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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NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration Blog Has Moved!

We are excited to announce that NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration Blog has now moved!

Check out our new and improved blogging platform at https://blog.response.restoration.noaa.gov!

Our new blog has all the features you know and love, with improved integration into our website so that all the response and restoration information you need is at your fingertips! If you’ve already subscribed to our WordPress blog with your email address, don’t worry, you’ll continue to get email notifications of new blog posts. If you haven’t yet subscribed and would like to receive notifications, you can sign up on our new blog home page.

We are excited to continue to share informative blogs, inspiring stories, and news to keep you informed about the world of oil and chemical spill response and restoration.

Continue to follow NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration Blog at our new address.


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Using Big Data to Share Scientific Knowledge

Green sea turtle hatchling making tracks in the sand.

Data management tools like NOAA’s DIVER help turn lots of disparate sets of data into insight about the nature and location of the greatest threats to marine wildlife. (NOAA)

By Ben Shorr

Big data.

The term has been a buzzword in the media and data management circles for years now, but what does it mean and how does it relate to modern science?

In general, big data is defined as extremely large data sets that cannot be easily analyzed using traditional database methods. In today’s data-driven economy, business and media companies have embraced big data as a way to analyze how to better serve their customers.

Scientists look at big data from a different perspective. New tools and techniques have improved how we manage and share datasets, and also how we store, process and analyze scientific data. Having to manage and analyze large amounts of data is not new to science: Collecting and analyzing information is the foundation of scientific inquiry. What has changed is the sheer volume of digitized data available to scientists, distributed storage environments (i.e., the Cloud), and the challenge of how to integrate and broadcast those data.

In the past, scientists often distributed data by presenting at conferences or publishing in peer-reviewed scientific journals. That meant good science was collected in binders and placed on bookshelves in a physical location. In addition, scientists were not always so forthcoming in sharing data because of the real fear of getting scooped, but the culture is changing — and scientists are seeing benefits of sharing data earlier to both the science community and the public.

These are a few of the challenges encountered in trying to address the unprecedented magnitude and complexity of data collected and available for environmental spill response and restoration.

Integrating environmental data 

The real world experience with legacy data management systems and building new data management systems to work with those existing programs, has informed our entire approach to managing environmental data, and is a key part of our approach to current and future data management.

For years, NOAA and ocean advocates have been talking about a concept known as “ecosystem-based management” for marine species and habitats. Put simply, ecosystem-based management is a way to find out what happens to the larger tapestry design and function when one thread is pulled from the cloth.

We were able to leverage “big data” techniques and develop a data warehouse and information portal built with open source tools for ingesting, integrating and organizing information. This tool, called the Data Integration Visualization, Exploration and Reporting (DIVER) application, allows scientific teams from different organizations to upload their field data and other key information related to their studies, such as scanned field notes, electronic data sheets, scanned images, photographs, and to filter and download results.

For instance, the large quantity and multitude of sources for the data collected from the Deepwater Horizon (DWH) spill results in datasets of different types and structures. DIVER addresses this challenge by integrating standardized data and allowing users to query across multiple datasets simultaneously.

 

Map view of DIVER software map showing where tagged dolphins swam in the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

A map view of DIVER shows where tagged dolphins traveled along the Gulf Coast, showing two populations that stayed in their home bases of Barataria Bay and Mississippi Sound. (NOAA)

 

To facilitate this process, the DIVER team developed common data models, which provides a consistent and standardized structure for managing and exchanging information. DIVER was developed to support data generated in the DWH oil spill response and assessment efforts. DIVER data models and a data warehouse approach have expanded to serve the entire coastal and Great Lakes of the United States. The common data model concept is based upon creating data schemas, which serve as blueprints to organize and standardize information.

Powerful tools for protecting marine habitats

Data integration systems like DIVER put all of that information in one place at one time, allowing users to look for causes and effects that they might not have ever known were there and then use that information to better manage species recovery. These data give us a new kind of power for protecting marine species.

