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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Changing Technology Changing Science Changing Us

Ice on a river with a bridge crossing it in a city.

The frozen Chicago River outside of the AAAS Annual Meeting. (NOAA)

Freezing temperatures and blackened piles of snow along the Chicago streets were the backdrop to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting on February 13–17.

Alongside the thousands of scientists, journalists, and other professionals, I was there mostly to learn about the latest technology and trends in science communications, but was pleased to discover that the need for better communication was a theme throughout this science conference, even in sessions that had little to do with communications per se.

Evolving Access to Science and its News

Highlighted in the science communication seminars were differences in how today’s audiences receive information and how changing technology plays into that. In the symposium, “Communicating Science: Engaging with Journalists,” Carl Zimmer, science writer at the New York Times, talked about how scientists are now able to post their papers directly to field-specific archive sites, which, rather than being restricted to small and specific audiences, are available for anyone to see not only the paper but the subsequent comments and discussion. This represents a huge change from the older model for scientific journal articles, which are critiqued by other scientists in that discipline (“peer reviewed”) before being published, instead of after.

Sign from the AAAS Meeting.The upside of this, according to Zimmer, is that it is easier for journalists to find information on new developments from papers on these “pre-print servers.” The downside is the possibility that the information is not yet valid to report. David Baron, another panelist and science editor for PRI’s “The World” radio podcast, sees a bigger role for science foundations as alternative sources for finding objective information.

Robert Lee Hotz, science writer at the Wall Street Journal, talked about the span of what he calls the “digital age,” starting with Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak introducing the Apple II computer in 1977, to the advent of 24/7 news in 1987, to the mass availability of free news via the Internet at present. He pointed out however, that there are roughly the same amount of professional science journalists in this country now as then—40,000, a fact which indicates to him that despite increased availability of news sources, “more and more people are getting less.” At the same time as these changes in coverage are happening at traditional media, many people have stopped going to traditional media for news. This trend has created opportunities for alternative science news models, demonstrated by the creation of 172 non-profit online news sites since 1980, including ProPublica, the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy newsletter, and InsideClimateNews.

David Baron advocates a storytelling approach to communicating about science issues, as audiences are more likely to be engaged longer by a narrative style. He cited a recent episode about climate change on the radio program This American Life. Instead of just presenting facts and figures, the narrative follows Nolan Duskin, state climatologist of Colorado, as he talks with ranchers at a farm conference to illustrate the challenges of climate change in the context of everyday life.

Paula Apsell, Senior Executive Producer of NOVA at WGBH Boston, sees more choices on TV but less science now than in the past, and describes the NOVA of today as not just a popular science TV series but a broader media brand extending online. The majority of NOVA consumers are going to the online archives from search. This is consistent with the current expectation for media to be on more platforms all the time. The challenge, according to Apsell, is to alter the style to these other platforms without “dumbing down” the substance. With so much information now available on the Web, there are also increased opportunities for error. As a result, Apsell emphasized the need for skepticism when researching science stories and rigorous cross-checking.

MASHing Science with Dating

A man gesturing on a stage.

Plenary speaker (and M*A*S*H star) Alan Alda discussed science communication, which he teaches at Stony Brook University, to an audience of about 1500 at the AAAS Annual Meeting in Chicago on February 15, 2014. (Alan Kotok/Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License)

From my perspective as a science communicator, the highlight of the conference was “Getting Beyond a Blind Date with Science,” a plenary session presented by Alan Alda, actor and the director of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York. The Center grew out of Alda’s interest in science and 12 years of experience hosting the show Scientific American Frontiers on PBS, which he calls “the best thing I ever did in front of a camera.” Alda is also well known for his role as Captain Pierce in the 1970s TV series M*A*S*H (1972-1983). However, his work on Scientific American Frontiers convinced him that while many researchers have fascinating stories to tell, they are deeply involved in the complexities of their work, which can inhibit their ability to effectively communicate to non-scientists.

