NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

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


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NOAA Scientists Offer In-depth Workshops at 2014 International Oil Spill Conference

2014 International Oil Spill Conference banner with sea turtle graphicEvery three years, experts representing organizations ranging from government and industry to academic research and spill response gather at the International Oil Spill Conference. This event serves as a forum for sharing knowledge and addressing challenges in planning for and responding to oil spills. NOAA plays a key role in planning and participating in this conference and is one of the seven permanent sponsors of the event.

This year is no different. In addition to presenting on topics such as subsea applications of dispersants and long-term ecological evaluations, Office of Response and Restoration staff are teaching several half-day workshops giving deeper perspectives, offering practical applications, and even providing hands-on experience.

If you’ll be heading to the conference in Savannah, Ga., from May 5–8, 2014, take advantage of the following short courses to pick our brains and expand yours. Or, if you can’t make it, consider applying for our next Science of Oil Spills training this August in Seattle, Wash.

Environmental Trade-offs Focusing on Protected Species

When: Monday, May 5, 2014, 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. Eastern

Who: Ed Levine (Scientific Support Coordinator), Jim Jeansonne (Scientific Support Coordinator), Gary Shigenaka (Marine Biologist), Paige Doelling (Scientific Support Coordinator)

Level: Introductory

What: Learn the basics about a variety of marine protected species, including whales, dolphins, sea turtles, birds, fish, corals, invertebrates, and plants. This course will cover where they are found, the laws that protect them, and other information necessary to understand how they may be affected by an oil spill. The course will discuss the impacts of specific response operations on marine protected species, and the decision making process for cleaning up the oil while also working in the best interest of the protected species. We will also discuss knowledge gaps and research needs and considerations when information is not available.

A man points out something on a computer screen to another person.Advanced Oil Spill Modeling and Data Sources

When: Monday, May 5, 2014, 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. Eastern

Who: Glen Watabayashi (Oceanographer), Amy MacFadyen (Oceanographer), Chris Barker (Oceanographer)

Level: Intermediate

What: This is a rare opportunity to get hands-on experience with NOAA’s oil spill modeling tools for use in response planning and trajectory forecasting. We will lead participants as they use our General NOAA Operational Modeling Environment (GNOME) model for predicting oil trajectories and the Automated Data Inquiry for Oil Spills (ADIOS) model for predicting oil weathering.

Arctic Drilling Environmental Considerations

When: Monday, May 5, 2014, 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. Eastern

Who: Kate Clark (Acting Chief of Staff), Mary Campbell Baker (Northwest/Great Lakes Damage Assessment Supervisor)

Level: Introductory

What: How are Arctic development decisions being made given environmental, political, and societal uncertainty? How should they be made? Examine how a changing Arctic is intersecting with increased shipping and oil development to alter the profile of human and environmental risks.

Worldwide Practice Approaches to Environmental Liability Assessment

When: Monday, May 5, 2014, 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. Eastern

Who: Ian Zelo (Oil Spill Coordinator)

Level: Intermediate

What: In the United States, Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) regulations promulgated pursuant to the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 institutionalized the concept of NRDA and the cooperative NRDA. Learn some of the key principles related the NRDA and restoration process in the context of oil spills, as well as suggested best practices and how they may be implemented at various sites in the U.S. and worldwide.


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Science of Oil Spills Training Now Accepting Applications for Summer 2014

Two people looking at forms and a booklet on the beach.

These classes help prepare responders to understand the environmental risks and scientific considerations when addressing oil spills. (California Office of Spill Prevention and Response)

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, a leader in providing scientific information in response to marine pollution, has scheduled a Science of Oil Spills (SOS) class for the week of August 4–8, 2014 in Seattle, Wash.

We will accept applications for this class through Friday, June 13, 2014, and we will notify applicants regarding their participation status by Friday, June 27, 2014. Class will begin on Monday afternoon, August 4, and will conclude at noon on Friday, August 8.

SOS classes help spill responders increase their understanding of oil spill science when analyzing spills and making risk-based decisions. They are designed for new and mid-level spill responders.

