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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When the Dynamics of an Oil Spill Shut Down a Nuclear Power Plant

Yellow containment boom floats on a river next to a nuclear power plant.

Precautionary containment boom is visible around the water intake system at the Salem Nuclear Generating Station in New Jersey on December 6, 2004. The nuclear plant was shut down for 11 days to prevent the heavy, submerged oil from the Athos spill from clogging the water intakes. (NOAA)

“I’ve never reopened a nuclear power plant,” thought NOAA’s Ed Levine. Despite that, Levine knew it was his job to get the right information to the people who ultimately would make that decision. This was his role as a NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator during oil spills. However, most major oil spills do not affect nuclear power plants. This wintry day in 2004 was an exception.

Forty miles north of the Salem Nuclear Generating Station in New Jersey, an oil tanker called the Athos I had struck an object hidden beneath the Delaware River. As it was preparing to dock at the CITGO refinery near Philadelphia on November 26, the ship began tilting to one side, the engine shut down, and oil started gushing out.

“Not your typical oil spill,” later reflected Jonathan Sarubbi, who served as U.S. Coast Guard Captain of the Port and led the federal response during this incident. Not only did no one immediately know what the ship had hit—or where that object was located in the river channel—but the Athos, now sitting too low in the water to reach the dock, was stuck where it was. And it was still leaking its cargo of heavy Venezuelan crude oil.

Capt. Sarubbi ordered vessel traffic through this busy East Coast shipping channel to stop until the object the Athos hit could be found. Little did Capt. Sarubbi, Levine, and the other responders know that even more challenges would be in store beneath the water and down the river.

Getting Mixed up

Most oils, most of the time, float on the surface of water. This was precisely what responders expected the oil coming out of the Athos to do. But within a couple days of the spill, they realized that was not the case. This oil was a little on the heavier side. As it shot out of the ship’s punctured bottom, some of the oil mixed with sediment from the river bottom. It didn’t have far to go; thanks to an extremely low tide pulling the river out to sea, the Athos was passing a mere 18 inches above the bottom of the river when it sprung a leak.

Now mixed with sediment, some of the spilled oil became as dense as or denser than water. Instead of rising to the river surface, it sank to the bottom or drifted in the water column. Even some of the oil that floated became mixed with sediment along the shoreline, later sinking below the surface. For the oil suspended in the water, the turbulence of the Delaware River kept it moving with the currents increasingly toward the Salem nuclear plant, perched on the river’s edge.

NOAA’s oil spill trajectory model GNOME forecasts the spread of oil by assuming the oil is floating on the water’s surface. Normally, our oceanographers can verify how well the forecasts are doing by calibrating the model against twice-a-day aerial surveys of the oil’s movement. The trouble with oil that does not float is that it is harder to see, especially in the murky waters of the Delaware River.

Responders were forced to improvise. To track oil underwater, they created new sampling methods, one of which involved dropping weighted ropes into the water column at various points along the river. The ropes were lined with what looked like cheerleader pom-poms made of oil-attracting plastic strips that would pick up oil as it passed by.

Nuclear Ambitions

Nuclear plants like the Salem facility rely on a steady flow of freshwater to cool their reactors. A thin layer of floating oil was nearing the plant by December 1, 2004, with predictions that the heavier, submerged oil would not be far behind. By December 3, small, sticky bits of oil began showing up in the screens on the plant’s cooling water intakes. To keep them from becoming clogged, the plant decided to shut down its two nuclear reactors the next day. That was when NOAA’s Ed Levine was tasked with figuring out when the significant threats due to the oil had passed.

Eleven days later, the Salem nuclear plant operators, the State of New Jersey, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission allowed the plant to restart. A combination of our modeling and new sampling methods for detecting underwater oil had shown a clear and significant drop in the amount of oil around the plant. Closing this major electric generating facility cost $33.1 million out of more than $162 million in claims paid to parties affected by the Athos spill. But through our innovative modeling and sampling, we were able to reduce the time the plant was offline, minimizing the disruption to the power grid and reducing the economic loss.

Levine recalled this as an “eye-opening” experience, one yielding a number of lessons for working with nuclear power plants should an oil spill threaten one in the future. To learn more about the Athos oil spill, from response to restoration, visit response.restoration.noaa.gov/athos.

A special thanks to NOAA’s Ed Levine and Chris Barker, former U.S. Coast Guard Captain Jonathan Sarubbi, and Henry Font, Donna Hellberg, and Thomas Morrison of the Coast Guard National Pollution Funds Center for sharing information and data which contributed to this post.


