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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Easier Said Than Done

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

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

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

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

The Experts—And Becoming One Yourself

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

View of airplane wing, clouds, and water.

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

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

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

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

Alice Drury.

LTJG Alice Drury.

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


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

Oiled boom on Louisiana beach.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Science of Oil Spills Training Now Accepting Applications for Summer 2014

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

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

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

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

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

These trainings cover topics including:

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

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

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

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


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Marine Life in Gulf of Mexico Faces Multiple Challenges

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

photo of a bottlenose dolphin calf.

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

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

On the Lookout

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Familiar Waters

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

When Oil and Algae Mix

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

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

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

Photo of volunteer with a microscope.

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

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

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

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


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Looking Back: What Led up to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill?

Calendar showing March 1989 and image of Exxon Valdez ship.

In an ironic twist of fate, the Exxon Shipping Company’s safety calendar featured the T/V Exxon Valdez in March 1989, the same month the ship ran aground. Image: From the collection of Gary Shigenaka.

The Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred on March 24, 1989. This spill was a turning point for the nation and a major event in the history of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. It also led to major changes in the federal approach to oil spill response and the technical, policy, and legal outcomes continue to reverberate today.

But before this monumental oil spill happened, there were a series of events around the world building up to this moment. Now, 25 years later, join us for a look at the history which set the stage for this spill.

1968

Atlantic Richfield Company and Humble Oil (which would later become Exxon) confirmed the presence of a vast oil field at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Plans for a pipeline were proposed but held up by various environmental challenges.

1973

The 1973 oil embargo plunged the nation into a serious energy crisis, and Alaskan oil became a national security issue. On November 16, 1973, President Richard Nixon signed the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act, which prohibited any further legal challenges. This pipeline would connect the developing oil fields of Alaska with the port town of Valdez, where oil could be shipped out on tankers through the Gulf of Alaska.

1977

On August 1, 1977, the tanker ARCO Juneau sailed out of Valdez with the first load of North Slope crude oil.

1981

How prepared for oil spills was Valdez? Despite complaints from the State of Alaska, Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, the corporation running the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, decides to disband its full-time oil spill team and reassign those employees to other operations.

1982

The National Contingency Plan (NCP) is updated from the original 1968 version, which provided the first comprehensive system of accident reporting, spill containment, and cleanup in the United States. The 1982 revisions formally codified NOAA’s role as coordinator of scientific activities during oil spill emergencies. NOAA designated nine Scientific Support Coordinators, or SSCs, to coordinate scientific information and provide critical support to the U.S. Coast Guard, and other federal on-scene commanders.

1984

In May 1984, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) field officers in Valdez write a detailed memo warning that pollution abatement equipment has been dismantled and Alyeska, the pipeline company, does not have the ability to handle a big spill. This document will become part of the Congressional investigation of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Later in 1984, Alyeska conducts an oil spill response practice drill that federal and state officials deem a failure. In December 1984, DEC staffers in Valdez write another lengthy memo to their administrators detailing shortcomings in Alyeska’s spill response program.

1986

The T/V Exxon Valdez is delivered to Exxon in December of 1986 and makes its maiden voyage to Alaska. When the Exxon Valdez first arrived at the Port of Valdez later that month, the town celebrated its arrival with a party. “We were quite proud of having that tanker named after the city of Valdez,” recalls former Mayor John Devens.

1987

Captain Joseph Hazelwood becomes master of the Exxon Valdez, which then earns Exxon Fleet safety awards for 1987 and 1988.

In June 1987, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation approves Alyeska’s contingency plan without holding another drill. The plan details how Alyeska would handle an 8.4 million gallon oil spill in Prince William Sound. Alyeska says:

“It is highly unlikely that a spill of this magnitude would occur. Catastrophic events of this nature are further reduced because the majority of tankers calling on Port Valdez are of American registry and all of these are piloted by licensed masters or pilots.”

1988

The big news in Alaska is the lingering low price of oil. Nearly one in 10 jobs disappears from the Alaska economy. Oil output peaks on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline at 2.1 million barrels of oil a day.