Systems like DIVER are set up to take advantage of quantum leaps in computing power and tools that were not available to the field of environmental conservation 10 years ago. These advances give DIVER the ability to accept reams of diverse and seemingly unrelated pieces of information and, over time, turn them into insight about the nature and location of the greatest threats to marine wildlife.

 

Ultimately, all the advancement in data sharing benefits not only the science and academic communities but also the public.

Ben Shorr has been a physical scientist with the Office of Response and Restoration since he came to Seattle (mostly to ski and sail) in 2000. Ben works on a range of topics, from cleanup, damage assessment, and restoration to visualization and spatial analysis. In his spare time, Ben enjoys hanging out with his kids, which means riding bikes, skiing, and sailing too!


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Coping in the Aftermath of Deepwater Horizon

New NOAA Sea Grant publication discusses mental health impacts following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill

Ocean coastline with large fisshing boats on their sides.

The Gulf of Mexico fishing industry suffered much physical damage from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (pictured), followed by economic damage from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (NOAA)

By Tara Skelton, Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium

Ever wonder about mental health issues in communities recovering from a man-made disaster? The Gulf of Mexico Sea Grant Oil Spill Science Outreach Team recently published an overview of peer-reviewed research into how individuals and communities coped in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Studies show that the spill impacted the mental health of some coastal residents, including cleanup workers and those who relied on a healthy Gulf Coast for their occupations.

Gulf Coast locals experienced the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in different ways. Some coastal residents witnessed oiling on the water and shoreline. Others, including cleanup workers, physically encountered oil in their daily lives. People in many industries, including fishing, tourism, and more, lost income as a result of the spill. The 2010 spill came five years after Hurricane Katrina hit much of the same area, compounding some effects.

Several studies have examined the mental health impacts of the oil spill on people living along the Gulf Coast. While short-term repercussions are well-documented, long-term outcomes have been harder to identify. As a result, scientists are developing new ways to determine the consequences of disasters, both natural and man-made, on the physical and mental health of communities.

Grawing of Gulf of Mexico states explaining mental health affects.

Residents of states surrounding the Gulf of Mexico reported various negative mental health impacts following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (Florida Sea Grant/Anna Hinkeldey)

To learn more, go to gulfseagrant.org/oilspilloutreach/publications/ and read “The Deepwater Horizon oil spill’s impact on people’s health: Increases in stress and anxiety.” It’s one of many publications the team has developed to extend our understanding of oil spills science, from dispersant use to seafood safety.

Tara Skelton is the Oil Spill Science Outreach Team Communicator for the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium. The four Gulf of Mexico Sea Grant College Programs with funding from partner Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative has assembled a team of oil spill science outreach specialists to collect and translate the latest peer-reviewed research for those who rely on a healthy marine ecosystem for work or recreation. To learn more about the team’s products and presentations, visit gulfseagrant.org/oilspillscience


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10 Common Words with Uncommon Meanings in Spill Response

A ship run aground on coral reef in Puerto Rico is surrounded by protective oil boom.

A ship run aground on coral reef in Puerto Rico is surrounded by protective oil boom. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Despite an effort to use plain language, government agencies often use jargon that only makes sense to insiders. Here is list of common words that can become head-scratchers when used in the context of spill response.

Boom

Not the loud deep resonating sound described in a dictionary. In oil response booms are floating, physical barriers to oil, made of plastic, metal, or other materials, which slow the spread of oil and keep it contained. Read more on the history of booms in spill response here.

Crude

A vulgar comment? Nope. in this case the spill response definition fits more into the traditional understanding of the word, something in a raw or unrefined state. Crude oil is unrefined petroleum, usually liquid, consisting of a mixture of hydrocarbons. Crude oil may be refined into any of hundreds of components, such as commercial gasoline, kerosene, heating oils, diesel oils, lubricating oils, waxes, and asphalts. Read more on crude and other oil types here.

Hazing

Usually defined as a rigorous initiation process into an organization of some sort, in spill response hazing is about exclusion, “hazing” methods are used to keep whales out of harm’s way. Read more about hazing methods here.