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Carrying on a Nearly Fifty Year Tradition, Scientists Examine the Intersection of Pollution and Marine Life

As reliably as the tides, each month biologist Donald J. Reish would wash over the library at California State University, Long Beach, armed with stacks of 3×5 index cards. On these cards, Reish meticulously recorded every scientific study published that month on pollution’s effects on marine life. When he began this ritual in 1967, this did not amount to very many studies.

“There was essentially none at the time,” says Reish, who helped pioneer the study of pollution’s impacts on marine environments in the 1950s.

Nevertheless, after a year of collecting as much as he could find in scientific journals, he would mail the index cards with their handwritten notes to a volunteer crew that often included his former graduate students, including Alan Mearns, now an ecologist with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. Like a wave, they would return to the library to read, review, and send summaries of these studies back to Reish. At his typewriter, he would compile the individual summaries into one comprehensive list, an “in case you missed it” for scientists interested in this emerging field of study. This compilation would then be published in a scientific journal itself.

By the early 2000s, Reish handed off leadership of this annual effort to Mearns, an early recruit to the project. Today, Mearns continues the nearly 50 year tradition of reviewing the state of marine pollution science and publishing it in the journal Water Environment Research. Their 2014 review, “Effects of Pollution on Marine Organisms,” comes together a little differently than in the 1960s and 70s—and covers issues that have changed with the years as well.

Signs of the Times

Man and woman at a desk covered with scientific papers.

NOAA Office of Response and Restoration biologists Alan Mearns and Nicolle Rutherford tackle another year’s worth of scientific studies, part of an effort begun in 1967. (NOAA)

For starters, vastly more studies are being published on marine pollution and its environmental effects. For this year’s publication, Mearns and his six co-authors, who include Reish and NOAA scientists Nicolle Rutherford and Courtney Arthur, reviewed 341 scientific papers which they pulled from a larger pool of nearly 1,000 studies.

The days of having to physically visit a library each month to read the scientific journals are also over. Instead, Mearns can wait until the end of the year to scour online scientific search engines. Emails replace the handwritten 3×5 index cards. And fortunately, typewriters are no longer involved.

The technology the reviewers are using isn’t the only thing to change with the years. In the early days, the major contaminants of concern were heavy metals, such as copper, which were turning up in the bodies of fish and invertebrates. Around the 1970s, the negative effects of the insecticide DDT found national attention, thanks to the efforts of biologist Rachel Carson in her seminal book Silent Spring.

Today, Mearns and Reish see the focus of research shifting to other, often more complicated pollutants, such as nanomaterials, which can be any of a number of materials roughly 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. On one hand, nanotechnology is helping scientists decipher the effects of some pollutants, while, on the other, nanomaterials, such as those found in cosmetics, show potentially serious effects on some marine life including mussels.

Another major trend has been the evolution of the ways scientists evaluate the effects of pollutants on marine life. Researchers in the United States and Western Europe used to study the toxicity of a pollutant by increasing the amount animals are exposed to until half the study animals died. In the 1990s, researchers began exploring pollutants’ finer physiological effects. How does exposure to X pollutant affect, for example, a fish’s ability to feed or reproduce?

Nowadays, the focus is even more refined, zeroing in on the molecular scale to discern how pollutants affect an animal’s genetic material, its DNA. How does the presence of oil change whether certain genes in a fish’s liver are turned on or off? What does that mean for the fish?

A Year of Pollution in Review

With three Office of Response and Restoration scientists working on this effort, it unsurprisingly features a lot on oil spills and marine debris, two areas of our expertise.

Of particular interest to Mearns and Rutherford, as oil spill biologists, are the studies of biodegradation of oil in the ocean, specifically, how microbes break down and eat components of oil, especially the toxic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Scientists are examining collections of genes in such microbes and determining which ones produce enzymes that degrade PAHs.

“That field has really exploded,” says Mearns. “It’s just amazing what they’re finding once they use genomics and other tools to go into [undersea oil spill] plumes and see what these critters are doing and eating.”

Marine debris research in 2013 focused on the effects of eating, hitchhiking on, or becoming entangled in debris. Studies examined the resulting impacts on marine life, including sea birds, fish, crabs, turtles, marine mammals, shellfish, and even microbes. The types of debris that came up again and again were abandoned fishing gear and plastic fragments. In addition, quite a bit of research attempted to fill in gaps in understanding of how plastic debris might take up and then leach out potentially dangerous chemicals.

Attitude Adjustment

A group of men and women stand around Don Reish.

