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


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April Showers Bring … Marine Debris to Pacific Northwest Beaches?

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

Over the last few weeks, emergency managers in coastal Washington and Oregon have noted an increase in the marine debris arriving on our beaches. Of particular note, numerous skiffs potentially originating from the Japan tsunami in March 2011 have washed up. Four of these boats arrived in Washington over the Memorial Day weekend alone.

This seasonal arrival of marine debris—ranging from small boats and fishing floats to household cleaner bottles and sports balls—on West Coast shores seems to be lasting longer into the spring than last year. As a result, coastal managers dealing with the large volume of debris on their beaches are wondering if the end is in sight.

As an oceanographer at NOAA, I have been trying to answer this question by examining how patterns of wind and currents in the North Pacific Ocean change with the seasons and what that means for marine debris showing up on Pacific Northwest beaches.

What Does the Weather Have to Do with It?

Beachcombers know the best time to find treasure on the Pacific Northwest coast is often after winter storms. Winter in this region is characterized by frequent rainfall (hence, Seattle’s rainy reputation) and winds blowing up the coast from the south or southwest. These winds push water onshore and cause what oceanographers call “downwelling”—a time of lower growth and reproduction for marine life because offshore ocean waters with fewer nutrients are brought towards the coast. These conditions are also good for bringing marine debris from out in the ocean onto the beach, as was the case for this giant Japanese dock that came ashore in December 2012.

These winter storms are associated with the weather phenomenon known as the “Aleutian Low,” a low pressure system of air rotating counter-clockwise, which is usually located near Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. In winter, the Aleutian Low intensifies and moves southward from Alaska, bringing wind and rain to the Pacific Northwest. During late spring, the Aleutian Low retreats to the northwest and becomes less intense. Around the same time, a high pressure system located off California known as the “North Pacific High” advances north up the West Coast, generating drier summer weather and winds from the northwest.

Graphic showing the typical summer and winter locations of pressure systems in the North Pacific Ocean.

The typical location of the pressure systems in the North Pacific Ocean in winter and summer. “AL” refers to the low-pressure “Aleutian Low” and “NPH” refers to the high-pressure “North Pacific High” system. Used with permission of Jennifer Galloway, Marine Micropaleontology (2010). *See full credit below.

This summer change to winds coming from the northwest also brings a transition from “downwelling” to “upwelling” conditions in the ocean. Upwelling occurs when surface water near the shore is moved offshore and replaced by nutrient-rich water moving to the surface from the ocean depths, which fuels an increase in growth and reproduction of marine life.

The switch from a winter downwelling state to a summer upwelling state is known as the “spring transition” and can occur anytime between March and June. Oceanographers and fisheries managers are often particularly interested in the timing of this spring transition because, in general, the earlier the transition occurs, the greater the ecosystem productivity will be that year—see what this means for Pacific Northwest salmon. As we have seen this spring, the timing may also affect the volume of marine debris reaching Pacific Northwest beaches.

Why Is More Marine Debris Washing up This Year?

NOAA has been involved in modeling the movement of marine debris generated by the March 2011 Japan tsunami for several years. We began this modeling to answer questions about when the tsunami debris would first reach the West Coast of the United States and which regions might be impacted. The various types of debris are modeled as “particles” originating in the coastal waters of Japan, which are moved under the influence of winds and ocean currents. For more details on the modeling, visit the NOAA Marine Debris website.

The estimated arrival of modeled "particles" (representing Japanese tsunami marine debris) on the West Coast of the United States between May 2011 and May 2014.

The estimated arrival of modeled “particles” (representing Japanese tsunami marine debris) on Washington and Oregon shores between May 2011 and May 2014. (NOAA)

The figure here shows the percentage of particles representing Japan tsunami debris reaching the shores of Washington and Oregon over the last two years. The first of the model’s particles reached this region’s shores in late fall and early winter of 2011–2012. This is consistent with the first observations of tsunami debris reaching the coast, which were primarily light, buoyant objects such as large plastic floats, which “feel” the winds more than objects that float lower in the water, and hence move faster. The largest increases in model particles reaching the Pacific Northwest occur in late winter and spring (the big jumps in vertical height on the graph). After the spring transition and the switch to predominantly northwesterly winds and upwelling conditions, very few particles come ashore (where the graph flattens off).

Interestingly, the model shows many fewer particles came ashore in the spring of 2013 than in the other two years. This may be related to the timing of the spring transition. According to researchers at Oregon State University, the transition to summer’s upwelling conditions occurred approximately one month earlier in 2013 (early April). Their timing of the spring transition for the past three years, estimated using a time series of wind measured offshore of Newport, Oregon, is shown by the black vertical lines in the figure.

The good news for coastal managers—and those of us who enjoy clean beaches—is that according to this indicator, we are finally transitioning from one of the soggiest springs on record into the upwelling season. This should soon bring a drop in the volume of marine debris on our beaches, hopefully along with some sunny skies to get out there and enjoy our beautiful Pacific Northwest coast.

