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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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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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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Arctic-bound: Testing Oil Spill Response Technologies Aboard an Icebreaker

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 shows 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 www.ready.gov.

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

Polar bear tracks crisscrossed by artic fox on sea ice, Barrow, Alaska.

Polar bear tracks crisscrossed by artic fox on sea ice, Barrow, Alaska. (NOAA/Zach Winters-Staszak)

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions “the Arctic”? For me, it’s the polar bear.

As a mapping specialist for OR&R’s Arctic ERMA project, I’ve had the opportunity to visit the Arctic communities of Barrow, Wainwright, and Kotzebue, Alaska. On those trips, I’ve been lucky enough to witness a snowy owl (Barrow’s namesake), arctic hare, and caribou. Once, I even hired a local expert to take me on an “Arctic safari” to see a polar bear; the tracks we found were less than 12 hours old, but the polar bear itself continues to elude me.

On my upcoming trip to the Arctic, however, my chances are greatly improved; this time I’m headed out to sea.

An Arctic Expedition

This week, I’m returning to Barrow to join the U.S. Coast Guard and a team of scientists for two weeks aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Healy where we’ll take part in Arctic Shield 2013. Once we are aboard the icebreaker, the team will travel to the edge of the sea ice and begin a drill scenario to test oil spill response technologies in the remote and challenging environment of the Arctic Ocean.

The technologies being tested range from unmanned aircraft systems gathering data from above to remotely operated vehicles searching under the ice to skimmers that are designed to collect oil on the ocean’s surface. The purpose of this hands-on drill is to gain a better understanding of the challenges involved in responding to a theoretical Arctic oil spill at sea and then define the advantages and any constraints of existing technologies to improve our ability to respond to an actual spill.

Connecting the Dots of Data

As the seasonal extent of Arctic sea ice continues to contract and thin, energy exploration and transportation activities will likely continue to increase in the region, escalating the risk of oil spills and accidents. In anticipation, NOAA and interagency partners are actively preparing for these possible emergencies, and Arctic Shield is a great example of this.

This view of the online mapping program Arctic ERMA shows the approximate path of the Coast Guard Cutter Healy from Barrow, Alaska, to the edge of the sea ice, indicated on the map in yellow. Red shows higher concentrations of sea ice.

This view of the online mapping program Arctic ERMA shows the approximate path of the Coast Guard Cutter Healy from Barrow, Alaska, to the edge of the sea ice, indicated on the map in yellow. Red shows higher concentrations of sea ice. (NOAA)

My role will be to connect the various streams of data the science teams will be collecting and incorporate them into a new version of ERMA, our online mapping tool for environmental response. This latest “stand-alone” version of the tool functions like previous versions of ERMA, except it doesn’t need an internet connection. It is common for communities in the Arctic region and for many coastal areas of Alaska to have spotty internet coverage, if coverage is available at all. Stand-alone ERMA is able to map and organize information in a centralized, easy-to-use format for environmental responders and decision-makers when internet connectivity is unreliable.

As you read this post, I’ll be on a plane traveling north. I expect the first week on the ship will be packed full of activity, but I hope the following week will allow me to write more about my experiences during the cruise. If there is enough internet bandwidth, I’ll be posting developments from the Healy. I hope to include information about the technologies being tested, life on the ship, and photos of wildlife. And if I haven’t jinxed myself by now, maybe one of those photos will include a polar bear.

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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Back to the Shore after Hurricane Sandy

GIS specialist Jay Coady, Environmental Sensitivity Index map specialist Jill Petersen, John Tarpley of the OR&R Emergency Response Division, and Jason Rolfe of the NOAA Marine Debris Program also contributed to this post.