He uses the phrase “curve of knowledge” to describe “when you know something so well that you forget what it is like to not know it.” Alda compares the stages of a blind date to the steps in building a relationship with the audience in order to communicate science effectively. When a couple first meets, there is a deficit of trust before they begin to know one another. In the attraction stage, body language and tone are more important than language. The next stage, infatuation, incorporates emotion and memory. Finally, commitment is the stage where both parties are listening to and understanding each other.

He asks his scientist students to keep focusing on what it is about their work that they wish people could understand clearly. They do improvisation to learn to tell their stories in a more personal and engaging way, using emotion to create a memory.

Science Needs to Get Social

On my last day at the conference I attended a multidisciplinary presentation about satisfying food demands for the over 9 billion people expected to inhabit the Earth by 2050—and how we will accomplish this despite climate change, land degradation, and loss of environmental resources. The panel discussion was moderated by Dr. Kathy Sullivan, Acting NOAA Administrator.

During the discussion, panelist Dr. Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University underscored the need for societal understanding of these growing challenges. He emphasized that this problem isn’t a new one: scientists have been warning about global resource shortages in the face of a growing population, climate change, and depleted resources since the 1960s. The problem, he says, is that people still do not understand the implications of these issues for the future and he predicts that social science will need to play a much larger role if society is to take the actions necessary to alleviate these growing pressures on our planet

For more information on the conference, visit the AAAS 2014 Annual Meeting website.


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45 Years after the Santa Barbara Oil Spill, Looking at a Historic Disaster Through Technology

Forty-five years ago, on January 28, 1969, bubbles of black oil and gas began rising up out of the blue waters near Santa Barbara, Calif. On that morning, Union Oil’s new drilling rig Platform “A” had experienced a well blowout, and while spill responders were rushing to the scene of what would become a monumental oil spill and catalyzing moment in the environmental movement, the tools and technology available for dealing with this spill were quite different than today.

The groundwork was still being laid for the digital, scientific mapping and data management tools we now employ without second thought. In 1969, many of the advances in this developing field were coming out of U.S. intelligence and military efforts during the Cold War, including a top-secret satellite reconnaissance project known as CORONA. A decade later NOAA’s first oil spill modeling software, the On-Scene Spill Model (OSSM) [PDF], was being written on the fly during the IXTOC I well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in 1979. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software didn’t begin to take root in university settings until the mid-1980s.

To show just how far this technology has come in the past 45 years, we’ve mapped the Santa Barbara oil spill in Southwest ERMA, NOAA’s online environmental response mapping tool for coastal California. In this GIS tool, you can see:

  • The very approximate extent of the oiling.
  • The location and photos of the drilling platform and affected resources (e.g., Santa Barbara Harbor).
  • The areas where seabirds historically congregate. Seabirds, particularly gulls and grebes, were especially hard hit by this oil spill, with nearly 3,700 birds confirmed dead and many more likely unaccounted for.

Even though the well would be capped after 11 days, a series of undersea faults opened up as a result of the blowout, continuing to release oil and gas until December 1969. As much as 4.2 million gallons of crude oil eventually gushed from both the well and the resulting faults. Oil from Platform “A” was found as far north as Pismo Beach and as far south as Mexico.

Nowadays, we can map the precise location of a wide variety of data using a tool like ERMA, including photos from aerial surveys of oil slicks along the flight path in which they were collected. The closest responders could come to this in 1969 was this list of aerial photos of oil and a printed chart with handwritten notes on the location of drilling platforms in Santa Barbara Channel.

A list of historical overflight photos of the California coast and accompanying map of the oil platforms in the area of the Platform "A" well blowout in early 1969.

A list of historical overflight photos of the California coast and accompanying map of the oil platforms in the area of the Platform “A” well blowout in early 1969. (Courtesy of the University of California Santa Barbara Map and Image Library) Click to view larger.

