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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Wishing You a Happy Donut Day (Free of Frying Oil Spills)

A mug, ruler, and NOAA chart with a stack of donuts, one decorated with the NOAA logo.

Happy Donut Day from NOAA!

Tomorrow we celebrate National Donut Day.

As scientists who work in oil spill response, and who also love these oil-fried creations, we know that donut oil can harm the environment almost as severely as the oils that are typically spilled on our coastlines and rivers.

When we talk about “oil” spills, we are generally referring to petroleum-based oils—the naturally occurring products, such as crude oil, found in geologic formations. But the oil and fats that we use to fry our food come from animals (e.g., lard/tallow, butter/ghee, fish oil) or from seeds and plants (e.g., palm, castor, olive, soya bean, sunflower, rape-seed). Like petroleum products, these oils can spill when they are stored or transported. When an accident occurs, large quantities of oil can spill into rivers, lakes, and harbors.

Although vegetable oils and animal fats are not as acutely toxic as many petroleum products, spills of these products can still result in significant environmental damage. Like petroleum oils, vegetable oils and animal fats and their components can have both immediate and long-term negative effects on wildlife and the environment when they:

  • Coat the fur or feathers of wildlife, and even smother embryos if oil comes in contact with bird eggs.
  • Suffocate marine life by depleting the oxygen in the water.
  • Destroy future and existing food supplies, breeding animals, and habitats.
  • Produce rancid odors.
  • Foul shorelines, clog water treatment plants, and catch fire when ignition sources are present.
  • Form products that linger in the environment for many years.

Many non-petroleum oils share similar physical properties with petroleum-based oils; for example, they don’t readily dissolve in water, they both create slicks on the surface of water, and they both form water-oil mixtures known as emulsions, or “mousse.” In addition, non-petroleum oils tend to be persistent, remaining in the environment for long periods of time.

Firefighters in Madison County, Wisc., had to deal with 16 million pounds of butter melting and flowing out of the burning refrigerated warehouse. The butter is visible here in the dug-out channels.

In the Great Butter Fire of May 3, 1991, firefighters in Madison County, Wisc., had to deal with 16 million pounds of butter melting and flowing out of a burning refrigerated warehouse. The butter, which threatened a nearby creek and recently restored lake, is visible here in the dug-out channels. (Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources)

In our earlier blog post, Recipes for Disaster, we describe spills of coconut oil, palm kernel oil, and even butter, which emergency responders across the United States have had to address. In addition to the oil spill response tools and resources we use to mitigate spills of all types, EPA’s explanation of the rules that apply to animal fats and vegetable oil spill planning and response, and response techniques suggested by ITOPF and CEDRE, researchers are finding new ways to clean up spills of vegetable oils.

For example, at Washington University in St. Louis, researchers have found that adding dry clay to spilled oil results in formation of oil-mineral combinations that sink to the bottom of the water. The process works best under conditions of relatively low mixing in the water, and is acceptable only if the oil can be broken down naturally in the sediment.

Back to National Donut Day and things that can be broken down naturally in your stomach. Enjoy your glazed, jelly-filled, or frosted-with-sprinkles delight however it is prepared—with vegetable oil, shortening, or maybe coconut oil. And if you’re thinking of enjoying your donut with a glass of milk, start thinking about what might happen when milk spills into our waters.


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Who Is Biking to Work in America? NOAA Is!

May is National Bike to Work Month. As usual, those of us at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have been donning our two-wheelers and helmets to join in the fun that often starts this month but in Seattle can go year-round. In addition, this year the U.S. Census Bureau has released its first-ever report on biking and walking to work. It holds some interesting insights into the shifts occurring in how people get around town:

Although changes in rates of bicycle commuting vary across U.S. communities, many cities have experienced relatively large increases in bicycle commuting in recent years. The total number of bike commuters in the U.S. increased from about 488,000 in 2000 to about 786,000 during the period from 2008 to 2012, a larger percentage increase than that of any other commuting mode.

Take a look at the top 15 big cities for people biking to work:

Top 15 large cities with the highest percentage of people biking to work.

Top 15 large U.S. cities with the highest percentage of people biking to work.

As you can see, Seattle, Washington, is in the top five, and NOAA’s Seattle contingent is doing its part to help get there. In 2012, NOAA had 132 people riding bikes in the Northwest Federal Bike-to-Work Challenge, landing us the prestigious “Pink Jersey” award—referring to Italy’s Giro d’Italia bike race in May where the leader wears a pink jersey—for our overall participation among federal agencies in the region.

