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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Overcoming the Biggest Hurdle During an Oil Spill in the Arctic: Logistics

Ship breaking ice in Arctic waters.

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy breaks ice in Arctic waters. A ship like this would be the likely center of operations for an oil spill in this remote and harsh region. (NOAA)

August in the Arctic can mean balmy weather and sunny skies or, fifteen minutes later, relentless freezing rain and wind blowing off ice floes, chilling you to the core. If you were headed to an oil spill there, your suitcase might be carrying a dry suit, down parka, wool sweaters and socks, your heaviest winter hat and gloves, and even ice traction spikes for your boots. Transit could mean days of travel by planes, car, and helicopter to a ship overseeing operations at the edge of the oil spill. Meanwhile, the oil is being whipped by the wind and waves into the nooks and crannies on the underside of sea ice, where it could be frozen into place.

Even for an experienced oil spill responder like Jill Bodnar, the complexity of working in such conditions goes far beyond the usual response challenges of cleaning up the oil, gathering data about the spill, and minimizing the impacts to marine life and their sensitive habitats. Rather, in the Arctic, everything comes down to logistics.

The unique logistics of this extreme and remote environment drive to the heart of why Bodnar, a NOAA Geographic Information Systems (GIS) specialist, and her colleague Zachary Winters-Staszak are currently on board the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, at the edge of the sea ice north of Alaska. They are participating in an Arctic Technology Evaluation, an exercise conducted by the U.S. Coast Guard Research and Development Center (RDC) in support of the Coast Guard’s broader effort known as Arctic Shield 2014.

Building on what was learned during the previous year’s exercise, the advanced technologies being demonstrated in this evaluation could potentially supplement those tools and techniques responders normally would rely on during oil spills in more temperate and accessible locations. This Arctic Technology Evaluation provides multiple agencies and institutions, in addition to NOAA, the invaluable opportunity to untangle some of the region’s knotty logistical challenges on a state-of-the-art Coast Guard icebreaker in the actual Arctic environment.

Getting from A to B: Not as Easy as 1-2-3

Bodnar has been mapping data during oil spills for more than a decade, but this exercise is her first trip to the Arctic. While preparing for it, she found it sobering to learn just how many basic elements of a spill response can’t be taken for granted north of the Arctic Circle. In addition to the scarcity of roads, airports, and hotels, other critical functions such as communications are subject to the harsh Arctic conditions and limited radio towers and satellite coverage. Out at sea ships depend on satellites for phone calls and some Internet connectivity, but above the 77th parallel those satellites often drop calls and can only support basic text email.

The remoteness of the Arctic questions how hundreds of responders would get there, along with all the necessary equipment—such as boom, skimmers, and vessels—not already in the area. Once deployed to the spill, response equipment has the potential to ice-over, encounter high winds, or be grounded from dense fog. Communicating with responders and decision makers on other ships, on shore at a command post, or even farther away in the lower 48 states would be an enormous challenge.

For example, if an oil spill occurs in the Beaufort Sea, north of Alaska, the nearest and “largest” community is Barrow, population 4,429. However, Barrow has very limited accommodations. For comparison, 40,000 people, including Bodnar, responded to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. This was possible because of the spill’s proximity to large cities with hotel space and access to food and communications infrastructure.

This is not the case for small Arctic villages, where most of their food, fuel, and other resources have to be shipped in when the surrounding waters are relatively free of ice. But to respond to a spill in the Arctic, the likely center of operations would be on board a ship, yet another reason working with the Coast Guard during Arctic Shield is so important for NOAA.

NOAA’s Role in Arctic Shield 2014

During this August’s Arctic Technology Evaluation, the Coast Guard is leading tests of four key areas of Arctic preparedness. NOAA’s area focuses on how oil disperses at the edge of the sea ice and collects under the older, thicker ice packs. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is working with NOAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) program to develop techniques for quickly identifying and delineating a simulated oil spill in the Arctic waters near the ice edge. The Coast Guard will be using both an unreactive, green fluorescein dye and hundreds of oranges as “simulated oil” for the various tools and technologies to detect.

Normally during an oil spill, NOAA or the Coast Guard would send people up in a plane or helicopter to survey the ocean for the oil’s precise location, which NOAA also uses to improve its models of the oil’s expected behavior. However, responders can’t count on getting these aircraft to a spill in the Arctic in the first place—much less assume safe conditions for flying once there.

