NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

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


Leave a comment

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.


Leave a comment

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.


Leave a comment

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.


2 Comments

As New Risks Emerge in Producing and Transporting Oil, University of Washington Helps NOAA Plan for Spills

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

Trucks and heavy machinery used to drill for natural gas parked in dirt.

A hydraulic fracturing operation at a Marcellus Shale natural gas well in Pennsylvania. (U.S. Geological Survey)

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 is trying to provide NOAA with a picture of new or emerging risks that oil spill response plans need to adapt to.

To do this, we first have to look at what is causing the risks of transporting oil and gas products to change over time. We then compare those changes to changes that have already been accounted for by spill response planning. Once these “emerging” risks are accounted for, we can list in detail those areas that are going to be areas of concern for NOAA in the future.

Fracking

The main drivers of change for spill risks are the changes in the production of crude oil and natural gas. By far, the largest change in the market is the proliferation of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” which involves forcing fluids under great pressure through production wells to “fracture” rock formations to allow more crude oil or natural gas to be released. This controversial drilling technique has seen rapid and abundant growth in North America.

Fracking and other new technologies have resulted in a change in the types of petroleum products being transported in the U.S. It has changed where the products are originating, the quantities involved, and the methods of transportation.

LNG

Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) is natural gas that has been cooled to -260° Fahrenheit and liquefied for ease of transport. Its production has substantially increased in recent years. This is a result of the lower prices for natural gas that are caused by the immense supply, which is in turn due to increased production from fracking. Because there is so much LNG available at lower prices, two major changes in natural gas transportation have occurred.

First, due to the immense volume of available LNG (and the lack of export bans), the U.S. has started to export more LNG than in the past. The biggest recent change in LNG transport is the more widespread adoption of the LNG tanker. These tankers are just what the name implies: tanker ships storing large quantities of refrigerated LNG. These massive LNG tankers create a myriad of new challenges due to the nature of LNG (it is highly flammable) and the locations of shipping ports, which need to be large enough and properly equipped to load them.

Second, LNG is gaining popularity as a fuel for ships. Many of the new ships shipping companies are purchasing are built to run on LNG as well as traditional bunker fuel. Additionally, a number of existing ships are being retrofitted to run on LNG in certain conditions. As a result, fueling stations at the ports that service these large ships have to add a new fuel type that must be transported to the port and stored before fueling ships. This also further complicates port safety by adding more fueling processes that must be supported at in-port fueling stations.

Oil by Rail

Oil tank cars with railroad tracks.

According to the Association of American Railroads, in 2008 U.S. railroads moved 9,500 train cars of crude oil, while in 2012, U.S. trains moved nearly 234,000 carloads of oil. (U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration)

Fracking, as well as the advances in producing oil from oil sands, has changed where crude oil is being produced. Because pipelines require more permits and are slower and more expensive to build, maintain, and operate than rail, there has been a large increase in transporting oil via rail cars. These “rolling pipelines” are a convenient use of existing transportation infrastructure but cause significant changes in the risks of transporting crude oil in the U.S.

Many of these rail lines, at times, run adjacent to navigable waterways and end at a port for export, which means spills from derailments may sometimes release crude oil into waterways. We have already seen an increase in train derailments and resulting oil spills in recent weeks. This new risk is likely to grow, as the amount of oil transported by rail continues to grow each year.

Project Details and Timeline

We will be finishing our research and writing our report in the coming weeks. We plan on presenting our findings to NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration in mid-March and will also be presenting at a symposium for the University of Washington’s Program on the Environment.

If you have any questions about the ERW, its members, our research, or would like to read any of our scoping documents, memos, or (eventually) the final paper, please visit our website at www.erw.comuv.com.

The Emerging Risks Workgroup (ERW) is a group of four graduate students from the University of Washington that are working with faculty advisor Robert Pavia and Doug Helton, the Incident Operations Coordinator for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. The students in the group are all part of the Environmental Management Certificate Program 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 all from the Evans School of Public Affairs.

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.


2 Comments

A Tale of Two Shipwrecks: When History Threatens to Pollute

Last year I wrote about NOAA’s work in identifying potentially polluting shipwrecks in U.S. waters.