Mousse

The first thing that pops into the mind when someone uses the word mousse is that silky pudding-like dessert, or a product to sculpt unruly hair. In spill response, mousse is a term to describe a water-in-oil emulsion that resembles chocolate mousse in color and texture. These emulsions are often very stable, and often have a pudding-like consistency. Typically, a mousse forms when relatively fresh oil is exposed to strong wave action. Mousse colors can range from orange or tan to dark brown. A mousse may contain up to 75 percent water, and may have a volume up to four times that of the original oil. Learn how to make an oil and water mousse here.

Pancakes

Nope, not the breakfast food. In this case pancakes refer to isolated, roughly circular patches of spilled oil ranging in size from a few feet across to hundreds of yards (or meters) in diameter. These oil patches can form tarballs sometimes found along sandy beaches. Read more on tarballs here.

Pom-poms

Similar to the equipment used by many a cheer-squad member, pom-poms in spill response are used to absorb oil for removal. Made of synthetic fibers, pom-poms are used individually or tied on long ropes and used to catch oil as it leaches from beaches and rocky areas. Strings of pom-poms are effective in collecting oil in rock or difficult to reach areas where the tide rises and falls. Read about how pom-poms were used to cleanup an oil spill here.

SOS

Save our ship? How about Science of Oil Spills. Every year the Emergency Response Division educates emergency spill responders increasing their understanding of oil spill science. Read about SOS classes here.

Slick

Typically defined as something done in a smooth way, a slick is the common term used to describe a film of oil (usually less than 2 microns thick) on the water surface. Oil spilled on water absorbs energy and dampens out surface waves, making the oil appear smoother—or slicker—than the surrounding water. Read about oil slicks and sea turtles here.

Streamer

Those paper ribbons hanging from the ceiling at a party, right? Wrong. In spill response a streamer, also called fingers or ribbons, are narrow lines of oil, mousse, or sheen on the water surface, surrounded on both sides by clean water. Streamers result from the combined effects of wind, currents, and/or natural convergence zones. Often, heavier concentrations of mousse or sheen will be present in the center of a streamer, with progressively lighter sheen along the edges. Read about techniques for cleaning up streamers in oil spills here.

Weathering

OK, in this instance, the meaning used in spill response is similar to the general definition. In oil response weathering is the physical and chemical characteristics of oil interacting with the physical and biochemical features of the habitat where a spill occurs. These factors determine how the oil will behave and ultimately what will happen to it. Read more about weathering here.

 


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Restoration of an Injured Caribbean Coral Reef

Broken coral on ocean floor.

A coral cache location where fractured corals were protected prior to reef reattachment. NOAA

The waters surrounding the Puerto Rico archipelago are known for the diversity and beauty of the coral reefs. Those reefs are also under great pressure from population density, land uses, and shipping traffic.

On Oct.  27, 2009 the tanker Port Stewart grounded in coral reef habitat on the southeast coast of Puerto Rico near the entrance to Yabucoa Channel. The tanker was carrying 7 million gallons of oil. Local efforts freed the ship the same day it grounded without an oil spill but both the grounding and removal process caused extensive injury to the reef.

Nearly 93 percent of Puerto Rico’s coral reefs are rated as threatened, with 84 percent at high risk and among the most threatened in the Caribbean. The Port Stewart incident directly destroyed about 512 square meters (about 5,551 square feet) of the living coral reef. The injured habitat had a diverse community of soft corals (octocorals), sponges, and hard corals (scleractinian), including Staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis), a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources officials have been working on a restoration plan for the area, which is now available for public comment. The period for comments ends Feb. 10, 2017.

When a reef is injured it’s important to take emergency restoration actions to salvage as many of the corals as possible. Following the grounding work began to triage corals and plan emergency restoration which lasted through 2010. This included surveying and mapping the area affected by the incident and salvaging as many living corals as possible. Emergency restoration efforts are designed to meet most of the actions needed to revive the injured reef.

Scuba diver underwater with string and plastic pipe grid.