Instead, the UAS group is testing the feasibility of using unmanned, remote-controlled aircraft such as the Puma to collect this information and report back to responders on the ship. Bodnar and Winters-Staszak will be pulling these data streams from the Puma into Arctic ERMA®, NOAA’s mapping tool for environmental response data. They’ll be creating a data-rich picture of where the oil spill dye and oranges are moving in the water and how they are behaving, particularly among the various types of sea ice.

Once the oil spill simulation is complete, Bodnar and Winters-Staszak will be reporting back on how it went and what they have learned. Stay tuned for the expedition’s progress in overcoming the many logistical hurdles of a setting as severe as the Arctic here and at oceanservice.noaa.gov/arcticshield.


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Alaska ShoreZone: Mapping over 46,000 Miles of Coastal Habitat

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

A survey of St. Lawrence Island, Alaska, from July 2013 reveals the island's dramatic coastal cliffs.

A survey of St. Lawrence Island, Alaska, from July 2013 reveals the island’s dramatic coastal cliffs. (ShoreZone.org)

I learned a few things while I was at a meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, last month. Most importantly (and perhaps a surprise to those from Texas), I learned everything is bigger in Alaska, namely its shoreline. Alaska’s shoreline measures over 46,600 miles (75,000 km), longer than the shorelines of all the lower 48 states combined.

Now imagine for a minute the work involved in flying helicopters low along that entire shoreline, collecting high-resolution imagery and detailed classifications of the coast’s geologic features and intertidal biological communities. No small endeavor, but that’s exactly what the Alaska ShoreZone Coastal Inventory and Mapping Project, a unique partnership between government agencies, NGOs, and private industry, has been doing each summer since 2001.

Since then, ShoreZone has surveyed Alaskan coasts at extreme low tide, collecting aerial imagery and environmental data for roughly 80% of Alaska’s coastal habitats and continues to move towards full coverage each year. Collecting the vast amounts of imagery and data is a great accomplishment in and of itself, but ShoreZone, with help from NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, has done an equally incredible job at making their entire inventory accessible to the public.

Just think how this valuable and descriptive information could be used. Planning for an Alaskan kayak trip next summer? ShoreZone can help you prioritize which beaches will save your hull from unwanted scratches. Trying to identify areas of critical habitat for endangered fishes? ShoreZone can help you in your research. Indeed, ShoreZone has many applications. For the Office of Response and Restoration, ShoreZone is an invaluable tool that serves alongside NOAA’s Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) maps and data as a baseline for the coastal habitats of Alaska and is currently being used for environmental planning, preparedness, and Natural Resource Damage Assessment planning in Alaska.

One of the many ways to access ShoreZone imagery and data is through Arctic ERMA, NOAA’s online mapping tool for environmental response. There are several advantages to this. For example, the National Marine Fisheries Service used ShoreZone imagery and data to designate critical habitat areas for endangered rockfish in Washington’s Puget Sound, a process that could also be applied to Alaska if necessary. That information could quickly be integrated into ERMA and displayed on a map allowing you to view the data used to determine those locations as well.

Screenshot of Alaska through Arctic ERMA and showing ShoreZone data layers.

To find ShoreZone photos in ERMA, type “Alaska ShoreZone” in the find bar at the top, then click on the result to turn on the layer in the map. Next, to view ShoreZone photos in ERMA, first click on the Identify tool icon (i) and then click on a desired point in the map. A table will appear in a pop-up with the hyperlink to the desired photo. Or, click on this image to view ShoreZone data in Arctic ERMA. (NOAA)

As updates and additions to the imagery database become available they will also be available in Arctic ERMA. The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) has provided funding to complete the imagery processing and habitat mapping for the North Slope of Alaska. BSEE also provided funding to finish Arctic ERMA and to develop the internet-independent Stand-alone ERMA. The efforts are complementary and strategic given the increased activity in the Arctic.

To prepare for this increase in activity, the ShoreZone and ERMA teams are working to incorporate ShoreZone data into Stand-alone ERMA for use when Internet connectivity is unreliable. The beauty of the photos included here is deceptive. A majority of Alaska’s shoreline is rugged, unforgiving, and remote. Having access to high-resolution imagery along with environmental and response-focused data in the kind of Internet-independent package that ShoreZone and ERMA provide would be an indispensable tool during a hazardous incident like a ship collision, oil spill, or search and rescue mission. This is just one way NOAA and ShoreZone are working together to strengthen our commitment to the coastal environments and communities of Alaska.