Several men work to pump oil onto a barge on the ocean.

During November 2013, the Canadian Coast Guard (Western Region) worked with Mammoet Salvage to remove the oil remaining on board the wreck of the Brigadier General M.G. Zalinski. The Zalinski sank off the North Coast of British Columbia, Canada, and its wreck remains upside down on top of an underwater cliff. (Daniel Porter, Mammoet Salvage)

One of the wrecks that we’ve been watching with interest has been the wreck of the Brigadier General M. G. Zalinski, a World War II U.S. Army transport ship that ran aground and sank in 1946 near Prince Rupert, Canada.  For the past decade the vessel has been the source of chronic oil spills in British Columbia’s Inside Passage, and patches to the hull were only a temporary solution.

Response operations were just completed in late December 2013, and the Canadian government reported that two-month-long operations safely extracted approximately 44,000 liters (about 12,000 gallons) of heavy Bunker C oil and 319,000 liters (84,000 gallons) of oily water from the wreck.  More information on the project is on Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans website.

Every shipwreck has its own story to tell. One of the interesting bits of trivia about the Zalinski is that the crew of the sinking ship back in 1946 was rescued by the Steam Ship Catala. The Zalinski, lying in Canadian waters, is not in our database of potentially polluting shipwrecks, but the S.S. Catala is, or should I say, was.

The Catala met its end in 1965 when the ship grounded during a storm and was abandoned on a beach on the outer coast of Washington state.  Over time the vessel was buried in sand, but 40 years later, winds and tides had changed the face of the beach, re-exposing the Catala’s rusted-out, oil-laden hull.  In 2007, the State of Washington led a multi-agency effort to remove not only the 34,500 gallons of oil still on board but also the ship’s wreckage and the potential for a major oil spill near a number of state parks and national wildlife refuges on the coast.

Learn more about how NOAA worked with the U.S. Coast Guard and Regional Response Teams to prioritize potential threats to coastal resources from the nation’s legacy of sunken ships.


Leave a comment

Protecting the Great Lakes After a Coal Ship Hits Ground in Lake Erie

The coal ship CSL Niagara got stuck in Lake Erie's soft, muddy bottom at the entrance to Sandusky Bay in November 2013.

The coal ship CSL Niagara got stuck in Lake Erie’s soft, muddy bottom at the entrance to Sandusky Bay in November 2013. (U.S. Coast Guard)

In the course of a year, from October 2012 to October 2013, the Emergency Response Division of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration responded to 138 oil spills, chemical accidents, and various other threats to coastal environments and communities. Many of these responses required considerable time from the scientific team to estimate where spills might spread, analyze chemical hazards, and assess whether natural resources are at risk. Sometimes, however, we’re called into some incidents that end well, with minimum help needed on our part and no oil spilled.

Last November, LCDR John Lomnicky received a call from the U.S. Coast Guard with an example of an accident that had the potential to be much worse. LCDR Lomnicky is our Scientific Support Coordinator for the Great Lakes region and is based in Cleveland, Ohio.

When Staying Grounded Is a Bad Thing

On November 17, just after 10:00 in the morning, the vessel master of the CSL Niagara reported to the U.S. Coast Guard that his ship had run aground while leaving Sandusky Bay through Moseley Channel to Lake Erie. Aboard the ship were 33,000 metric tons (36,376 U.S. tons) of coal, headed to Hamilton, Ontario, and about 193 metric tons of intermediate fuel oil (a blend of gasoil and heavy fuel oil) and marine diesel. The concern in a situation like this would be that the grounded ship might leak oil. Its stern was stuck in the soft mud at the bottom of Lake Erie. At the time, the vessel master reported there were no injuries, flooding, or visible pollution.

This ship, the CSL Niagara, has a long history of transporting coal in Lake Erie. Launched in April of 1972 for Canada Steamship Lines, Ltd., the new ship was 730 feet long and even then was carrying coal to Hamilton, Ontario. During over 40 years of sailing in the Great Lakes, the Niagara has also carried cargos of grain, coke, stone, and iron ore.

