Hylebos Waterway of Tacoma, Washington. The dilapidated boat’s name, Helena Star, is partially obscured because the vessel is half sunk. The boat it is chained to, the equally rusted ship Golden West, is being drawn down into the waters with it. Bright yellow boom and a light sheen of oil surround the vessels. Meanwhile, the owners are nowhere in sight.

This is just one example of the nationwide problem of derelict vessels. These neglected ships often pose significant threats to fish, wildlife, and nearby habitat, in addition to becoming eyesores and hazards to navigation. Derelict vessels are a challenge to deal with properly because of ownership accountability issues, potential chemical and oil contamination, and the high cost of salvage and disposal. Only limited funds are available to deal with these types of vessels before they start sinking. In Washington’s Puget Sound alone, the NOAA Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division has had several recent responses to derelict vessels that either sank or broke free of their moorings.

Many of these recent responses have come with colorful backstories, including a pair of retired Royal Canadian Navy vessels, a fishing boat that at one time housed the largest marijuana seizure by the U.S. Coast Guard (F/V Helena Star), the first American-designed and –built diesel tugboat (Tug Chickamauga), and the boat that carried author John Steinbeck and biologist Ed Ricketts on their famous trip through the Sea of Cortez (Western Flyer).

Unfortunately, all these vessels have met the end of their floating lives either through the deliberate action or negligence of their owners. Had the owners taken responsibility for maintaining them, the environmental impacts from leaked fuel, hazardous waste, and crushing impacts to the seabed could have been avoided, as well as the costly multi-agency response and removal operations that resulted.

heavy machinery is brought in to raise a sunken vessel from the sea floor.

In May 2012, the derelict fishing boat Deep Sea caught fire and sank near Washington’s Whidbey Island. The boat ended up leaking diesel fuel into waters near a Penn Cove Shellfish Company mussel farm, and the company took the precautionary measure of stopping the harvest. NOAA worked with them to sample mussels in the area for diesel contamination. Here, heavy machinery is brought in to raise the sunken vessel from the sea floor. (NOAA)

Yet there is hope that we can prevent these problems before they start. In Washington state there is momentum to combat the derelict vessel issue through measures to prevent boats from becoming derelict or environmental hazards, and by holding vessel owners accountable for what they own.

Washington State House bill 2457 is currently in the Washington State Legislature. Among other measures, the proposed bill:

  • “Establishes a fee on commercial moorage to fund the state’s derelict and abandoned vessel program.”
  • “Creates new penalties for failure to register a vessel.”

Additionally, Washington’s San Juan County is developing a new Derelict Vessel Prevention program, using a grant from the Puget Sound Partnership. San Juan County, a county composed of small rural Pacific Northwest islands, has a high number of derelict vessels [PDF]. This program is going to be used not only in San Juan County but throughout counties bordering Puget Sound.

On January 15, 2014, Washington’s Attorney General Bob Ferguson and Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark (who leads the Department of Natural Resources) announced the state was pursuing criminal charges against the owners of the Helena Star, which sank in Tacoma’s Hylebos Waterway, and the Tugboat Chickamauga, which sank in Eagle Harbor. Both vessels released oil and other pollutants when they sank.

It is an ongoing battle to hold accountable the owners of derelict and abandoned vessels and prevent them from causing problems in our nation’s waterways. Yet with cooperation, prevention, and increased accountability we can help manage the problem, and in the end reduce impacts to Washington’s cherished Puget Sound.

Editor’s note: Stay tuned for more information about how LTJG Drury is working with Washington’s Derelict Vessel Task Force to tackle this growing problem in Puget Sound. Update: Mapping the Problem After Owners Abandon Ship.

Alice Drury.

LTJG Alice Drury.

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


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45 Years after the Santa Barbara Oil Spill, Looking at a Historic Disaster Through Technology

Forty-five years ago, on January 28, 1969, bubbles of black oil and gas began rising up out of the blue waters near Santa Barbara, Calif. On that morning, Union Oil’s new drilling rig Platform “A” had experienced a well blowout, and while spill responders were rushing to the scene of what would become a monumental oil spill and catalyzing moment in the environmental movement, the tools and technology available for dealing with this spill were quite different than today.

The groundwork was still being laid for the digital, scientific mapping and data management tools we now employ without second thought. In 1969, many of the advances in this developing field were coming out of U.S. intelligence and military efforts during the Cold War, including a top-secret satellite reconnaissance project known as CORONA. A decade later NOAA’s first oil spill modeling software, the On-Scene Spill Model (OSSM) [PDF], was being written on the fly during the IXTOC I well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in 1979. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software didn’t begin to take root in university settings until the mid-1980s.

