NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

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

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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


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.


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

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)


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:


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 and


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 and

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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.

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Getting the Download During a Disaster: Mapping the Hurricane Sandy Pollution Response

During a disaster, being able to keep track of the information flowing in about damages and operations can make a huge difference. Here, we give you some from-the-ground perspectives about how essential this can be during a response like the one to Hurricane Sandy.

Station New York aftermath from Hurricane Sandy

Coast Guard Station New York, located on Staten Island, sustains flooding damage and debris after Hurricane Sandy passes through New York Harbor, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012. (U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer 1st Class Josh Janney)

NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator Ed Levine: The last weekend of October became very hectic for those of us in disaster response as Hurricane Sandy moved its havoc up the U.S. eastern seaboard. After the storm passed, initial reports indicated that coastal New York and New Jersey, especially around Long Island Sound and New York Harbor, were among the hardest hit.

When I arrived at the U.S. Coast Guard’s base of operations on Staten Island, N.Y., I was surprised to find that the building was on generator power and back-up lighting; was without heat or telephones; and had minimal computer access and cell phone connectivity. In other words, they were part of the disaster.

Fairly quickly, however, they managed to set up an incident command post. Soon I was able to survey the coastal damage and pollution threats in a Coast Guard helicopter.
Many areas were extremely impacted. There were oils spills in a national park, within the harbor, along the coast, and in the Arthur Kill waterway bordering Staten Island. Shipping containers had been washed off piers and docks into the water and others were strewn about on land, not far from the piles of smaller boats run aground.

Having previously responded to several hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, I realized how quickly data management would become a major issue for tracking the pollution response as it progressed. The Coast Guard and other responders need accurate, up-to-date information and maps to coordinate their planning, inform their decisions, and execute their operations. That’s where our team of information management specialists enter the picture.

In a city still plagued by power outages, supply shortages, and long lines for gasoline, our Geographic Information Systems (GIS) specialists arrived to a hectic scene at the response command post. They began processing data coming in from field reconnaissance and feeding it into NOAA’s Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA®) for the Atlantic Coast. ERMA is an online mapping tool that integrates and synthesizes data—often in real time—into a single interactive map, providing a quick visualization of the situation after a disaster and improving communication and coordination among responders and environmental stakeholders.

Welcome organizers of chaos, the team mapped high-priority locations of pollution and debris, displayed aerial imagery and on-the-ground photography, helped coordinate field team deployment, and identified areas of concern for environmental sensitivity and cultural and historical significance.

A view of Atlantic ERMA showing Coast Guard field team photos and the aerial survey path taken at Great Kills Harbor Marina.

A view of Atlantic ERMA showing Coast Guard field team photos (red) and the aerial survey path (green) taken at Great Kills Harbor Marina on Staten Island, N.Y., during the post-Hurricane Sandy assessment and cleanup. The data are shown on top of NOAA National Geodetic Survey aerial images taken after the storm and show the impact along the shoreline. The photos were processed in the NOAA Photologger database at the Coast Guard incident command post on Staten Island, uploaded to ERMA, and used by the Coast Guard to prioritize cleanup and plan for the next day’s activities, as well as for briefing agency leaders and partners. (NOAA) Click to enlarge.

NOAA Geographic Information Specialist Jill Bodnar and her team: During the Hurricane Sandy pollution response, my colleagues and I divided the GIS work into two areas: general information management and ERMA support.
Information management is important because it becomes a source of accountability and for providing updates on the progress of cleanup operations and impacts to the surrounding natural resources. Well-run information management is crucial in identifying the priorities and status of pollution events quickly and correctly, which, for example, can help keep a leaking chemical drum from reaching a nearby estuary full of nesting birds.

the U.S. Coast Guard oversees the removal of a drum with unknown contents with New York City in the background.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the U.S. Coast Guard oversees the removal of a drum with unknown contents with New York City in the background. NOAA’s ERMA application helped responders prioritize the removal of pollution threats such as this one. (U.S. Coast Guard)

At the Staten Island command post, Coast Guard field teams would arrive from a day of work and hand their cameras, GPS units, and often their field notes to our information management specialists. Then, we would upload photos, GPS coordinates, and field observations into software programs and spreadsheets, and the work of verifying the data would begin: Did we have all the data pieces we needed? Was it all correct?

Then, the information would get pulled into our central, web-based GIS application, ERMA. There are a few main roles for ERMA at a command post like the one on Staten Island. One of the foremost functions is to help Coast Guard operations field staff members visualize their field data, such as the pollution targets and field photos, and overlay them with post-hurricane satellite imagery onto a map.

NOAA Geographic Information Specialist Matt Dorsey: Field photos are very informative and give a lot of insight to some of the unique and complex issues for pollution prevention and removal following a hurricane or other emergency situations. Some of the less frequent but more challenging scenarios include vessels inside houses, vessels aground a mile away from the closest waterway, and many vessels swept out of marinas into sensitive marsh areas.

Vessels that had been swept into marshes were a big issue while I was there. The Coast Guard wanted to know which sensitive marsh areas had vessels washed into them, how to prioritize these boats for removing oil or gas aboard them, and how to put together a plan for removing the actual vessel without disturbing the area too much more than it already had been.

Jill Bodnar and her team: Using ERMA as the “big picture” of the response helps responders tell the story of a pollution site, such as a grounded fishing boat with a leaking fuel tank. The Coast Guard operations staff was using ERMA to identify these priority locations before they went in the field, and created their own customized maps to take with them. ERMA gave them a lot of freedom in planning their field activities because they did not have to rely solely on a GIS specialist to create and print maps for them.

ERMA also plays other roles for the Unified Command, which uses it to see the most current field data to plan for the next day’s activities, to brief Coast Guard leadership on the scale and status of their teams’ cleanup operations.

The benefit of everyone using a tool like ERMA is that everyone involved in the response—the Coast Guard, NOAA, Environmental Protection Agency, States of New York and New Jersey, and other agencies—is looking at the most up-to-date data, instead of information that may be a few days old. All of the responders and decision makers, both inside and outside of the incident command post, know they are looking at the same, consistent, high-quality information and using that to prioritize response decisions. Everyone sees the same picture–whether it’s the frenzied first day after a disaster or weeks later.

Ed Levine.

Ed Levine, NOAA’s Scientific Support Coordinator in New York.

Ed Levine works as Scientific Support Coordinator for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, where he provides scientific and technical support during oil and chemical spills in the New York area. 

Jill Bodnar

Jill Bodnar, NOAA GIS specialist.

Jill Bodnar graduated from the University of Rhode Island with a Masters degree in natural resources, specializing in using GIS for oil spill response. She has been a geographic information specialist with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration for over 11 years and has responded to numerous incidents in that time, including Hurricanes Katrina, Ike, Isaac, and Sandy, and the 2007 Cosco Busan and 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spills.


Matt Dorsey.

Matt Dorsey, NOAA GIS specialist.

Matt Dorsey is a GIS specialist for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration based in Long Beach, Calif. Matt has been working on the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill since June of 2010, utilizing GIS systems and ERMA to provide mapping support for the response phase of the spill and continuing into the current damage assessment phase. Matt is the Southwest regional co-lead for the Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA).


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