NOAA chart of Lake Erie.

Lake Erie has an average depth of 62 feet, but its western basin, where the CSL Niagara grounded, averages only 24 feet deep. (NOAA Chart)

Even though the vessel hadn’t released any oil, the Coast Guard Marine Safety Unit, who had responders at the scene very shortly after the accident, put in a call to the Office of Response and Restoration’s LCDR Lomnicky for scientific support. As a precaution, they requested that we model the trajectory of oil in a worst case scenario if 145 metric tons of intermediate fuel oil and 48 metric tons of diesel fuel were released all at once into the water. We also provided a prediction of when the lake’s lower-than-usual water level would return to normal so a salvage team could refloat the stuck vessel. After gathering all of this information for the Coast Guard, LCDR Lomnicky continued to stand by for further requests.

In the hours that followed the ship’s grounding, the winds grew stronger, hampering efforts to free the vessel. The wind was causing the water level in the lake to drop and NOAA’s National Weather Service in Detroit predicted a 7.5 foot drop in levels for western Lake Erie. By 8:30 p.m., with 30 knot winds in two-to-three foot seas, the three tugboats contracted by the ship’s owner to dislodge the Niagara were making some progress. By midnight, however, with weather conditions worsening, salvage operations were suspended and scheduled to resume at first light.

But the next morning, November 18, the water level had dropped another two feet, and the three tugs still had had no luck freeing the stern of the Niagara from the lake bottom. The ship’s owner was now working on plans for lightering (removing the fuel) and containing any potentially spilled oil. Fortunately, there were still no reports of damage to the vessel or oil discharged into the water. The ship was just stuck.

By 4:00 that afternoon the water conditions had improved and another attempt to free the vessel was planned. Also, a combined tug-barge was en route should lightering become necessary.

Later that evening, shortly after 10:00, the ship was pulled free by two of the tugs and was back on its way early the next morning.

The location where the CSL Niagara grounded in Lake Erie is indicated with a red diamond, along with a window of information and photo of the grounded ship. It is mapped in Great Lakes ERMA, NOAA's online mapping tool for coastal pollution cleanup, restoration, and response.

The location where the CSL Niagara grounded in Lake Erie is indicated with a red diamond, along with a window of information and photo of the grounded ship. It is mapped in Great Lakes ERMA, NOAA’s online mapping tool for coastal pollution cleanup, restoration, and response. (NOAA)

Keeping the Great Lakes Great

Lake Erie is the shallowest of the five Great Lakes, with an average depth of 62 feet. Yet its western basin, where this ship grounding occurred, has an average depth of only 24 feet. The lake is an important source of commerce for both the U.S and Canada, who depend on it for shipping, fishing, and hydroelectric power. These industries place environmental pressure on the lake’s ecosystems, which  are also threatened by urban and agricultural runoff.

Happily, quick responders, sound information, and a break in the weather may have prevented this incident from becoming something much worse. A spill into Lake Erie could be devastating, especially considering its shallow waters, but this time, like many other times along the nation’s coasts, an oil spill was avoided.

Didn’t know that NOAA works in the Great Lakes? Nicknamed “the third coast,” the Great Lakes are a major U.S. water body, with a shoreline that stretches longer than the East Coast and Gulf Coast combined. Learn more about the Great Lakes and NOAA’s efforts there in this Great Lakes regional snapshot.


Leave a comment

As North American Oil Production Explodes, So Do Oil Trains

National Transportation Safety Board officials at the scene of the Casselton, N.D., train derailment and explosion on January 1, 2014 in below-zero temperatures. One of the burned-out trains is in the background.

National Transportation Safety Board officials at the scene of the Casselton, N.D., train derailment and explosion on January 1, 2014 in below-zero temperatures. One of the burned-out trains is in the background. (National Transportation Safety Board)

December 30, 2013 turned out to be an explosive day. On that date, a train hauling grain near Casselton, N.D., derailed into the path of an oncoming crude oil train, resulting in several oil tank cars exploding.