Broken corals were draped on a floating coral array frame in order to grow bigger. Divers attached Acropora coral fragments, one of many coral types affected by the grounding. NOAA

In the Port Stewart case that included salvaging scleractinian corals, the hard reef-building animals that create skeletons under their skin. The skeletons are made from calcium carbonate and protect the coral animals and offer a base that other coral can attach themselves to, creating the reef community. The actions of emergency crews were able to save about 1,000 corals.

Scientists have monitored injured reef for the past six years and consider restoration efforts successful. According to monitoring reports, survivorship of reattached corals is comparable to that of naturally occurring corals in the area.

NOAA has the responsibility to conserve coral reef ecosystems under the Coral Reef Conservation Act of 2000. You can read more about how NOAA is working to restore damages reefs in the following articles:

Restoring a Coral Reef Hit by Tanker in Puerto Rico

NOAA and Partners Work Quickly to Save Corals Hit by Catamaran in Puerto Rico

How NOAA Uses Coral Nurseries to Restore Damaged Reefs

How to Restore a Damaged Coral Reef

How Do Oil Spills Affect Coral Reefs?

The Ship M/V Jireh Runs Aground a Coral Reef in Puerto Rico

 


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Restoring a Coral Reef Hit by Tanker in Puerto Rico

Scuba diver underwater near rocks.

A diver rescued live coral for emergency reattachment. Photo taken less than 12 hours after grounding shows how fast NOAA mobilized. (Sea Ventures Inc. photo)

U.S. coral reefs are impacted by 3 ­- 4 large groundings a year.  On Dec. 15, 2009 the danger became reality near Guayanilla Bay, Puerto Rico when the liquid natural gas carrier Matthew grounded on the coral reef there causing substantial harm. It wasn’t just the grounding that injured the coral. During attempts to free the tanker the bow of the ship was moved from side to side causing further injury to the reef structure.

Although no oil was spilled, by the time the ship was removed a total of 3,200 square meters (about 34,444 square feet) of living coral reef was mangled or destroyed.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources officials have been working on a restoration plan for the area, which is now available for public comment. The period for comments ends Feb. 10, 2017.

In the aftermath of groundings, impacted corals are often broken, dislodged, or flipped over. These fragments are subject to abrasion, scour, and sedimentation, which ultimately result in death. Unchecked, these damages can result in additional reef loss and instability. However, if dislodged fragments can be collected and stabilized shortly after physical impacts then the probability of survival increases substantially. After the grounding a triage team of divers, which included NOAA, salvaged live corals from the rubble. The corals were cached in a safe, stable underwater area in an effort to keep them alive until they could be permanently reattached.

The emergency restoration actions lasted through 2010 and were designed to address most of the potential restoration actions that might be needed for the injured reef.  Emergency response efforts were able to save about 7,000 corals.

Restored coral reef.

Fully restored coral in Guayanilla Bay, Puerto Rico provides recreation and commercial benefits. NOAA

Species harmed included fractured and crushed hard corals (scleractinian), dislodged soft corals (octocorals). Staghorn coral, classified as threatened under the Endangered Species Act were also injured and swaths of the sea floor were scraped and pulverized.

Coral reefs are one of the most economically valuable ecosystems on earth, providing hundreds of billions of dollars in food, jobs, recreational opportunities, and coastal protection. NOAA has the responsibility to conserve coral reef ecosystems under the Coral Reef Conservation Act of 2000.

You can read more about how NOAA is working to restore damages reefs in the following articles:

NOAA and Partners Work Quickly to Save Corals Hit by Catamaran in Puerto Rico

How NOAA Uses Coral Nurseries to Restore Damaged Reefs

How to Restore a Damaged Coral Reef

How Do Oil Spills Affect Coral Reefs?

The Ship M/V Jireh Runs Aground a Coral Reef in Puerto Rico


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Little Sand Island Back in Business for Burn Testing

Black smoke coming from controlled fire on island.