*Pressure system graphic originally found in: Favorite, F.A., et al., 1976. Oceanography of the subarctic Pacific region, 1960–1971. International North Pacific Fisheries Commission Bulletin 33, 1–187. Referenced in and with permission of: Galloway, J.M., et al., 2010. A high-resolution marine palynological record from the central mainland coast of British Columbia, Canada: Evidence for a mid-late Holocene dry climate interval. Marine Micropaleontology 75, 62–78.

Amy MacFadyenAmy 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.


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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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Oil Seeps, Shipwrecks, and Surfers Ride the Waves in California

This is a post by Jordan Stout, the Office of Response and Restoration’s Scientific Support Coordinator based in Alameda, Calif.

Tarball on the beach with a ruler.

A tarball which washed up near California’s Half Moon Bay in mid-February 2014. (Credit: Beach Watch volunteers with the Farallones Marine Sanctuary Association)

What do natural oil seeps, shipwrecks, and surfers have in common? The quick answer: tarballs and oceanography. The long answer: Let me tell you a story …

A rash of tarballs, which are thick, sticky, and small pieces of partially broken-down oil, washed ashore at Half Moon Bay, Calif., south of San Francisco back in mid-February. This isn’t an unusual occurrence this time of year, but several of us involved in spill response still received phone calls about them, so some of us checked things out.

Winds and ocean currents are the primary movers of floating oil. A quick look at conditions around that time indicated that floating stuff (like oil) would have generally been moving northwards up the coast. Off of Monterey Bay, there had been prolonged winds out of the south several times since December, including just prior to the tarballs’ arrival. Coastal currents at the time also showed the ocean’s surface waters moving generally up the coast. Then, just hours before their arrival, winds switched direction and started coming out of the west-northwest, pushing the tarballs ashore.

Seeps and Shipwrecks

It’s common winter conditions like that, combined with the many natural oil seeps of southern California, that often result in tarballs naturally coming ashore in central and northern California. Like I said, wintertime tarballs are not unheard of in this area and people weren’t terribly concerned. Even so, some of the tarballs were relatively “fresh” and heavy weather and seas had rolled through during a storm the previous weekend. This got some people thinking about the shipwreck S/S Jacob Luckenbach, a freighter which sank near San Francisco in 1953 and began leaking oil since at least 1992.

When salvage divers were removing oil from the Luckenbach back in 2002, they reported feeling surges along the bottom under some wave conditions. The wreck is 468 feet long, lying in about 175 feet of water and is roughly 20 miles northwest of Half Moon Bay. Could this or another nearby wreck have been jostled by the previous weekend’s storm and produced some of the tarballs now coming ashore?

Making Waves

Discussions with the oceanographers in NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration provided me with some key kernels of wisdom about what might have happened. First, the height of a wave influences the degree of effects beneath the ocean surface, but the wave length determines how deep those effects go. So, big waves with long wavelengths have greater influence at greater depths than smaller waves with shorter wavelengths.

Graphic describing and showing wave length, height, frequency, and period.

Credit: NOAA’s Ocean Service

Second, waves in deep water cause effects at depths half their length. This means that a wave with a length of 100 meters can be felt to a depth of 50 meters. That was great stuff, I thought. But the data buoys off of California, if they collect any wave data at all, only collect wave height and period (the time it takes a wave to move from one high or low point to the next) but not wave length. So, now what?

As it turns out, our office’s excellent oceanographers also have a rule of thumb for calculating wave length from this information: a wave with a 10-second period has a wave length of about 100 meters in deep water. So, that same 10-second wave would be felt at 50 meters, which is similar to the depth of the shipwreck Jacob Luckenbach (54 meters or 175 feet).

Looking at nearby data buoys, significant wave heights during the previous weekend’s storm topped out at 2.8 meters (about 9 feet) with a 9-second period. So, the sunken Luckenbach may have actually “felt” the storm a little bit, but probably not enough to cause a spill of any oil remaining on board it.

Riding Waves

Even so, just two weeks before the tarballs came ashore, waves in the area were much, much bigger. The biggest waves the area had seen so far in 2014, in fact: more than 4 meters (13 feet) high, with a 24-second period. If the Luckenbach had been jostled by any waves at all in 2014, you would think it would have been from those waves in late January, and yet there were no reports of tarballs (fresh or otherwise) even though winds were blowing towards shore for about a week afterwards. This leads me to conclude that the recent increase in tarballs came from somewhere other than a nearby shipwreck.

Where do surfers fit in all this? That day in late January when the shipwreck S/S Jacob Luckenbach was being knocked around by the biggest waves of 2014 was the day of the Mavericks Invitational surf contest in Half Moon Bay. People came from all over to ride those big waves—and it was amazing!

Jordan StoutJordan Stout currently serves as the NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator in California where he provides scientific and technical support to the U.S. Coast Guard and Environmental Protection Agency in preparing for and responding to oil spills and hazardous material releases. He has been involved in supporting many significant incidents and responses in California and throughout the nation.