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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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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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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With Eye Toward Restoring Ecosystems, NOAA Releases New Pollution Mapping Tool for Great Lakes

[Editor’s Note: Happy Great Lakes Week! NOAA and our many U.S. and Canadian partners are celebrating and tackling issues for the world’s largest source of liquid freshwater from September 9-12, 2013.]

This is a post by Office of Response and Restoration Physical Scientist Ben Shorr.

A scientific team monitors cleanup progress in an airboat on the Kalamazoo River

Scientists observe cleanup progress for the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, an Area of Concern in the Great Lakes region. (NOAA/Terry Heatlie)

The Great Lakes have been a big part of my life. Growing up in Chicago, I spent many hours as a child sailing big and little boats on Lake Michigan. During college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I studied civil and environmental engineering, with a major focus in sailing on the Great Lakes and the small lakes and rivers in between. When I began working at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Chicago, I had the opportunity to work on assessment and cleanup of contaminated sediment sites and water quality issues across the Great Lakes. Over the past decade at NOAA, I have also been able to work on the cleanup and restoration of natural resources in the Great Lakes and across the country.

And after working on it for the past year, this week our team announces the creation of the Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA®) for the Great Lakes.

A Tool for Restoration

Great Lakes ERMA is an online mapping tool for coastal pollution cleanup and restoration efforts across the Great Lakes Basin. This tool brings together regional data and information from NOAA and its partners into a single interactive map. Great Lakes ERMA was created to help illustrate and expedite cleanup and restoration of Areas of Concern (areas identified by the U.S. and Canada as polluted and in need of cleanup and restoration). It does this by combining environmental contaminant data from NOAA’s Great Lakes Query Manager database with ecological, recreational, tribal, and commercial information from across the region.

Screen shot of Great Lakes ERMA with contaminant chemistry stations and Areas of Concern.

Great Lakes ERMA, shown above, displays Areas of Concern, areas identified by the U.S. and Canada as polluted and in need of cleanup and restoration, and NOAA Query Manager sediment sampling stations (orange points). This tool can help illustrate progress in restoring the health of the Great Lakes. (NOAA)

NOAA, as part of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, collaborated with the EPA, U.S. Coast Guard, and University of New Hampshire to develop Great Lakes ERMA. Out of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative came a five-year action plan focusing on a handful of essential issues for the region, spanning the cleanup of toxic pollution (where we come in) to the combat of invasive species. In addition to incorporating environmental cleanup and restoration information, we’re working with emergency response colleagues within NOAA, EPA, Coast Guard, and the academic community on how to use ERMA in the Great Lakes to improve planning, communication, and coordination for responses to oil and chemical spills.

The History Behind the Data

A key part of Great Lakes ERMA is its connection to the data in the Query Manager database. In my work developing Great Lakes ERMA over the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to build upon that work done by my NOAA colleagues Jay Field and Todd Goeks (who is based in Chicago, Ill). They established a Great Lakes–wide database with contaminant concentration data and the related impacts on living organisms.

This database, which is the product of close collaboration with the EPA Great Lakes National Program Office, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Great Lakes states, is the region’s most extensive compilation of environmental contaminant data. Comprised of data from smaller-scale watersheds and studies of individual pollution sites, the Great Lakes Query Manager database now contains over 480 studies with nearly 23,000 stations with contaminant chemistry or toxicity results. By integrating this data into Great Lakes ERMA, accessing it for cleanup and environmental injury assessment and restoration at contaminant sites across the Great Lakes is now even easier.

A Data-rich Future

As we look to the future, our team is excited about the opportunities to leverage NOAA and our partners’ research and analysis in ERMA to highlight and further NOAA’s mission of conserving and managing coastal and marine ecosystems and resources. Our team continues working to build partnerships in the Great Lakes under the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and on pollution cases and hazardous waste sites that are a focus for NOAA’s Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program.

Stay tuned to this blog for more about how we are applying innovative approaches to data management in the Great Lakes and around the country. For now, you can check out Great Lakes ERMA by visiting https://www.erma.unh.edu/greatlakes/erma.html.

Ben Shorr has been a Physical Scientist with the 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, Ben enjoys hanging out with his 5 and 3 year old kids, which means riding bikes, skiing, and sailing too!


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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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From Driving Underwater Scooters to Texting, Hawaii Students Learn Skills for Science Under the Sea

This is a post by NOAA Fisheries Biologist Dr. Matthew Parry. The Office of Response and Restoration’s Joe Inslee also contributed to this post.

A student sending an underwater text message to another dive team during the joint NOAA-University of Hawaii course.