Fortunately, the burning tank cars caused no injuries, but local residents were evacuated as a precaution. The North Dakota accident is one of a number of high-profile rail accidents in North America over the past year, which included the July 2013 accident in Quebec, Canada, that killed 47 people. Earlier this week, on January 8, another train accident occurred, this one in New Brunswick near the Maine border. It resulted in several crude oil and liquefied petroleum gas tank cars catching fire.

The growth in U.S. and Canadian oil production has exceeded pipeline capacity and has resulted in a dramatic increase in oil shipments via rail. According to the Association of American Railroads [PDF], in 2008 U.S. railroads moved “just 9,500 carloads of crude oil. In 2012, they originated nearly 234,000 carloads.”

These recent accidents have also raised concerns about the safety of some of these crude oils being transported. Within days of the North Dakota oil train accident, the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued a warning to emergency responders that “crude oil being transported from the Bakken region may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil.” The full safety alert can be found online [PDF].

This rise in transporting oil by rail is one way the growth in the domestic oil industry and changing oil transportation patterns can pose new environmental and safety risks. Unit trains carrying oil are becoming a common sight. (A “unit train” is an entire train carrying the same product to the same destination. A crude oil unit train of 100 tanker cars would carry about 60,000 barrels, or about 2.5 million gallons.) Additional rail terminals have been proposed in Washington state and elsewhere to accommodate growing oil production in the Dakotas and eastern Montana, particularly from the Bakken oil fields.

NOAA and other spill responders are working to understand these emerging risks in order to effectively and safely respond to oil spills. We are currently working with the University of Washington’s Program on the Environment on a project to explore these risks from changes in oil and gas production and transportation. Stay tuned for future blog posts about the progress and findings of this project.


Leave a comment

Study Shows Gulf Dolphins in Poor Health following Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

A dolphin is observed with oil on its skin on August 5, 2010, in Barataria Bay, La.

A dolphin is observed with oil on its skin on August 5, 2010, in Barataria Bay, La. (Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries/Mandy Tumlin)

Barataria Bay, located in the northern Gulf of Mexico, received heavy and prolonged oiling after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. This area is also home to many bottlenose dolphins. In the wake of the spill, how healthy are dolphins living in this area? And how do they compare to dolphins living elsewhere?

As part of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, a team of more than 50 government, academic, and non-governmental researchers assessed the health of bottlenose dolphins living in Louisiana’s Barataria Bay, which received heavy oiling following the Deepwater Horizon spill, and in Florida’s Sarasota Bay, which was not oiled following the spill.

The team of scientists and veterinarians temporarily captured live dolphins, performed comprehensive health examinations on them at the site, and then released them. The health exam included measuring each dolphin’s length and weight; doing a physical exam; sampling skin, blood, and blubber; and performing an ultrasound to evaluate their internal organs, particularly their lung condition and pregnancy status. The team has published the results of this study in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science & Technology.

We spoke with two of the NOAA scientists involved, Dr. Lori Schwacke and Dr. Teri Rowles, to learn more about the research and what their findings mean for dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico.

Q: When did you conduct the dolphin health assessments and what did you observe?

Aug 2011: A veterinarian performs an ultrasound to assess a Barataria Bay dolphin’s health.

Aug 2011: A veterinarian performs an ultrasound to assess a Barataria Bay dolphin’s health. (NOAA)

The first health assessments were conducted in the summer of 2011 in Barataria Bay, La., and in Sarasota Bay, Fla. We found that the dolphins in Barataria Bay were in very poor health. Many of them were underweight and their blood tests showed a number of abnormal conditions such as anemia, elevated markers of inflammation, and increased liver enzymes.

Also, one rather unusual condition that we noted in many of the Barataria Bay dolphins was that they had very low levels of some hormones (specifically, cortisol) that are produced by the adrenal gland and are important for a normal stress response. Under a stressful condition, such as being chased by a predator, the adrenal gland produces cortisol, which then triggers a number of physiological responses including an increased heart rate and increased blood sugar. This gives an animal the energy burst that it needs to respond appropriately. In the Barataria Bay dolphins, cortisol levels were unusually low. The concern is that their adrenal glands were incapable of producing appropriate levels of cortisol, and this could ultimately lead to a number of complications and in some situations even death.