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Why Are Tropical Storms and Hurricanes Named?

This is a post by NOAA Office of Response and Restoration’s Katie Krushinski.

The 2013 Atlantic hurricane season's first named storm was Tropical Storm Andrea, pictured here on June 8 crossing over Florida and up the East Coast. (NASA)

The 2013 Atlantic hurricane season’s first named storm was Tropical Storm Andrea, pictured here on June 8 crossing over Florida and heading up the East Coast. (NASA)

Have you ever wondered why storms are named? Up until the early 1950s, tropical storms and hurricanes were tracked by year and the order in which each one occurred during that year.

In time, it was recognized that people remembered shorter names more easily. In 1953, a new approach was taken and storms were named in alphabetical order by female name. The process of naming storms helps differentiate between multiple storms that may be active at the same time.

By 1978, both male and female names were being used to identify Northern Pacific storms. This was adopted in 1979 for the Atlantic storms and is what we use today.

The World Meteorological Organization came up with the lists of names, male and female, which are used on a six-year rotation. In the event a hurricane causes a large amount of damage or numerous deaths, that name will be retired. Since the 1950s, when it became normal to name storms, there have been 77 names retired, including Fran (1996), Katrina (2005), Rita (2005), and Sandy (2012).

To find out this year’s storm names and for a complete list of retired names, visit the National Weather Service’s website. And if you haven’t started your own severe-weather preparations, don’t delay; the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season (predicted to be more active than usual) has already begun.

The Gulf of Mexico region, in particular, experiences frequent natural and human-caused disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and oil spills.

NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center aims to reduce the resulting impacts by helping to prepare federal, state, and local decision makers for a variety of threats, creating more adaptive and resilient coastal communities. Learn more about this valuable resource and center of NOAA expertise on the Gulf Coast.

Katie Krushinski

Katie Krushinski

Katie Krushinski works at NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center in Mobile, Ala., where she is responsible for coordinating training events, producing external communications, and writing and editing. Katie has a background in emergency response and management. NOAA’s Disaster Response Center serves as a one-stop shop, streamlining the delivery of NOAA services that help the Gulf region prepare for and deal with disasters.


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Are You Ready for this Summer’s Hurricane Season?

On August 28, 2005, Hurricane Katrina was in the Gulf of Mexico, where it powered up to a Category 5 storm on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale, packing winds estimated at 175 mph. (NOAA)

On August 28, 2005, Hurricane Katrina was in the Gulf of Mexico, where it powered up to a Category 5 storm on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale, packing winds estimated at 175 mph. (NOAA)

June is here, and with it comes the start of the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season.

Last week I was at a regional emergency response meeting in Addison, Texas, and sat next to Greg Pollock, Deputy Commissioner for the Texas General Land Office. During the meeting, Greg nudged my shoulder, showing me an email alerting him of the potential for Hurricane Barbara to cross from the Pacific Ocean into the Bay of Campeche—making it a potential threat to the Gulf of Mexico.

We were in the last week of May and threats to the Gulf of Mexico are rare this early. I hadn’t even started my hurricane season routine of checking the NOAA National Hurricane Center’s website every morning before even driving to my office at NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center.

Following Greg’s prompt, I went online and read the updated forecast from NOAA. Hurricane Barbara would impact southern Mexico but likely dissipate crossing it (which is exactly what happened to this tropical storm). At the time, the threat to the Gulf of Mexico was low, but still something to keep an eye on.

Ready to Help Before, During, and After a Disaster

On the front line is NOAA’s National Weather Service, the trusted, round-the-clock source of information about severe weather threats. Emergency managers and the public alike depend on them to provide accurate and timely storm predictions and forecasts. I use their online information daily to stay up-to-speed on what storms may be developing for the Gulf of Mexico.  The Disaster Response Center provides NOAA with additional support and coordination during natural and manmade disasters. We put our effort into being prepared to respond.

This year, NOAA predicts a worse-than-normal year for tropical storms. “Worse” is my personal way of stating the official forecast of a more-active-than-average or extremely active season, as predicted by NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center. Yet, it only takes one storm to bring significant destruction to the coast. For example, in 1992, Hurricane Andrew, a category 5 hurricane, blew in during a less active tropical storm season and struck Florida and Louisiana. The result was 65 people killed (both directly and indirectly) and some $26 billion in damage, mostly in Florida. Only three other hurricanes in U.S. history have cost more in damages: Katrina (2005), Ike (2008), and Sandy (2012).

Living in or on the edge of the coastal zone in Louisiana and Alabama most of my life, I do not take hurricane season lightly. This weekend, I’ll spend time checking on the status of my hurricane supplies (find out what you should have in your disaster supply kit) and ensuring my daughter, who attends college in New Orleans, has thought through her plans of when and where to evacuate should a storm threaten southeast Louisiana. Coming home to be with her dad in Mobile, Ala., may not be her best option. The many other NOAA emergency response staff and I likely would not be evacuating, but rather positioning ourselves and our resources to help with the consequences of a severe tropical storm or hurricane. Every year, we hope for the best and plan for the worst. We can’t control nature, but we can control how prepared we are for what it throws at us.

