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 Assists in Response to Pipeline Oil Spill at Refugio State Beach Near Santa Barbara, California

Two people shovel sand into a bag on a beach.

Beach cleanup crew members use a shovel to place gathered oil and affected sand into a bag as they clean up along a beach near Refugio State Beach, north of Santa Barbara. California on May 21, 2015. (U.S. Coast Guard)

On May 19, 2015, NOAA was notified of a 24-inch pipeline rupture that occurred earlier in the day near Refugio State Beach in Santa Barbara County, California. A reported 500 barrels (21,000 gallons) of crude oil flowed from the shore side of Highway 101 into the Pacific Ocean.

The source was secured. The oil consists of patches and streaks of various sizes and thicknesses, broken up and spread over approximately 20 miles of coast and up to 5 miles offshore. The percent of oil floating on the surface in the slicks is low, estimated to be less than 10 percent in the affected area.

The Office of Response and Restoration’s Jordan Stout, NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator has been on-scene throughout the response. OR&R has been providing overflight observation of the spill, information on fate and effects of the crude oil and potential environmental impacts both in the water and on the shore.

Two people walking along the oiled beach.

Oil mixed with marine vegetation at Las Varas Ranch. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Cleanup efforts continue along the beach, in the water, and inland. According to the Unified Command, “The responsible party, Plains All-American Pipeline, is working closely with the Coast Guard, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Santa Barbara Office of Emergency Management. Nearly 700 responders have been ordered and/or are on scene. El Capitan Beach and Refugio State Beach have been closed to the public by California State Parks. Fishing has been banned from Refugio State Beach to Coal Oil Point.”

Cleanup measures include skimmers, vacuum trucks, absorbent pads, and absorbent boom. Shoreline Cleanup and Assessment Technique (SCAT) teams are documenting the level of oil and impacts to the shoreline. As of noon Pacific Time on Friday, May 22, almost 9500 gallons of oily water have been collected from the ocean. This is a mixture of ten to thirty percent oil mixed with seawater. Oiled birds, including pelicans, and an oiled California sea lion were found stranded and are being taken care of by official wildlife rehabilitation teams.

Gusty west winds were expected today, followed by north to northwest canyon winds this evening. Winds are forecasted to diminish tonight then pick up on Saturday.

For further information, see the Joint information Center website: Refugio Response Information.


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NOAA Joins Response to Pipeline Oil Spill at Refugio State Beach Near Santa Barbara, California

POSTED May 20, 2015 | UPDATED May 21, 2015: On May 19, 2015, NOAA was notified of a 24-inch pipeline rupture that occurred earlier in the day near Refugio State Beach in Santa Barbara County, California.

A reported 500 barrels (21,000 gallons) of crude oil flowed from the shore side of Highway 101 into the Pacific Ocean. The source has since been secured.

As of May 21, Office of Response and Restoration oceanographers estimate that forecasted winds and currents in the affected area of the oil spill will move the slick eastward parallel to the shore Thursday night and Friday. The oil consists of patches and streaks of various sizes and thicknesses, broken up and spread over approximately 20 miles of coast and up to 5 miles offshore. The percent of oil floating on the surface in the slicks is low, estimated to be less than 10 percent in the affected area.

Cleanup measures include skimmers, vacuum trucks, absorbent pads, and absorbent boomShoreline Cleanup and Assessment Technique (SCAT) teams are documenting the level of oil and impacts to the shoreline. 7,777 gallons of an oil and water mixture have been collected from the ocean. Several oiled birds, including pelicans, and an oiled California sea lion were found stranded and are being taken care of by official wildlife rehabilitation teams.

According to the U.S. Coast Guard, a commercial oil spill response company is conducting cleanup operations. Boats are collecting oil offshore. California Department of Fish and Wildlife has ordered beach closures. The U.S. Coast Guard has organized the Incident Management Team and is conducting overflights. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is also responding and is focusing on the site of the pipeline break and inland cleanup.

Spilled oIl flowing next to rocks

Overflight photo shows oil flowing towards the ocean following a pipeline break. (U.S. Coast Guard)

The Office of Response and Restoration’s Jordan Stout is on-scene as the NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator as well as an OR&R overflight observation specialist.  OR&R has been providing information on fate and effects of the crude oil and potential environmental impacts both in the water and on the shore.