January 1989

In January 1989 the Valdez terminal has a couple major tests of spill response capacity with two small oil spills, which draw attention to cleanup problems and the condition of their tanker fleet. Alyeska vows to increase its response capacity and decides to buy a high-tech, 122-foot-long skimmer, at a cost of $5 million. The skimmer is scheduled for delivery in August 1990. The company also replaces four 21-foot response boats and arranges to purchase thousands of feet of extra boom for delivery later in the year.

March 1989

On March 22, the Exxon Valdez arrives at the Valdez Marine Terminal, Berth 5 and begins discharging ballast (water used for balancing cargo) and loading crude oil. Loading is completed late on March 23 and a little after 9:00 p.m. the tanker leaves Valdez with 53 million gallons of crude, bound for California.

Early on March 24, 1989, a little over three hours after leaving port, the Exxon Valdez strikes Bligh Reef, spilling approximately 10.9 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound.


Join us on March 24, 2014 at 12:00 p.m. Pacific/3:00 p.m. Eastern as we remember the Exxon Valdez oil spill 25 years later.

Use Twitter to ask questions of NOAA biologist Gary Shigenaka and learn about this spill’s impacts on Alaska’s environment.

Get the details.


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

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

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

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

From fracking to oil trains, the landscape of oil production and transportation in North America has been undergoing a major transformation in recent years. This transformation has implications for how NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration prepares its scientific toolbox for dealing with oil spills. Our group of graduate students from the University of Washington is trying to provide NOAA with a picture of new or emerging risks that oil spill response plans need to adapt to.

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

Fracking

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

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

LNG

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

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

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

Oil by Rail

Oil tank cars with railroad tracks.

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

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

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

Project Details and Timeline

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

When Staying Grounded Is a Bad Thing

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

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

NOAA chart of Lake Erie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keeping the Great Lakes Great

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

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

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


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At the Coast Guard Academy, Students Get a Dose of Real-World Response Tools

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s GIS Specialists Kari Sheets and Jay Coady.

The Office of Response and Restoration's Spatial Data Team introduces U.S. Coast Guard Academy cadets to ERMA, NOAA's online mapping tool for environmental response.

The Office of Response and Restoration’s Spatial Data Team introduces U.S. Coast Guard Academy cadets to ERMA, NOAA’s online mapping tool for environmental response. (U.S. Coast Guard Academy)

Students wearing crisp, blue uniforms lean in to get a better look at the map of the Gulf of Mexico being projected at the front of the small classroom.

Their normal Friday GIS class at the United States Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., has been taken over by two mapping specialists from NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. Kari Sheets and Jay Coady are standing in front of the classroom of cadets to introduce these future U.S. Coast Guard responders to an important tool they may use one day in the midst of a hurricane or oil spill response.

The tool is NOAA’s Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA®). ERMA is an online mapping tool that integrates both static and real-time data, such as ship locations, weather, and ocean currents, in a centralized, interactive map for environmental disaster response. Having all the latest information in an easy-to-use format provides environmental resource managers with the data they need to make informed decisions about where and how to deal with a pollution threat when it happens.  NOAA and the University of New Hampshire developed ERMA with the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Interior.

To the Classroom and Beyond

By offering training and collaboration opportunities like this early in cadets’ careers, NOAA and the Academy are providing future Coast Guard responders with the real-world knowledge and tools that they might encounter when addressing future pollution events.

One day this fall, Sheets and Coady taught three GIS classes that focused on ERMA, its capabilities, and how to use it once the cadets graduate from the Academy. The classes covered a general overview of the ERMA platform, how it fits in the Incident Command System structure, how it enables users to see and access data. They also included a live demonstration of the tool that highlighted recent data used in the response to Post Tropical Cyclone Sandy in 2012.

From Training to Explaining

The lesson also integrated data from a training exercise held from September 17-19, which simulated a tug-and-barge grounding and potential oil spill in Long Island Sound as part of the National Preparedness for Response Exercise Program (PREP).

The September 2013 training exercise, PREP, simulated a vessel grounding and oil spill in Long Island Sound. In the foreground, NOAA's Kari Sheets is checking metadata in ERMA while to her left, LT Sabrina Bateman and Cadet Jaimie Chicoine of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy look at spill trajectories in ERMA. ERMA is being projected on the wall, with Jay Coady of NOAA and Tom Marquette of the training facilitation firm PPS reviewing how ERMA is functioning at the drill.