Are You Prepared?

If you haven’t made your hurricane preparedness plans yet, you shouldn’t wait any longer now that the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season has officially started.

The National Hurricane Center recently hosted National Hurricane Preparedness Week, and their website has a wealth of resources to help you get ready for this summer’s hurricane season. You can also watch a NOAA video on how to increase your chances of surviving a hurricane and learn more about how to prepare for all types of hazards on the NOAAWatch website.


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Blizzards, Bombs, and Electrofishing: Assessing an Oiled Creek on Alaska’s Remote Aleutian Islands

This is a post by Ian Zelo, NOAA Oil Spill Coordinator for the Office of Response and Restoration.

In the wake of the 2010 oil spill on Adak Island, a field team member from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game breaks the ice to prepare a stream for sampling.

In the wake of the 2010 oil spill on Adak Island, a field team member from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game breaks the ice to prepare a stream for sampling, in this case, for electrofishing. Field teams also were setting small fish traps, which do not require breaking up the ice like this. (NOAA)

In the center of Alaska’s rugged Aleutian Islands is the sparsely populated Adak Island. It was here—in the middle of winter on January 11, 2010—that workers at the Adak Petroleum Bulk Fuel facility were filling an underground tank with oil from the supply tanker Al Amerat. But as the tanker sat moored at the dock, its oil began overfilling the 4.8 million gallon underground tank. Up to 142,800 gallons of #2 diesel flowed out of the tank and eventually into the nearby salmon stream, Helmet Creek.

January 12, 2010 -- Looking out on spilled oil and containment boom from the Adak Small Boat Harbor into Sweeper Cove and the fuel pier. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Lisa Stitler)

January 12, 2010 — Looking out on spilled oil and containment boom from the Adak Small Boat Harbor into Sweeper Cove and the fuel pier. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Lisa Stitler)

Just over a mile after the creek passes the oil storage facility, it enters the Adak Small Boat Harbor, which is open to Sweeper Cove’s marine waters. Helmet Creek is equipped with gates that can partially close off the flow of the stream. That feature played to the response’s favor because spill response personnel were able to use these gates, along with boom and absorbent materials, to contain most of the oil spill in the stream.

Only a small percentage of the oil reached the boat harbor and Sweeper Cove. However, Alaska, NOAA, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as natural resource trustees, were concerned about injury to both the stream and marine habitats and began a Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) to investigate potential environmental impacts.

Mission: Nearly Impossible

I got involved the next day, January 12, leading the NOAA team for this injury assessment. While the trustees were coordinating closely with the response, it was clear that we would need to send environmental assessment teams to the island to document the spill and its impacts on local habitats. However, there are only two flights to Adak each week. We knew the next flight to the island was on January 14 and we needed to be on it. This meant we had only two days to plan our initial assessment, recruit a field team to take samples, assemble the equipment, and finalize a field sampling protocol.

My role was to coordinate partners and tasks across two federal and four state agencies. On such a short time frame, we could not afford to work using the logical path we usually take: plan, recruit, gear up, and go. We had to scramble and do it all at once.

On the evening of January 13, our assembled field staff had flown to Anchorage, Alaska, with their field gear and were staged there for the 2:00 p.m. flight the next day. A local laboratory would assemble our sampling equipment and have it ready to pick up the following morning. We had a draft sampling protocol that would be finalized while the team was flying so they could be briefed on the details of their mission when they arrived. Things looked good.

At 6:30 a.m. on January 14, I got a call from one of our field staff. She had a personal emergency and had to pull out of the mission. Suddenly, things did not look good. To work safely and to accomplish our sampling goals, we needed four people on the team. I now had 8 hours to find another qualified person or we had to cancel. Working with our state partners, I identified and spoke to an Anchorage-based consulting firm by 8:30 a.m. We identified a potential replacement and called him on his drive into the office. By 9:00 he was on his way back home to get ready. With a little over an hour before the flight took off, we were able to get a contract in place to hire the consulting firm and buy his plane ticket. Once again, the mission was a go.

A member of the environmental assessment mission on Adak Island is holding the electrified wand and wearing the power pack for sampling fish via the electrofishing method.

A member of the environmental assessment mission on Adak Island is holding the electrified wand and wearing the power pack for sampling fish via the electrofishing method. (NOAA)

Over the next five weeks, we sent three field teams to Adak to assess injury caused by the oil spill. I was on the second mission. During the assessment we fished both Helmet Creek and similar streams (for comparison) to document the fish communities. One of the methods we used is known as “electrofishing.” A common research technique, it involves sticking an electrified wand in the water to temporarily shock and disable nearby fish and allow us to catch them. We counted and collected fish for contaminant and developmental analysis. Mussels were collected from sites in and around Sweeper Cover and Finger Bay (a nearby bay farther than we thought the oil might travel, again, for comparison). Trustees also collected dozens of water and sediment samples and surveyed birds.