In this preassessment phase scientists are researching what natural resources may have been exposed to the oil and whether to proceed with a Natural Resource Damage Assessment. Additional scientists will be deployed to the area in the coming days. Also from NOAA, the National Weather Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Restoration Center, and the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries are providing support.

In 1969, a major oil spill occurred in the Santa Barbara area as a result of a well blowout. One of the largest environmental disasters in U.S. waters at that time, the legacy of that incident includes the creation of the National Environmental Policy Act, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and National Marine Sanctuaries system (which soon encompassed California’s nearby Channel Islands, which were affected by the 1969 Santa Barbara spill).

For further information, see the Joint Information Center website: Refugio Response Information.


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Latest NOAA Study Ties Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill to Spike in Gulf Dolphin Deaths

Group of dolphin fins at ocean surface.

A study published in the journal PLOS ONE found that an unusually high number of dead Gulf dolphins had what are normally rare lesions on their lungs and hormone-producing adrenal glands, which are associated with exposure to oil compounds. (NOAA)

What has been causing the alarming increase in dead bottlenose dolphins along the northern Gulf of Mexico since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the summer of 2010? Independent and government scientists have found even more evidence connecting these deaths to the same signs of illness found in animals exposed to petroleum products, as reported in the peer-reviewed online journal PLOS ONE.

This latest study uncovered that an unusually high number of dead Gulf dolphins had what are normally rare lesions on their lungs and hormone-producing adrenal glands.

The timing, location, and nature of the lesions support that oil compounds from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill caused these lesions and contributed to the high numbers of dolphin deaths within this oil spill’s footprint.

“This is the latest in a series of peer-reviewed scientific studies, conducted over the five years since the spill, looking at possible reasons for the historically high number of dolphin deaths that have occurred within the footprint of the Deepwater Horizon spill,” said Dr. Teri Rowles, one of 22 contributing authors on the paper, and head of NOAA’s Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program, which is charged with determining the causes of unusual mortality events.

“These studies have increasingly pointed to the presence of petroleum hydrocarbons as being the most significant cause of the illnesses and deaths plaguing the Gulf’s dolphin population,” said Dr. Rowles.

A System out of Balance

In this study, one in every three dead dolphins examined across Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama had lesions affecting their adrenal glands, resulting in a serious condition known as “adrenal insufficiency.” The adrenal gland produces hormones—such as cortisol and aldosterone—that regulate metabolism, blood pressure and other bodily functions.

“Animals with adrenal insufficiency are less able to cope with additional stressors in their everyday lives,” said Dr. Stephanie Venn-Watson, the study’s lead author and veterinary epidemiologist at the National Marine Mammal Foundation, “and when those stressors occur, they are more likely to die.”

Earlier studies of Gulf dolphins in areas heavily affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill found initial signs of this illness in a 2011 health assessment of dolphins living in Barataria Bay, Louisiana. NOAA scientists Dr. Rowles and Dr. Lori Schwacke spoke about the results of this health assessment in a 2013 interview:

“One rather unusual condition that we noted in many of the Barataria Bay dolphins was that they had very low levels of some hormones (specifically, cortisol) that are produced by the adrenal gland and are important for a normal stress response.

Under a stressful condition, such as being chased by a predator, the adrenal gland produces cortisol, which then triggers a number of physiological responses including an increased heart rate and increased blood sugar. This gives an animal the energy burst that it needs to respond appropriately.

In the Barataria Bay dolphins, cortisol levels were unusually low. The concern is that their adrenal glands were incapable of producing appropriate levels of cortisol, and this could ultimately lead to a number of complications and in some situations even death.”

Swimming with Pneumonia

Ultrasounds showing a normal dolphin lung, compared to lungs with mild, moderate, and severe lung disease.

Ultrasounds showing a normal dolphin lung, compared to lungs with mild, moderate, and severe lung disease. These conditions are consistent with exposure to oil compounds and were found in bottlenose dolphins living in Barataria Bay, Louisiana, one of the most heavily oiled areas during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (NOAA)

In addition to the lesions on adrenal glands, the scientific team discovered that more than one in five dolphins that died within the Deepwater Horizon oil spill footprint had a primary bacterial pneumonia. Many of these cases were unusual in severity, and caused or contributed to death.