Reish often relied on his former graduate students, including NOAA’s Alan Mearns, to help review the many studies on marine pollution’s effects each year. Shown here in 2004, Reish (seventh from left) is surrounded by a few of his former students who gathered to honor him at the Southern California Academy of Sciences Annual Meeting. Mearns is fifth from left and another contributer, Phil Oshida of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, stands between and behind Mearns and Reish. (Alan Mearns)

Perhaps the most significant change over the decades has been a change in attitudes. Reish recalled a presentation he gave at a scientific meeting in 1955. He was discussing his study of how marine worms known as polychaetes changed where they lived based on the effects of pollution in southern California. Afterward, he sat down next to a professor from another college, whose response to his presentation was, “Don, why don’t you go do something important?”

In 2014 attitudes generally skew to the other end of the spectrum when it comes to understanding human impacts on our world and how intertwined these impacts often are with human well-being.

And while there is a lot of bad news about these impacts, Mearns and Reish have seen some bright spots as well. Scientists are starting to observe slow declines in the presence of toxic chemicals, such as DDT from insecticides and PCBs from industrial manufacturing, which last a long time in the environment and build up in the bodies of living things, such as the fish humans like to catch and eat.

The end of the year is approaching and, reliably, Mearns and his colleagues are again preparing to scan hundreds of studies for their annual review of the scientific literature. Reflecting on this effort, Mearns points out another benefit of bringing together such a wide array of research disciplines. It encourages him to cross traditional boundaries of scientific study, enriching his work in the process.

“For me, it inspires out-of-the-box thinking,” says Mearns. “I’ll be looking at wastewater discharge impacts and I’ll spot something that I think is relevant to oil spill studies…We can find out things from these other fields and apply them to our own.”


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Untangling Both a Whale and Why Marine Life Get Mixed up With Our Trash

Tail-view of humpback whale tangled in rope and nets underwater.

A humpback whale entangled in fishing gear swims near the ocean’s surface in 2005. (NOAA/Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary)

In the United States alone, scientific reports show at least 115 different species of marine life have gotten tangled up—literally—in the issue of marine debris. And when you look across the globe that number jumps to 200 species. Those animals affected range from marine mammals and sea turtles to sea birds, fish, and invertebrates.

Sadly, a humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) swimming in the blue waters off of Maui, Hawaii, got first-hand experience with this issue in February 2014. Luckily, trained responders from the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary were able to remove the long tangle of fishing rope wrapped around the whale’s head, mouth, and right pectoral fin. According to NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuaries:

“A long pole with a specially designed hook knife was used by trained and permitted personnel to cut through the entanglement.

Hundreds of feet of small gauge line were collected after the successful disentanglement. The entanglement was considered life threatening and the whale is confirmed to be totally free of gear.”

Check out these short videos taken by the response team for a glimpse of what it’s like trying to free one of these massive marine mammals from this debris:

Net Results

While this whale was fortunate enough to have some help escaping, the issue of wildlife getting tangled in marine debris is neither new nor going away. Recently, the NOAA Marine Debris Program and National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science reviewed scientific reports of ocean life entangled by marine debris in the United States. You can read the full NOAA report [PDF].

They looked at more than 170 reports reaching all the way back to 1928. However, wildlife entanglements didn’t really emerge as a larger problem until after 1950 and into the 1970s when plastic and other synthetic materials became popular. Before that time, fishing gear and “disposable” trash tended to be made out of materials that broke down in the environment, for example, hemp rope or paper bags. Nowadays, when plastic packing straps and nylon fishing ropes get lost or discarded in the ocean, they stick around for a lot longer—long enough for marine life to find and get wrapped up in them.

One of the findings of the NOAA report was that seals and sea lions (part of a group known as pinnipeds) were the type of marine life most likely to become entangled in nets and other debris in the United States. Sea turtles were a close second.

But why these animals? Is there something that makes them especially vulnerable to entanglement?

Location, Location, Location

The two species with the highest reported numbers of entanglements were northern fur seals (Callorhinus ursinus) and Hawaiian monk seals (Monachus schauinslandi). Both of these seals may live in areas where marine debris tends to build up in higher concentrations, increasing their chances of encountering and getting tangled in it.

For example, Hawaiian monk seals live among the coral reefs of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, where some 50 tons of old fishing gear washes up each year. These islands are near the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone, where oceanic and atmospheric forces bring together not only plenty of food for marine life but also lots of debris floating in the ocean. Humpback whales migrate across these waters twice a year, which might be how the humpback near Maui ended up in a tangled mess earlier this year.

Just Behave

Monk sleep sleeping on nets on beach.