These trainings cover topics including:

  • Fate and behavior of oil spilled in the environment.
  • An introduction to oil chemistry and toxicity.
  • A review of basic spill response options for open water and shorelines.
  • Spill case studies.
  • Principles of ecological risk assessment.
  • A field trip.
  • An introduction to damage assessment techniques.
  • Determining cleanup endpoints.

To view the topics for the next SOS class, download a sample agenda [PDF, 170 KB].

Please be advised that classes are not filled on a first-come, first-served basis. The Office of Response and Restoration tries to diversify the participant composition to ensure a variety of perspectives and experiences to enrich the workshop for the benefit of all participants. The class will be limited to 40 participants.

For more information, and to learn how to apply for the class, visit the SOS Classes page.


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Marine Life in Gulf of Mexico Faces Multiple Challenges

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

photo of a bottlenose dolphin calf.

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

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

On the Lookout

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Familiar Waters

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

When Oil and Algae Mix

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

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

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

Photo of volunteer with a microscope.

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

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

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

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


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University of Washington Partners with NOAA to Research and Prepare for Changes in the Oil and Gas Industry

This is a guest post by the Emerging Risks Workgroup at the University of Washington in Seattle.

LNG Tanker Arctic Lady near shore.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has opened up natural gas production in the United States, to the point that industry is increasingly looking to export it as liquified natural gas (LNG) via tanker. (Photo: Amanda Graham/Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic License)

From fracking to oil trains, the landscape of oil production and transportation in North America has been undergoing a major transformation in recent years. This transformation has implications for how NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration prepares its scientific toolbox for dealing with oil spills. Our group of graduate students from the University of Washington partnered with NOAA on a project to identify major trends in the changes to risk in transporting oil and natural gas along U.S. coasts and major rivers.

Scope

To study these risks, we researched the trends that are changing the way in which petroleum is produced and transported in the United States. We also examined three high-profile incidents:

We reviewed the lessons learned from each of these responses and determined whether they also apply to the emerging risks we identified.

Research on Risks: Fracking, LNG, and Oil Trains

The largest catalyst for changes in the petroleum market in the U.S. is the proliferation of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” combined with horizontal drilling. Fracking is a technique which forces fluids under great pressure through production wells to “fracture” rock formations and free greater amounts of crude oil or natural gas. This has drastically changed the amount of petroleum produced, where the petroleum is produced, and where it is transported.

Fracking also comes with its own transportation issues. The large amounts of wastewater from fracking operations are often transported or treated near waterways, increasing the risk for a spill of contaminated wastewater.

Fracking has increased the amount of natural gas production in the U.S., which is transported within North America as a gas through pipelines. However, with the increase in gas production, energy companies are looking to export some of this outside of North America as liquefied natural gas, or LNG. Several projects have been approved to export LNG, and several more are awaiting approval. LNG is currently transported by tanker, and with these new export projects, LNG tanker traffic will increase.

LNG is also being explored as a marine fuel option, which will require LNG bunkering infrastructure to supply the fuel needs of vessels that will run on LNG. Several LNG terminals and bunkering operations are in various stages of planning and development, and the presence of more vessels carrying LNG as a fuel or cargo will need to be addressed in future spill response planning.

Tanker rail cars over a wood bridge.

According to the Association of American Railroads, U.S. railroads shipping crude oil jumped from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to an estimated 400,000 carloads in 2013. (Photo: Roy Luck/Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License)

Fracking has also led to greater amounts of crude oil produced in the U.S. Much of this new oil is being transported by rail, historically not a typical way to move lots of crude oil. This change in volume and mode of transportation for crude oil also presents risks for accidents. There have been several recent high-profile derailments of oil trains, many including fires or explosions.

The increase in crude oil transportation by rail is in large part a stopgap measure. First, because existing pipeline infrastructure isn’t available in certain parts of the country, including North Dakota and Wyoming, which are now producing crude oil. Second, because new pipelines take time to get approved and then constructed to serve new areas. Pipeline construction has increased significantly since 2008 but not without some issues.

All of this would be further complicated if the national ban on exporting crude oil (rather than refined oil) were lifted, an idea which has some supporters. This could change the amount and type of oil being transported by different modes to different locations, especially ports, and increase the risk of oil spills into nearby waterways.

