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


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No Solid Mass of Debris from Japan in the Pacific Ocean

Here is an example of confirmed Japan tsunami marine debris arriving in the U.S.: a 4-by-4-foot plastic bin spotted off the eastern coast of Oahu, Hawaii, on September 18, 2012.

There is no solid island of debris from Japan heading to the United States. Here is an example of confirmed Japan tsunami marine debris arriving in the U.S.: a 4-by-4-foot plastic bin spotted off the eastern coast of Oahu, Hawaii, on September 18, 2012. The barnacles on its bottom are a common open-water species. (Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory)

We’ve heard a concern from some of you that there’s an island of debris in the Pacific Ocean coming from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. For those of you who may be new to this topic, we’d like to address those concerns.

Here’s the bottom line: There is no solid mass of debris from Japan heading to the United States.

At this point, nearly three years after the earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, whatever debris remains floating is very spread out. It is spread out so much that you could fly a plane over the Pacific Ocean and not see any debris since it is spread over a huge area, and most of the debris is small, hard-to-see objects.

We have some helpful resources for you, if you’re interested in learning more.

While there likely is some debris still floating at sea, the North Pacific is an enormous area, and it’s hard to tell exactly where the debris is or how much is left. A significant amount of debris has already arrived on U.S. and Canadian shores, and it will likely continue arriving in the same scattered way over the next several years. As we get further into the fall and winter storm season, NOAA and partners are expecting to see more debris coming ashore in North America, including tsunami debris mixed in with the “normal” marine debris that we see every year.

NOAA has modeled the debris’ movement, and the model shows the overall spread of all simulated debris and an area where there may be a higher concentration of lower floating debris (such as wood) in one part of the Pacific. However, that doesn’t mean it’s in a mass, and it doesn’t tell us how much is there, it just shows there may be more debris there than in other areas. Observations of the area with satellites have not shown any debris.

Even though there’s no mass, addressing this debris is very important. NOAA has worked with partners in the states to monitor the debris, form response plans, and try to mitigate any impacts. We’ll continue that work as long as necessary. We’re happy to answer any questions you may have. Feel free to email us at MarineDebris.Web@noaa.gov.


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Ready for Anything: Advice in Case of the Undead

This is a post by NOAA Office of Response and Restoration’s Katie Krushinski.

We’d like to wish you a happy Halloween … but it’s only appropriate we mention zombies first. In recent years, zombies have invaded popular culture, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), who have done a great job linking being prepared for a zombie attack with overall disaster preparedness. You may laugh, but you can also learn a thing or two about being ready for the return of the undead.

Zombie nurse.

If you’re not prepared for the worst, then you’re letting the zombies win. (Credit: Tuomas Kuosmanen, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic License)

Don’t Let the Zombies Win

Zombie hands going after brain.

Use your brain and be prepared for anything. (Credit: Beth Jusino, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic License)

If you watch any movies or T.V. shows about surviving zombie apocalypse, you can actually pick up some handy preparedness tips. Although pre-made zombie survival kits are amusing, most of them have in common the kind of life-saving ideas that will work in any emergency situation:

  • Water: Having three gallons per person per day is critical. Water is not only used for drinking—we use it for cooking and cleaning too. But consider including alcohol-based hand gels or wipes to ration water use and avoid getting sick.
  • Food: Keep on hand at least two weeks’ worth of nonperishable food; the type that doesn’t require cooking or refrigeration is best. And don’t forget about food and water for pets and service animals!
  • First Aid Supplies: Commercial kits are available at most drug stores. It’s a good idea to have a kit at home and one in your car. Be sure to replenish items you use and be mindful of expiration dates.
  • Gas: It’s typically a good idea to keep at least a half tank of gas in your car at all times. If you know a hurricane or other threatening event is coming, be sure to fill up early.