Yet, this oil spill was notable for its technology use in one surprising way. It was the first time a CIA spy plane had ever been used for non-defense related aerial photography. While classified information at the time, the CIA and the U.S. Geological Survey were actually partnering to use a Cold War spy plane to take aerial photos of the Santa Barbara spill (they used a U-2 plane because they could get the images more quickly than from the passing CORONA spy satellite). But that information wasn’t declassified until the 1990s.

While one of the largest environmental disasters in U.S. waters, the legacy of the Santa Barbara oil spill is lasting and impressive and includes the creation of the National Environmental Policy Act, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and National Marine Sanctuaries system (which soon encompassed California’s nearby Channel Islands, which were affected by the Santa Barbara spill).

Another legacy is the pioneering work begun by long-time spill responder, Alan A. Allen, who started his career at the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. He became known as the scientist who disputed Union Oil’s initial spill volume estimates by employing methods still used today by NOAA. Author Robert Easton documents Allen’s efforts in the book, Black tide: the Santa Barbara oil spill and its consequences:

Others…were questioning Union’s estimates. At General Research Corporation, a Santa Barbara firm, a young scientist who flew over the slick daily, Alan A. Allen, had become convinced that Union’s estimates of the escaping oil were about ten times too low. Allen’s estimates of oil-film thickness were based largely on the appearance of the slick from the air. Oil that had the characteristic dark color of crude oil was, he felt confident from studying records of other slicks, on the order of one thousandth of an inch or greater in thickness. Thinner oil would take on a dull gray or brown appearance, becoming iridescent around one hundred thousandth of an inch.  Allen analyzed the slick in terms of thickness, area, and rate of growth. By comparing his data with previous slicks of known spillage, and considering the many factors that control the ultimate fate of oil on seawater, he estimated that leakage during the first days of the Santa Barbara spill could be conservatively estimated to be at least 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons) per day.

And in a lesson that history repeats itself: Platform “A” leaked 1,130 gallons of crude oil into Santa Barbara Channel in 2008. Our office modeled the path of the oil slicks that resulted. Learn more about how NOAA responds to oil spills today.


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As NOAA Damage Assessment Rules Turn 18, Restoration Trumps Arguing Over the Price Tag of a Turtle

Kemp's Ridley sea turtle on beach in Texas.

How do you put a price tag on natural resources like this endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle? (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

What is a fish or sea turtle or day of sailing worth?  Some resources may be easily valued, such as a pound of lobsters, but other natural resources may not be assigned values as easily, such as injured habitats or non-game wildlife. And what about the value of a lobster in nature rather than in a soup pot? In 1989, under the paradigm in place at the time of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, damage assessments were based on the economic value of natural resources and their uses lost as a result of a spill.

Eighteen years ago, on January 6, 1996, NOAA issued its final rules for conducting Natural Resource Damage Assessments (NRDA) for oil spills. The Oil Pollution Act of 1990, prompted by the Exxon Valdez spill, changed many aspects of the U.S. response to oil spills, including the approach to damage assessments.

One of the lessons learned from the Exxon Valdez and other incidents was that restoration became delayed when the focus was on arguing over the monetary value of natural resource damages. This was because once government agencies reached a dollar-based settlement with the organization responsible for the spill, we still had to conduct studies to figure out what restoration was really necessary. Furthermore, since the process focused on calculating monetary damages rather than restoration costs, the trustees did not always receive sufficient funds to conduct restoration (the economic value of a fish or acre of wetland may not represent the costs to restore that resource).

NOAA's Doug Helton during the response to the August 10, 1993, Tampa Bay oil spill.