To show just how far this technology has come in the past 45 years, we’ve mapped the Santa Barbara oil spill in Southwest ERMA, NOAA’s online environmental response mapping tool for coastal California. In this GIS tool, you can see:

  • The very approximate extent of the oiling.
  • The location and photos of the drilling platform and affected resources (e.g., Santa Barbara Harbor).
  • The areas where seabirds historically congregate. Seabirds, particularly gulls and grebes, were especially hard hit by this oil spill, with nearly 3,700 birds confirmed dead and many more likely unaccounted for.

Even though the well would be capped after 11 days, a series of undersea faults opened up as a result of the blowout, continuing to release oil and gas until December 1969. As much as 4.2 million gallons of crude oil eventually gushed from both the well and the resulting faults. Oil from Platform “A” was found as far north as Pismo Beach and as far south as Mexico.

Nowadays, we can map the precise location of a wide variety of data using a tool like ERMA, including photos from aerial surveys of oil slicks along the flight path in which they were collected. The closest responders could come to this in 1969 was this list of aerial photos of oil and a printed chart with handwritten notes on the location of drilling platforms in Santa Barbara Channel.

A list of historical overflight photos of the California coast and accompanying map of the oil platforms in the area of the Platform "A" well blowout in early 1969.

A list of historical overflight photos of the California coast and accompanying map of the oil platforms in the area of the Platform “A” well blowout in early 1969. (Courtesy of the University of California Santa Barbara Map and Image Library) Click to view larger.

Yet, this oil spill was notable for its technology use in one surprising way. It was the first time a CIA spy plane had ever been used for non-defense related aerial photography. While classified information at the time, the CIA and the U.S. Geological Survey were actually partnering to use a Cold War spy plane to take aerial photos of the Santa Barbara spill (they used a U-2 plane because they could get the images more quickly than from the passing CORONA spy satellite). But that information wasn’t declassified until the 1990s.

While one of the largest environmental disasters in U.S. waters, the legacy of the Santa Barbara oil spill is lasting and impressive and includes the creation of the National Environmental Policy Act, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and National Marine Sanctuaries system (which soon encompassed California’s nearby Channel Islands, which were affected by the Santa Barbara spill).

Another legacy is the pioneering work begun by long-time spill responder, Alan A. Allen, who started his career at the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. He became known as the scientist who disputed Union Oil’s initial spill volume estimates by employing methods still used today by NOAA. Author Robert Easton documents Allen’s efforts in the book, Black tide: the Santa Barbara oil spill and its consequences:

Others…were questioning Union’s estimates. At General Research Corporation, a Santa Barbara firm, a young scientist who flew over the slick daily, Alan A. Allen, had become convinced that Union’s estimates of the escaping oil were about ten times too low. Allen’s estimates of oil-film thickness were based largely on the appearance of the slick from the air. Oil that had the characteristic dark color of crude oil was, he felt confident from studying records of other slicks, on the order of one thousandth of an inch or greater in thickness. Thinner oil would take on a dull gray or brown appearance, becoming iridescent around one hundred thousandth of an inch.  Allen analyzed the slick in terms of thickness, area, and rate of growth. By comparing his data with previous slicks of known spillage, and considering the many factors that control the ultimate fate of oil on seawater, he estimated that leakage during the first days of the Santa Barbara spill could be conservatively estimated to be at least 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons) per day.

And in a lesson that history repeats itself: Platform “A” leaked 1,130 gallons of crude oil into Santa Barbara Channel in 2008. Our office modeled the path of the oil slicks that resulted. Learn more about how NOAA responds to oil spills today.


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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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Alaska ShoreZone: Mapping over 46,000 Miles of Coastal Habitat

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Zach Winters-Staszak.

A survey of St. Lawrence Island, Alaska, from July 2013 reveals the island's dramatic coastal cliffs.

A survey of St. Lawrence Island, Alaska, from July 2013 reveals the island’s dramatic coastal cliffs. (ShoreZone.org)

I learned a few things while I was at a meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, last month. Most importantly (and perhaps a surprise to those from Texas), I learned everything is bigger in Alaska, namely its shoreline. Alaska’s shoreline measures over 46,600 miles (75,000 km), longer than the shorelines of all the lower 48 states combined.