Drs. Rowles and Schwacke previously had observed significant problems in the lungs of dolphins living in Barataria Bay. Again, in 2013, they had noted, “In some of the animals, the lung disease was so severe that we considered it life-threatening for that individual.”

In other mammals, exposure to petroleum-based polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, known as PAHs, through inhalation or aspiration of oil products can lead to injured lungs and altered immune function, both of which can increase an animal’s susceptibility to primary bacterial pneumonia. Dolphins are particularly susceptible to inhalation effects due to their large lungs, deep breaths, and extended breath hold times.

Learn more about NOAA research documenting the impacts from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and find more stories reflecting on the five years since this oil spill.


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Transforming Dusty Fields into Vibrant Salt Marshes in San Francisco Bay

Vibrant marsh with lots of ducks and trucks on the highway in the background.

Just after the Cullinan Ranch restoration site was re-flooded, huge flocks of waterfowl began using the marsh, including Canvasback, Scaup, Northern Pintail, Mallards, and American Wigeon. (Ducks Unlimited)

What happens when you fill a dry, dusty 1,200 acre field at the northern edge of San Francisco Bay with tide waters unseen in that place for more than a century?

You get a marsh with a brand new lease on life.

In January 2015, this is exactly what took place at the salt marsh restoration site called Cullinan Ranch (known as that due to its history as a hay farm).

Check out the photos taken of the restoration site in November 2013, after the new boat ramp and wildlife viewing platform were built but before the levees holding back the bay were breached, and compare them with those taken in the same spot in January 2015, after the waters returned.

Brackish waters once again cover the low-lying area, long pushed down below sea level due to farming dating back to the 1880s. The presence of salt water has transformed this arid field into tidal wetland habitat, where birds, fish, and wildlife, such as the endangered Ridgway’s rail, the salt marsh harvest mouse, steelhead, Chinook salmon, and other fish can thrive.

According to Ducks Unlimited biologist Craig Garner, whose organization has been a key player in this site’s restoration, “When the ranch was newly flooded, we saw a tremendous response by waterfowl. Large numbers of birds were recorded using the area, particularly Canvasback,” a species of diving duck.

Could it be that Cullinan Ranch provides California wildlife with a new refuge from the current scarcity of freshwater habitats further inland? Garner suggests, “Though it is tough to gauge without waterfowl survey data, I would say that Cullinan Ranch could be offsetting the effects of drought conditions on diving duck habitat at all” levels of the tidal cycle.

Of course, people will also be able to enjoy this transformation occurring at Cullinan Ranch via the new recreational facilities. (Launching your boat into a dry field probably wouldn’t be much fun, after all.)

But it’s not just fun and games. People will benefit from this renewed salt marsh acting as a natural filter, increasing the quality of the water passing through it on the way to the bay and its fisheries, and as a sponge for moderating flooding during storms. The plant life growing in the marsh also serves to capture and hold excess carbon dioxide from the nearby urban areas. In addition, taking out the 19th-century levees holding out the bay’s tides reduces the chances of a catastrophic failure and cuts out the expense of maintaining poorly built levees.

Watch as the last satisfying scoops of the muddy barrier disappear and salty waters rush in:

Excavator removing a dirt levee and allowing tide waters to rush into a dry marsh.

Taking out the first levee at the Cullinan Ranch marsh restoration project in central California in January 2015. (NOAA)

Learn more about the efforts to restore this tidal wetland and another long-dry area known as Breuner Marsh. Both of these restoration projects were made possible with funding from a natural resource damage assessment settlement paid by Chevron to make up for years of dumping mercury and oil pollution from its Richmond, California, refinery into the shallow waters of nearby Castro Cove. NOAA partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to achieve the 2010 Chevron settlement and contribute to these two important restoration projects.

In the fall of 2014, Breuner Marsh also saw the return of its daily infusion of saltwater and is looking more and more like a natural salt marsh and less like the next site of urban development.

Aerial view of marsh with tide waters channeling across the shore.

An aerial view of the tide waters retaking their normal course at the restoration site Breuner Marsh on San Francisco Bay in the fall of 2014. (Castro Cove Natural Resource Damage Trustees)


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Restoration Efforts Hatch Hope for Endangered Seabirds on California’s Channel Islands

This is a post by Jennifer Boyce, biologist with NOAA’s Restoration Center and Montrose Settlements Restoration Program.