An endangered Hawaiian monk seal snuggles up on a pile of nets and other fishing gear in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Between the mid-1950s and mid-1990s, the population declined to one-third of its size due at least in part to entanglement in trawl nets and other debris that drift into the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands from other areas (e.g., Alaska, Russia, Japan) and accumulates along the beaches and in lagoon reefs of atolls. (NOAA)

While being in the wrong place at the wrong time can lead to many unhappily tangled marine animals, behavior also plays into the problem. Some species exhibit particular behaviors that unknowingly put them at greater risk when marine debris shows up.

Not only does the endangered Hawaiian monk seal live on shores prone to the buildup of abandoned nets and plastic trash, but the seals actually seem to enjoy a good nap or lounge on piles of old fishing gear, according to visiting scientists in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The playful, curious nature of young seals and humpback whales also makes them more likely to become entangled in marine debris.

Sea turtles, young and old, are another group whose behaviors evolved to help them survive in a world without human pollution but which in today’s world sometimes place them in harm’s way. Young sea turtles like to hide from predators under floating objects, which too often end up being marine debris. And because sea turtles enjoy munching on the food swirling around ocean convergence zones, such as the one in the North Pacific, they also munch on and get mixed up with the marine debris that gathers there too—especially items with loops and openings to get caught on.

While these animals can’t do much about their behaviors, we humans can. You can:


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When Planning for Disasters, an Effort to Combine Environmental and Human Health Data

Two men clean up oil on a beach.

Workers clean oil from a beach in Louisiana following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill. (NOAA)

Immediately following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010, there was a high demand for government agencies, including NOAA, to provide public data related to the spill very quickly. Because of the far-reaching effects of the spill on living things, those demands included data on human health as well as the environment and cleanup.

In mid-September of 2014, a group of scientists including social and public health experts, biologists, oceanographers, chemists, atmospheric scientists, and data management experts convened in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, to discuss ways they could better integrate their respective environmental and health data during disasters. The goal was to figure out how to bring together these usually quite separate types of data and then share them with the public during future disasters, such as oils spills, hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods.

The Deepwater Horizon spill experience has shown government agencies that there are monitoring opportunities which, if taken, could provide valuable data on both the environment and, for example, the workers that are involved in the cleanup. Looking back, it was discovered that at the same time that “vessels of opportunity” were out in the Gulf of Mexico assisting with the spill response and collecting data on environmental conditions, the workers on those vessels could have been identified and monitored for future health conditions, providing pertinent data to health agencies.

A lot of environmental response data already are contained in NOAA’s online mapping tool, the Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA®), such as the oil’s location on the water surface and on beaches throughout the Deepwater Horizon spill, chemicals found in sediment and animal tissue samples, and areas of dispersant use. ERMA also pulls together in a centralized format and displays Environmental Sensitivity Index data, which include vulnerable shoreline, biological, and human use resources present in coastal areas; ship locations; weather; and ocean currents. Study plans developed to assess the environmental impacts of the spill for the Natural Resource Damage Assessment and the resulting data collected can be found at www.gulfspillrestoration.noaa.gov/oil-spill/gulf-spill-data.

Screen shot of ERMA mapping program showing Gulf of Mexico with Deepwater Horizon oil spill data.

ERMA Deepwater Gulf Response contains a wide array of publicly available data related to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Here, you can see cumulative levels of oiling on the ocean surface throughout the spill, shorelines affected, and the location of the damaged wellhead. (NOAA)

Health agencies, on the other hand, are interested in data on people’s exposure to oil and dispersants, effects of in situ burning on air quality, and heat stress in regard to worker health. They need information on both long-term and short-term health risks so that they can determine if impacted areas are safe for the communities. Ideally, data such as what are found in ERMA could be imported into health agencies’ data management systems which contain human impact data, creating a more complete picture.

Putting out the combined information to the public quickly and transparently will promote a more accurate representation of a disaster’s aftermath and associated risks to both people and environment.

Funded by NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center and facilitated by the University of New Hampshire’s Coastal Response Research Center, this workshop sparked ideas for better and more efficient collaboration between agencies dealing with environmental and human health data. By setting up integrated systems now, we will be better prepared to respond to and learn from man-made and natural disasters in the future. As a result of this workshop, participants formed an ongoing working group to move some of the best practices forward. More information can be found at crrc.unh.edu/workshops/EDDM.

Dr. Amy Merten, of OR&R’s Assessment and Restoration Division co-authored this blog.


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Out of Sandy, Lessons in Helping Coastal Marshes Recover from Storms

Cleanup workers scoop oil out of an oiled marsh with containment boom around the edges.