Now imagine for a minute the work involved in flying helicopters low along that entire shoreline, collecting high-resolution imagery and detailed classifications of the coast’s geologic features and intertidal biological communities. No small endeavor, but that’s exactly what the Alaska ShoreZone Coastal Inventory and Mapping Project, a unique partnership between government agencies, NGOs, and private industry, has been doing each summer since 2001.

Since then, ShoreZone has surveyed Alaskan coasts at extreme low tide, collecting aerial imagery and environmental data for roughly 80% of Alaska’s coastal habitats and continues to move towards full coverage each year. Collecting the vast amounts of imagery and data is a great accomplishment in and of itself, but ShoreZone, with help from NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, has done an equally incredible job at making their entire inventory accessible to the public.

Just think how this valuable and descriptive information could be used. Planning for an Alaskan kayak trip next summer? ShoreZone can help you prioritize which beaches will save your hull from unwanted scratches. Trying to identify areas of critical habitat for endangered fishes? ShoreZone can help you in your research. Indeed, ShoreZone has many applications. For the Office of Response and Restoration, ShoreZone is an invaluable tool that serves alongside NOAA’s Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) maps and data as a baseline for the coastal habitats of Alaska and is currently being used for environmental planning, preparedness, and Natural Resource Damage Assessment planning in Alaska.

One of the many ways to access ShoreZone imagery and data is through Arctic ERMA, NOAA’s online mapping tool for environmental response. There are several advantages to this. For example, the National Marine Fisheries Service used ShoreZone imagery and data to designate critical habitat areas for endangered rockfish in Washington’s Puget Sound, a process that could also be applied to Alaska if necessary. That information could quickly be integrated into ERMA and displayed on a map allowing you to view the data used to determine those locations as well.

Screenshot of Alaska through Arctic ERMA and showing ShoreZone data layers.

To find ShoreZone photos in ERMA, type “Alaska ShoreZone” in the find bar at the top, then click on the result to turn on the layer in the map. Next, to view ShoreZone photos in ERMA, first click on the Identify tool icon (i) and then click on a desired point in the map. A table will appear in a pop-up with the hyperlink to the desired photo. Or, click on this image to view ShoreZone data in Arctic ERMA. (NOAA)

As updates and additions to the imagery database become available they will also be available in Arctic ERMA. The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) has provided funding to complete the imagery processing and habitat mapping for the North Slope of Alaska. BSEE also provided funding to finish Arctic ERMA and to develop the internet-independent Stand-alone ERMA. The efforts are complementary and strategic given the increased activity in the Arctic.

To prepare for this increase in activity, the ShoreZone and ERMA teams are working to incorporate ShoreZone data into Stand-alone ERMA for use when Internet connectivity is unreliable. The beauty of the photos included here is deceptive. A majority of Alaska’s shoreline is rugged, unforgiving, and remote. Having access to high-resolution imagery along with environmental and response-focused data in the kind of Internet-independent package that ShoreZone and ERMA provide would be an indispensable tool during a hazardous incident like a ship collision, oil spill, or search and rescue mission. This is just one way NOAA and ShoreZone are working together to strengthen our commitment to the coastal environments and communities of Alaska.

Zach Winters-StaszakZach Winters-Staszak is a GIS Specialist with OR&R’s Spatial Data Branch. His main focus is to visualize environmental data from various sources for oil spill planning, preparedness, and response. In his free time, Zach can often be found backpacking and fly fishing in the mountains.


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At the Coast Guard Academy, Students Get a Dose of Real-World Response Tools

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s GIS Specialists Kari Sheets and Jay Coady.

The Office of Response and Restoration's Spatial Data Team introduces U.S. Coast Guard Academy cadets to ERMA, NOAA's online mapping tool for environmental response.

The Office of Response and Restoration’s Spatial Data Team introduces U.S. Coast Guard Academy cadets to ERMA, NOAA’s online mapping tool for environmental response. (U.S. Coast Guard Academy)

Students wearing crisp, blue uniforms lean in to get a better look at the map of the Gulf of Mexico being projected at the front of the small classroom.

Their normal Friday GIS class at the United States Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., has been taken over by two mapping specialists from NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. Kari Sheets and Jay Coady are standing in front of the classroom of cadets to introduce these future U.S. Coast Guard responders to an important tool they may use one day in the midst of a hurricane or oil spill response.

