NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

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


Leave a comment

NOAA and Partners Invest in an Innovative New Stewardship Program for Washington’s Commencement Bay

A group of people holding a giant check for $4.9 million.

NOAA hands off a $4.9 million check to the nonprofit EarthCorps, which will use the funding for planning, restoration, monitoring, and maintenance at 17 restoration sites across Washington’s Commencement Bay. U.S. Representatives Dennis Heck (WA), Derek Kilmer (WA), and Peter DeFazio (OR) were also in attendance. (NOAA)

Last week, NOAA and partners awarded $4.9 million to EarthCorps for long-term stewardship of restoration sites in Commencement Bay near Tacoma, Washington. The Commencement Bay Stewardship Collaborative is part of a larger investment that will conserve habitat for fish and wildlife and give local urban communities access to the shoreline.

EarthCorps, which was competitively selected for this funding, is a non-profit organization that trains environmental leaders through local service projects.

Volunteers plant ferns at a restoration site in Commencement Bay.

Volunteers restore a site in Commencement Bay. (NOAA)

The funding will support planning, restoration, monitoring, and maintenance at 17 sites across the Bay. These sites were restored over the past 20 years as part of the ongoing Commencement Bay natural resource damage assessment (NRDA) case. This is the first time that a third party has received funding to launch a comprehensive stewardship program as part of a NRDA case. We hope it will become a model of stewardship for future cases.

Commencement Bay is the harbor for Tacoma, Washington, at the southern end of Puget Sound. Many of the waterways leading into the Bay—which provide habitat for salmon, steelhead, and other fish—have been polluted by industrial and commercial activities. NOAA and other federal, state, and tribal partners have been working for decades to address the contamination and restore damaged habitat.

One of the sites that EarthCorps will maintain is the Sha Dadx project on the bank of the Puyallup River. The lower Puyallup River was straightened in the early 20th century, leaving little off-channel habitat—which juvenile salmon use for rearing and foraging. The project reconnected the river to a curve that had been cut off by levees. This restored 20 acres of off-channel habitat, and fish and wildlife are using the site.

Most of the parties responsible for the contamination have settled and begun implementing restoration. NOAA and its partners are evaluating options for pursuing parties that haven’t settled yet. As new sites are added, stewardship funds will be secured at settlement and likely added to the overall long-term effort.

This story was originally posted on NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service Habitat Conservation website.


Leave a comment

Mapping the Problem After Owners Abandon Ship

This is a post by LTJG Alice Drury of the Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division.

One of the largest vessel removal efforts in Washington history was a former Navy Liberty Ship, the Davy Crockett. In 2011 the Davy Crockett, previously abandoned by its owner on the Washington shore of the Columbia River, began leaking oil and sinking due to improper and unpermitted salvage operations. Its cleanup and removal cost $22 million dollars, and the owner was fined $405,000 by the Washington Department of Ecology and sentenced to four months in jail by the U.S. Attorney, Western District of Washington.

As I’ve mentioned before, derelict and abandoned vessels like the Davy Crockett are a nationwide problem that is expensive to deal with properly and, if the vessels are left to deteriorate, can cause significant environmental impacts. Unfortunately Washington’s Puget Sound is no exception to this issue.

Agency Collaboration

I’m part of the Derelict Vessel Task Force led by U.S. Coast Guard Sector Puget Sound. Made up of federal, state, and local agencies, this task force aims to identify and remove imminent pollution and hazard-to-navigation threats from derelict vessels and barges within Puget Sound. Among these agencies there are different jurisdictions and enforcement mechanisms related to derelict vessels.

A key player is Washington’s Department of Natural Resources (WA DNR), which manages the state Derelict Vessel Removal Program (DVRP). The DVRP has limited funding for removal of priority vessels. Unfortunately, according to WA DNR [PDF], with the growing number and size of problem vessels, program funding can’t keep up with the rising removal and disposal costs. The backlog of vessels in need of removal continues to grow.

Keeping Track

I’m working with the NOAA Office of Response and Restoration’s Spatial Data Branch to enter this list of derelict vessels into ERMA®. ERMA is a NOAA online mapping tool that integrates both static and real-time data to support environmental planning and response operations. Right now the vessels are primarily tracked in the WA DNR DVRP database. By pulling this data into ERMA, the task force will not only be able to see the vessels displayed on a map but also make use of the various layers of environmental sensitivity data already within ERMA. The hope is that this can help with the prioritizing process and possibly eventually be used as a tool to raise awareness.