After Sandy’s flooding led to an oil spill at a Motiva refinery, Motiva cleanup workers extract oil from Smith Creek, a waterway connected to the Arthur Kill, in Woodbridge, New Jersey, on November 5, 2012. (NOAA)

Boats capsized in a sea of grass. Tall trees and power lines toppled over. A dark ring of oil rimming marsh grasses. This was the scene greeting NOAA’s Simeon Hahn and Carl Alderson a few days after Sandy’s floodwaters had pulled back from New Jersey in the fall of 2012.

They were surveying the extent of an oil spill in Woodbridge Creek, which is home to a NOAA restoration project and feeds into the Arthur Kill, a waterway separating New Jersey from New York’s Staten Island. When the massive storm known as Sandy passed through the area, its flooding lifted up a large oil storage tank at the Motiva Refinery in Sewaren, New Jersey. After the floodwaters set the tank back down, it caused roughly 336,000 gallons of diesel fuel to leak into the creek and surrounding wetlands.

That day, the NOAA team was there with Motiva and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to begin what can be a long and litigious process of determining environmental impacts, damages, and required restoration—the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process.

In this case, however, not only did the group reach a cooperative agreement—in less than six months—on a restoration plan for the oiled wetlands, but at another wetland affected by Sandy, NOAA gained insight into designing restoration projects better able to withstand the next big storm.

Cleaning up the Mess After a Hurricane

Hurricanes and other large storms cause a surprising number of oil and hazardous chemical spills along the coast. After Sandy hit New York and New Jersey, the U.S. Coast Guard began receiving reports of petroleum products, biodiesel, and other chemicals leaking into coastal waters from damaged refineries, breached petroleum storage tanks, and sunken and stranded vessels. The ruptured tank at the Motiva Refinery was just one of several oil spills after the storm, but the approach in the wake of the spill is what set it apart from many other oil spills.

“Early on we decided that we would work together,” reflected Hahn, Regional Resource Coordinator for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. “There was a focus on doing the restoration rather than doing lengthy studies to quantify the injury.”

This approach was possible because Motiva agreed to pursue a cooperative Natural Resource Damage Assessment with New Jersey as the lead and with support from NOAA. This meant, for example, that up front, the company agreed to provide funding for assessing the environmental impacts and implementing the needed restoration, and agreed on and shared the data necessary to determine those impacts. This cooperative process resulted in a timely and cost-effective resolution, which allowed New Jersey and NOAA to transition to the restoration phase.

Reaching Restoration

Because of the early agreement with Motiva, NOAA and New Jersey DEP did not conduct exhaustive new studies detailing specific harm to these particular tidal wetlands. Instead, they turned to the wealth of data from the oil spill response and existing data from the Arthur Kill to make an accurate assessment of the oil’s impacts.

People driving small boats up a marshy river in winter.

A few days after the oil spill, Motiva’s contractors ferried the assessment team up Woodbridge Creek in New Jersey, looking for impacts from the oil. (NOAA)

From their shoreline, aerial, and boat surveys, they knew that the marsh itself had a bathtub ring of oil around the edge, affecting marsh grasses such as Spartina. No oiled wildlife turned up. However, the storm’s immediate impacts made it difficult to take water and sediment samples or directly examine potential effects to fish. Fortunately, the assessment team was able to use a lot of data from a nearby past oil spill and damage assessment in the Arthur Kill. In addition, they could rely on both general scientific research on oil spill toxicology and maps from the response team detailing the areas most heavily oiled.

Together, this created a picture of the environmental injuries the oil spill caused to Woodbridge Creek. Next, NOAA economists used the habitat equivalency analysis approach to calculate the amount of restoration needed to make up for these injuries: 1.23 acres of tidal wetlands. They then extrapolated how much it will cost to do this restoration based on seven restoration projects within a 50 mile radius, coming to $380,000 per acre. As a result, NOAA and New Jersey agreed that Motiva needed to provide $469,000 for saltwater marsh restoration and an additional $100,000 for monitoring, on top of Motiva’s cleanup costs for the spill itself.

To use this relatively small amount of money most efficiently, New Jersey DEP, as the lead agency, is planning to combine it with another, larger restoration project already in the works. While still negotiating which project that will be, the team has been eyeing a high-profile, 80-acre marsh restoration project practically in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. Meanwhile, the monitoring project will take place upstream from the site of the Motiva oil spill at the 67-acre Woodbridge Creek Marsh, which received light to moderate oiling. NOAA already has data on the state of the animals and plants at this previously established restoration site, which will provide a rare comparison for before and after the oil spill.