The tool is NOAA’s Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA®). ERMA is an online mapping tool that integrates both static and real-time data, such as ship locations, weather, and ocean currents, in a centralized, interactive map for environmental disaster response. Having all the latest information in an easy-to-use format provides environmental resource managers with the data they need to make informed decisions about where and how to deal with a pollution threat when it happens.  NOAA and the University of New Hampshire developed ERMA with the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Interior.

To the Classroom and Beyond

By offering training and collaboration opportunities like this early in cadets’ careers, NOAA and the Academy are providing future Coast Guard responders with the real-world knowledge and tools that they might encounter when addressing future pollution events.

One day this fall, Sheets and Coady taught three GIS classes that focused on ERMA, its capabilities, and how to use it once the cadets graduate from the Academy. The classes covered a general overview of the ERMA platform, how it fits in the Incident Command System structure, how it enables users to see and access data. They also included a live demonstration of the tool that highlighted recent data used in the response to Post Tropical Cyclone Sandy in 2012.

From Training to Explaining

The lesson also integrated data from a training exercise held from September 17-19, which simulated a tug-and-barge grounding and potential oil spill in Long Island Sound as part of the National Preparedness for Response Exercise Program (PREP).

The September 2013 training exercise, PREP, simulated a vessel grounding and oil spill in Long Island Sound. In the foreground, NOAA's Kari Sheets is checking metadata in ERMA while to her left, LT Sabrina Bateman and Cadet Jaimie Chicoine of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy look at spill trajectories in ERMA. ERMA is being projected on the wall, with Jay Coady of NOAA and Tom Marquette of the training facilitation firm PPS reviewing how ERMA is functioning at the drill.

The September 2013 training exercise, PREP, simulated a vessel grounding and oil spill in Long Island Sound. In the foreground, NOAA’s Kari Sheets is checking metadata in ERMA while to her left, LT Sabrina Bateman and Cadet Jaimie Chicoine of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy look at spill trajectories in ERMA. ERMA is being projected on the wall, with Jay Coady of NOAA and Tom Marquette of the training facilitation firm PPS reviewing how ERMA is functioning at the drill. (NOAA)

NOAA’s Sheets and Coady began working with the Academy over the summer in preparation for this exercise in Long Island Sound. Coast Guard Academy GIS instructor LT Sabrina Bateman and Cadet Jaimie Chicoine helped provide and add data and information into ERMA for the PREP exercise, where ERMA was designated the common operational picture (COP). As the COP during an incident, ERMA brings together various types of information, providing a single place to display up-to-date information that is also accessible to all individuals involved in incident response operations. This consistency and accessibility helps improve communication and coordination among responders and stakeholders.

The Academy was able to use ERMA to load selected data from their internal databases.  As a result of these early collaborations preparing for the drill, Sheets and Coady were invited to the Academy to guest lecture on ERMA for the GIS classes. The classes they taught went well, solidifying the Office of Response and Restoration’s connections with the Academy and resulting in an invitation back to teach again in the future.

In the meantime, LT Bateman plans on using ERMA in several of her GIS lectures and labs at the Academy to get cadets more accustomed to using it once they receive their assignments and enter Coast Guard stations around the country after graduation. This relationship has continued growing as the two organizations explore further opportunities for collaboration.

Kari Sheets.

Kari Sheets

Kari Sheets is a GIS specialist with the Office of Response and Restoration’s Spatial Data Branch in Silver Spring, Md., where she works on GIS strategic planning and leads ERMA projects. Previously, she worked at NOAA’s National Weather Service, where she coordinated GIS activities throughout the office.

Jay Coady

Jay Coady

Jay Coady is a GIS Specialist with the Office of Response and Restoration’s Spatial Data Branch in Charleston, S.C. He has been working on the Deepwater Horizon incident since July 2010 and has been involved in a number of other responses, including Post Tropical Cyclone Sandy. Jay is a co-lead for the Gulf of Mexico regional ERMA.


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Above, Under, and Through the Ice: Demonstrating Technologies for Oil Spill Response in the Arctic

This is the third in a series of posts about Arctic Shield 2013 by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Zach Winters-Staszak. Read his first post, “Arctic-bound” and his second post, “Breaking Ice.”

76° N, 158° W marks the spot. The wind chill has dropped the mercury below zero as the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, an icebreaker, sits idly, anchored by the sea ice that dominates the landscape. All eyes are fixed on the brilliant orange of the Coast Guard zodiac, the small boat’s color contrasted against the cobalt blue water off the icebreaker’s port side. A faint hum of a motor gets louder and louder overhead as the “Puma” comes into view. Then, just as the miniature, remote-controlled aircraft is positioned exactly over a nearby patch of open water, the operator kills the motor and the Puma splashes down safely.