This year, about half-way into Bike Month, it looks like NOAA has roughly 139 people on 12 teams who have been biking to work already. We’ve logged more than 600 trips to and from work and ridden nearly 9,000 miles. That’s a lot of miles not driven in cars, pounds of pollution not emitted, and gallons of petroleum not burned. Let’s not forget the health benefits of integrating bicycling into an active lifestyle too. Many people who bike commute also enjoy being outside, hearing the birds, seeing the change of seasons, having more energy during the work day, and slowing down and unplugging after work.

Six people wearing bike helmets and standing next to bikes.

My Bike to Work Month team stopped for breakfast burritos and then rode in the rest of the way to work together on a brisk May morning in 2013.

Personally, I bought my bicycle about two weeks into my first Bike to Work Month in 2011 (better late than never!). I was a little nervous but more excited. Growing up in the car-friendly suburbs of the Midwest didn’t prepare me at all for biking in a city like Seattle. Fortunately, I had a friend to help ease me into biking, showing me how fun and easy it could be, along with introducing me to some simple biking protocols for staying safe. It also helped to live in Washington, which has been ranked the #1 most bike-friendly state seven years in a row.

That first month of biking to NOAA back in 2011, I was hoping to commute once or even twice a week if I could, but this year, I’m going for three, maybe even four times a week. While my commute isn’t super short—nearly 8 miles each way— I’m lucky enough that I can ride almost the entire way on the Burk-Gilman Trail, a dedicated bike path that “carries as many people during peak hours as a high-performing lane of a major freeway.”

A white bicycle and helmet.

My bike, when it was shiny and new. It’s still pretty shiny, but less new, and with more bike racks and fenders.

It was not so long ago that I thought, “Biking around town? Me? I’ll stick to the bus, thanks.” Now, thanks to a lot of support, I know it’s not a huge deal. The more people there are biking, the safer it becomes for everyone on the road [PDF]. I know I can ride my bike to work (and elsewhere) and I can even do it while wearing a dress and a smile.

Do you bike to work? What do you enjoy about it? Would you bike to work if you could?

Get even more data on biking to work from this video discussion between the U.S. Census Bureau and the League of American Bicyclists.


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A Bird’s Eye View: Looking for Oil Spills from the Sky

This is a post by LTJG Alice Drury of the Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division, with input from David Wesley and Meg Imholt.

View over a pilot's shoulder out of a plane to ocean and islands.

View over the pilot’s shoulder on the first visit to the Chandeleur Islands in the Gulf of Mexico after Hurricane Katrina to see how much the shoreline had been altered. (NOAA)

During an oil spill, responders need to answer a number of questions in order to protect coastal resources: What happened? Where is the oil going? What will it hit? How will it cause harm?

Not all of these questions can be answered adequately from the ground or even from a boat. Often, experts take to the skies to answer these questions.

Aerial overflights are surveys from airplanes or helicopters which help responders find oil slicks as they move and break up across a potentially wide expanse of water. Our oceanographers make predictions about where a spill might go, but each spill presents a unique combination of weather conditions, ocean currents, and even oil chemistry that adds uncertainty due to natural variability. Overflights give snapshots of where the oil is located and how it is behaving at a specific date and time, which we use to compare to our oceanographic models. By visually confirming an oil slick’s location, we can provide even more accurate forecasts of where the oil is expected to go, which is a key component of response operations.

Trained aerial overflight experts serve as the “eyes” for the command post of spill responders. They report critical information like location, size, shape, color, and orientation of an oil slick. They can also make wildlife observations, monitor cleanup operations, and spot oceanographic features like convergence zones and eddies, which impact where oil might go. All of these details help inform decisions for appropriate cleanup strategies.

Easier Said Than Done

Finding and identifying oil from the air is tricky. Oil slicks move, which can make them hard to pin down. In addition, they may be difficult to classify from visual observation because different oils vary in appearance, and oil slick appearance is affected by weather conditions and how long the oil has been out on the water.

False positives add even another challenge. When viewed from the air, algal blooms, boat wakes, seagrass, and many other things can look like oil. Important clues, such as if heavy pollen or algal blooms are common in the area, help aerial observers make the determination between false positives and the real deal. If the determination cannot be made from air, however, it is worth investigating further.

During an overflight, it takes concentration to capture the right information. Many things can distract the observer from the main mission of spotting oil, including taking notes in a notebook, technology, and other people. Even an item meant to help, such as a camera or GPS, can lose value if more time is spent fiddling with it rather than taking observations. The important thing is to look out the window!

Safety is paramount on an overflight. An observer must always pay close attention to the pilot’s instructions for getting on and off the aircraft, and not speak over the pilot if they are talking on the radio. While it’s not a problem to ask, a pilot may not be able to do certain maneuvers an observer requests due to safety concerns.

The Experts—And Becoming One Yourself

The Emergency Response Division of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) has overflight specialists ready for quick deployment to do this job. These specialists have extensive training and expertise in aerial overflights.

View of airplane wing, clouds, and water.