Be Prepared for Hazards of All Kinds

Being ready for disasters is something we take very seriously at NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center. Which is why we’ve taken this advice to heart and made sure our own facility in Mobile, Ala., is ready to withstand a hurricane, tornado, or even zombie apocalypse. Just peek into our restrooms, where we have:

  • Multiple 25-person survival kits, which include items such as safety goggles, pry bar (especially handy for zombie defense!), multifunction tools, first aid supplies, flashlights, and emergency water pouches.
  • Backup generators that will automatically switch on if the primary power fails (zombie attacks usually result in power loss).
  • Internet hookups, which are being fed into the building from two different directions in case zombies or stormy weather damage or sever one of the cables.

Of course, both your family and your employer should customize the steps you take and supplies you stock based on your particular needs and situation.

Sweat the Small Stuff

We all know it’s important to make an emergency plan and keep an up-to-date list of important phone numbers. But sometimes we are so focused on gathering the big things that we forget about the small stuff.
If you're ready for a zombie apocalypse, then you're ready for any emergency. emergency.cdc.gov
For instance, it is suggested that you stock canned food, but don’t forget to grab the “all-mighty” can opener. It’s also recommended to wear sturdy, close-toed shoes if you need to go outside. But it isn’t mentioned very often to keep a pair of spare socks in a tightly sealed bag. This will allow you to have at least one dry pair as a backup. Another tip is to keep a flashlight, radio, and other battery-powered items on hand—but make sure they all use the same size battery to avoid stocking multiple sizes.

Today, zombies provide a fun and creative way to teach about the importance of being prepared for anything. For a spooky story that kids and adults alike might enjoy, check out the CDC’s “Preparedness 101: Zombie Pandemic” short graphic novel, which is an entertaining and informative way to learn about preparing for an emergency, whether it’s a natural disaster or a very unnatural attack by zombies.

Happy Halloween (and watch out for the undead)!

Katie Krushinski

Katie Krushinski

Katie Krushinski works at NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center in Mobile, Ala., where she is responsible for coordinating training events, producing external communications, and writing and editing. Katie has a background in emergency response and management. NOAA’s Disaster Response Center serves as a one-stop shop, streamlining the delivery of NOAA services that help the Gulf region prepare for and deal with disasters.


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Are We Prepared to Communicate Well During the Next Disaster?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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After Sandy, Adapting NOAA’s Tools for a Changing Shoreline

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

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Vicki Loe and Jill Petersen.

While the beach season has come to an end for the East Coast, communities of the northeast continue to repair remaining damage from last fall’s Post Tropical Cyclone Sandy and prepare for future storms. As beachgoers arrived at the shore this past summer, they found a lot of repaired structures and beautiful beaches. But this was side-by-side with reconstruction projects, damaged buildings, and altered shorelines.

In addition to damaging manmade structures, Sandy’s strong winds and waves caused considerable change to shorelines, particularly in the metropolitan New York area, northern Long Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey.

Tools for Coastal Disasters

In the wake of Sandy, under the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013, funds were allocated to update the Office of Response and Restoration’s existing northeast Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) maps to reflect changes caused by the storm and to add information that would enhance the maps’ value when another disaster strikes. Historically used mostly for oil and chemical spills, these maps have also proved to be effective tools in preparing for and responding to storms and hurricanes.

ESI maps provide a concise summary of coastal resources that could be at risk in a disaster. Examples include biological resources (such as birds and shellfish beds), sensitive shorelines (such as marshes and tidal flats), and human-use resources (such as public beaches and parks). They are used by both disaster responders during a disaster and planners before a disaster.

Segment of an existing Environmental Sensitivity Index map of the New Jersey coast.

Segment of an existing Environmental Sensitivity Index map of the New Jersey coast. Used in conjunction with a key, this map provides valuable information to planners and responders on the wildlife, habitats, and geographical features of the area.

In the region affected by Sandy, maps will be updated from Maine to South Carolina. The ESI maps are produced on a state or regional basis. They typically extend offshore to include all state waters, and go inland far enough to include coastal biology and human use resources. In addition to the outer coastal regions, navigable rivers, bays, and estuaries are included. In the northeast, these include the Hudson River and Chesapeake Bay, which are among those maps being updated with the Sandy funding, as well as Delaware Bay, which was already in progress before the storm hit.

The first region to be updated will be Long Island Sound. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is partnering with the Center for Coastal Monitoring and Assessment (CCMA) in NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science to develop the biological and human use information for this region. This partnership will take advantage of studies CCMA currently has underway, as well as contacts they have made with the biological experts in the area.