Santa Barbara Island is a world apart. Only one square mile in area, it is the smallest island in the Channel Islands National Park, located off the coast of Southern California and lone dwelling place for some unique species of animals and plants.

The island has no land predators, which makes it a haven for seabirds. But human threats to seabirds, including industrial pollution and introduced species, have left their mark even on this haven. Seabird populations began dropping as pollution thinned their eggshells to the breaking point and exotic plants replaced their native nesting habitat.

So imagine the excitement when biologists recently discovered the first ever nests of the rare and threatened Scripps’s Murrelet among two areas restored on the island for their benefit.

A petite, black-and-white seabird, the Scripps’s Murrelet also is threatened by predators introduced to its breeding colonies and by oil spills. While Santa Barbara Island has the largest colony of Scripps’s Murrelet in the United States, the State of California listed this bird as a threatened species [PDF] in 2004 and it currently is a candidate for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act (under a previous name, Xantus’s Murrelet).

Hatching a Better Home

Close up of a murrelet chick's head.

This newly hatched chick was born at Landing Cove, a habitat restoration area on Santa Barbara Island. Its birth gives hope to a threatened species of seabird, the Scripps’s Murrelet. (Andrew Yamagiwa, California Institute of Environmental Studies)

Each spring, murrelets lay one or two eggs in crevices and burrows beneath Santa Barbara Island’s native shrubs. They need the structure and cover provided by native plant communities to protect their nests. Unfortunately, the native shrubs on Santa Barbara Island have been decimated for decades by introduced grazers. Ranchers used to graze sheep on the island, inadvertently bringing non-native plants with them. These and other grazers allowed the non-native plants to proliferate and prevent the few remaining patches of native vegetation from recolonizing the island.

Since 2006, NOAA’s Montrose Settlements Restoration Program has been restoring this habitat for murrelets and other seabirds on Santa Barbara Island, caring for the thousands of native plants they have placed along its dry slopes. Uncovering two nests in two different restoration plots this spring means the project has reached a major milestone.

The older of the two restoration plots where eggs were found, Landing Cove was first planted with native shrubs in December 2008. It can take several years for the shrubs to mature enough to become suitable seabird nesting habitat. One egg was discovered there—on Earth Day, of all days—under a large native shrub planted during restoration efforts. Then, just this week, biologists confirmed that this egg had in fact hatched into a healthy murrelet chick.

The second restored area, Beacon Hill, was planted more recently in 2012, giving biologists both a thrill and surprise to find a second murrelet nest under a native bush planted as part of the project. These nests are a testament to all of the hard work of scientists, restoration experts, and volunteers over the last ten years.

More Than One Way to Break an Egg

Funding to restore these threatened seabirds actually originates in events dating more than half a century earlier.

From the late 1940s to the early 1970s, millions of pounds of the pesticide DDT and the industrial chemicals known as PCBs were discharged into ocean waters off the southern California coast. Most of the DDT originated from the Montrose Chemical Corporation manufacturing plant located in Torrance, California.

DDT released into the ocean near California’s Palos Verdes shelf spread through the food chain, eventually reaching seabirds and causing thinning in their eggs laid on the Channel Islands. The eggshells became so thin that when the adults would sit on the eggs to warm them they would break.

In 2001, following a lengthy period of litigation, NOAA and other federal and state agencies reached a settlement with the responsible parties, establishing the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program. The program is working to restore populations of these rare seabirds and their habitat in the Channel Islands.

Restoration Efforts Taking Flight

Adult murrelet with a chick.

Scripps’s Murrelets only breed on islands off California and Mexico, and their limited time on land creates a short window of opportunity for restoration efforts. (Gaby Keeler, California Institute of Environmental Studies)

A member of the auk family (which includes Puffins), Scripps’s Murrelets take the term “seabird” to new limits. Murrelets spend almost their entire lives at sea, only coming to land to lay their eggs and hatch their young. Their chicks live up to being a seabird as well, spending only two days on the island before tumbling into the ocean to join their parents—leaving before they can even fly.

These small birds only breed on islands off California and Mexico, and their limited time on land creates a short window of opportunity for restoration efforts.

One of the goals of the Santa Barbara Island restoration project is to remove the non-native plants at selected areas identified as high quality nesting habitat. Biologists are restoring these areas by then planting native species with the help of lots of volunteers.