Creating More Resilient Coasts

A storm as damaging as Sandy highlights the need for restoring wetlands. These natural buffers offer protection for human infrastructure, absorbing storm surge and shielding shorelines from wind and waves. Yet natural resource managers are still learning how to replicate nature’s designs, especially in urban areas where river channels often have been straightened and adjoining wetlands filled and replaced with shorelines armored by concrete riprap.

To the south in Philadelphia, Sandy contributed to significant erosion at a restored tidal marsh and shoreline at Lardner’s Point Park, located on the Delaware River. This storm revealed that shoreline restoration techniques which dampen wave energy before it hits the shore would help protect restored habitat and reduce erosion and scouring.

Out of this destructive storm, NOAA and our partners are trying to learn as much as possible—both about how to reach the restoration phase even more efficiently and how to make those restoration projects even more resilient. The wide range of coastal threats is not going away, but we at NOAA can help our communities and environment bounce back when they do show up on our shores.

Learn more about coastal resilience and how NOAA’s Ocean Service is helping our coasts and communities bounce back after storms, floods, and other disasters and follow #NOAAResilience on social media.


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When the Clock Is Ticking: NOAA Creates Guidelines for Collecting Time-Sensitive Data During Arctic Oil Spills

This is a post by Dr. Sarah Allan, Alaska Regional Coordinator for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, Assessment and Restoration Division.

The risk of an oil spill in the Alaskan Arctic looms large. This far-off region’s rapid changes and growing ship traffic, oil and gas development, and industrial activity are upping those chances for an accident. When Shell’s Arctic drilling rig Kulluk grounded on a remote island in the Gulf of Alaska in stormy seas in December 2012, the United States received a glimpse of what an Arctic oil spill response might entail. While no fuel spilled, the Kulluk highlighted the need to have a science plan ready in case we needed to study the environmental impacts of an oil spill in the even more remote Arctic waters to the north. Fortunately, that was exactly what we were working on.

Soon, the NOAA Office of Response and Restoration’s Assessment and Restoration Division will be releasing a series of sampling guidelines for collecting high-priority, time-sensitive, ephemeral data in the Arctic to support Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) and other oil spill science. These guidelines improve our readiness to respond to an oil spill in the Alaskan Arctic. They help ensure we collect the appropriate data, especially immediately during or after a spill, to support a damage assessment and help the coastal environment bounce back.

Why Is the Arctic a Special Case?

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is planning for an oil spill response in the unique, remote, and often challenging Arctic environment. Part of responding to an oil spill is carrying out Natural Resource Damage Assessment. During this legal process, state and federal agencies assess injuries to natural and cultural resources and the services they provide. They then implement restoration to help return those resources to what they were before the oil spill.

The first step in the process often includes collecting time-sensitive ephemeral data to document exposure to oil and effects of those exposures. Ephemeral data are types of information that change rapidly over time and may be lost if not collected immediately, such as the concentration of oil chemicals in water or the presence of fish larvae in an area.

It will be especially challenging to collect this kind of data in the Alaskan Arctic because of significant scientific and logistical challenges. The inaccessibility of remote sites in roadless areas, limited resources and infrastructure, extreme weather, and dangerous wildlife make it very difficult to safely deploy a field team to collect information.

However, the uniqueness of the fish, wildlife, and habitats in the Arctic and the lack of baseline data for many of them mean collecting pre- and post-impact ephemeral data is even more important and makes advance planning essential.

What Do We Need and How Do We Get It?

The first step in developing these guidelines was to identify the highest priority ephemeral data needs for damage assessment in the Arctic. We accomplished this by developing a conceptual model of oil exposure and injury, conducting meetings with communities in the Alaskan Arctic, and consulting with NRDA practitioners and Artic experts.

Our guidelines do not cover marine mammals and birds because the NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service already have developed such guidelines. Instead, our guidelines are focused on nearshore habitats and natural resources, which in the Arctic include sand, gravel, rock, and tundra shorelines and estuarine lagoons. These environments are at risk of being affected by onshore and nearshore oil spills and offshore spills when oil drifts toward the coast. Though Arctic lagoons and coastlines are covered with ice most of the year, they are important habitat for a wide range of organisms, many of which are important subsistence foods for local communities.

Once we defined our high-priority ephemeral data needs, we developed the data collection guidelines based on guidance documents for other regions, published sampling methods, lessons learned from other spills, and shared traditional knowledge. Draft versions of the guidelines were reviewed by NRDA practitioners and Arctic resource experts, including people from federal and state agencies, Alaskan communities, academia, nonprofit organizations, consulting companies, and industry groups.