Initial testing of burn pan at Joint Maritime Test Facility located in Mobile on Little Sand island, November 2015. NOAA

By NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator Adam Davis

Recently, I had the privilege of joining folks from the United States Coast Guard (USCG) Research and Development Center as well as researchers from Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) for a portion of a test burn conducted on Little Sand Island located at the mouth of the Mobile River in Alabama. Having participated in a successful in situ—controlled burn—at the Delta Wildlife Refuge back in June of 2014 with my colleagues from NOAA’s Emergency Response Division, I was eager to learn more about what research is being conducted in the field and jumped at the opportunity to see some of this testing being performed in my backyard, so to speak.

A little background on Little Sand Island

The Joint Maritime Test Facility (JMTF) in Mobile, Alabama, is a partnership between the Coast Guard Research and Development Center and the U.S. Navy’s Naval Research Laboratories. It is the only national federal testing facility for maritime fire protection research and includes the ex-USS Shadwell. Little Sand Island also has a refurbished test tank for large-scale oil burn testing and research.

Damaged during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the facility figured prominently in past burn research and was recently resurrected with funding from Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE). The initial series of burn testing at the facility in the late ‘90s led to many advances in burn science, including the establishment of standards on fire resistant booms. Renewed interest of in situ burning (ISB) research has resulted in part from lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.

In situ burning was employed extensively during the spill and many viewed its role as critical in the overall spill response. Approximately 400 safe and effective controlled burns were conducted during the Deepwater Horizon spill, removing an estimated 220,000 to 310,000 barrels (29,700 to 41,800 tons) of oil from the water. According to the Oil Budget Calculator report provided to the National Incident Command in November 2010, approximately 50,000 to 70,000 barrels were burned in one day alone.

‘You don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows’

But it certainly helps if you want to know which way it is going to blow tomorrow when you are planning a burn. One of the key requirements for burning at the Little Sand Island facility is to ensure that smoke from the burn does not carry over the urban western side of the river, or north over the interstate where it could obscure visibility for motorists.

When the newly refurbished facility had its first test burn in November 2015, having support from the National Weather Service in Mobile during the planning and operational phases was important in determining when conditions on the island were favorable for burning.

Another benefit of planning a burn at a test facility is that other support conducted during an actual burn can also be planned. That was exactly the approach in November as members of the USCG Gulf Strike Team used the opportunity to deploy Special Monitoring of Applied Response Technologies, air monitoring equipment, at the facility. Although not a primary objective of the testing, we were able to use the opportunity to deploy the Strike Team as part of a practical exercise. Having the opportunity to plan and deploy the equipment in a realistic field setting and assessing actual results from a burn of a known quantity of oil was very beneficial both for the Strike Team and folks from the facility.

Two men on dock with island in background.

USCG Gulf Strike Team deploying air monitoring equipment, November 2016. Little Sand Island in the background. NOAA

Latest research on the horizon

Now that the facility burn pan has had the ‘tires kicked’ so to speak and is ready for use, a number of research projects are planned and underway. USCG Research and Development is currently working with BSEE on two additional ISB research projects which will be conducted in part on Little Sand Island. The most recent testing included initial evaluation of an aggregate compound made from pine saw dust and a fatty acid binding agent. This material is designed to help burn oil in layer thickness ranges that are otherwise too thin to sustain a burn. Additional testing at the facility is scheduled for this spring. Hopefully, I will have the opportunity to join in as the testing continues.

 

 

NOAA's Adam Davis, left, on a Coast Guard boat removing oil from a derelict vessel.Adam Davis serves as NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator for U.S. Coast Guard District 8 and NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center. He graduated from the University of Alabama at Birmingham before entering the United States Army where he served as a nuclear, biological, and chemical operations specialist. Upon completing his tour in the Army, Adam returned home and completed a second degree in environmental science at the University of West Florida. He comes with a strong background in federal emergency and disaster response and has worked on a wide range of contaminant and environmental issues. He considers himself very fortunate to be a part of NOAA and a resident of the Gulf Coast, where he and his family enjoy the great food, culture, and natural beauty of the coast.