A view of Pacific Northwest ERMA, a NOAA online mapping tool which can bring together a variety of environmental and response data. Here, you can see the black dots where ports are located around Washington's Puget Sound as well as the colors indicating the shoreline's characteristics and vulnerability to oil.

A view of Pacific Northwest ERMA, a NOAA online mapping tool which can bring together a variety of environmental and response data. Here, you can see the black dots where ports are located around Washington’s Puget Sound as well as the colors indicating the shoreline’s characteristics and vulnerability to oil. (NOAA)

However, there aren’t enough resources within the Derelict Vessel Task Force to gather and continue to track (as the vessels can move) all the data needed in order to map the vessels accurately in ERMA. As a result, the task force is turning to local partners in order to help capture data.

Reaching Out

One such partner is the local Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotillas, a group of dedicated civilians helping the Coast Guard promote safety and security for citizens, ports, and waterways. In order to garner support for data-gathering, I recently attended the USCG Auxiliary Flotilla Seattle-Elliott Bay meeting, along with members of the local Coast Guard Incident Management Division who head the Puget Sound Derelict Vessel Task Force.

I spoke about a few local derelict vessel incidents and their impacts to the environment. I also showed how ERMA can be a powerful tool for displaying and prioritizing this information—if we can get the basic data that’s missing. As a result, this Flotilla will follow up with my Coast Guard colleagues and start collecting missing information on derelict and abandoned vessels on behalf of the Coast Guard and WA DNR.

Gathering data and displaying derelict vessels graphically is a small, but important, step on the way to solving the massive problem of derelict vessels. Once complete I hope that ERMA will be a powerful aid in displaying the issue and helping make decisions regarding derelict vessels in the Puget Sound. Stay tuned.

[Editor's Note: You can see a U.S. Coast Guard video of the start-to-finish process of removing the Davy Crockett from the Columbia River along with the Washington Department of Ecology's photos documenting the response.]

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.


2 Comments

A Tale of Two Shipwrecks: When History Threatens to Pollute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Leave a comment

Swimming Upstream: Examining the Impacts of Nuclear-age Pollution on Columbia River Salmon

A view of the free-flowing section of Columbia River known as the Hanford Reach, along with the famous white bluffs that line it.

A view of the free-flowing section of Columbia River known as the Hanford Reach, along with the famous white bluffs that line it. (NOAA)

Flowing freely through southeastern Washington is an approximately 50 mile stretch of the Columbia River known as the Hanford Reach. This unique section of river is birthplace and home to many animals at different stages of life, including Chinook salmon, the largest of the river’s Pacific salmon. Yet this same segment of river at one time also served as the birthplace of the nuclear age: at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Today, NOAA, other federal and state agencies, and Indian tribes are still trying to determine the full impact of this nuclear legacy on fish, wildlife, and their habitats.

Beginning in 1943, the Hanford Reach, with its steady supply of water and relative isolation, attracted the attention of the U.S. government during World War II. Searching for a location to erect nuclear reactors for the top-secret Manhattan Project, the U.S. was racing to build an atomic bomb and this work took shape at Hanford.

Two of Hanford's nuclear reactors sit, decommissioned, along the Columbia River at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

Two of Hanford’s nine nuclear reactors sit, decommissioned, along the Columbia River at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. (NOAA)

The first nuclear reactor built at Hanford—and the first full-scale nuclear production plant in the world—was the B Reactor, which began operating in 1944. This and the other eight reactors eventually constructed at Hanford were located right on the Columbia River, an essential source of water to carry away the extreme heat generated by nuclear fission reactions. In these plants, workers turned uranium (euphemistically referred to as “metal”) into weapons-grade plutonium (known as “product”). The plutonium eventually ended up in the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945, as well as in nuclear arms stockpiled during the U.S.-Soviet Cold War. Hanford’s last reactors shut down in 1987.

The River Runs Through It

While the nuclear reactors were operating, however, water was pumped from the Columbia River and aerated at a rate of 70,000 gallons a minute. This was meant to improve its quality as it flowed through a maze of processing equipment—pipes, tubes, and valves—and into the core, the heart of the nuclear reactor. There, in the case of B Reactor, about 27,000 gallons of water gushed through 2,004 process tubes every minute. Each tube held 32 rods of uranium fuel.