We also found significant lung disease. We looked for several different abnormalities based on studies that have been done on captive animals, and what we saw was most consistent with pneumonia. In some of the animals, the lung disease was so severe that we considered it life-threatening for that individual.

Q: How serious were the conditions observed in dolphins from Barataria Bay?

Some of the conditions observed in these dolphins were very serious. Some of the animals had multiple health issues going on, such as lung disease, very high liver enzymes, and indications of chronic inflammation. The veterinarians assigned a prognosis for each animal and nearly half of the Barataria Bay dolphins were given a guarded (uncertain outcome) or worse prognosis. In fact, 17 percent of them were given a poor or grave prognosis, indicating that they weren’t expected to live.

In comparison, in Sarasota we had only one guarded prognosis and the rest were in good or fair condition. Sarasota dolphins were much healthier than Barataria Bay dolphins.

Q: Have you been able to follow up on the status of any of the dolphins examined during these assessments?

We know one of them died. Y12 was a 16-year-old male that we examined in August 2011. He was underweight and many of his blood parameters were out of the expected range. The veterinary team assigned him a grave prognosis. His carcass was recovered by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries in January of 2012. So we know that he only survived a little over five months  after the health assessment was conducted. . But often carcasses aren’t recovered, and there were other dolphins that we examined that we didn’t expect to live for very long.

We’re also conducting photographic monitoring studies to monitor the survival and reproductive success or failure of the dolphins we sampled. Several of the females we sampled in Barataria Bay were pregnant so we’ve been monitoring them around and past their due date to see whether or not we see them with a calf. The gestation period for a dolphin is around 12 months, so these monitoring studies take a little bit longer. We hope to report those results soon.

Q: Are the disease conditions observed in Barataria Bay dolphins—lung disease, compromised stress hormone response—consistent with those expected from exposure to oil?

The decreased cortisol response is something fairly unusual but has been reported from experimental studies of mink exposed to fuel oil. The respiratory issues are also consistent with experimental studies in animals and clinical reports of people exposed to petroleum hydrocarbons.

Q: How do you know these health impacts weren’t caused by other lingering pollutants in the Gulf?

We analyzed the dolphins’ blubber to evaluate the levels of contaminants that have been previously reported in marine mammal tissues and then also linked with health effects. This covered a fairly broad suite of contaminants and included polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) as well as a suite of persistent pesticides that we know accumulate in dolphins over their lifetime, leaving a record of their exposure. We found that the levels of these pollutants in Barataria Bay dolphins were actually lower than the levels in Sarasota Bay dolphins. The levels from Barataria Bay dolphins were also low compared to previously reported levels in dolphins from a number of other coastal sites in the southeastern U.S. Therefore, we don’t think that the health effects we saw can be attributed to these other pollutants that we looked at.

Q: Are there more dolphin health assessments currently taking place or planned for the future?

Yes, in the summer of 2013 we repeated the studies in Sarasota Bay and Barataria Bay and expanded the studies to Mississippi Sound, where we assessed dolphins both in Mississippi and in Alabama waters. Those samples and data are still being analyzed.

Q: Was there anything about this study that you found surprising?

The magnitude of the health effects that we saw was surprising. We’ve done these health assessments in a number of locations across the southeast U.S. coast and we’ve never seen animals that were in this poor of condition.

Q: How does this study relate to or inform the investigation of the high number of marine mammal strandings observed along the Gulf Coast since February 2010 (the Unusual Mortality Event), which pre-dates the Deepwater Horizon oil spill?

Following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, numerous dolphins were documented encountering oil, such as those in this photo from July 2010.

Following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, numerous dolphins were documented encountering oil, such as those in this photo from July 2010. (NOAA)

The Unusual Mortality Event that’s underway is in the same general geographic area as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill response and overlaps with the Natural Resource Damage Assessment. These findings overlap with the high number of strandings, particularly in the Barataria Bay or central Louisiana area.