: Two boys take a break on the beach in Ocean City, Maryland, during the summer of 2012, before Hurricane Sandy. (Glenda Powell/all rights reserved)

Two boys take a break on the beach in Ocean City, Md., during the summer of 2012, before Hurricane Sandy. (Glenda Powell/all rights reserved)

With Memorial Day approaching and summer weather returning, folks in the northeast will once again be flocking to the shore, as they have for generations.  This summer season is the first since Hurricane Sandy hit the region in late October of 2012, with devastating effects to beaches from Connecticut to Virginia. Much of the damage has been repaired and many visitors likely will find their favorite beaches as enjoyable as ever, but there is much work remaining to do.

Headed for Calmer Shores

A response team formed by the Hurricane Sandy Pollution Response Unified Command prior to an overflight during which the U.S. Coast Guard worked with NOAA to map areas of possible pollution threats in New York and New Jersey. LTJG Alice Drury of OR&R is in the middle of the group. (U.S. Coast Guard)

A response team formed by the Hurricane Sandy Pollution Response Unified Command prior to an overflight during which the U.S. Coast Guard worked with NOAA to map areas of possible pollution threats in New York and New Jersey. LTJG Alice Drury of OR&R is in the middle of the group. (U.S. Coast Guard)

The NOAA Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) responded immediately in the wake of the massive storm. OR&R’s Emergency Response Division provided scientific support to the U.S. Coast Guard to contain a major diesel spill at the Motiva Refinery in Sewaren, N.J., next to New York’s Staten Island and Raritan Bay. We also provided support for the many smaller petroleum product spills in northern New Jersey and southern New York.  Aerial and ground surveys helped identify and prioritize the cleanup of pollution sources from boats, displaced hazardous material containers, and other debris.

OR&R was on scene working with other state and federal agencies to lead a preliminary assessment of natural resource impacts from the oil spills for possible Natural Resource Damage Assessment claims and restoration. In addition, the Coast Guard and other responders used OR&R’s collaborative online mapping tool, Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA®) for the Atlantic Coast, as the “common operational picture,” that is, the official “big picture” tool for coordinating pollution response activities.

Atlantic ERMA, which is customized for New York and New Jersey waters, was involved in mapping the Hurricane Sandy response and recovery efforts since before the storm hit land. In the days leading up to landfall, OR&R started populating Atlantic ERMA with storm-specific data, such as predicted storm surge models, hurricane track and wind speeds, and NOAA facility locations.

A partially submerged vessel in Navesink River, N.J., Nov. 10, 2012. Boom was placed around the vessel to mitigate pollution during the response efforts. (U.S. Coast Guard)

A partially submerged vessel in Navesink River, N.J., Nov. 10, 2012. Boom was placed around the vessel to mitigate pollution during the response efforts. (U.S. Coast Guard)

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Atlantic ERMA served as the common operational picture for the Hurricane Sandy pollution response. It aided the NOAA Scientific Support Coordinators (our pollution first responders), U.S. Coast Guard, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the removal and cleanup of identified pollution sources and threats.

Atlantic ERMA integrated these response efforts with environmental data (like locations of sensitive habitat) to give responders a better idea of how to deal with pollution threats while minimizing environmental damages.

As the common operational picture, ERMA provided a single platform for responders to view all of the storm-related data and imagery as well as various cleanup efforts by the states and other federal agencies. Our team of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) specialists working on ERMA also helped provide data management support in tracking the progress made by the pollution response field teams.

Making it Safe to Get Back in the Water

In the Hurricane Sandy Relief Bill, Congress provided the NOAA Marine Debris Program with funds to address marine debris issues resulting from Sandy. In addition, funds were allocated to OR&R’s Emergency Response Division to update our Environmental Sensitivity Index maps on the east coast, with particular emphasis on areas affected by Hurricane Sandy and other coastal storms over the past several years. These maps identify coastal shorelines, wildlife, and habitat that may be especially vulnerable to an oil spill and also include the resources people use, such as a fishery or recreational beach.