Keeping up with a Changing Shoreline

A large wildlife conservation area that is managed by Bass River State Forest at the north end of Brigantine Island, a popular beach destination located on the New Jersey coast. (NOAA)

You can see representative coastal habitat in a large wildlife conservation area managed by Bass River State Forest at the north end of Brigantine Island, a popular beach destination located on the New Jersey coast. (NOAA)

The coastal environment is constantly changing and ESI maps need to be updated periodically to reflect not just storm damage, but changes to resources caused by human use, erosion, and climate change. The new maps will be created with a broad range of potential disasters in mind. To support this goal, some additional data elements and layers are being considered for the ESI maps developed as part of our post-Sandy effort. These may include such things as flood inundation and storm surge areas, environmental monitoring stations, tide stations, and offshore renewable energy sites.

The end products will provide emergency planners and responders with a better tool for protecting the northeast and mid-Atlantic shoreline when the next coastal disaster occurs.

You can learn more about our Environmental Sensitivity Index maps in our blog post “Mapping How Sensitive the Coasts Are to Oil Spills,” and find more technical insights into our work with ESI maps and data on the NOAA ESI blog at noaaesi.wordpress.com.

Jill PetersenJill Petersen began working with the NOAA spill response group in 1988. Originally a programmer and on-scene responder, in 1991 her focus switched to mapping support, a major component of which is the ESI program. Throughout the years, Jill has worked to broaden the ESI audience by providing ESIs in a variety of formats and developing appropriate mapping tools. Jill has been the ESI program manager since 2001.


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Molasses and Other Weird Things that Have Spilled

Editor’s Note: September is National Preparedness Month. It is a time to prepare yourself and those in your care for emergencies and disasters of all kinds. NOAA and our partners have to be ready to respond to not just oil and chemical spills, but sometimes unusual hazards like molasses! 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 Charlie Henry and Katie Krushinski, both based at NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center in Mobile, Ala.

Response team on board Coast Guard ship in Honolulu Harbor.

The Coast Guard National Strike Force and personnel from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration head to their first location to monitor depleted oxygen and pH levels in Honolulu Harbor, Honolulu, Sept. 15, 2013.  They tested the water at various locations around Honolulu Harbor affected by the molasses spill. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Last week, the Matson Shipping Company reported an unusual spill after a container ship and faulty pipeline leaked 233,000 gallons (1,400 tons) of molasses into Hawaii’s Honolulu Harbor.

The Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division has been working with the Hawaii Department of Health’s Hazard Evaluation and Emergency Response Office and state and federal partners to assess the large underwater plume of molasses and reduce risks to marine life in the area.

Typically we hear about spills of diesel, oil, and chemicals that cause environmental harm. We know these products can be toxic. Molasses, on the other hand, isn’t usually considered pollution. Yet, the Hawaii Department of Health has already collected approximately 25,000 dead fish from Honolulu Harbor and Ke’ehi Lagoon, where the molasses spill has spread and smothered life on the seafloor.

Although this isn’t your run-of-the-mill spill, it’s not the first time strange-sounding things have been spilled into the environment—with at times serious consequences.

Too Much to Drink

On October 17, 1814, a fermented vat of beer exploded, causing adjacent storage tanks to spill and pouring approximately 388,330 gallons of beer throughout the poor London neighborhood of St. Giles and neighboring communities. As a result, at least seven people died in this incident, both from drowning while trapped in slum-like basement apartments and from being buried under the flood’s debris.

In the wake of the Boston Molasses Disaster of 1919, firemen stood in thick molasses past their ankles as they searched through the debris.

In the wake of the Boston Molasses Disaster of 1919, firemen stood in thick molasses past their ankles as they searched through the sticky debris. (Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.)

A Sticky Mess

Believe it or not, molasses has been spilled before. On January 15, 1919, a tank holding at least 2.2 million gallons of molasses burst, sending a wall of the thick, brown syrup down the streets of Boston, Mass. Reports indicate 21 people died in this spill and 150 were injured.