NOAA’s Doug Helton during the response to the August 10, 1993, Tampa Bay oil spill. A collision between a freighter and two fuel barges resulted in hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil spilled into the Bay. The damage assessment that evaluated injuries to birds, sea turtles, mangrove habitat, seagrasses, salt marshes, and recreational uses was an early example of a restoration-based claim, and NOAA used this experience in developing the damage assessment rules. A number of ecological and recreational restoration projects were conducted to address or compensate for these injuries. For more information, see http://www.darrp.noaa.gov/southeast/tampabay/

To reform this issue, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 required that NOAA promulgate new damage assessment regulations, and I was assigned to work with a team of attorneys and scientists to help develop a rule that made sense legally and scientifically. In response to the lessons learned from the Exxon Valdez and other recent oil spills, we developed a new approach, focusing on the ultimate goal of restoration rather than attempting to establish a price tag for each fish, bird, or marine mammal injured by a spill. In other words, the damage claim submitted to the responsible party is based on the cost to conduct restoration projects for the damages rather than the value of the injured resource.

The Oil Pollution Act regulations also turned Natural Resource Damage Assessment into a more open process through three major changes:

  • Making assessment results and critical documents available to the public in an administrative record.
  • Requiring that the public have a chance to review and comment on restoration plans.
  • Inviting the organizations responsible for the spill to actively cooperate in the assessment and restoration planning.

The rulemaking process took several years, and we had lots of comments from the public, nongovernmental organizations, and the marine insurance, shipping, and oil industries. Finally, after incorporating all of the comments and developing a series of guidance documents, we published the final rule on January 6, 1996.

We had little time to relax, however. The first test of those cooperative, restoration-based regulations came a couple weeks later when the Barge North Cape and Tug Scandia ran aground in Rhode Island on January 19.  Stay tuned for the story of how that grounding off of a former nudist beach inspired an unexpected career for a young college student.


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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:


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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.


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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.



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NOAA Data on Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Plume Now Available Online

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Ben Shorr and Mark Miller.

Fighting the flames on the Deepwater Horizon drill platform in 2010.

Fighting the flames on the Deepwater Horizon drill platform in 2010. (NOAA)

NOAA Physical Scientist Ben Shorr: It was late April 2010, in the first few days of the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill response. It was clear that, in addition to a tragic loss of life, this oil spill was going to be a major event. As I was heading down to the Gulf of Mexico to join my colleagues who were beginning to assess environmental injuries from the spill, I got a call from my supervisor Amy. A research vessel was heading out to collect samples near the leaking wellhead—could I hop on the boat the next day?

That’s how my journey into this oil spill response began and I ended up on the first federal scientific vessel collecting oceanographic and environmental samples, including those from the underwater oil plume. Now, the finalized and standardized analytical chemistry data have been released in NOAA’s online archive. Here’s more about it from the press release:

The dataset, collected to support oil removal activities and assess the presence of dispersants, wraps up a three year process that began with the gathering of water samples and measurements by ships in the Gulf of Mexico during and after the oil release in 2010. NOAA was one of the principal agencies responding to the Macondo well explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, and is the official ocean data archivist for the federal government. While earlier versions of the data were made available during and shortly after the response, it took three years for NOAA employees and contractors to painstakingly catalog each piece of data into this final form.

This Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill dataset, including more than two million chemical analyses of sediment, tissue, water, and oil, as well as toxicity testing results and related documentation, is available to the public online at: http://www.nodc.noaa.gov/deepwaterhorizon/specialcollections.html. A companion dataset, including ocean temperature and salinity data, currents, preliminary chemical results and other properties collected and made available during the response can be found at: http://www.nodc.noaa.gov/deepwaterhorizon/insitu.html.

The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill response involved the collection of an enormous dataset. The underwater plume of hydrocarbon — a chemical compound that consists only of the elements carbon and hydrogen — was a unique feature of the spill, resulting from a combination of high-pressure discharge from the well near the seafloor and the underwater application of chemical dispersant to break up the oil. …

The effort to detect and track the plume was given to the Deepwater Horizon Response Subsurface Monitoring Unit (SMU), led by NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, and included responders from many federal and state agencies and British Petroleum (BP). Between May and November 2010, the SMU coordinated data collection from 24 ships on 129 cruises.

