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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Overcoming the Biggest Hurdle During an Oil Spill in the Arctic: Logistics

Ship breaking ice in Arctic waters.

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy breaks ice in Arctic waters. A ship like this would be the likely center of operations for an oil spill in this remote and harsh region. (NOAA)

August in the Arctic can mean balmy weather and sunny skies or, fifteen minutes later, relentless freezing rain and wind blowing off ice floes, chilling you to the core. If you were headed to an oil spill there, your suitcase might be carrying a dry suit, down parka, wool sweaters and socks, your heaviest winter hat and gloves, and even ice traction spikes for your boots. Transit could mean days of travel by planes, car, and helicopter to a ship overseeing operations at the edge of the oil spill. Meanwhile, the oil is being whipped by the wind and waves into the nooks and crannies on the underside of sea ice, where it could be frozen into place.

Even for an experienced oil spill responder like Jill Bodnar, the complexity of working in such conditions goes far beyond the usual response challenges of cleaning up the oil, gathering data about the spill, and minimizing the impacts to marine life and their sensitive habitats. Rather, in the Arctic, everything comes down to logistics.

The unique logistics of this extreme and remote environment drive to the heart of why Bodnar, a NOAA Geographic Information Systems (GIS) specialist, and her colleague Zachary Winters-Staszak are currently on board the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, at the edge of the sea ice north of Alaska. They are participating in an Arctic Technology Evaluation, an exercise conducted by the U.S. Coast Guard Research and Development Center (RDC) in support of the Coast Guard’s broader effort known as Arctic Shield 2014.

Building on what was learned during the previous year’s exercise, the advanced technologies being demonstrated in this evaluation could potentially supplement those tools and techniques responders normally would rely on during oil spills in more temperate and accessible locations. This Arctic Technology Evaluation provides multiple agencies and institutions, in addition to NOAA, the invaluable opportunity to untangle some of the region’s knotty logistical challenges on a state-of-the-art Coast Guard icebreaker in the actual Arctic environment.

Getting from A to B: Not as Easy as 1-2-3

Bodnar has been mapping data during oil spills for more than a decade, but this exercise is her first trip to the Arctic. While preparing for it, she found it sobering to learn just how many basic elements of a spill response can’t be taken for granted north of the Arctic Circle. In addition to the scarcity of roads, airports, and hotels, other critical functions such as communications are subject to the harsh Arctic conditions and limited radio towers and satellite coverage. Out at sea ships depend on satellites for phone calls and some Internet connectivity, but above the 77th parallel those satellites often drop calls and can only support basic text email.

The remoteness of the Arctic questions how hundreds of responders would get there, along with all the necessary equipment—such as boom, skimmers, and vessels—not already in the area. Once deployed to the spill, response equipment has the potential to ice-over, encounter high winds, or be grounded from dense fog. Communicating with responders and decision makers on other ships, on shore at a command post, or even farther away in the lower 48 states would be an enormous challenge.

For example, if an oil spill occurs in the Beaufort Sea, north of Alaska, the nearest and “largest” community is Barrow, population 4,429. However, Barrow has very limited accommodations. For comparison, 40,000 people, including Bodnar, responded to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. This was possible because of the spill’s proximity to large cities with hotel space and access to food and communications infrastructure.

This is not the case for small Arctic villages, where most of their food, fuel, and other resources have to be shipped in when the surrounding waters are relatively free of ice. But to respond to a spill in the Arctic, the likely center of operations would be on board a ship, yet another reason working with the Coast Guard during Arctic Shield is so important for NOAA.

NOAA’s Role in Arctic Shield 2014

During this August’s Arctic Technology Evaluation, the Coast Guard is leading tests of four key areas of Arctic preparedness. NOAA’s area focuses on how oil disperses at the edge of the sea ice and collects under the older, thicker ice packs. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is working with NOAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) program to develop techniques for quickly identifying and delineating a simulated oil spill in the Arctic waters near the ice edge. The Coast Guard will be using both an unreactive, green fluorescein dye and hundreds of oranges as “simulated oil” for the various tools and technologies to detect.

Normally during an oil spill, NOAA or the Coast Guard would send people up in a plane or helicopter to survey the ocean for the oil’s precise location, which NOAA also uses to improve its models of the oil’s expected behavior. However, responders can’t count on getting these aircraft to a spill in the Arctic in the first place—much less assume safe conditions for flying once there.

Instead, the UAS group is testing the feasibility of using unmanned, remote-controlled aircraft such as the Puma to collect this information and report back to responders on the ship. Bodnar and Winters-Staszak will be pulling these data streams from the Puma into Arctic ERMA®, NOAA’s mapping tool for environmental response data. They’ll be creating a data-rich picture of where the oil spill dye and oranges are moving in the water and how they are behaving, particularly among the various types of sea ice.

Once the oil spill simulation is complete, Bodnar and Winters-Staszak will be reporting back on how it went and what they have learned. Stay tuned for the expedition’s progress in overcoming the many logistical hurdles of a setting as severe as the Arctic here and at oceanservice.noaa.gov/arcticshield.


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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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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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