Click on this map to view the complete Environmental Sensitivity Index map, created by OR&R’s Emergency Response Division. The map shows sensitive habitats and species that are typically present in the Staten Island area in November and December, the months following Hurricane Sandy. (NOAA)

Click on this map to view the complete Environmental Sensitivity Index map, created by OR&R’s Emergency Response Division. The map shows sensitive habitats and species that are typically present in the Staten Island area in November and December, the months following Hurricane Sandy. (NOAA)

Marine debris can be found in concentrations across the impacted region both on the shoreline and below the water surface.  These items pose potential hazards to navigation, commercial fishing grounds, and sensitive ecosystems.

We are using Atlantic ERMA to provide mapping support and tools to show aerial imagery, debris dispersion models, and identified marine debris locations supplied by stakeholders. Our mapping support also helps with the planning efforts for debris cleanup.

A combination of aerial, underwater, and shoreline surveys are necessary to assess the quantity and location of marine debris in the impacted coastal areas.  These assessments will allow NOAA to estimate the debris impacts to economies and ecosystems, identify priority items for removal, support limited removal efforts, and help bring our northeastern shores back to a sunnier state.

Read about more examples of our work protecting and restoring the shores the nation loves to visit.


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NOAA and Canadian Partners Share Arctic Data Across Borders

Arctic Ocean, Canada Basin, July 22, 2005. (NOAA/Jeremy Potter)

Arctic Ocean, Canada Basin, July 22, 2005. (NOAA/Jeremy Potter)

The United States and our neighbors to the north in Canada share a border approximately 5,525 miles long. Some 1,538 miles (or roughly 28%) of which are shared with the State of Alaska alone. And with this shared boundary comes shared natural resources, shared interests, and the need for a shared understanding of how we can work together to protect our communities, wildlife, and environment from the escalating risk of oil spills and other accidents in the Arctic.

To that end, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration co-hosted a workshop in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, with the Inuvialuit Settlement Region Joint Secretariat (a Canadian delegate representing aboriginal interests to the Arctic Council) and the University of New Hampshire’s Coastal Response Research Center from February 12-13, 2013. The goal was to bring together representatives from both the U.S. and Canada to examine the potential for incorporating Canadian data into NOAA’s online mapping tool, Arctic ERMA®.

Arctic ERMA (Environmental Response Management Application) is an online Geographic Information Systems (GIS) tool being used to prepare and plan for Arctic pollution response, assessment, and environmental restoration. ERMA brings together critical information needed for an effective emergency response in the Arctic’s distinctive conditions, such as the extent and concentration of sea ice, locations of ports and oil and gas pipelines, and vulnerable environmental resources which could be harmed by an oil spill.

The workshop participants came from a variety of organizations. Here, top row: NASA, Consultant, Canada Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Canadian Ice Service, Inuvialuit Settlement Region Joint Secretariat. Bottom row: Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, Environment Canada, NOAA. (University of New Hampshire/Kathy Mandsager)

The workshop participants came from a variety of organizations. Here, top row: NASA, Consultant, Canada Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Canadian Ice Service, Inuvialuit Settlement Region Joint Secretariat. Bottom row: Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, Environment Canada, NOAA. (University of New Hampshire/Kathy Mandsager)

Discussions at the workshop focused on identifying the regional gaps in data in Arctic ERMA, usable data formats, and how to improve functionality and access to information and tools that would help in the case of an oil spill or environmental accident. Workshop participants spanned multiple areas of expertise: government emergency responders, environmental protection and fisheries managers, weather and natural resource agencies, private industry, non-governmental organizations, local indigenous communities, and universities.

By the end, the workshop improved our understanding of U.S. and Canadian data management practices and systems, how we identify both the data that are available and still needed, and what the long-term training needs are for Arctic communities. We also discussed at length how to better incorporate traditional local knowledge about landscapes and natural resources in Arctic ERMA. We hope that engaging in these conversations and building strong relationships today will promote the kind of cooperation and collaboration that will carry us through any environmental emergencies in the future.

This joint workshop is a project under the Arctic Council’s Emergency, Prevention, Preparedness and Response Working Group and under the agreement between Environment Canada and NOAA. Learn more about how the Office of Response and Restoration is preparing for oil spills and other pollution incidents in the Arctic.

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