When you have a significant event like an oil spill or an Unusual Mortality Event, being able to study both live and dead animals provides more information about what might be going on as animals get ill and then die. Having access to findings from both of these studies enables us to look for commonalities between what we’re finding in the sick animals and what we’re finding in the dead animals to better evaluate causes and contributing factors.

Q: Outside of NOAA, who else did you work with to perform the health assessment?

This work was part of the Deepwater Horizon Natural Resource Damage Assessment being conducted cooperatively among NOAA, other federal and state trustees, and BP. This wouldn’t have been possible without the help of a number of our partners, including the National Marine Mammal Foundation, Chicago Zoological Society, and Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. Also, Seaworld and the Georgia Aquarium provided personnel to support our studies. Their expertise and experience were key to getting these studies done.

We greatly appreciate the efforts of researchers from the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program, which led the dolphin health assessments in Sarasota.

Watch a video of the researchers as they temporarily catch and give health exams to some of the dolphins in Barataria Bay, La., in August of 2011:


2 Comments

Science of Oil Spills Training Now Accepting Applications for Spring 2014

People looking at computer.

These trainings help oil spill responders increase their understanding of oil spill science when analyzing spills and making risk-based decisions. (NOAA)

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 March 3-7, 2014, at NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center in Mobile, Ala.

We will accept applications for this class through Friday, January 17, 2014, and we will notify applicants regarding their participation status by Friday, January 31, 2013.

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 three-and-a-half-day trainings cover:

  • 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, 117 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.

One additional SOS class is planned during fiscal year 2014 (ending September 30, 2014) in Seattle during the summer. At this time, we are only accepting applications for the Mobile, Ala., class; however, when the application dates for the Seattle class are finalized, we will announce them on this website.

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


Leave a comment

How Do Oil Spills Affect Coral Reefs?

Coral habitat in the Hawaiian Islands.

Coral habitat in the Hawaiian Islands. (NOAA)

A warming, more acidic ocean. Grounded ships and heavy fishing nets. Coral reefs face a lot of threats from humans. For these tiny animals that build their own limestone homes underwater, oil spills may add insult to injury.

But how does spilled oil reach coral reefs? And what are the effects?

How an oil spill affects corals depends on the species and maturity of the coral (e.g., early stages of life are very sensitive to oil) as well as the means and level of exposure to oil. Exposing corals to small amounts of oil for an extended period can be just as harmful as large amounts of oil for a brief time.

Coral reefs can come in contact with oil in three major ways:

  1. Oil floating on the water’s surface can be deposited directly on corals in an intertidal zone when the water level drops at low tide.
  2. Rough seas can mix lighter oil products into the water column (like shaking up a bottle of salad dressing), where they can drift down to coral reefs.
  3. As heavy oil weathers or gets mixed with sand or sediment, it can become dense enough to sink below the ocean surface and smother corals below.

 

Oil slicks moving onto coral reefs at Galeta at low tide after the Bahia las Minas refinery spill, Panama, in April 1986.

Oil slicks moving onto coral reefs at Galeta at low tide after the Bahia las Minas refinery spill, Panama, in April 1986. (NOAA)

Once oil comes into contact with corals, it can kill them or impede their reproduction, growth, behavior, and development. The entire reef ecosystem can suffer from an oil spill, affecting the many species of fish, crabs, and other marine invertebrates that live in and around coral reefs.

As oil spill responders, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration has to take these and many other factors into account during an oil spill near coral reefs. For example, if the spill resulted from a ship running aground on a reef, we need to consider the environmental impacts of the options for removing the ship. Or, if an oil spill occurred offshore but near coral reefs, we would advise the U.S. Coast Guard and other pollution responders to avoid using chemical dispersants to break up the oil spill because corals can be harmed by dispersed oil.

We also provide reports and information for responders and natural resource managers dealing with oil spills and coral reefs:

You can learn more about coral reefs, such as the basic biology of corals, how damaged coral reefs can recover from an oil spill or be restored after a ship grounding, and what we’ve learned about oil spills in tropical reefs.

For lessons a little closer to home, be sure to find out five more things you should know about coral reefs and listen to this podcast about threats to coral health from NOAA’s National Ocean Service.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 370 other followers