The Puma operator  aboard the Coast Guard zodiak recovers the small unmanned aircraft after demonstrating its capabilities for detecting oil from the air. (NOAA)

The Puma operator aboard the U.S. Coast Guard zodiak recovers the small unmanned aircraft after demonstrating its capabilities for detecting oil from the air during Arctic Shield 2013. (NOAA)

During the exercise Arctic Shield 2013, the U.S. Coast Guard Research and Development Center (RDC) brought a group of scientists and specialists together to demonstrate technologies that potentially could be used for oil spill response in the Arctic Ocean’s severe conditions. This is my third and final post detailing my experiences and involvement in the mission aboard the Healy; you can read the previous posts, “Arctic-bound” and “Breaking Ice.”

Existing Technology, New Applications

The Arctic Ocean remains a difficult to access and often dangerous environment.

The Arctic Ocean remains a difficult to access and often dangerous environment. (NOAA)

Increased marine transportation and oil exploration in the Arctic increases the likelihood of, along with the responsibility to be prepared for, potential oil spills. Operating in an area as remote and ice-filled as the Arctic poses new logistical and tactical challenges for safe ship transit, search and rescue efforts, resource extraction, and oil spill response. For those of us working in oil spill response, this means developing new methods and technologies for surveying, assessing, and responding in these settings.

The RDC, coordinating efforts by the Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) programs at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Alaska Fairbanks, demonstrated the Puma as one method to survey, identify, and monitor oil on and around the ice floes from above. The Puma is a battery-powered, aerial survey technology with military roots that is now being used for a variety of environmental applications.

The Puma’s advantages for oil spill response in the Arctic are many. With its capacity for high resolution and infrared imagery, the Puma could help identify and monitor oiled environments and wildlife during response efforts, while simultaneously creating a visual record of environmental injury that could be used during a Natural Resource Damage Assessment.

The NOAA Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division has a long history of recording aerial imagery of oil spills by using trained observers aboard helicopters or airplanes to find and photograph oil on the water’s surface. Using a UAS like the Puma removes the risk to human safety, requires batteries and not fuel, and has been shown to have little-to-no influence on the behavior of wildlife. In fact, NOAA has already used Pumas to great effect during marine mammal and sea bird surveys.

This last point is especially important when you consider an animal like the Pacific walrus. With recent, dramatic summer losses in sea ice, Pacific walruses have been seen congregating en masse on the shoreline of Alaska, a behavior happening earlier and earlier in the year. Disturbance of these large groups of walruses, which could be caused by noisy surveying techniques, creates panic in the animals, causing a stampede that could end up trampling and killing young walruses.

Pumas Fly but Jaguars Swim

While the Pumas were busy scanning the ice and sea from the sky, scientists from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute were fast at work deploying their “Jaguar” beneath the water. The Jaguar is an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) designed to map the Arctic sea floor, but during Arctic Shield 2013, the science team instead used it to map the curves and channels on the underside of the sea ice.

For example, if an oil spill occurred near an ice floe, responders would need to know where oil could pool up or be funneled in the curves or channels beneath the sea ice. The Jaguar uses acoustic technology to map the differences in sea ice thickness or “draft” as it travels along its programmed path under the ice. A suite of oceanographic sensors are also installed that measure water temperature, conductivity, pressure, and salinity along the way. In addition, scientists can install an optical back-scatter sensor that can detect oil in the water column.

To top things off, the Jaguar’s footprint is relatively low. The entire system is easily shipped, only requires a three-person team to operate, and doesn’t need a large vessel like the Healy to be deployed. Having a highly functional, low-impact tool is a major advantage out on the Arctic Ocean.

A Mapping Tool Made for the Arctic

It was with remote environments like the Arctic in mind that the Office of Response and Restoration developed Stand-alone ERMA, an internet-independent version of our Arctic ERMA online mapping tool used in response efforts for oil spills, hazardous waste spills, and ship groundings. My role in Arctic Shield was to integrate and display the data collected by the technologies I just described into Stand-alone ERMA. ERMA integrates multiple data sources and displays them in a single interactive map. With the resulting data-rich map, I could demonstrate the advantage of establishing a common operational picture during an oil spill response scenario—all without an internet connection.