During this assessment, we had to deal with a few unusual challenges. We had to operate at night in order to work at low tide. We were excluded from Helmet Creek for half of the second assessment because the responders discovered unexploded ordnance (potentially explosive weapons), which had to be removed before we could continue. We worked in streams that were partially or fully covered in ice, and on the final mission our assessment was interrupted by a blizzard. Our teams had to recover fish traps from under several feet of snow.

Ready for Restoration

In the summer of 2011, the trustees worked cooperatively with Adak Petroleum Bulk Fuel facility, the responsible party, on scoping restoration options. NOAA and the other trustee partners are now nearing a cooperative settlement with the fuel facility. We’ve reviewed possible restoration projects that could compensate the public for the injuries caused by the spill and have drafted a Damage Assessment and Restoration Plan [PDF] that is available for public comment.

January 12, 2010 -- A view of spilled oil next to a culvert in Helmet Creek, with the tanker that supplied the fuel in the background. Proposed restoration projects will benefit both salmon and the entire stream ecosystem. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Lisa Stitler)

January 12, 2010 — A view of spilled oil next to a culvert in Helmet Creek, with the tanker that supplied the fuel in the background. Proposed restoration projects will benefit both salmon and the entire stream ecosystem. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Lisa Stitler)

In the plan, we present our preferred restoration alternative, which includes a suite of projects to improve the overall quality of Helmet Creek. Restoration is targeted at pink salmon but also will benefit the entire stream corridor. The proposed work includes restoring access to the creek for fish, removing barrels and other debris, and increasing water flow by plugging a culvert system that is drawing water from the stream. Our goal is to perform this restoration in the summer of 2013.

You can comment on the restoration plan until April 30, 2013. Send comments to me at:

Ian Zelo
NOAA Oil Spill Coordinator
Assessment and Restoration Division
7600 Sand Point Way NE
Seattle, WA  98115
Phone:  206.526.4599

Email: ian.j.zelo@noaa.gov

Please provide a subject line, indicating that your comments relate to restoration planning for the Adak 2010 oil spill. Any comments received will become part of the administrative record. Please be aware that your entire comment—including your personal identifying information—may be made publicly available.

Ian Zelo

Ian Zelo

Ian Zelo is an oil spill and injury assessment specialist for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. He has performed both response and damage assessment roles on spills across the country. His first case in Alaska was the Selendang Ayu grounding on Unalaska Island in 2004.


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Where Are the Pacific Garbage Patches Located?

Microplastics in sand.

Microplastics, small plastics less than 5 millimeters long, are an increasingly common type of marine debris found in the water column (including the “garbage patches”) and on shorelines around the world. Based on research to date, most commonly used plastics do not fully degrade in the ocean and instead break down into smaller and smaller pieces. (NOAA Marine Debris Program)

The Pacific Ocean is massive. It’s the world’s largest and deepest ocean, and if you gathered up all of the Earth’s continents, these land masses would fit into the Pacific basin with a space the size of Africa to spare.

While the Pacific Ocean holds more than half of the planet’s free water, it also unfortunately holds a lot of the planet’s garbage (much of it plastic). But that trash isn’t spread evenly across the Pacific Ocean; a great deal of it ends up suspended in what are commonly referred to as “garbage patches.”

A combination of oceanic and atmospheric forces causes trash, free-floating sea life (for example, algae, plankton, and seaweed), and a variety of other things to collect in concentrations in certain parts of the ocean. In the Pacific Ocean, there are actually a few “Pacific garbage patches” of varying sizes as well as other locations where marine debris is known to accumulate.

The Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch (aka “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”)

In most cases when people talk about the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” they are referring to the Eastern Pacific garbage patch. This is located in a constantly moving and changing swirl of water roughly midway between Hawaii and California, in an atmospheric area known as the North Pacific Subtropical High.

NOAA National Weather Service meteorologist Ted Buehner describes the North Pacific High as involving “a broad area of sinking air resulting in higher atmospheric pressure, drier warmer temperatures and generally fair weather (as a result of the sinking air).”

This high pressure area remains in a semi-permanent state, affecting the movement of the ocean below. “Winds with high pressure tend to be light(er) and blow clockwise in the northern hemisphere out over the open ocean,” according to Buehner.

As a result, plastic and other debris floating at sea tend to get swept into the calm inner area of the North Pacific High, where the debris becomes trapped by oceanic and atmospheric forces and builds up at higher concentrations than surrounding waters. Over time, this has earned the area the nickname “garbage patch”—although the exact content, size, and location of the associated marine debris accumulations are still difficult to pin down.

Map of ocean currents, features, and areas of marine debris accumulation (including "garbage patches") in the Pacific Ocean.