With their significant and valuable input, we developed 17 guidelines for collecting data from plankton, fish, environmental media (e.g., oil, water, snow, sediments, tissues), and nearshore habitats and the living things associated with them.

What’s in One of These Guidelines?

Marine invertebrate measured next to a ruler.

Arctic isopod collected for a tissue sample along the Chukchi coast in 2014. (NOAA)

Our Arctic ephemeral data collection guidelines cover a lot, from a sampling equipment list and considerations to address before heading out, to field data sheets and detailed sampling strategies and methods. In addition, we developed a document with alternative sampling equipment and methods to address what to do if certain required equipment, facilities, or conditions—such as preservatives for tissue samples—are not available in remote Alaskan Arctic locations.

These guidelines are focused, concise, detailed, Arctic-specific, and adaptable. They are intended to be used by NRDA personnel as well as other scientists doing baseline data collection or collecting samples for damage assessment and oil spill science, and may also be used by emergency responders.

Meanwhile, Out in the Real World

Though we often talk about the Arctic’s weather, wildlife, access, and logistical issues, it is always humbling and instructive to actually work in those conditions. This is why field validating the ephemeral data collection guidelines was an essential part of their development. We needed to make sure they were feasible and effective, improve them based on lessons learned in the field, and gauge the level of effort required to carry them out.

Many of the guidelines can only be used when there is no shore-fast ice present, while others are specific to ice habitats or can be used in any season. We field tested versions of the guidelines’ methods near Barrow, Alaska, in the summer of 2013 and spring and summer of 2014, adding important details and making other corrections as a result. More importantly, we know in practice, not just in theory, that these methods are a reasonable and effective way to collect samples for damage assessment in the Alaskan Arctic.

People preparing an inflatable boat on a shoreline with broken sea ice.

Preparing to deploy a beach seine net around broken sea ice on the Chukchi coast in 2013. (NOAA)

The guidelines for collecting high priority ephemeral data for oil spills in the Arctic will be available soon at response.restoration.noaa.gov/arctic.

Acknowledgements

Thank you to everyone who reviewed the Arctic ephemeral data collection guidelines and provided valuable input to their development.

A special thanks to Kevin Boswell, Ann Robertson, Mark Barton, Sam George, and Adam Zenone for allowing me to join their field team in Barrow and helping me get the samples I needed.

Dr. Sarah Allan.

Dr. Sarah Allan has been working with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration Emergency Response Division and as the Alaska Regional Coordinator for the Assessment and Restoration Division, based in Anchorage, Alaska, since February of 2012. Her work focuses on planning for natural resource damage assessment and restoration in the event of an oil spill in the Arctic.


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Adventures in Developing Tools for Oil Spill Response in the Arctic

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Zachary Winters-Staszak. This is the third in a series of posts about the Arctic Technology Evaluation supporting Arctic Shield 2014. Read the first post, “NOAA Again Joins Coast Guard for Oil Spill Exercise in the Arctic” and the second post, “Overcoming the Biggest Hurdle During an Oil Spill in the Arctic: Logistics.”

People in a boat lowering orange ball into icy waters.

The crew of the icebreaker Healy lowering an iSphere onto an ice floe to simulate tracking oil in ice. (NOAA/Jill Bodnar)

The Arctic Ocean, sea ice, climate change, polar bears—each evokes a vivid image in the mind. Now what is the most vivid image that comes to mind as you read the word “interoperability”? It might be the backs of your now-drooping eyelids, but framed in the context of oil spill response, “interoperability” couldn’t be more important.

If you’ve been following our latest posts from the field, you know Jill Bodnar and I have just finished working with the U.S. Coast Guard Research and Development Center on an Arctic Technology Evaluation during Arctic Shield 2014. We were investigating the interoperability of potential oil spill response technologies while aboard the Coast Guard icebreaker Healy on the Arctic Ocean.

Putting Square Pegs in Round Holes

As Geographic Information Systems (GIS) map specialists for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, a great deal of our time is spent transforming raw data into a visual map product that can quickly be understood. Our team achieves this in large part by developing a versatile quiver of tools tailored to meet specific needs.

For example, think of a toddler steadfastly—and vainly—trying to shove that toy blue cylinder into a yellow box through a triangular hole. This would be even more difficult if there were no circular hole on that box, but imagine if instead you could create a tool to change those cylinders to fit through any hole you needed. With computer programming languages we can create interoperability between technologies, allowing them to work together more easily. That cylinder can now go through the triangular hole.

New School, New Tools

Different technologies are demonstrated each year during Arctic Shield’s Technology Evaluations and it is common for each technology to have a different format or output, requiring them to be standardized before we can use them in a GIS program like our Environmental Response Management Application, Arctic ERMA.