Boston Harbor was tinted brown for months. Although it wasn’t documented in detail in 1919, fish kills were a likely result. The locals described people and animals being trapped, “like by flypaper.” Local residents rumor that when the weather is hot you can still faintly smell molasses to this day.

A Close Call

On September 13, 2011, an OR&R Scientific Support Coordinator provided the U.S. Coast Guard with a trajectory for a bundle of telephone poles that were drifting in the Gulf of Mexico. The Coast Guard considered these poles a hazard to navigation and a threat to oil platforms at sea. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration applies the same oceanographic modeling tools used for oil spill trajectories to determine where huge bundles of logs, lost containers from cargo ships, and abandoned or derelict vessels might end up. In these cases, the debris itself is less of a concern than what it might encounter on its journey. This type of debris poses a huge threat to fishing vessels, fully loaded oil tankers, and even cruise ships. Floating debris is just another example of an unconventional “spill.”

Unexpected Spill Effects

Just about anything can be a hazard if it happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. For example, saltwater is very common. In fact, about 97% of all water on Earth is saltwater. A spill of saltwater into the ocean (which is also saltwater) is likely to go unnoticed. But if a large quantity of saltwater were spilled into freshwater estuaries and marsh habitat, the spill would likely kill fish, damage vegetation, and impact the long-term viability of the habitat. For example, century-old cypress trees have died and never returned to an area as a result of a saltwater spill into a freshwater system where they were growing.

The All-Hazards Approach

Today we train our emergency responders for all-hazards. By definition, all-hazards can be any incident or event, natural or manmade, which requires an organized response in order to protect human life, the environment, and property as well as to minimize any disruption of government, social, and/or economic services.

Natural disaster such as hurricanes and manmade events such as oil and chemical spills, all require a coordinated response, which is managed under the Incident Command System (ICS) for coordination and stakeholder involvement. While molasses spills aren’t a textbook example for training responders, it would be considered an all-hazard threat in situations like Boston’s tank failure of 1919 and the spill of 2013 in Honolulu harbor. You never know what might go wrong, which is why it pays to be prepared for anything—even molasses!

Katie Krushinski

Katie Krushinski

Katie Krushinski works as Training and Communications Coordinator at NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center in Mobile, Ala., where she is responsible for coordinating training events, producing external communications, and writing and editing. Katie has a background in emergency response and management. NOAA’s Disaster Response Center serves as a one-stop shop, streamlining the delivery of NOAA services that help the Gulf region prepare for and deal with disasters.


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Why Are Tropical Storms and Hurricanes Named?

This is a post by NOAA Office of Response and Restoration’s Katie Krushinski.

The 2013 Atlantic hurricane season's first named storm was Tropical Storm Andrea, pictured here on June 8 crossing over Florida and up the East Coast. (NASA)

The 2013 Atlantic hurricane season’s first named storm was Tropical Storm Andrea, pictured here on June 8 crossing over Florida and heading up the East Coast. (NASA)

Have you ever wondered why storms are named? Up until the early 1950s, tropical storms and hurricanes were tracked by year and the order in which each one occurred during that year.

In time, it was recognized that people remembered shorter names more easily. In 1953, a new approach was taken and storms were named in alphabetical order by female name. The process of naming storms helps differentiate between multiple storms that may be active at the same time.

By 1978, both male and female names were being used to identify Northern Pacific storms. This was adopted in 1979 for the Atlantic storms and is what we use today.

The World Meteorological Organization came up with the lists of names, male and female, which are used on a six-year rotation. In the event a hurricane causes a large amount of damage or numerous deaths, that name will be retired. Since the 1950s, when it became normal to name storms, there have been 77 names retired, including Fran (1996), Katrina (2005), Rita (2005), and Sandy (2012).

To find out this year’s storm names and for a complete list of retired names, visit the National Weather Service’s website. And if you haven’t started your own severe-weather preparations, don’t delay; the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season (predicted to be more active than usual) has already begun.

The Gulf of Mexico region, in particular, experiences frequent natural and human-caused disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and oil spills.

NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center aims to reduce the resulting impacts by helping to prepare federal, state, and local decision makers for a variety of threats, creating more adaptive and resilient coastal communities. Learn more about this valuable resource and center of NOAA expertise on the Gulf Coast.