This map is an oversimplification of ocean currents, features, and areas of marine debris accumulation (including “garbage patches”) in the Pacific Ocean. There are numerous factors that affect the location, size, and strength of all of these features throughout the year, including seasonality and El Nino/La Nina. (NOAA Marine Debris Program)

The Western Pacific Garbage Patch

On the opposite side of the Pacific Ocean, there is another so-called “garbage patch,” or area of marine debris buildup, off the southeast coast of Japan. This is the lesser known and studied, Western Pacific garbage patch. Southeast of the Kuroshio Extension (ocean current), researchers believe that this garbage patch is a small “recirculation gyre,” an area of clockwise-rotating water, much like an ocean eddy (Howell et al., 2012).

North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone

While not called a “garbage patch,” the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone is another place in the Pacific Ocean where researchers have documented concentrations of marine debris. A combination of oceanic and atmospheric forces create this convergence zone, which is positioned north of the Hawaiian Islands but moves seasonally and dips even farther south toward Hawaii during El Niño years (Morishige et al., 2007, Pichel et al., 2007). The North Pacific Convergence Zone is an area where many open-water marine species live, feed, or migrate and where debris has been known to accumulate (Young et al. 2009). Hawaii’s islands and atolls end up catching a notable amount of marine debris as a result of this zone dipping southward closer to the archipelago (Donohue et al. 2001, Pichel et al., 2007).

But the Pacific Ocean isn’t the only ocean with marine debris troubles. Trash from humans is found in every ocean, from the Arctic (Bergmann and Klages, 2012) to the Antarctic (Eriksson et al., 2013), and similar oceanic processes form high-concentration areas where debris gathers in the Atlantic Ocean and elsewhere.

You can help keep trash from becoming marine debris by (of course) reducing, reusing, and recycling; by downloading the NOAA Marine Debris Tracker app for your smartphone; and by learning more at http://marinedebris.noaa.gov.

Carey Morishige, Pacific Islands regional coordinator for the NOAA Marine Debris Program, also contributed to this post.

Literature Cited

Bergmann, M. and M. Klages. 2012. Increase of litter at the Arctic deep-sea observatory HAUSGARTEN. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 64: 2734-2741.

Donohue, M.J., R.C. Boland, C.M. Sramek, and G.A Antonelis. 2001. Derelict fishing gear in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands: diving surveys and debris removal in 1999 confirm threat to coral reef ecosystems. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 42 (12): 1301-1312.

Eriksson, C., H. Burton, S. Fitch, M. Schulz, and J. van den Hoff. 2013. Daily accumulation rates of marine debris on sub-Antarctic island beaches. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 66: 199-208.

Howell, E., S. Bograd, C. Morishige, M. Seki, and J. Polovina. 2012. On North Pacific circulation and associated marine debris concentration. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 65: 16-22.

Morishige, C., M. Donohue, E. Flint, C. Swenson, and C. Woolaway. 2007. Factors affecting marine debris deposition at French Frigate Shoals, Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument, 1990-2002. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 54: 1162-1169.

Pichel, W.G., J.H. Churnside, T.S. Veenstra, D.G. Foley, K.S. Friedman, R.E. Brainard, J.B. Nicoll, Q. Zheng and P. Clement-Colon. 2007. Marine debris collects within the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone [PDF]. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 54: 1207-1211.

Young L. C., C. Vanderlip, D. C. Duffy, V. Afanasyev, and S. A. Shaffer. 2009. Bringing home the trash: do colony-based differences in foraging distribution lead to increased plastic ingestion in Laysan albatrosses? PLoS ONE 4 (10).


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Looking out for Sea Lions and Salmon Before a Grounded Rig Could Spill a Drop of Oil

This is a post by OR&R’s Alaska Regional Coordinator Dr. Sarah Allan.

conical drilling unit Kulluk sat aground on the southeast shore of Sitkalidak Island

Here you can see the rocky coast and habitats near where the conical drilling unit Kulluk sat aground on the southeast shore of Sitkalidak Island about 40 miles southwest of Kodiak City, Alaska, in 40 mph winds and 20-foot seas on Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2013. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Fortunately, when Royal Dutch Shell’s offshore drilling platform, the Kulluk, ran aground on a remote Alaskan island on New Year’s Eve, it did not lead to an oil spill. However, the rig held 140,000 gallons of diesel fuel, and throughout the response, the potential for a spill remained a concern.

This was especially true because the Kulluk was located in an area with many sensitive natural resources, including harbor seals, marine birds, critical habitat for Steller sea lions, and salmon streams. On top of that, pacific cod and tanner crab harvests take place in that part of Sitkalidak Island, south of Kodiak. Subsistence foragers from the Old Harbor Native village harvest razor clams from a bed near the grounding site.

In light of the potential for an oil spill, restoration specialists from NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, collaborating with federal and state natural resource trustees, began planning an assessment of the possible harm to natural resources. What if the oil did spill and impact those natural resources? How would we determine what was injured and how badly?