A view from Arctic ERMA, NOAA's online mapping tool for environmental disasters. You can see the path of the icebreaker Healy, the Puma's flight, and the photos and their location taken by the Puma.

A view from Arctic ERMA, NOAA’s online mapping tool for environmental disasters. You can see the path of the icebreaker Healy, the Puma’s flight, and the photos and their location taken by the Puma. (NOAA)

During Arctic Shield 2013, Stand-alone ERMA was integrated into the ship’s local network, and as new data were recorded and displayed, everyone on the ship, from the bridge to the science decks, could view the same results on their computer screens.

In a typical oil spill response, you can have decision makers from federal, state, and local governments; private industry; and a multitude of scientists and technicians all working together. Everyone needs access to the same information, especially when it is constantly changing, in order to make the most informed decisions. But if internet availability is sporadic or nonexistent (not unusual in the Alaskan Arctic), most common operational pictures are rendered inoperable. Stand-alone ERMA bridges that gap, while providing the same experience and tools found with the online version. Demonstrating the utility of Stand-alone ERMA aboard the Healy made the advantages of a flexible common operational picture very clear.

Mind the Gaps (and Bridge Them)

The purpose of these demonstrations during Arctic Shield 2013 was to identify technologies that could improve oil spill response capabilities in the Arctic environment. Not all of the technologies being demonstrated were recently developed or even developed specifically for oil spill response. The Coast Guard Research and Development Center, which organized the demonstration, has taken a critical look at the difficulties and challenges associated with operating in an icy ocean environment. As a result they have identified a wide variety of technologies—some of which we demonstrated on this trip—that could potentially improve response during an actual oil spill. Still, a great deal of work remains as we work to better understand Arctic ecosystems and overcome the challenges of stewardship in a new and uncertain period in our history.

The only trace of a polar bear were these tracks in the snow and ice as the Healy plowed past.

The only trace of a polar bear were these tracks in the snow and ice as the Healy plowed past. (NOAA)

Looking over the bow of the Healy as the ship fractured the ice beneath, I caught a brief glimpse of polar bear tracks in the snow. The animal itself was nowhere to be seen, but as I watched the tracks fade into the distance, I was reminded of why I was there. When you’re out on the ice, breathing in the frigid air, knowing that polar bears are out there hunting and raising cubs, you realize what is right in front of you is the only place like it in the world. Being a part of Arctic Shield 2013 was an incredibly rewarding and humbling experience, one that is helping me figure out what data we still need and develop the tools to strengthen our ability to respond to an oil spill.

Zach Winters-StaszakZach Winters-Staszak is a GIS Specialist with OR&R’s Spatial Data Branch. His main focus is to visualize environmental data from various sources for oil spill planning, preparedness, and response. In his free time, Zach can often be found backpacking and fly fishing in the mountains.


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Breaking Ice: A Personal Journey amid Preparations for Arctic Oil Spills

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. The following story follows one way NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is preparing for a potential oil spill emergency in the Arctic. To learn more about how you can be prepared for other types of emergencies, visit http://www.ready.gov.

This is the second in a series of posts about Arctic Shield 2013 by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Zach Winters-Staszak. Read his first post, “Arctic-bound.”

Fog and snow obscure the tundra below as the plane descends. The seat belt sign goes off and a man reaches for his bag in the overhead bin, the quote on the back of his shirt spelling out just how far I now am from Seattle: “Vegetarian. An ancient tribal slang for the village idiot who can’t hunt, fish or ride.” I’ve returned to Barrow, Alaska, top of the world for now, but I have higher latitudes in my future.

Bowhead whale bones and a sign announcing Barrow as the northernmost city in America welcomed me to the Arctic.

Bowhead whale bones and a sign announcing Barrow as the northernmost city in America welcomed me to the Arctic. (NOAA)

On previous trips to Barrow, the village was blanketed by snow, chilled by negative air temperatures, and surrounded by coastal sea ice. As I step out from the baggage claim, the air is balmy and the landscape is thawed, leaving only mud and gravel for me to drag the now-useless wheels of my luggage and heavy equipment case across. When I arrive at the hotel lobby, I hear familiar voices from conference calls over the last few months as we prepared for this logistically complex undertaking, and I quickly begin to put faces to names and voices.

Top of the World

In a previous blog post, I gave a brief overview of my involvement in the oil spill training exercise Arctic Shield 2013. I was joining scientists, analysts, the United States Coast Guard (USCG), and the crew aboard the USCG Cutter Healy to demonstrate the capabilities of oil spill response technologies in the remote and challenging environment of the Arctic Ocean.