The September 2013 training exercise, PREP, simulated a vessel grounding and oil spill in Long Island Sound. In the foreground, NOAA’s Kari Sheets is checking metadata in ERMA while to her left, LT Sabrina Bateman and Cadet Jaimie Chicoine of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy look at spill trajectories in ERMA. ERMA is being projected on the wall, with Jay Coady of NOAA and Tom Marquette of the training facilitation firm PPS reviewing how ERMA is functioning at the drill. (NOAA)

NOAA’s Sheets and Coady began working with the Academy over the summer in preparation for this exercise in Long Island Sound. Coast Guard Academy GIS instructor LT Sabrina Bateman and Cadet Jaimie Chicoine helped provide and add data and information into ERMA for the PREP exercise, where ERMA was designated the common operational picture (COP). As the COP during an incident, ERMA brings together various types of information, providing a single place to display up-to-date information that is also accessible to all individuals involved in incident response operations. This consistency and accessibility helps improve communication and coordination among responders and stakeholders.

The Academy was able to use ERMA to load selected data from their internal databases.  As a result of these early collaborations preparing for the drill, Sheets and Coady were invited to the Academy to guest lecture on ERMA for the GIS classes. The classes they taught went well, solidifying the Office of Response and Restoration’s connections with the Academy and resulting in an invitation back to teach again in the future.

In the meantime, LT Bateman plans on using ERMA in several of her GIS lectures and labs at the Academy to get cadets more accustomed to using it once they receive their assignments and enter Coast Guard stations around the country after graduation. This relationship has continued growing as the two organizations explore further opportunities for collaboration.

Kari Sheets.

Kari Sheets

Kari Sheets is a GIS specialist with the Office of Response and Restoration’s Spatial Data Branch in Silver Spring, Md., where she works on GIS strategic planning and leads ERMA projects. Previously, she worked at NOAA’s National Weather Service, where she coordinated GIS activities throughout the office.

Jay Coady

Jay Coady

Jay Coady is a GIS Specialist with the Office of Response and Restoration’s Spatial Data Branch in Charleston, S.C. He has been working on the Deepwater Horizon incident since July 2010 and has been involved in a number of other responses, including Post Tropical Cyclone Sandy. Jay is a co-lead for the Gulf of Mexico regional ERMA.


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OR&R Responds to Large Molasses Spill in Honolulu Harbor

Matson Terminal in Honolulu Harbor

Matson Terminal in Honolulu Harbor. (CreativeCommons.org/Ryan Ozawa)

On Tuesday, September 10, the Office of Response and Restoration Emergency Response Division provided support to the Hawaii Department of Health in response to a large molasses spill in Honolulu Harbor, Hawaii. The Matson Shipping Company reported losing approximately 1,400 tons of molasses the evening of Sunday, September 8.

On Monday and Tuesday an extensive subsurface brown plume was observed extending from the Matson Pier on the Sand Island side of Honolulu Harbor westward into Ke’ehi Lagoon almost to the Reef Runway. Fish and other marine life have been found dead in the affected area, and fish have been observed gasping for air.

Dead fish picked up on the beach at Ke'ehi Lagoon. (Photo credit: Elizabeth Miles)

Dead fish picked up on the beach at Ke’ehi Lagoon. (Photo credit: Elizabeth Miles)

Dead fish in Ke'ehi Lagoon. (Photo credit: Elizabeth Miles)

Dead fish in Ke’ehi Lagoon. (Photo credit: Elizabeth Miles)

The State of Hawaii Department of Health Hazard Evaluation and Emergency Response Office (HEER) is currently the lead response agency for this incident.

UPDATE SEPTEMBER 13, 2013: The plume of molasses is likely to persist and cause a localized reduction in water quality. OR&R’s Emergency Response Division recommended monitoring of dissolved oxygen levels and other water quality parameters.

NOAA is sending a Scientific Support Coordinator to Honolulu to advise the response team on reducing impacts to marine organisms and other natural resources.

This post was developed by the lead NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator for this incident, Ruth Yender. Elizabeth Miles, who contributed all but the top photograph, lives on a sailboat in Ke’ehi Lagoon and has been taking photos since the spill occurred.

Ke'ehi Lagoon, near Honolulu Harbor. (Photo credit: Elizabeth Miles)

Ke’ehi Lagoon, near Honolulu Harbor. (Photo credit: Elizabeth Miles)

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