Looking out of an observer window on a Coast Guard C-130 airplane during the Hurricane Katrina pollution response. (NOAA)

When I joined OR&R in 2011, I learned from the best before doing real-life observations myself. One of the first things I did was take a Helicopter Emergency Egress course to make sure I could safely exit an aircraft that had made an emergency landing over water. Then I took the Science of Oil Spills course, where I learned more about observing oil from the air. In preparation for my first overflight I also had one-on-one conversations with our trained aerial observers. Since then, I have done aerial observations for oil spills including a sunken vessel in Washington’s Penn Cove, the Post-Tropical Cyclone Sandy pollution response, and the Texas City “Y” oil spill in Galveston Bay.

OR&R provides training opportunities for others who may need to do an overflight during a response. Throughout the year, OR&R offers Science of Oil Spill classes across the country. In March 2014, more than 50 oil spill responders learned about aerial observing, and many other spill response skills, at OR&R’s Science of Oil Spills class at NOAA’s Disaster Response Center in the Gulf of Mexico. For those interested in becoming an overflight specialist themselves, OR&R even offers a one-day, in-person course on the topic throughout the country a few times per year.

OR&R has also created the online module, “Introduction to Observing oil from Helicopters and Planes,” to make training even more accessible. We even have a job aid for aerial observation of oil, a reference booklet conveniently sized to take on an overflight!

Alice Drury.

LTJG Alice Drury.

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


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Booms, Beams, and Baums: The History Behind the Long Floating Barriers to Oil Spills

Oiled boom on Louisiana beach.

Oiled boom is cleaned so that it can be used to contain oil over and over again. (NOAA)

One of the iconic images of spill preparedness and response is oil boom. You’ve probably seen these long ribbons of orange, yellow, or white material stockpiled on a pier, strung around a leaking vessel, or stretched across a channel to protect sensitive areas threatened by an advancing oil slick. Made of plastic, metal, or other materials, booms are floating, physical barriers to oil, meant to slow the spread of oil and keep it contained.

As we describe on our website, there are three main types of boom:

Hard boom is like a floating piece of plastic that has a cylindrical float at the top and is weighted at the bottom so that it has a “skirt” under the water. If the currents or winds are not too strong, booms can also be used to make the oil go in a different direction (this is called “deflection booming”).

Sorbent boom looks like a long sausage made out of a material that absorbs oil. If you were to take the inside of a disposable diaper out and roll it into strips, it would act much like a sorbent boom. Sorbent booms don’t have the “skirt” that hard booms have, so they can’t contain oil for very long.

Fire boom is not used very much. It looks like metal plates with a floating metal cylinder at the top and thin metal plates that make the “skirt” in the water. This type of boom is made to contain oil long enough that it can be lit on fire and burned up.

But why is it called “boom”? Does it make a sound? Every industry has jargon, and the spill response community, at the intersection of the maritime and oil industry, has more than its fair share. There are whole dictionaries devoted to maritime terms, and others devoted to the oil industry. (Remember “top kill” and “junk shot”—industry terms used to describe attempts to stop the flow of oil from a damaged wellhead?) But when I looked for the origins of the word “boom,” I had to do some digging. I guess boom is such a common term in the response business, nobody thinks much about its derivation. Kind of like asking a chef why spoons are called spoons.

The word “boom” is the Dutch word for tree. German is similar: “baum.” Remember “O Tannenbaum,” a Christmas carol of German origin? From these roots, we get the word “beam” as in a long wooden timber, and of course, a part of a sailboat, the “boom,” that holds the foot of the sail and was traditionally made of wood. Around the Northwest it is pretty common to see a tug boat pulling a big raft of logs to a mill—a log boom.

But what do trees have to do with oil boom? Back to the Dutch. In the Middle Ages, logs were chained together and used as a floating barrier across a waterway to protect a harbor from attack or to force passing ships to stop and pay a toll. During the American Revolution, for example, the Hudson River was boomed with logs to prevent the British from sailing upriver. Similar fortifications were used during the Civil War, and even in World War II to protect U.S. West Coast ports from foreign submarines.

How log booms evolved into oil containment booms is unclear, but we know that every major spill has resulted in a flurry of inventions and improvements, often on the fly as responders adapted available resources to combat the spill. As concern over oil pollution increased over the past century, some of these were patented and form the basis for today’s technologies, but unfortunately there is still no silver bullet; once oil is spilled in the sea, it is a challenge to control and clean up. Learn more about how responders use boom during oil spills [PDF], including the ways to use boom effectively.


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

Healy escorts the tanker Renda through the icy Bering Sea.

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

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

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

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

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

Download the full National Research Council report.

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

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

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


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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) and Jessica White (Deputy Director, NOAA’s Disaster Response Center)

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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