Additional Risks and Recommendations

Offshore wind development and LNG infrastructure were also identified as potential risks that could further complicate petroleum production and transport in the United States. These developments could increase traffic in certain areas or place additional obstacles (i.e., wind turbines) in the path of vessels carrying petroleum products, potentially increasing the risk of spills. Additionally, the decrease in Arctic sea ice is changing oil exploration opportunities and shipping routes through the Arctic, which could shift the entire petroleum shipping picture in the U.S.

After analyzing these overall trends, we turned to recommendations from previous incidents involving oil exploration and spills. There were 248 recommendations made in the post-incident reports for the Cosco Busan, Deepwater Horizon, and Shell Kulluk. Out of these 248, we identified 29 recommendations that could apply in the context of these new, overall changes in petroleum transportation. These were divided into five major categories: contingency planning, equipment and responder training, industry oversight, funding, and public outreach and education.

Key Findings

Overall, we identified four major findings about petroleum production and transport:

  • Increased and more complex transportation risk.
  • Trends that hinder spill prevention and complicate spill response.
  • Lessons learned from past incidents are still valid for future responses.
  • There are several potential gaps in regulation, funding, planning, and coordination.

If you have any questions about the group, its members, our research, or would like to read any of our scoping documents, memos, or final paper, please visit our website at www.erw.comuv.com. We are happy to answer any questions.

The Emerging Risks Workgroup (ERW) is a group of four graduate students from the University of Washington working with UW faculty advisor Robert Pavia and Incident Operations Coordinator Doug Helton of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. The students in the group are all part of the Environmental Management Certificate at UW’s Program on the Environment. Stacey Crecy is from the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs, and Andrew Cronholm, Barry Hershly, and Marie Novak are from the Evans School of Public Affairs. The Environmental Management Certificate culminates in a two-quarter capstone project that allows the student teams to work on a project for an outside client and then present their findings.

The ERW would like to thank our sponsor NOAA OR&R, and Doug Helton. We would also like to thank our UW faculty advisor, Robert Pavia of the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs, Anne DeMelle of the Program on the Environment, and all of the people that guided our research.

The views expressed in this post reflect those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official views of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) or the federal government.


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Oil Seeps, Shipwrecks, and Surfers Ride the Waves in California

This is a post by Jordan Stout, the Office of Response and Restoration’s Scientific Support Coordinator based in Alameda, Calif.

Tarball on the beach with a ruler.

A tarball which washed up near California’s Half Moon Bay in mid-February 2014. (Credit: Beach Watch volunteers with the Farallones Marine Sanctuary Association)

What do natural oil seeps, shipwrecks, and surfers have in common? The quick answer: tarballs and oceanography. The long answer: Let me tell you a story …

A rash of tarballs, which are thick, sticky, and small pieces of partially broken-down oil, washed ashore at Half Moon Bay, Calif., south of San Francisco back in mid-February. This isn’t an unusual occurrence this time of year, but several of us involved in spill response still received phone calls about them, so some of us checked things out.

Winds and ocean currents are the primary movers of floating oil. A quick look at conditions around that time indicated that floating stuff (like oil) would have generally been moving northwards up the coast. Off of Monterey Bay, there had been prolonged winds out of the south several times since December, including just prior to the tarballs’ arrival. Coastal currents at the time also showed the ocean’s surface waters moving generally up the coast. Then, just hours before their arrival, winds switched direction and started coming out of the west-northwest, pushing the tarballs ashore.

Seeps and Shipwrecks

It’s common winter conditions like that, combined with the many natural oil seeps of southern California, that often result in tarballs naturally coming ashore in central and northern California. Like I said, wintertime tarballs are not unheard of in this area and people weren’t terribly concerned. Even so, some of the tarballs were relatively “fresh” and heavy weather and seas had rolled through during a storm the previous weekend. This got some people thinking about the shipwreck S/S Jacob Luckenbach, a freighter which sank near San Francisco in 1953 and began leaking oil since at least 1992.