At the Iñupiat Heritage Center in Barrow, Alaska, you can see local artists carve traditional icons into the jawbone of a bowhead whale.

At the Iñupiat Heritage Center in Barrow, Alaska, you can see local artists carve traditional icons into the jawbone of a bowhead whale. (NOAA)

But before I dive into those details, I first wanted to share my behind-the-scenes story of life aboard this Coast Guard icebreaker—because this was no ordinary “office” for our work. We would travel north up and over the broken sheets of Arctic sea ice before turning south through the Bering Sea, east to the Gulf of Alaska and finally dock in Seward, Alaska.

Even though I’ve been here before, Barrow still retains an uncompromising allure. Bowhead whale bones, baleen, umiaqs (seal-skin hulled canoes used for spring whaling), and caribou pelts can be seen at every turn, affirming the traditional ways synonymous with Arctic communities—as well as what’s at stake if a major oil spill occurred here.

Each time I come to Barrow, I make it a point to visit the Iñupiat Heritage Center. Local subsistence hunters and community elders can be found there, continuing to create the traditional tools and artwork they have for centuries. As I listen to stories of generations of hardship and perseverance on the ice, I’m quickly reminded of what’s at stake and why it’s imperative to be ready to protect the natural resources they rely on.

Cultural tourism has become a major draw to Barrow but is perhaps overshadowed by the destination itself. From a geographical and strategic standpoint, Barrow is a major checkpoint for international travel by sea.

U.S. and circumpolar shipping routes through the Arctic, as viewed in NOAA's online mapping tool, Arctic ERMA.

U.S. and circumpolar shipping routes through the Arctic, as viewed in NOAA’s online mapping tool, Arctic ERMA. Click to enlarge. (NOAA)

During my time in the village, there was a German cruise boat traveling through from the Northwest Passage and Greenland that anchored just offshore and was busy unloading European tourists by Zodiac. This alone highlights the importance of field demonstrations like Arctic Shield. Transportation activities for tourism and commerce are increasing in the region, escalating the risk of oil spills and accidents. Ironically, the Healy is anchored just offshore as well, giving our team a spectacular view into our next couple weeks.

The U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker, Healy, sits just offshore of Barrow, shortly before we set sail.

The U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker, Healy, sits just offshore of Barrow, shortly before we set sail. (NOAA)

Working Aboard an Icebreaker

When you’re on a ship, you have no choice but to eat whatever the galley serves up, three times a day. The Coast Guard puts Sriracha hot sauce on everything: eggs (makes sense), grilled cheese (OK), the hardly identifiable steamed broccoli (understandable), and chicken marsala (not so sure). As I get to know both the crew and the science team after one such meal, questions about the Healy itself come up. The galley chief quickly proclaims, “Have you seen the engine room? We call it PFM or Pure Freaking Magic. The Healy generates more power than the whole village of Barrow.” To put that in perspective, Barrow is the largest village on Alaska’s North Slope, with a population over 4,100 people.

Essentially, the ship itself is a floating village. The Healy has amenities to support over 100 people, makes ample (and screaming hot) fresh water on site, and houses multiple scientific laboratories with a combined area of 4,200 ft².  Designed to operate in temperatures down to -50°F, the Healy can break 4.5-foot-thick ice continuously and has the capacity of backing and ramming 8-foot-thick ice. Indeed, watching chunks of ice the size of minivans come rolling up from under the bow of the ship is impressive.

The sound of breaking ice from below deck is at first nerve-racking, but eventually it actually begins to lull you to sleep at night. Then, just as soon as the landscape of fragmented sea ice and frigid temperatures becomes familiar, it vanishes. The morning after completing the response technology demonstrations, I wake up and the ship has turned south. We have escaped the ice floe and are once again surrounded by open ocean. Walruses and whales swim by, understandably in a hurry considering a 420-foot red island is steaming in their direction at 14 knots.

As we pass through the Bering Strait, Russia comes into view. And as we travel through Unimak Pass, the Aleutian Islands, and on to Seward, I take in the unforgettable landscapes that I hope our preparations during Arctic Shield will help protect.

Stay tuned for my next post, when I’ll give an in-depth look at the critical response technologies we demonstrated on the Healy, some humbling insights for me to consider as an oil spill responder, and an update on whether my personal goal to see a polar bear remained elusive.