The "valve pit" in Hanford's B Reactor, where the thousands of gallons of water that cooled the nuclear reactor's core passed through.

The “valve pit” in Hanford’s B Reactor, where the thousands of gallons of water that cooled the nuclear reactor’s core passed through. (NOAA)

Inside the reactor’s core, where the nuclear reactions were occurring, the water temperature would spike from 56 degrees Fahrenheit to 190 degrees in a single minute. Later in the reactor’s lifespan, the operators would be able to leave the water inside the nuclear reactor core long enough to heat it to 200 degrees before releasing the water into lined but leaky outdoor holding ponds. Once in the holding ponds, the reactor water would sit until its temperature cooled and any short-lived radioactive elements had broken down. Finally, the water would return to the Columbia River and continue its path to the Pacific Ocean.

Water played such an essential role in the nuclear reactor that engineers had four levels of backup systems to keep water constantly pumping through the core. In addition to being aerated, the water was also filtered and chemically treated. To prevent the core’s plumbing equipment from corroding, chromium was added to the water. Hanford’s D Reactor, in particular, handled large quantities of solid hexavalent chromium, a toxic chemical known to cause cancer.

The Salmon Runs Through It

A NOAA scientist takes stock of a male Chinook salmon during their fall run along the Hanford Reach in 2013.

A NOAA scientist takes stock of a male Chinook salmon during their fall run along the Hanford Reach in 2013. (NOAA)

Fast-forward to 2013. NOAA and its partners are participating in a natural resource damage assessment, a process determining whether negative environmental impacts resulted from the Department of Energy’s activities at Hanford. As part of that, NOAA is helping look at the places where water leaked or was discharged back into the Columbia River after passing through the reactors.

One goal is to establish at what levels of contamination injury occurs for species of concern at Hanford. Salmon and freshwater mussels living in the Columbia River represent the types of species they are studying. Yet these species may face impacts from more than 30 different contaminants at Hanford, some of which are toxic metals such as chromium while others are radioactive isotopes such as strontium-90.

Many of the Columbia River’s Chinook salmon and Steelhead trout spawn in or migrate through the Hanford Reach. Currently, NOAA and the other trustees are pursuing studies examining the extent of their spawning in this part of the river and determining the intensity of underground chromium contamination welling up through the riverbed. This information is particularly important because salmon build rocky nests and lay their eggs in the gravel on the bottom of the river.

You can learn more about the history of the Hanford Reach and the chromium and other contamination that threatens the river (around minute 8:50-9:03)  in this video from the Department of Energy:

The trustees have many other studies planned, all trying to uncover more information about the natural resources and what they have been experiencing in the context of Hanford’s history. Yet, for the natural resource damage assessment, even if the trustees find salmon experiencing negative impacts, the evidence found needs to be tied directly to exposure to Hanford’s pollution (rather than, for example, the influence of dams or pollution from nearby farms). It is a complicated process of information gathering and sleuthing, but eventually it will culminate in a determination of the restoration required for this critical stretch of habitat on the Columbia River.

For more information, see:


Leave a comment

NOAA Hosts Forum Exploring Oil Sands and the Challenges of When They Spill

Water and sediment sampling on Morrow Lake near Battle Creek, Mich., during the response to the Enbridge pipeline spill of oil sands product. August 2, 2010 (U.S. Coast Guard)

Water and sediment sampling on Morrow Lake near Battle Creek, Mich., during the response to the Enbridge pipeline spill of oil sands product. August 2, 2010 (U.S. Coast Guard)

Unless there is a big spill or accident, most people probably don’t think much about different types of crude oil, where it comes from, or how it is transported.

Yet there is an ongoing national debate about Canada’s Alberta oil sands and whether to complete the Keystone XL pipeline that would carry Alberta oil sands products to refineries in the U.S. Gulf Coast. This proposed pipeline has gotten a lot of attention, but there are existing pipelines carrying oil sands products around Canada and across the border into the U.S., as well as tanker, barge, and rail operations doing the same.

The Exxon Pegasus pipeline spill in Mayflower, Ark., on March 29, 2013, was a reminder that oil sands are already being transported and, whenever oil is transported, there is risk of a spill.