When salvage divers were removing oil from the Luckenbach back in 2002, they reported feeling surges along the bottom under some wave conditions. The wreck is 468 feet long, lying in about 175 feet of water and is roughly 20 miles northwest of Half Moon Bay. Could this or another nearby wreck have been jostled by the previous weekend’s storm and produced some of the tarballs now coming ashore?

Making Waves

Discussions with the oceanographers in NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration provided me with some key kernels of wisdom about what might have happened. First, the height of a wave influences the degree of effects beneath the ocean surface, but the wave length determines how deep those effects go. So, big waves with long wavelengths have greater influence at greater depths than smaller waves with shorter wavelengths.

Graphic describing and showing wave length, height, frequency, and period.

Credit: NOAA’s Ocean Service

Second, waves in deep water cause effects at depths half their length. This means that a wave with a length of 100 meters can be felt to a depth of 50 meters. That was great stuff, I thought. But the data buoys off of California, if they collect any wave data at all, only collect wave height and period (the time it takes a wave to move from one high or low point to the next) but not wave length. So, now what?

As it turns out, our office’s excellent oceanographers also have a rule of thumb for calculating wave length from this information: a wave with a 10-second period has a wave length of about 100 meters in deep water. So, that same 10-second wave would be felt at 50 meters, which is similar to the depth of the shipwreck Jacob Luckenbach (54 meters or 175 feet).

Looking at nearby data buoys, significant wave heights during the previous weekend’s storm topped out at 2.8 meters (about 9 feet) with a 9-second period. So, the sunken Luckenbach may have actually “felt” the storm a little bit, but probably not enough to cause a spill of any oil remaining on board it.

Riding Waves

Even so, just two weeks before the tarballs came ashore, waves in the area were much, much bigger. The biggest waves the area had seen so far in 2014, in fact: more than 4 meters (13 feet) high, with a 24-second period. If the Luckenbach had been jostled by any waves at all in 2014, you would think it would have been from those waves in late January, and yet there were no reports of tarballs (fresh or otherwise) even though winds were blowing towards shore for about a week afterwards. This leads me to conclude that the recent increase in tarballs came from somewhere other than a nearby shipwreck.

Where do surfers fit in all this? That day in late January when the shipwreck S/S Jacob Luckenbach was being knocked around by the biggest waves of 2014 was the day of the Mavericks Invitational surf contest in Half Moon Bay. People came from all over to ride those big waves—and it was amazing!

Jordan StoutJordan Stout currently serves as the NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator in California where he provides scientific and technical support to the U.S. Coast Guard and Environmental Protection Agency in preparing for and responding to oil spills and hazardous material releases. He has been involved in supporting many significant incidents and responses in California and throughout the nation.


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Remembering the Exxon Valdez: Collecting 25 Years of Memories and Memorabilia

On May 24, 1989, NOAA marine biologist Gary Shigenaka was on board the NOAA ship Fairweather in Prince William Sound, Alaska. It had been two months since the tanker Exxon Valdez, now tied up for repairs nearby, had run aground and spilled nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil into the waters the Fairweather was now sailing through.

A man in a tyvek suit stands on a ship next to a life preserver with mountains and water in the background.

NOAA marine biologist Gary Shigenaka in 1989 aboard the tanker Exxon Valdez itself. In retrospect, Shigenaka joked that he should have made off with the ship’s life preserver for his eventual collection of artifacts related to the ship and spill. (NOAA)

That day Shigenaka and the other NOAA scientists aboard the Fairweather were collecting data about the status of fish after the oil spill.

Little did he know he would be collecting something else too: a little piece of history that would inspire his 25-year-long collection of curiosities related to the Exxon Valdez. Shigenaka’s collection of items would eventually grow to include everything from tourist trinkets poking fun at the spill to safety award memorabilia given to the tanker’s crew years before it grounded.

This unusual collection’s first item came to Shigenaka back on that May day in 1989, when the NOAA scientists on their ship were flagged down by the crippled tanker’s salvage crew. Come here, they said. We think you’re going to want to see this.

Apparently, while the salvage crew was busy making repairs to the damaged Exxon Valdez, they had noticed big schools of fish swimming in and out of the holes in the ship.