Zach Winters-StaszakZach Winters-Staszak is a GIS Specialist with OR&R’s Spatial Data Branch. His main focus is to visualize environmental data from various sources for oil spill planning, preparedness, and response. In his free time, Zach can often be found backpacking and fly fishing in the mountains.


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With Eye Toward Restoring Ecosystems, NOAA Releases New Pollution Mapping Tool for Great Lakes

[Editor’s Note: Happy Great Lakes Week! NOAA and our many U.S. and Canadian partners are celebrating and tackling issues for the world’s largest source of liquid freshwater from September 9-12, 2013.]

This is a post by Office of Response and Restoration Physical Scientist Ben Shorr.

A scientific team monitors cleanup progress in an airboat on the Kalamazoo River

Scientists observe cleanup progress for the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, an Area of Concern in the Great Lakes region. (NOAA/Terry Heatlie)

The Great Lakes have been a big part of my life. Growing up in Chicago, I spent many hours as a child sailing big and little boats on Lake Michigan. During college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I studied civil and environmental engineering, with a major focus in sailing on the Great Lakes and the small lakes and rivers in between. When I began working at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Chicago, I had the opportunity to work on assessment and cleanup of contaminated sediment sites and water quality issues across the Great Lakes. Over the past decade at NOAA, I have also been able to work on the cleanup and restoration of natural resources in the Great Lakes and across the country.

And after working on it for the past year, this week our team announces the creation of the Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA®) for the Great Lakes.

A Tool for Restoration

Great Lakes ERMA is an online mapping tool for coastal pollution cleanup and restoration efforts across the Great Lakes Basin. This tool brings together regional data and information from NOAA and its partners into a single interactive map. Great Lakes ERMA was created to help illustrate and expedite cleanup and restoration of Areas of Concern (areas identified by the U.S. and Canada as polluted and in need of cleanup and restoration). It does this by combining environmental contaminant data from NOAA’s Great Lakes Query Manager database with ecological, recreational, tribal, and commercial information from across the region.

Screen shot of Great Lakes ERMA with contaminant chemistry stations and Areas of Concern.

Great Lakes ERMA, shown above, displays Areas of Concern, areas identified by the U.S. and Canada as polluted and in need of cleanup and restoration, and NOAA Query Manager sediment sampling stations (orange points). This tool can help illustrate progress in restoring the health of the Great Lakes. (NOAA)

NOAA, as part of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, collaborated with the EPA, U.S. Coast Guard, and University of New Hampshire to develop Great Lakes ERMA. Out of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative came a five-year action plan focusing on a handful of essential issues for the region, spanning the cleanup of toxic pollution (where we come in) to the combat of invasive species. In addition to incorporating environmental cleanup and restoration information, we’re working with emergency response colleagues within NOAA, EPA, Coast Guard, and the academic community on how to use ERMA in the Great Lakes to improve planning, communication, and coordination for responses to oil and chemical spills.

The History Behind the Data

A key part of Great Lakes ERMA is its connection to the data in the Query Manager database. In my work developing Great Lakes ERMA over the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to build upon that work done by my NOAA colleagues Jay Field and Todd Goeks (who is based in Chicago, Ill). They established a Great Lakes–wide database with contaminant concentration data and the related impacts on living organisms.

This database, which is the product of close collaboration with the EPA Great Lakes National Program Office, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Great Lakes states, is the region’s most extensive compilation of environmental contaminant data. Comprised of data from smaller-scale watersheds and studies of individual pollution sites, the Great Lakes Query Manager database now contains over 480 studies with nearly 23,000 stations with contaminant chemistry or toxicity results. By integrating this data into Great Lakes ERMA, accessing it for cleanup and environmental injury assessment and restoration at contaminant sites across the Great Lakes is now even easier.

A Data-rich Future

As we look to the future, our team is excited about the opportunities to leverage NOAA and our partners’ research and analysis in ERMA to highlight and further NOAA’s mission of conserving and managing coastal and marine ecosystems and resources. Our team continues working to build partnerships in the Great Lakes under the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and on pollution cases and hazardous waste sites that are a focus for NOAA’s Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program.

Stay tuned to this blog for more about how we are applying innovative approaches to data management in the Great Lakes and around the country. For now, you can check out Great Lakes ERMA by visiting https://www.erma.unh.edu/greatlakes/erma.html.

Ben Shorr has been a Physical Scientist with the 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, Ben enjoys hanging out with his 5 and 3 year old kids, which means riding bikes, skiing, and sailing too!

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