Spill Today, Gone Tomorrow

One of the first steps in this planning effort was to consider where the diesel might go if it spilled and what natural resources it might impact. Spill responders—those considering oil cleanup options—often see diesel spills as less of a concern than spills that involve thicker, heavier oils. This is due to the way that diesel acts when it is spilled on the ocean surface; most of it evaporates into the air and disperses into the water in a few hours, especially in high winds and waves. In this case, NOAA scientists estimated that almost all of the Kulluk’s diesel would evaporate or disperse in 4–5 hours if it spilled. This means there would be very little oil for cleanup workers to try to recover from the water’s surface.

The Kulluk was grounded near shore and, in the event of a spill, the wind and waves would have pushed the diesel towards the shoreline. In this scenario, diesel could have impacted nearby ocean areas, beaches, rocky shorelines, and stream outlets. The Unified Command took precautionary measures during the grounding and removal of the Kulluk, which included placing containment boom across the mouths of streams in the area to keep out any potentially spilled diesel.

A Toxic Shock

A life raft belonging to the conical drilling unit Kulluk, sits on the beach adjacent to the rig.

A life raft belonging to the conical drilling unit Kulluk, sits on the beach adjacent to the rig 40 miles southwest of Kodiak City, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2012. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Though diesel may not remain for very long in the environment, it is very toxic to many aquatic species. A diesel fuel spill would have had an immediate and negative effect on the environment. In high seas, like those around the grounded Kulluk, as much as 90 percent of the diesel would disperse into the water. The dispersed diesel could affect marine organisms that live in the water column, on the ocean bottom, or along the shoreline.

Past spills of comparable fuels in similar marine environments have killed large numbers of organisms living in the water column or on the ocean bottom in the area where the oil was released: the barge North Cape grounded and spilled oil off Rhode Island during bad weather in 1996, and the ship Tampico Maru grounded and spilled diesel on a remote, rough shoreline in Northern Baja California in 1957.

Diesel is acutely toxic to many zooplankton, bivalve, and crustacean species as well as unhatched and young salmon. Organisms can become “tainted” when they are either exposed to diesel at levels that don’t kill them (sublethal) or when they eat other organisms exposed to those levels. In that case, responders would test seafood for safety, and those of us evaluating environmental damages would assess marine organisms’ exposure levels with additional testing. Even these sublethal exposures can cause toxic effects that need to be considered in a damage assessment.

While initially preparing for a potential damage assessment, we focused on planning for water, sediment, and bivalve (razor clams and blue mussels) sampling as well as on planning shoreline assessments for evidence of injured or dead animals. If we could do this sampling before and/or immediately after a spill, we would have a more accurate assessment of damages to natural resources. Assessing exposure and injury to natural resources is time sensitive, especially in the case of a short-lived contaminant like diesel.

Weather Or Not

However, the far-flung location of the grounding site, as well as the harsh weather conditions, would make sampling in the area challenging. Our planning had to address those logistical challenges. That meant having resources and personnel standing by 40 miles away in Kodiak City, Alaska; arranging for transportation to the site of the rig; securing permission to access the area, and procuring the resources we needed to sample. Given the conditions, accessing the site would have required a helicopter or boat trip to the island and overland transit through grizzly bear habitat, across rough terrain, and private property.

Again, we’re happy that the diesel aboard the Kulluk stayed in its tanks while the rig was grounded and moved off of Sitkalidak Island. But new opportunities for oil drilling, commerce, and tourism in the Arctic are expected to bring more marine traffic through these areas. That creates more opportunities for accidents. It is important for us to be prepared to undertake a natural resource damage assessment in the event of an oil spill. Understanding what is at risk, what to expect from the particular oil spilled, and how it all fits in a specific environment is the first step.

Dr. Sarah Allan.

Dr. Sarah Allan.

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


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Rig Refloated: Update on Efforts to Mobilize Grounded Drill Rig Kulluk in Alaska

Survey of the rugged, remote lanscape and the conical drilling unit Kulluk, grounded 40 miles southwest of Kodiak City, Alaska.

A U.S. Coast Guard aerial survey reveals the rugged, remote landscape and the conical drilling unit Kulluk, grounded 40 miles southwest of Kodiak City, Alaska. Two orange life rafts are visible on the beach adjacent to the rig. Thursday, Jan. 3, 2012. (U.S. Coast Guard)

UPDATE JANUARY 11, 2013:

The Kulluk was refloated at approximately 2:10 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, and the tug Aiviq successfully towed the Kulluk to nearby Kiliuda Bay, an intermediate safe harbor of Kodiak Island. Here is video of the rig being towed:

Weather permitting, the U.S. Coast Guard is scheduled to perform an aerial survey at first light to look for any signs of an oil sheen from the rig. Response teams have not detected any oil discharge; both fuel tank soundings taken aboard the Kulluk and infrared equipment trained on the water around the rig as it is being towed indicate that all of the Kulluk‘s oil is still on board.

You can find further updates at the Unified Command’s website: http://www.kullukresponse.com/.