So Shigenaka and a few others went aboard the Exxon Valdez, putting a small boat inside the flooded cargo holds and throwing their nets into the waters. They were unsuccessful at catching the fish moving in and out of the ship, but Shigenaka and the other NOAA scientists didn’t leave the infamous tanker empty-handed.

They noticed that the salvage workers who had initially invited them on board were cutting away steel frames hanging off of the ship. Naturally, they asked if they could have one of the steel frames, which they had cut into pieces a few inches long so that each of these fish-counting scientists could take home a piece of the Exxon Valdez.

After Shigenaka took this nondescript chunk of steel back home to Seattle, Wash., he heard rumors about the existence of another item that piqued his interest. The Exxon Shipping Company had allegedly produced safety calendars which featured the previously exemplary tanker Exxon Valdez during the very month that it would cause the largest oil spill in U.S. waters at the time—March 1989. Feeling a bit like Moby Dick’s Captain Ahab chasing down a mythical white whale, Shigenaka’s efforts were finally rewarded when he saw one of these calendars pop up on eBay. He bought it. And that was just the beginning.

This young biologist who began his career in oil spill response with the fateful Exxon Valdez spill would find both his professional and personal life shaped by this monumental spill. Today, Shigenaka has an alert set up so that he is notified when anything related to the Exxon Valdez shows up on eBay. He will occasionally bid when something catches his eye, mostly rarer items from the days before the oil spill.

To commemorate the 25 years since the Exxon Valdez oil spill, take a peek at what is in Gary Shigenaka’s personal collection of Exxon Valdez artifacts.

Read a report by Gary Shigenaka summarizing information about the Exxon Valdez oil spill and response along with NOAA’s role and research over the past 25 years.


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Detecting Change in a Changing World: 25 Years After the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

Life between high and low tide along the Alaskan coast is literally rough and tumble.

The marine animals and plants living there have to deal with both crashing sea waves at high tide and the drying heat of the sun at low tide. Such a life can be up and down, boom and bust, as favorable conditions come and go quickly and marine animals and plants are forced to react and repopulate just as quickly.

But what happens when oil from the tanker Exxon Valdez enters this dynamic picture—and 25 years later, still hasn’t completely left? What happens when bigger changes to the ocean and global climate begin arriving in these waters already in flux?

Telling the Difference

Two people wearing chest waders sift for marine life in shallow rocky waters.

In 2011 NOAA marine biologist Gary Shigenaka (right) sifts through the sediments of Alaska’s Lower Herring Bay, looking for the tiny marine life that live there. (Photo by Gerry Sanger/Sound Ecosystem Adventures)

In the 25 years since the Exxon Valdez oil spill hit Alaska’s Prince William Sound, NOAA scientists, including marine biologist Gary Shigenaka and ecologist Alan Mearns, have been studying the impacts of the spill and cleanup measures on these animals and plants in rocky tidal waters.

Their experiments and monitoring over the long term revealed a high degree of natural variability in these communities that was unrelated to the oil spill. They saw large changes in, for example, numbers of mussels, seaweeds, and barnacles from year to year even in areas known to be unaffected by the oil spill.

This translated into a major challenge. How do scientists tell the difference between shifts in marine communities due to natural variability and those changes caused by the oil spill?

Several key themes emerged from NOAA’s long-term monitoring and subsequent experimental research:

  • impact. How do we measure it?
  • recovery. How do we define it?
  • variability. How do we account for it?
  • subtle connection to large-scale oceanic influences. How do we recognize it?

What NOAA has learned from these themes informs our understanding of oil spill response and cleanup, as well as of ecosystems on a larger scale. None of this, however, would have been apparent without the long-term monitoring effort. This is an important lesson learned from the Exxon Valdez experience: that monitoring and research, often viewed as an unnecessary luxury in the context of a large oil spill response, are useful, even essential, for framing the scientific and practical lessons learned.

Remote Possibilities

As NOAA looks ahead to the future—and with the Gulf of Mexico’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in our recent past—we can incorporate and apply lessons of the Exxon Valdez long-term program into how we will support response decisions and define impact and recovery.