Oil sands are considered an unconventional oil type that has been growing in prominence as oil prices fluctuate and production technologies improve. As a result, there are many questions about how best to respond to spills of crude oil products derived from oil sands. One of the major concerns is the buoyancy of oil sands products, and their potential to sink, especially in sediment-laden waters. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is still cleaning up submerged oil from the July 2010 Enbridge pipeline spill in Michigan’s Kalamazoo River.

Last week, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration participated in an Oil Sands Products Forum held at NOAA’s Western Regional Center in Seattle, Wash. The forum was sponsored by the Washington State Department of Ecology Spills Program, U.S. Coast Guard, and the Pacific States/British Columbia Oil Spill Task Force. The University of New Hampshire Center for Spills in the Environment facilitated the forum.

The two-day meeting included a full day of presentations and discussions about oil sands (also known as tar sands or bitumen) and their related products—covering everything from extraction, refining, and transportation to chemistry, how they move and react in the environment, and recent case studies of spill responses. Over 50 environmental specialists, oil spill planners, and responders attended from government agencies, tribal governments, nongovernmental organizations, and industry.  Several oil sands experts from Canadian agencies and organizations also attended and presented.

On the second day, spill responders were presented with four different spill scenarios involving oil sands products, and the potential issues and challenges highlighted by the different spill situations were thoroughly discussed and recorded. Presentations and meeting notes will be made available through the Center for Spills in the Environment.  The focus of this forum was not to discuss whether or not oil sands should be exploited as a resource, but rather, how to prepare better for and then deal effectively with a spill of oil sands products when it happens.


Leave a comment

Digging for Data at the Alaska Marine Science Symposium

This is a post by NOAA Environmental Scientist Dr. Amy Merten.

View of Kruzof Island, Sitka Sound, Alaska.

The ShoreZone project photographs, maps, and collects information about Pacific Northwest shorelines, like in this view of Kruzof Island, Sitka Sound, Alaska. (NOAA Fisheries)

As Chief of the Spatial Data Branch in NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, my focus is all about data. In particular, that means figuring out how to access data related to oil spills: the type of information useful for planning before a spill and for the response, environmental injury assessment, and restoration after a spill. Once we get that data, which often comes from other science agencies, universities, and industry, we can then ingest it into Arctic ERMA®, NOAA’s online mapping tool for environmental disaster data. While at the Alaska Marine Science Symposium this week, I have spent much of my time working with experts who provide and manage that kind of data.

For example, the Alaska Ocean Observing System (AOOS) provides real-time and historical coastal data to multiple stakeholders, including NOAA for Arctic ERMA. AOOS is also the host for the newly signed data-sharing agreement [PDF] between NOAA and three oil companies (Shell, ConocoPhillips, and StatOil). These companies have agreed to share the physical oceanographic, geological, and biological data they have been collecting near areas of Arctic offshore oil and gas activities since 2009. This is an unprecedented amount of data that the industry now is sharing with the federal government and the public. The data are available at www.aoos.org.

A view of Anchorage from the Alaska Marine Science Symposium.

A view of Anchorage from the Alaska Marine Science Symposium. (NOAA)

My colleague and our Arctic ERMA geographic information system (GIS) expert, Zach Winters-Staszak, attended the Arctic Mapping Workshop sponsored by our partners at the University of Alaska Fairbanks GINA program. Their geographic information network gives us access to high-resolution base maps, imagery, high frequency radar, ice radar, webcams, and more.  Zach learned about new data sets and new ways for pulling high impact data into Arctic ERMA.

Another helpful information source I learned more about was NOAA’s ShoreZone project.  ShoreZone [PDF] is a popular Pacific Northwest dataset of high-resolution aerial videos and photographs of the shoreline in Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon at extreme low tide. The photos and videos are augmented with habitat classifications of the different zones along the shoreline, such as salt marsh or kelp beds. We already pull in ShoreZone data layers into our Arctic and Pacific Northwest ERMA sites.

These data are valuable for preparedness and response to oil spills and for understanding places where oil and marine debris may accumulate naturally. It’s especially useful for understanding what the shoreline might look like before going out to survey for signs of oil or marine debris accumulation. It can help you decide how you’re going to access the shore (boat, helicopter, on foot) and what you might expect to find. ShoreZone surveyed the Kotzebue and North Slope regions of the Alaskan Arctic this past summer, which we’re excited to draw into Arctic ERMA when they are available.