While on this scientific sampling cruise, I found myself working closely with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency scientists, the ship’s captain and oceanographic technicians, BP’s scientific lead and contractors, and NOAA’s Natural Resource Damage Assessment representative. There were also experts from Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans aboard. The work our team began quickly became the basis for the Subsurface Monitoring Unit within the spill response, which coordinated and provided scientific expertise for sampling, analysis, and mapping of the underwater hydrocarbon plume. Our team was made up of NOAA staff, in addition to others from the EPA, U.S. Geological Survey, and Gulf states.

During the first several months of the response, our team worked closely with EPA and other partners to establish common data management protocols that would allow us to coordinate and collect data including chemistry samples, acoustics, particle size, and oceanographic measurements from federal, BP, and academic scientific cruises in the Gulf of Mexico. These datasets were quickly analyzed and used by the scientific advisors and U.S. Coast Guard to make decisions about directing spill response clean-up operations. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration and National Coastal Data Development Center (a division of the National Oceanographic Data Center) formed a close partnership, working with federal, state, and university scientists to gather, organize, process, and analyze oceanographic data—in addition to archiving and making these datasets publicly available.

NOAA Physical Scientist Mark Miller: In October of 2010, shortly after returning from Coast Guard headquarters where I worked during the oil spill, I was asked to help prepare for public release the data collected by the Subsurface Monitoring Unit on the research vessels such as the one my colleague Ben Shorr was on. A few months later in January of 2011, I picked up where Ben left off on coordinating this effort.

Now, I had been involved in database development and deployment for 20 years, so I felt prepared for this task. This was naïve. While at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, DC, I had been closely involved with the group that used some of the same Subsurface Monitoring Unit data to prepare operational reports for the National Incident Commander, Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen.

Yet, I did not realize the scope and depth of the data collected on these research cruises. When told later in the project that there were over 2 million records collected, I quickly gained a much greater appreciation of the long, rigorous process involved in preparing and making this information public. The National Oceanographic Data Center has been releasing and updating this response data on a dedicated public website since early in the spill, and this process is finally complete. Because these data will be archived for at least 75 years, they will be available to help researchers for decades to come.

Ben Shorr has been a Physical Scientist with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration since he came to Seattle (mostly to ski and sail) in 2000. Ben works on a range of topics, from cleanup, damage assessment, and restoration to visualization and spatial analysis. In his spare time, he enjoys hanging out with his 5 and 3 year old kids, which means riding bikes, skiing, and sailing too.

Mark Miller has been with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration in the Emergency Response Division for 25 years, starting the year before the Exxon Valdez oil spill. When not wrestling with data from the Deepwater Horizon/BP spill, he supervises the in-house programming staff and is the NOAA Program Manager for the CAMEO software suite used extensively by fire services across the country to respond to chemical release incidents.


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Arctic-bound: Testing Oil Spill Response Technologies Aboard an Icebreaker

Editor’s Note: September is National Preparedness Month. It is a time to prepare yourself and those in your care for emergencies and disasters of all kinds. The following story shows one way NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is preparing for a potential oil spill emergency in the Arctic. To learn more about how you can be prepared for other types of emergencies, visit www.ready.gov.

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Zach Winters-Staszak.

Polar bear tracks crisscrossed by artic fox on sea ice, Barrow, Alaska.

Polar bear tracks crisscrossed by artic fox on sea ice, Barrow, Alaska. (NOAA/Zach Winters-Staszak)

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions “the Arctic”? For me, it’s the polar bear.

As a mapping specialist for OR&R’s Arctic ERMA project, I’ve had the opportunity to visit the Arctic communities of Barrow, Wainwright, and Kotzebue, Alaska. On those trips, I’ve been lucky enough to witness a snowy owl (Barrow’s namesake), arctic hare, and caribou. Once, I even hired a local expert to take me on an “Arctic safari” to see a polar bear; the tracks we found were less than 12 hours old, but the polar bear itself continues to elude me.