The Arctic is a region of intense interest and scrutiny. Climate change is opening previously inaccessible waters and dramatically shifting what scientists previously considered “normal” environmental conditions. This is allowing new oil production and increased maritime traffic through Arctic waters, increasing the risk of oil spills in remote and changing environments.

If and when something bad happens in the Arctic, how do scientists determine the impact and what recovery means, if our reference point is a rapidly moving target? What is our model habitat for restoring one area impacted by oil when the “unimpacted” reference areas are undergoing their own major changes?

Illustrated infographic showing timeline of ecological recovery after the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Tracking the progress of recovery for marine life and habitats following the Exxon Valdez oil spill is no easy task. Even today, not all of the species have recovered or we don’t have enough information to know. (NOAA) Click to enlarge.

Listening in

NOAA marine biologist Gary Shigenaka explores these questions as he reflects on the 25 years since the Exxon Valdez oil spill in the following Making Waves podcast from the National Ocean Service:

[NARRATOR] This all points back at what Gary says is the main take-away lesson after 25 years of studying the aftermath of this spill: the natural environment in Alaska and in the Arctic are rapidly changing. If we don’t understand that background change, then it’s really hard to say if an area has recovered or not after a big oil spill.

[GARY SHIGENAKA] “I think we need to really keep in mind that maybe our prior notions of recovery as returning to some pre-spill or absolute control condition may be outmoded. We need to really overlay that with the dynamic changes that are occurring for whatever reason and adjust our assessments and definitions accordingly. I don’t have the answers for the best way to do that. We’ve gotten some ideas from the work that we’ve done, but I think that as those changes begin to accelerate and become much more marked, then it’s going to be harder to do.”


Read a report by Gary Shigenaka summarizing information about the Exxon Valdez oil spill and response along with NOAA’s role and research on its recovery over the past 25 years.


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After the Big Spill, What Happened to the Ship Exxon Valdez?

This is a post by Gary Shigenaka, a marine biologist with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.

Close-up of the ship's name on side of Exxon Valdez.

The last days of the Exxon Valdez: in the San Diego shipyard before the first name change. Photo from the collection of Gary Shigenaka, NOAA.

A popular myth exists that it is bad luck to rename a boat.  It is unclear whether this applies to “boats” as big as a 987-foot-long oil tanker, but it is possible that the ship originally known as the Exxon Valdez might be used to argue that the answer is “yes.”

When the Exxon Valdez was delivered to Exxon on December 11, 1986, it was the largest vessel ever built on the west coast of the U.S. On July 30, 1989, four months after it ran aground in Alaska’s Prince William Sound and caused the then-largest oil spill in U.S. waters, the crippled Exxon Valdez entered dry dock at National Steel and Shipbuilding in San Diego—its original birthplace.

The trip south from Prince William Sound had not been without incident. Divers discovered hull plates hanging from the frame 70 feet below the surface that had to be cut away, and a 10 mile oil slick trailing behind the ship for a time prevented it from entering San Diego Bay.

New Law, New Name

Ship Exxon Mediterranean in Trieste, Italy, July 1991.

Exxon Mediterranean in Trieste, Italy, July 1991. Photo by Arki Wagner, used with permission.

Nearly a year and $30 million later, the ship emerged for sea trials as the Exxon Mediterranean.  The Exxon Valdez had suffered the ignominy—and corporate hardship—of effectively being singled out in U.S. legislation (the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 [PDF]) and banned from a specific U.S. body of water:

SEC. 5007. LIMITATION.

Notwithstanding any other law, tank vessels that have spilled more than 1,000,000 gallons of oil into the marine environment after March 22, 1989, are prohibited from operating on the navigable waters of Prince William Sound, Alaska.

(33 U.S.C. § 2737)

With this banishment institutionalized in U.S. law, Exxon Shipping Company shifted the operational area for the ship to the Mediterranean and the Middle East and renamed it accordingly.  In 1993, Exxon spun off its shipping arm to a subsidiary, Sea River Maritime, Inc., and the Exxon Mediterranean became the Sea River Mediterranean.  This was shortened to S/R Mediterranean.

In 2002, the ship was re-assigned to Asian routes and then temporarily mothballed in an undisclosed location.