Read more about Arctic ERMA and our plans for this environmental data tool.

Amy Merten with kids from Kivalina, Alaska.

Dr. Amy Merten is pictured here with children from the Alaskan village of Kivalina. She was in Alaska for an oil spill workshop in the village of Kotzebue.

Amy Merten is the Spatial Data Branch Chief in NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. Amy developed the concept for the online mapping tool ERMA (Environmental Response Mapping Application). ERMA was developed in collaboration with the University of New Hampshire. She expanded the ERMA team at NOAA to fill response and natural resource trustee responsibilities during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill. Amy oversees data management of the resulting oil spill damage assessment. She received her doctorate and master’s degrees from the University of Maryland.


1 Comment

Japan Confirms Dock on Washington Coast Is Tsunami Marine Debris

A worker uses a 30% bleach spray to decontaminate the Japanese dock which made landfall on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula in December 2012.

January 3, 2013 — A worker uses a 30% bleach spray to decontaminate and reduce the spread of possible marine invasive species on the Japanese dock which made landfall on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula in December 2012. (Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife/Allen Pleus)

The Japanese Consulate has confirmed that a 65-foot, concrete-and-foam dock that washed ashore in Washington’s Olympic National Park in late December 2012 is in fact one of three* docks from the fishing port of Misawa, Japan. These docks were swept out to sea during the earthquake and tsunami off of Japan in March 2011, and this is the second dock to be located. The first dock appeared on Agate Beach near Newport, Ore., in June 2012.

Using our trajectory forecast model, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration helped predict the approximate location of the dock after an initial sighting reported it to be floating somewhere off of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. When the dock finally came aground, it ended up both inside the bounds of NOAA’s Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary and a designated wilderness portion of Olympic National Park.

Japanese tsunami dock located on beach within Olympic National Park and National Marine Sanctuary.

In order to minimize damage to the coastline and marine habitat, federal agencies are moving forward with plans to remove the dock. In addition to being located within a designated wilderness portion of Olympic National Park, the dock is also within NOAA’s Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary and adjacent to the Washington Islands National Wildlife Refuge Complex. (National Park Service)

According to the Washington State Department of Ecology, representatives from Olympic National Park, Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Washington Sea Grant Program have ventured out to the dock by land several times to examine, take samples, and clean the large structure.

Initial results from laboratory testing have identified 30-50 plant and animal species on the dock that are native to Japan but not the United States, including species of algae, seaweed, mussels, and barnacles.

In addition to scraping more than 400 pounds of organic material from the dock, the team washed its heavy side bumpers and the entire exterior structure with a diluted bleach solution to further decontaminate it, a method approved by the National Park Service and Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary.

Government representatives are examining possible options for removing the 185-ton dock from this remote and ecologically diverse coastal area.

Look for more information and updates on Japan tsunami marine debris at http://marinedebris.noaa.gov/tsunamidebris/.

*[UPDATE 4/5/2013: This story originally stated that four docks were missing from Misawa, Japan and that "the first dock was recovered shortly afterward on a nearby Japanese island." We now know only three docks were swept from Misawa in the 2011 tsunami and none of them were found on a Japanese island.]


Leave a comment

NOAA Tracks Path of Possible Japan Tsunami Dock off Washington Coast

This is a post by Amy MacFadyen, oceanographer and modeler in the Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division.

A dock washed up on the rocky northern coast of Washington.

The dock washed up on the rocky northern coast of Washington state, as viewed from a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter on December 18, 2012. (U.S. Coast Guard)

As a NOAA oceanographer working in pollution response, part of my job is to predict where pollutants (mostly oil) spilled into the ocean will end up. Sometimes I am asked to forecast possible paths, or trajectories, for other objects spotted at sea—such as a large dock recently reported to be floating off the coast of Washington state, approximately 16 nautical miles northwest of Grays Harbor.

We suspect [Editor's note 1/18/13: Japan has confirmed this as a piece of tsunami debris.] that this dock began its oceanic journey in March of 2011 at the Port of Misawa, Japan, following the devastating Tōhoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Three* docks were ripped away from this port.  After approximately 15 months at sea, one of the docks turned up on Agate Beach near Newport, Ore., in June 2012. A second dock suspected** to be from Misawa was spotted offshore of the Hawaiian Islands in September. The vast difference in the paths of these three docks is a good illustration of how turbulent ocean currents and winds can scatter widely objects floating at sea.