———

In the narrow window of daylight and safe weather in the Gulf of Alaska, a 12-person salvage team was able to land on the grounded Dutch Royal Shell drilling rig Kulluk on Thursday, January 3, 2013. They were able to complete their assessment of the rig, and while those results are still pending, they reported again no sightings of oil around the large conical rig. Late on December 31, 2012, during the return transit to Seattle, Wash., for winter maintenance, severe weather and heavy seas forced the Kulluk aground on Sitkalidak Island, just off the larger Alaskan island of Kodiak.

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) has been supporting the U.S. Coast Guard in its response to this grounding. Currently, the response’s focus is on being thoroughly prepared to refloat the Kulluk and move it to a safe harbor nearby. As a result, the Unified Command has flown in significant amounts of salvage and safety gear. The salvage team’s attempt to remobilize the rig will depend on having all the proper equipment in place and a window of good weather for operations. Because the Kulluk’s fuel tanks holding the approximately 140,000 gallons of diesel appear protected in the interior of the rig, the salvage team is not planning to remove the oil prior to relocating the rig.

At this time, NOAA has six people in the command post, based in Anchorage, Alaska:

  • An OR&R Scientific Support Coordinator involved in contingency planning to minimize environmental risks during the response.
  • An OR&R natural resource specialist assisting the Scientific Support Coordinator.
  • An OR&R information management specialist.
  • A National Weather Service incident meteorologist collaborating with the Unified Command on custom weather forecasts for the rig grounding area.
  • A National Marine Fisheries Service biologist helping reduce impacts of the response operations on nearby marine mammals, such as the endangered Steller sea lion.
  • An Office of Coast Survey specialist providing detailed nautical charts and data as well as helping identify suitable safe harbors in the area for relocating the rig.

Here is video from a Coast Guard helicopter survey of the grounded Kulluk from January 2, 2013, showing some of the rough conditions the response is forced to deal with.

For the latest updates from the Unified Command for this incident, visit https://www.piersystem.com/go/site/5507/ and https://twitter.com/KullukResponse.


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NOAA Responds to Shell Drilling Rig Kulluk Grounding in Gulf of Alaska

Waves crash over the mobile offshore drilling unit Kulluk where it sits aground on the southeast side of Sitkalidak Island, Alaska, Jan. 1, 2013. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Waves crash over the mobile offshore drilling unit Kulluk where it sits aground on the southeast side of Sitkalidak Island, Alaska, Jan. 1, 2013. (U.S. Coast Guard)

UPDATED JANUARY 4, 2013 — The mobile drilling unit Kulluk, Shell Oil’s 266-foot-long floating drill rig, has run aground off the coast of Kodiak Island, Alaska, after encountering severe weather while being towed from Dutch Harbor, Alaska. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is supporting the U.S. Coast Guard in its response to the grounding.

Two tugboats were towing the Kulluk from where it was drilling in the Beaufort Sea south to Seattle, Wash., for winter maintenance when beginning on December 28 the tugs suffered engine trouble and lost connection to the rig in heavy weather and seas approximately 25 miles south of Kodiak Island. The towlines were temporarily reestablished. However, as the towing vessels were guiding the Kulluk to a place of refuge at the west end of Sitkalidak Strait, approximately 20 miles away, stormy weather caused the main tug to lose its connection again and the rig was allowed to drift aground in heavy seas.

Our Scientific Support Coordinator for Alaska is providing modeling products to the Coast Guard in case the approximately 140,000 gallons of diesel fuel aboard the rig start to leak out. He also has been coordinating custom local weather forecasts with the National Weather Service and has participated in one of several aerial surveys of the grounded rig. We have sent an information management specialist to assist at the incident command post in Anchorage, Alaska, and have been gathering data as it becomes available into Arctic ERMA, NOAA’s online GIS tool for environmental disaster response.

As of the evening of January 2, the response has completed a partial assessment of the condition of the rig and fuel tanks, which was hampered by inclement conditions. No leaking oil has been sighted, and the drilling rig appears intact where it grounded near the rocky shoreline. The next step is to finish the assessment and plan to remobilize the rig. Of note is the fact that the shores of Kodiak Island, where the rig grounded, fall within critical habitat for the endangered Steller sea lion.

View from Arctic ERMA showing the location of the drilling rig Kulluk aground on Sitkalidak Island, Alaska, and critical habitat for Steller sea lions.

View from Arctic ERMA showing the location of the drilling rig Kulluk aground on Sitkalidak Island, Alaska, and critical habitat for Steller sea lions. Click to enlarge.

State and federal agencies have been evaluating harm to natural resources from a potential release of diesel fuel from the Kulluk. The rig is located close to two salmon streams, an area where razor clams are harvested for subsistence use, and a planned tanner crab fishery expected to open on January 15. Sampling clams, sediment, and water around the rig would allow NOAA to evaluate harm if fuel would be released and possibly contaminated the surrounding area.  However, because the area is remote, traveling there to perform these samples would be challenging.

For official updates from the Unified Command for this incident, visit https://www.piersystem.com/go/site/5507/ and https://twitter.com/KullukResponse.

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