A Ship Singled Out?

Exxon filed suit in federal court challenging the provisions of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 that had banned its tanker from the Prince William Sound trade route.  In November 2002, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Oil Pollution Act and its vessel prohibition provision (the Justice Department noting that to that time, 18 vessels had been prevented from entering Prince William Sound).  While Sea River had argued that the law unfairly singled out and punished its tanker, and that there was no reason to believe that a tanker guilty of spilling in the past would spill in the future, the three-judge panel disagreed unanimously.

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990, the landmark law resulting from the Exxon Valdez oil spill, legislated the phase-out of all single-hulled tankers from U.S. waters by 2015. On October 21, 2003, single-hulled tankers carrying heavy oils were banned by the European Union.  A complete ban on single-hulled tankers was to be phased in on an accelerated schedule in 2005 and 2010. There remains pressure to eliminate single-hulled tankers from the oil trade worldwide, so their days are clearly numbered.

In 2005, the S/R Mediterranean was reflagged under the Marshall Islands after having remained a U.S.-flagged ship for 20 years (reportedly in the hopes that it eventually would have been permitted to re-enter the Alaska – U.S. West Coast – Panama route for which it had been designed).  The ship’s name became simply Mediterranean.

In 2008, ExxonMobil and its infamous tanker finally parted ways when Sea River sold the Mediterranean to a Hong Kong-based shipping company, Hong Kong Bloom Shipping Co., Ltd. The ship was once again renamed, to Dong Fang Ocean, and reflagged under Panamanian registry.  Its days as a tanker also came to an end, as the Dong Fang Ocean was converted into a bulk ore carrier at Guangzhou CSSC-Oceanline-GWS Marine Engineering Co., Ltd., China.

The Dong Fang Ocean labored in relative anonymity in its new incarnation until November 29, 2010.  On that day, it collided with another bulk carrier, the Aali in the Yellow Sea off Chengshan, China. Both vessels were severely damaged; the Dong Fang Ocean lost both anchors, and the Aali sustained damage to its ballast tanks.  The Dong Fang Ocean moved to the port of Longyan with assistance by tugs.

The End Is Near

With this last misfortune, the final countdown to oblivion began in earnest for the vessel-formerly-known-as-Exxon-Valdez.  In March 2011, the ship was sold for scrap to a U.S.-based company called Global Marketing Systems (GMS). GMS in turn re-sold it to the Chinese-owned Best Oasis, Ltd., for $16 million.

Exxon Valdez/Exxon Mediterranean/Sea River Mediterranean/S/R Mediterranean/Mediterranean/Dong Fang Ocean/Oriental Nicety being dismantled on the beach of Alang, India, 2012.

Exxon Valdez/Exxon Mediterranean/Sea River Mediterranean/S/R Mediterranean/Mediterranean/Dong Fang Ocean/Oriental Nicety being dismantled in Alang, India, 2012. Photo by ToxicsWatch Alliance.

Intending to bring the Oriental Nicety, as it had been renamed yet one last time, ashore at the infamous shipbreaking beaches of Alang, Gujarat, India, Best Oasis was blocked by a petition filed by Delhi-based ToxicsWatch Alliance with the Indian Supreme Court on the grounds that the ship could be contaminated with asbestos and PCBs. ToxicsWatch Alliance invoked the Basel Convention, which restricts the transboundary movements of hazardous wastes for disposal. However, an environmental audit required by the court showed no significant contamination, and in July 2012, the Oriental Nicety was cleared to be brought ashore for its final disposition. The ship was reportedly beached on August 2, 2012.

Shanta Barley, writing for Nature, penned a wry obituary as a lead-in to her article about the last days of the ship:

The Oriental Nicety (née Exxon Valdez), born in 1986 in San Diego, California, has died after a long struggle with bad publicity.

Editor’s note: Use Twitter to chat directly with NOAA marine biologist Gary Shigenaka about the Exxon Valdez and its impacts on Alaska’s marine life and waters on Monday, March 24 at 3:00 p.m. Eastern. Follow the conversation at #ExxonValdez25 and get the details: http://1.usa.gov/1iw2Y6W.

Gary Shigenaka.