On my upcoming trip to the Arctic, however, my chances are greatly improved; this time I’m headed out to sea.

An Arctic Expedition

This week, I’m returning to Barrow to join the U.S. Coast Guard and a team of scientists for two weeks aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Healy where we’ll take part in Arctic Shield 2013. Once we are aboard the icebreaker, the team will travel to the edge of the sea ice and begin a drill scenario to test oil spill response technologies in the remote and challenging environment of the Arctic Ocean.

The technologies being tested range from unmanned aircraft systems gathering data from above to remotely operated vehicles searching under the ice to skimmers that are designed to collect oil on the ocean’s surface. The purpose of this hands-on drill is to gain a better understanding of the challenges involved in responding to a theoretical Arctic oil spill at sea and then define the advantages and any constraints of existing technologies to improve our ability to respond to an actual spill.

Connecting the Dots of Data

As the seasonal extent of Arctic sea ice continues to contract and thin, energy exploration and transportation activities will likely continue to increase in the region, escalating the risk of oil spills and accidents. In anticipation, NOAA and interagency partners are actively preparing for these possible emergencies, and Arctic Shield is a great example of this.

This view of the online mapping program Arctic ERMA shows the approximate path of the Coast Guard Cutter Healy from Barrow, Alaska, to the edge of the sea ice, indicated on the map in yellow. Red shows higher concentrations of sea ice.

This view of the online mapping program Arctic ERMA shows the approximate path of the Coast Guard Cutter Healy from Barrow, Alaska, to the edge of the sea ice, indicated on the map in yellow. Red shows higher concentrations of sea ice. (NOAA)

My role will be to connect the various streams of data the science teams will be collecting and incorporate them into a new version of ERMA, our online mapping tool for environmental response. This latest “stand-alone” version of the tool functions like previous versions of ERMA, except it doesn’t need an internet connection. It is common for communities in the Arctic region and for many coastal areas of Alaska to have spotty internet coverage, if coverage is available at all. Stand-alone ERMA is able to map and organize information in a centralized, easy-to-use format for environmental responders and decision-makers when internet connectivity is unreliable.

As you read this post, I’ll be on a plane traveling north. I expect the first week on the ship will be packed full of activity, but I hope the following week will allow me to write more about my experiences during the cruise. If there is enough internet bandwidth, I’ll be posting developments from the Healy. I hope to include information about the technologies being tested, life on the ship, and photos of wildlife. And if I haven’t jinxed myself by now, maybe one of those photos will include a polar bear.

Zach Winters-StaszakZach Winters-Staszak is a GIS Specialist with OR&R’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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Science of Oil Spills Training Now Accepting Applications for October 2013

People laughing on beach during SOS class field trip.

Student Dana Wetzel of Mote Marine Laboratory shows off the prize she won while playing intertidal organism bingo during the June 2013 Science of Oil Spills class field trip to Olympic Beach, Edmonds, Wash., while fellow student Shaun Ross of the U.S. Coast Guard looks on and laughs. (P.J. Hahn, Plaquemines Parish, La.)

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 October 28, 2013, in Falmouth, Mass.

We will accept applications for this class through Monday, September 23, and we will notify applicants regarding their participation status by Monday, September 30, 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.

Other SOS classes planned for fiscal year 2014 (beginning October 1, 2013 and ending September 30, 2014) include classes in Mobile, Ala., in the late winter/early spring and in Seattle in the summer. At this time, we are not accepting applications for classes other than the Falmouth, Mass., class.

For more information, and to learn how to apply for the class, visit the SOS Classes page on the Office of Response and Restoration website.


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Embarking on the GYRE Expedition: A Scientific and Artistic Study of the Trash on Alaska’s Shores

During part of the GYRE Expedition in June of 2013, a group of educators, scientists, and artists removed 4 tons of debris that had been previously collected by the National Park Service from Hallo Bay in Alaska's Katmai National Park. Because there was no place to dispose of it locally, the debris had to be transported to Seward, a common problem for dealing with debris on remote shorelines.