A student sending an underwater text message to another dive team during the joint NOAA-University of Hawaii course. (Jeff Kuwabara/University of Hawaii)

The sparkling, turquoise waters off the coast of Hawaii may seem like the perfect place to work, no matter what you’re doing. But when you’re trying to figure out what happened to that idyllic environment after a ship grounds on a coral reef or spills oil, those attractive waters present a surprising number of challenges.

You can’t just walk up with a clipboard and start taking samples. You have to haul your team and equipment out by boat, be a qualified SCUBA diver, and be able to get around underwater and communicate with your team. And this is all while (carefully and consistently) documenting the species of coral, fish, and other marine life, as well as their habitats, which might have been affected by a misdirected ship or spilled oil.

To help cultivate this unique and valuable skill set in Hawaii’s future scientists, NOAA has partnered with the University of Hawaii to offer a hands-on (and flippers-on) course introducing their students to a suite of marine underwater techniques. This multi-week course gives developing young scientists, all enrolled at the University of Hawaii, the critical technical skills required to succeed in the rapidly growing field of marine sciences. The course focuses on advanced underwater navigation, communication, and mapping techniques that NOAA uses in environmental assessment and restoration cases but which can be applied to almost any marine-related career.

Under the Sea

For the past month, our classroom was located in the Pacific Ocean off the south shore of the Hawaiian island Oahu. Students learned the proper techniques for using:

  • A GPS (Global Positioning System) tracker where GPS normally can’t go. Because a GPS unit doesn’t work underwater, students learned how to tow one in a waterproof bag attached to a float at the surface and which is also tethered to them as they dive. The bobbing GPS unit then follows them as they take photos of what they see in the water. Later, using a program to match the photos to their locations, students can create a map of the habitats on the ocean floor.
  • Underwater text messaging. While underwater, divers need a way to communicate with other dive teams when they are not in sight of each other. We taught the students to use underwater communication devices that use sonar to send very basic, preset messages to others in their group or on the boat. That way, they can coordinate when someone discovers, for example, a damage site, a rare coral, or even a shipwreck. They can also use it to navigate back to the boat.
  • Underwater scooters. For longer sampling surveys, students learned how to hang onto and drive a small underwater scooter. These aquatic vehicles allow divers to venture further out at a time and do so more efficiently, because they aren’t exerting themselves as much and using as much of their limited air supply.
  • High-precision underwater mapping equipment. This system, based on sonar, more accurately maps divers’ locations in real time as they gather data underwater. Surrounded by transmitters attached to fixed float lines, students were able to enter data they collected directly into handheld devices, while also creating maps underwater.

Get a better idea of what this was like for the students by taking a look at photos from the class:

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And into Local Jobs

This year’s course was taught as a partnership between the NOAA Restoration Center, the NOAA Pacific Islands Regional Office (PIRO), and the University of Hawaii Marine Option Program, with collaboration from staff with the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. The course was supported by PIRO’s Marine Education and Training program.

Efforts such as this one are aimed at keeping young scientists with local ecological skills and experience in Hawaii by allowing them to advance their knowledge of practical underwater techniques. Having this specialization enables them to stay employed in the region and in the field of marine science. Ideally, local students gain the technical skills they need to work in the natural resource management field in Hawaii. After taking the marine underwater techniques course, a number of highly specialized jobs would be open to them, such as conducting:

  • Environmental damage assessments after ship groundings.
  • Academic research.
  • Search and salvage missions.
  • Mitigation surveys for underwater construction projects.

Underwater Expertise in Action

This kind of underwater expertise was called upon in 2005 when the M/V Casitas ran aground in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, in what is now the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. NOAA divers reported to the scene of the accident to help determine the damage to corals and other parts of the environment caused by the initial ship grounding and subsequent efforts to remove the ship.

Using several of the techniques we teach in this course, divers were able to accurately determine not only the locations where corals were injured but also how much of the reef was injured (about 18,220 square feet). This information was essential in the process of planning for restoration after the grounding. You can read more about the resulting restoration projects in another blog post.

Dr. Matthew Parry got his Ph.D. in Oceanography from the University of Hawaii in 2003. He came to work for the NOAA Restoration Center in Honolulu as part of the Damage Assessment, Remediation and Restoration Program in 2007. He continues to work at NOAA as a Fishery Biologist specializing in Natural Resource Damage Assessment and teaches the Marine Underwater Techniques course with co-instructors Robert O’Conner, Kara Miller, and Jeff Kuwabara.

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