Taking lessons learned from Arctic Shield 2013′s Technology Evaluation, we came prepared with tools in ERMA that would allow us to automate the process and increase our efficiency. We demonstrated these tools during the “oil spill in ice” component of the evaluation. Here, fluorescein dye simulated an oil plume drifting across the water surface and oranges bobbed along as simulated oiled targets.

The first new tool allowed us to convert data recorded by the Puma, a remote-controlled aircraft run by NOAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Program. This allowed us to associate the Puma’s location with the images it was taking precisely at those coordinates and display them together in ERMA. The Puma proved useful in capturing high resolution imagery during the demonstration.

A similar tool was created for the Aerostat, a helium-filled balloon connected to a tether on the ship, which can create images and real-time video with that can track targets up to three miles away. This technology also was able to delineate the green dye plume in the ocean below—a function that could be used to support oil spill trajectory modeling. We could then make these images appear on a map in ERMA.

The third tool received email notifications from floating buoys provided by the Oil Spill Recovery Institute and updated their location in ERMA every half hour. These buoys are incredibly rugged and produced useful data that could be used to track oiled ice floes or local surface currents over time. Each of the tools we brought with us is adaptable to changes on the fly, making them highly valuable in the event of an actual oil spill response.

Internet: Working With or Without You

Having the appropriate tools in place for the situation at hand is vital to any response, let alone a response in the challenging conditions of the Arctic. One major challenge is a lack of high-speed Internet connectivity. While efficient satellite connectivity does exist for simple communication such as text-based email, a robust pipeline to transmit and receive megabytes of data is costly to maintain. Similar to last year’s expedition, we overcame this hurdle by using Stand-alone ERMA, our Internet-independent version of the site that was available to Healy researchers through the ship’s internal network.

NOAA's online mapping tool Arctic ERMA displays ice conditions, bathymetry (ocean depths), and the ship track of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy during  the Arctic Technology Evaluation of Arctic Shield 2014.

NOAA’s online mapping tool Arctic ERMA displays ice conditions, bathymetry (ocean depths), and the ship track of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy during the Arctic Technology Evaluation of Arctic Shield 2014. (NOAA)

This year we took a large step forward and successfully tested a new tool in ERMA that uses the limited Internet connectivity to upload small packages (less than 5 megabytes) of new data on the Stand-alone ERMA site to the live Arctic ERMA site. This provided updates of the day’s Arctic field activities to NOAA staff back home. During an actual oil spill, this tool would provide important information to decision-makers and stakeholders at a command post back on land and at agency headquarters around the country.

Every Experience Is a Learning Experience

I’ve painted a pretty picture, but this is not to say everything went as planned during our ventures through the Arctic Ocean. Arctic weather conditions lived up to their reputation this year, with fog, winds, and white-cap seas delaying and preventing a large portion of the demonstration. (This was even during the region’s relatively calm, balmy summer months.)

Subsequently, limited data and observations were produced—a sobering exercise for some researchers. I’ve described only a few of the technologies demonstrated during this exercise, but there were unexpected issues with almost every technology; one was even rendered inoperable after being crushed between two ice floes. In addition, troubleshooting data and human errors added to an already full day of work.

Yet every hardship allowed those of us aboard the Healy to learn, reassess, adapt, and move forward with our work. The capacity of human ingenuity and the tools we can create will be tested to their limits as we continue to prepare for an oil spill response in the harsh and unpredictable environs of the Arctic. The ability to operate in these conditions will be essential to protecting the local communities, wildlife, and coastal habitats of the region. The data we generate will help inform crucial and rapid decisions by resource managers, making interoperability along with efficient data management and dissemination fundamental to effective environmental response.

Editor’s note: Use Twitter to chat directly with NOAA GIS specialists Zachary Winters-Staszak and Jill Bodnar about their experience during this Arctic oil spill simulation aboard an icebreaker on Thursday, September 18 at 2:00 p.m. Eastern. Follow the conversation at #ArcticShield14 and get the details: http://1.usa.gov/1qpdzXO.

Bowhead whale bones and a sign announcing Barrow as the northernmost city in America welcomed me to the Arctic.

Bowhead whale bones and a sign announcing Barrow as the northernmost city in America welcomed Zachary Winters-Staszak to the Arctic in 2013. (NOAA)

Zachary Winters-Staszak is a GIS Specialist with the Office of Response and Restoration’s Spatial Data Branch. His main focus is to visualize environmental data from various sources for oil spill planning, preparedness, and response. In his free time, Zach can often be found backpacking and fly fishing in the mountains.

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