During part of the GYRE Expedition in June of 2013, a group of educators, scientists, and artists removed 4 tons of debris that had been previously collected by the National Park Service from Hallo Bay in Alaska’s Katmai National Park. Because there was no place to dispose of it locally, the debris had to be transported to Seward, a common problem for dealing with debris on remote shorelines. (NOAA)

Our oceans—the Atlantic, Pacific, Arctic, Indian, and Antarctic—are actually all part of one, interconnected body of water. This is one reason Alaska’s 33,904 miles of shoreline, which are frequently secluded and have very few people nearby, can still turn up surprisingly high levels of trash arriving from faraway places.

In order to study and raise awareness about this problem on Alaska’s shorelines, an international group of scientists, artists, and educators, including the NOAA Marine Debris Program’s Peter Murphy, recently embarked on the GYRE Expedition. Organized by the Anchorage Museum and Alaska SeaLife Center, this scientific and creative collaboration spent a week in June aboard the research ship Norseman. They traveled around 500 miles down the coast bordering the Gulf of Alaska, making several stops to survey and collect marine debris along the way.

“As we stop at debris aggregation beaches at Gore Point, Shuyak Island, and Hallo Bay,” wrote Peter Murphy of the NOAA Marine Debris Program before embarking, “we in the science team will collect data on debris densities and composition while artists collect debris and capture their impressions for works.”

According to the Anchorage Museum website, these marine debris works of art, “on view February through September 2014 at the Anchorage Museum, will tell a global ocean debris story through the work of more than 20 artists from around the world. The 7,500-square-foot exhibition will include a section specific to Alaska featuring the 2013 expedition’s resulting scientific discoveries, as well as art created from the marine debris gathered on Alaska’s beaches during the journey.”

The project is called the GYRE Expedition in reference to the ocean’s massive, swirling, whirlpool-like phenomena known as “gyres,” which tend to gather and move around large amounts of marine debris. These gyres, including the North Pacific Gyre along the Gulf of Alaska, are associated with what are (misleadingly) known as the “garbage patches.”


Here is part of Murphy’s first dispatch of the expedition, posted from Gore Point East Beach, Alaska, on June 8, 2013:

Friday we left Seward, Alaska, for our first stop at Gore Point, a “catcher” beach that extends into the Alaska coastal current and sees some of the highest debris densities recorded in Alaska.  Gulf of Alaska Keeper (GoAK) cleaned the beach in 2007–2008 and removed over 20 tons of debris from less than a mile of shoreline. On Saturday, Chris Pallister, the head of GoAK, arranged to be at the beach with some of his crew to show us the site and how it’s changed over the six years that he’s been cleaning it.  From his initial survey, he thought that the debris was significantly less than in 2012. What we saw in logs pushed far up the beach and broken tree branches were evidence of just how strong the weather and ocean forces are that bring debris ashore here. As we spent the day on-site, a small team of us set up our monitoring system, while others collected impressions and debris.

Over the course of the day, we worked together to conduct a full monitoring survey, following the NOAA shoreline protocol to select transects and catalog debris.  This sort of snapshot monitoring data is very helpful in putting numbers to the impressions that people have of a place and the debris they see there—“a lot of foam” can become “___% of debris was foam.”  When you collect data at the same site over time, it can also answer the important question of change, since differences in the composition (what) and the quantity (how much) of debris at a site can give us valuable clues to regional or local changes in the debris picture.  We’re looking forward to doing the analysis, though it’s at least certain to indicate a lot of foam present.

Head over to the NOAA Marine Debris Blog to read more from his journey—including a recap and amazing photos from the trip—with artists, educators, and other scientists to document the trash on Alaska’s beaches and turn it into oceanic inspiration.

You can also watch a video to learn more about the GYRE Expedition at http://www.anchoragemuseum.org/galleries/gyre/.

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