When this latest dock was spotted on Friday, December 14, we at NOAA were asked to forecast where winds and currents might move the dock over the next few days. The dock is a large, unlit, concrete structure and hence posed a significant hazard to navigation. Furthermore, with stormy weather and strong onshore winds in the forecast, it seemed likely the dock would end up on the beach. Many beaches along the northern Washington coast are quite remote, varying from sandy or rocky beaches to cliffs dropping right down to the water. Depending on where the dock came ashore, access could prove difficult and might allow possible invasive species hitching a ride on the dock time to spread into local ecosystems. To be better prepared to take action, we needed to know where and when the dock might come ashore so it could be located quickly.

In order to predict the trajectory of an object floating at sea, we require forecasts of winds and ocean currents. Those of us who live in the Pacific Northwest are especially familiar with the difficulty involved in predicting the weather. Although weather forecasts are generally reliable for the first few days of a forecast period, a forecast always contains some uncertainty which tends to increase over time. For example, this weekend’s weather forecast is generally more accurate than next weekend’s forecast.

Forecasting ocean currents faces similar difficulties, which may be compounded by a lack of observations. There are few (if any) direct measurements of real-time ocean currents on the Washington coast. In addition, there is further uncertainty about how a floating object such as a large dock will move in response to the currents and winds. For example, an object that is floating high in the water will “feel” the winds more than an object floating lower in the water. While we could estimate this effect for the dock, it adds another source of uncertainty to the mix.

Map of the northern Washington coast shows projected and actual locations of the dock.

This map of the northern Washington coast shows an example output from the GNOME model for the predicted “best guess” area (red ellipse) and uncertainty boundary (blue ellipse). The location where the dock was found is shown by the black arrow. (NOAA)

So what can we do with all this uncertainty when “I don’t know” is not an acceptable answer? The approach we took was twofold. In addition to providing a “best estimate” trajectory for the dock, in which we considered the wind and currents forecasts as truth, we also ran multiple scenarios in our trajectory model to determine where else the dock possibly could end up. These additional scenarios might use different values approximating how much the dock gets pushed along like a sailboat or they might adjust the wind and current forecasts slightly to see how this affects the projected path of the dock.

After running the trajectory model multiple times, we produced a map that indicated the most likely area that the dock would come ashore, but the map also included a larger area of uncertainty around it (an “uncertainty boundary”) where the dock might be found if, for example, the currents were stronger than predicted.

Because the dock was not spotted again after the initial report on December 14, our trajectory could only narrow down the search area to an approximately 50 mile stretch of the Washington coast (remember, forecast error grows with time).

However, using the forecast guidance, state, federal, and tribal representatives mobilized search teams, and the dock was located on the afternoon of December 18 by a Coast Guard helicopter aerial survey. The dock had been washed ashore, most likely sometime during the evening before, on a rugged stretch of coastline north of the Hoh River. Access to the region is difficult, but personnel from the National Park Service and Washington State Fish and Wildlife are attempting to reach the dock to sample it for invasive species and to attach a tracking buoy in case it refloats before it can be salvaged.

Here you can see an example animation of our trajectory model GNOME showing a potential path of the dock. Particles are released in the model at the position where the dock was initially sighted. The particles move under the influence of winds and ocean currents. They also spread apart over time; this is simulating the small-scale turbulence in the winds and currents. This particular scenario was run after the dock was stranded and uses observed winds from a nearby weather station (wind direction and strength is shown by the arrow on the upper right) and a northward coastal current of approximately 1 knot.

Download the video animation showing the potential path of the dock off the coast of Washington [Quicktime].

*[UPDATE 4/5/2013: This story originally stated that four docks were missing from Misawa, Japan and that "one of the four turned up several weeks later on an island south of Misawa." We now know only three docks were swept from Misawa in the 2011 tsunami, and none were found on a Japanese island.]

**The dock near Hawaii has not been confirmed by the Japanese Consulate as being from Misawa.

Amy MacFadyen

Amy MacFadyen

Amy MacFadyen is a physical oceanographer at the Emergency Response Division of the Office of Response and Restoration (NOAA). The Emergency Response Division provides scientific support for oil and chemical spill response — a key part of which is trajectory forecasting to predict the movement of spills. During the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Amy helped provide daily
trajectories to the incident command. Before moving to NOAA, Amy was at the University of Washington, first as a graduate student then as a postdoctoral researcher. Her research examined transport of harmful algal blooms from offshore initiation sites to the Washington coast.