Katie Krushinski

Katie Krushinski

Katie Krushinski works at NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center in Mobile, Ala., where she is responsible for coordinating training events, producing external communications, and writing and editing. Katie has a background in emergency response and management. NOAA’s Disaster Response Center serves as a one-stop shop, streamlining the delivery of NOAA services that help the Gulf region prepare for and deal with disasters.


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Why You Should Thank a Hydrographer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Modeling Leaking Shipwrecks

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

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

Mapping Environmental Responses

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

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

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

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

Detecting Submerged Hurricane Debris

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

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


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Behind the Budget: A Look Ahead for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration

Here, we take a peek into the world of science policy (and the budgets that make it possible) as we hear from Dave Westerholm, director of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, about what we can expect as a starting point for this office in the next fiscal year.

Wetland grasses replanted in Texas after a successful damage assessment and restoration process. (NOAA/National Marine Fisheries Service/Jamie Schubert)

Wetland grasses replanted in Texas after a successful damage assessment and restoration process. (NOAA/National Marine Fisheries Service/Jamie Schubert)

The White House recently released the President’s Budget for Fiscal Year 2014. This budget offers several exciting opportunities for research, development, and growth in response and restoration activities at NOAA. The budget contains close to $4 million in increases for the Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R).

I am very proud of the work we do every day at OR&R and am very grateful for all the support that enables this work. In the last year we responded to 139 environmental incidents, including Hurricane Sandy, generated over $800,000 for restoration through the natural resource damage assessment process, opened NOAA’s new Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center, and saw passage of the Marine Debris Act Amendments of 2012 (which expanded the scope of our office to deal specifically with large amounts of natural disaster debris).

While meeting the needs of those critical issues, we have continued to support the ongoing response and damage assessment for the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill, looked forward to address emerging challenges in the U.S. Arctic by launching an Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA) online mapping tool for the Arctic region and contributed our expertise to interagency planning and preparedness in support of ongoing energy exploration in the Arctic.

I am eager to show you what OR&R can do with the latest budget from the President that will build upon our recent achievements:

The fiscal year 2014 budget proposes a $2 million increase for Natural Resource Damage Assessment to increase technical, strategic, and legal support so we can more quickly move more oil spill and hazardous waste site cases toward settlement and support the restoration process. We anticipate that this increase will more than pay for itself in settlement funds recovered from responsible parties and deliver significant return on investment for the American public.

There is an increase of $1 million for the NOAA Marine Debris Program to fund a variety of programs and efforts to reduce and prevent the impacts of marine debris. This includes funding for:

  • research programs and academic institutions with demonstrated expertise in the economic impacts of marine debris.
  • alternatives to fishing gear that pose potential marine threats.
  • enhanced tracking, recovery, and identification of lost and discarded fishing gear.
  • efforts to reduce the amount of baseline debris from ocean and non-ocean based sources.

Additionally, the Marine Debris Program’s regional marine debris coordination program will receive a funding increase to enhance regional efforts and develop response plans for states in the Northeast, Southeast, and Gulf of Mexico as described under the Marine Debris Act. These plans will help federal, state, and local authorities plan and prepare for the next major marine debris cleanup event, for example, a hurricane.

This budget also proposes funding increases for emergency response preparedness in the Arctic and Gulf of Mexico and for our innovative ERMA tool to transition to a cloud computing platform.  These funds will allow OR&R to improve our services through participation in more regional response exercises with governmental and private partners and enhance scientific support for the Arctic through increased direct engagement with Arctic communities.

I invite you to review the NOAA Fiscal Year 2014 Budget Summary [PDF] for more detailed information on all of NOAA’s proposed activities in the President’s budget.

Each budgetary increase provides a significant opportunity to build NOAA’s capacity to assess future oil and chemical spill impacts, plan for increased maritime activity in the Arctic, and expand our scientific and tactical capabilities using state-of-the-art information management. The budget also will help NOAA to develop capabilities that will lead to more effective strategies to prevent and mitigate the effects of marine debris. I hope to work with our office’s many partners and supporters in the coming months to ensure OR&R’s capacity will continue to meet the rising tide of ocean and coastal challenges to protect lives, property, and the environment and to keep commerce moving.