Gary Shigenaka.

Gary Shigenaka is one of the original biological support specialists in the Emergency Response Division of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. Even though his career with NOAA has spanned decades, Gary’s spill response experience began with the Exxon Valdez. He has worked countless spills since then, in the U.S. and internationally. He also currently oversees a number of response-related research efforts and represents the U.S. Department of Commerce on the Region 10 Regional Response Team.


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NOAA and Private Industry Share Data to Improve Our Understanding of the Arctic

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

The snowy horizon outside Barrow, Alaska, at sunset.

Ongoing and accelerated changes in the Arctic, including the seasonal loss of sea ice and opening up of the Arctic for navigation and commerce, are creating new opportunities for transportation and resource extraction along with a new venue for accidents, spills, and other environmental hazards. Although the Arctic is warming, it will remain a remote and challenging place to work. (NOAA)

Gathering data and information about Arctic air, lands, and waters is critical to NOAA’s missions. We work to protect coastal communities and ensure safe navigation, healthy oceans, effective emergency response, and accurate weather forecasting. But we need to be able to access remote areas of land and ocean to get that information in the first place. The expansive, harsh Arctic environment can make this access risky, expensive, and at times impossible.

The U.S. Arctic is a unique ecosystem that requires unique solutions for solving problems. To continue improving our understanding of the Arctic, NOAA must seek innovative ways to gather essential data about the climate, ocean, and living things in this part of our world.

The Rules of Sharing

We recognize that no single agency or organization has enough resources to do this alone. We have to collaborate our research efforts and share data with others working in the Arctic. An innovative agreement between NOAA and industry [PDF] was signed in August 2011 to help identify and pursue data needs in the Arctic.

This agreement between NOAA, Shell, ConocoPhilips, and Stat Oil sets up a framework for sharing Arctic data in five areas:

  • meteorology.
  • coastal and ocean currents, circulation, and waves.
  • sea ice studies.
  • biological science.
  • hydrographic services and mapping.

Before we incorporate this data into NOAA products and services, we will conduct stringent quality control on all data provided to us under this agreement. Having access to additional high-quality data will improve NOAA’s ability to monitor climate change and provide useful products and services that inform responsible energy exploration activities in the region.

We are committed to openness and transparency in our science.  In addition to reviews to ensure the quality of the data that we receive, NOAA will make the data obtained under this agreement available to the public.

Exactly what data is shared and how it is shared is laid out in a series of annexes to the overarching agreement. NOAA and the three companies have identified the need for at least three annexes. The first [PDF] and second [PDF] are complete. The third, which covers hydrographic services and mapping, is being drafted now.

Why Sharing (Data) Is Caring

This collaboration will leverage NOAA’s scientific expertise and these companies’ significant offshore experience, science initiatives, and expertise. By establishing this data-sharing agreement and the associated annex agreements, NOAA is better equipped to protect the Arctic’s fragile ecosystem. We will be providing the public—including energy companies, mariners, native communities, fishers, and other government agencies—with a stronger scientific foundation, which we believe will better support decision making and safe economic opportunities in this rapidly changing area.

NOAA envisions an Arctic where decisions and actions related to conservation, management, and resource use are based on sound science and support healthy, productive, and resilient communities and ecosystems.

We are working hard, in an era of shrinking budgets, to make sure that we are good stewards of the natural resources found in the Arctic. We will hold our industry partners to our high standards, and make sure that as we learn more, we also prepare for and minimize the risks involved in Arctic oil and gas development and increased maritime transportation.

We look forward to working with these industry partners to implement this data-sharing agreement.  This agreement is the type of innovative partnership we’d like to build with other entities willing to share data and work with us—leveraging the best of what we each can bring to the table.

Learn more about the work NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is doing in the Arctic.

Kate Clark is the Acting Chief of Staff for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. For nearly 12 years she has responded to and conducted damage assessment for numerous environmental pollution events for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. She has also 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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What Are Kids Reading About Oil Spills?

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

Kids reading books in a book store.

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

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

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

An Oil Spill Ecologist Dives into Kids’ Books

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

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

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

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

Reading Recommendations

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

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

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

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

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