Leave a comment

Government of Japan Gifts NOAA $5 Million to Address Tsunami Marine Debris

A 66-foot floating dock from Japan sits on Agate Beach, Oregon.

A 66-foot dock sits on Agate Beach, Oregon. Debris of all different sizes and types from the March 2011 tsunami in Japan has washed ashore in the United States. (Oregon Dept. of Parks and Recreation)

On November 30, 2012, the Government of Japan announced a gift of $5 million to the United States, through NOAA’s Marine Debris Program, to support efforts in response to marine debris washing ashore in the U.S. from the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

The funds will be used to support marine debris response efforts, such as removal of debris, disposal fees, cleanup supplies, detection and monitoring. NOAA anticipates distributing funds to affected regions as the funds are received from Japan and will work to determine immediate needs and plan for future applications.

Since the disaster, NOAA has been leading efforts with federal, state and local partners to coordinate a response, collect data, assess the debris, and reduce possible impacts to natural resources and coastal communities.

Debris from the disaster has drifted across the Pacific and reached shorelines in the U.S. and Canada. In July, NOAA provided $50,000 each to Alaska, Hawaii, Washington, Oregon, and California to support response efforts.

Items from the tsunami that have drifted to U.S. shores include sports balls, a floating dock, buoys, and vessels. Mariners and the public can help report debris by emailing DisasterDebris@noaa.gov with information on significant sightings.


Leave a comment

Small Japanese Boat Found near Vancouver Island, Canada, Even as Summer Currents Hold Marine Debris at Bay for now

Small boat on rocky shore.

The small boat which washed up on remote Spring Island, British Columbia, Canada, was positively identified as a vessel lost during the 2011 Japan tsunami. Credit: Kevin Head.

On remote Spring Island, northwest of Vancouver Island, Canada, a small boat inscribed with Japanese characters washed up with the tide this summer. A Canadian provincial official has confirmed this boat was lost during the 2011 Japan tsunami. Emergency Management British Columbia matched the serial number on the boat’s hull with one on the Japanese consulate’s list of vessels lost due to the tsunami. Eric Gorbman, who owns a nearby resort, and Kevin Head found and reported the boat on August 9, 2012.

A Summer Decrease in Debris

While this brings the total number of confirmed tsunami debris sightings to 11, summer weather patterns have created a lull in debris turning up on nearby Washington’s coast. This has the state Department of Ecology taking back some of the additional trash receptacles they provided near public access points earlier this summer. Recent decreases in reported marine debris in these areas, along with reports of someone using them to dump household waste, led to the removal.

“We want to ensure we are stretching our dollars as far as we can,” said Peter Lyon, a Washington Department of Ecology regional manager. “In June, when the boxes were placed along beaches, a southwest wind pattern directed more debris ashore in those areas than we are seeing now. When weather patterns shift again in the fall, we are likely to see higher amounts of debris again. So we want to conserve our resources in case that happens.”

The Washington Department of Ecology states that the trash bins can be easily and quickly redeployed within about 24 hours to accommodate possible increases in marine debris in the future. The funding to stock the bins and litter bags came from Department of Ecology’s litter account, setting aside $100,000 to deal with marine debris. These supplies help support community and volunteer efforts to collect and dispose of debris on Washington beaches.

Where Is the Debris Now?

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration has oceanographers Glen Watabayashi and Amy MacFadyen using our GNOME model to give us an understanding of where debris from the tsunami may be located today. GNOME is a software modeling tool used to predict the possible route pollutants might follow in a body of water, and we use it most frequently during an oil spill.

Our oceanographers are incorporating into this model how the winds and ocean currents since the tsunami may have moved items through the Pacific Ocean. However, rather than forecasting when debris will reach U.S. shores in the future, this model uses data from past winds and currents to show possible patterns of where debris may be concentrated right now.

“For me the story is not what’s been found but what hasn’t been found,” said NOAA oceanographer Glen Watabayashi. “With all the summer vessel traffic along the West Coast and out in the North Pacific, there have been no reports of any large concentrations of debris.”

Learn more at http://marinedebris.noaa.gov/tsunamidebris/.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 336 other followers