Dave Westerholm

Dave Westerholm

Dave Westerholm currently serves as the Director of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. Prior to NOAA, he had several years of corporate experience as both Senior Operations Director and Vice President for Maritime Security, Policy and Communications for Anteon Corporation and then General Dynamics. He is a retired Coast Guard Captain with over 27 years of experience in a variety of fields including maritime safety, port security, and environmental protection.


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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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Japanese Dock Lost in 2011 Tsunami Removed from Washington’s Olympic Coast

March 19, 2013 -- Workers dismantling the dock from Misawa, Japan, which washed up on Washington's Olympic Coast. (National Park Service/John Gussman)

March 19, 2013 — Workers dismantling the dock from Misawa, Japan, which washed up on Washington’s Olympic Coast in December of 2012. (National Park Service/John Gussman)

A large Japanese dock swept across the Pacific Ocean after the March 2011 tsunami has now been removed from Washington’s Olympic Coast. Cleanup workers from the Washington-based contractor, The Undersea Company, carried off the last of the now-deconstructed dock’s concrete and plastic foam from the beach where it washed ashore.

Removal work, which occurred inside Olympic National Park and NOAA’s Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, began on March 17 and concluded March 25, 2013. You can watch a time-lapse video of the dock’s removal (and related videos):

“This operation was challenging—imagine opening up a 185-ton concrete package filled with foam packing peanuts while standing near a helicopter on an extremely remote coastline,” said John Nesset, president and C.E.O. of The Undersea Company, in a NOAA press release.

March 19, 2013 -- Crews remove foam blocks from a cut-open section of the Japanese floating dock, which beached inside both a national park and national marine sanctuary. (National Park Service/John Gussman)

March 19, 2013 — Crews remove foam blocks from a cut-open section of the Japanese floating dock, which beached inside both a national park and national marine sanctuary. (National Park Service/John Gussman)

The dock, weighing 185 tons and measuring 65 feet in length, initially stranded on the Washington coast last December after it and two other docks were torn away from the Port of Misawa, Japan, during the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011.

In previous posts, NOAA mentioned that this dock and the one found near Newport, Ore., in June of 2012 were among four docks washed away from Misawa—but we are told that only three docks left the port. The Consulate-General of Japan has alerted us that “earlier news reports erroneously stated that a fourth dock was located on an island in Japan.”

The NOAA Marine Debris Blog expands further on the whereabouts of the docks:

“According to the Consulate-General of Japan, three of the four floating docks located at the Misawa Fishing Port washed away when the tsunami struck. Fishermen reportedly spotted the third missing dock floating near Oahu, north of Molokai, in Hawaii in September. It has not been located since.”

An interesting aspect is that these three docks were wrenched away from the same port in Japan at the same time during the tsunami in March of 2011. Yet, as NOAA oceanographers know quite well, predicting where the Pacific Ocean’s currents and winds might carry and eventually deposit them (and when) is a tricky task.

March 18, 2013 -- The remoteness of the location where the Japanese dock beached required a helicopter to lift loads of foam taken out of the inside of the deconstructed dock. (National Park Service/John Gussman)

March 18, 2013 — The remoteness of the location where the Japanese dock beached required a helicopter to lift loads of foam taken out of the inside of the deconstructed dock. (National Park Service/John Gussman)

So far, “one washed up on Oregon’s coast last summer, and a second beached along Washington’s coastline in December,” pointed out Asma Mahdi of the NOAA Marine Debris Program. “Two identical debris pieces that left Japan’s coast at the same time made the journey across the Pacific, but they ended up on the U.S. West Coast six months apart and in very different locations. How can we predict where marine debris will end up?”

You can gather some insight into these complexities in the latest Diving Deeper podcast from the National Ocean Service.

Sherry Lippiatt, the NOAA Marine Debris Program’s California Regional Coordinator, discusses how objects in the ocean are navigating a dynamic environment, which can affect everything from a plastic bottle to a floating dock.

Listen to the podcast here:

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