This work is by no means easy. To date, over 30,000 plants have been put into the ground. All of the native plants in the project are grown from seed on the island, and growing a mature plant takes six to eight months. One of the challenges to growing these plants is that Santa Barbara is a desert island with no natural water source. All the water needed for raising the native plants must be transported by a National Park Service boat, and moved onto the island by crane in large 400 gallon tanks.

A permanent nursery, which employs water-saving techniques, was constructed on the island to reduce the amount of water that needs to be sent to the island. Recently a drip irrigation system also has been installed at the restoration sites and is greatly improving plant survivorship while reducing water needs.

The two nests found this spring are great signs that the restoration efforts are successful and helping to restore this endangered seabird and others to this unique island. We look forward to finding many more nests in the future. In the meantime, check out this video detailing our efforts to restore seabird habitat on Santa Barbara Island:

Jennifer BoyceJennifer Boyce works for the NOAA Restoration Center, based in Long Beach, California. Jennifer serves as the NOAA trustee on several oil spill restoration Trustee Councils throughout California and is the Program Manager for the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program.


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On the Chesapeake Bay, Turning Artillery Sites and Landfills into Places for Wildlife

Excavator removes metal debris from the shore of a coastal landfill.

Used from 1972 to 1974, this landfill at Naval Support Facility Indian Head’s site 36 saw more than 57,000 pounds of metal and other materials hauled away as part of its cleanup and restoration. (U.S. Navy)

Roughly 25 miles downstream of Washington, DC, on the Potomac River is a military base known as Naval Support Facility Indian Head. Established in 1890, it is the U.S. Navy’s oldest continuously running ordnance station (ordnance includes artillery and ammunition). In the course of its history, this sprawling 2,500 acre naval installation has served as a research facility, a testing site for artillery, and a manufacturing site for some of the explosive chemical powders used in weapons.

However, as is the case for many other military facilities scattered along the shores of Chesapeake Bay, the land and waters of the Indian Head base became so polluted by the range of military activities—at one point, the Navy used it to test large naval guns by firing projectiles into the Potomac River—that it was designated a Superfund site and slated for cleanup under CERCLA.

Aerial view of Naval Support Facility Indian Head surrounded by water.

Like many other military facilities along the Chesapeake Bay, the land and waters of the Indian Head base became so polluted by the range of military activities that it was designated a Superfund site and slated for cleanup. (U.S. Navy)

But tackling environmental cleanup and restoration in a place with such a long history of explosives makes for unusual challenges.

For example, when the cleanup team needed to take soil or water samples, they often had to call in ordnance clearance specialists to help deal with the dangerous chemicals, guns, rockets, missiles, ordnance, and explosives potentially littering the area.

Juxtaposed against this scene at the base is Mattawoman Creek, a beautiful freshwater tidal creek with abundant wetlands and wildlife adjacent to the military site. Migratory fish such as yellow perch, herring, and shad follow the creek as they travel further inland to reproduce. In addition, many fish use the wetlands as a nursery and source of food. Large, hungry birds such as bald eagles, herons, and egrets flock to the area, as well as recreational fishers eager to cast their lines to the plentiful fish.

Fortunately, a detailed investigation indicated that this natural area has not suffered widespread impacts from pollution at the nearby base. Instead, the investigation directed the base’s cleanup strategy to focus on key sections serving as major pollution sources.

Laying Waste

The Caffee Road Landfill at the base’s Site 11 was such a mix of soil, waste, and debris that it actually extended the shoreline up to 150 feet into Mattawoman Creek. In addition to serving as a landfill for Indian Head, the military used the site to burn waste, and munitions and explosives potentially lay buried in pockets along the shoreline.

Getting this landfill—an ongoing source of pollution—under control needed to accomplish three goals: block contact with the contaminated soil, prevent shoreline erosion, and avoid exposing potential ordnance.

The design for remediating this site included placing a protective soil cover over the landfill and stabilizing the shoreline. Historically, shoreline stabilization has been achieved by positioning large rocks and riprap on the edge of the water, which “hardens” the shoreline and would move the wave energy from the protected area to adjacent areas.

Instead, NOAA and the trustee agencies responsible for the area’s natural resources proposed what is called a “living shoreline.” These hybrid shorelines are constructed habitats designed to mimic the functions of natural shoreline habitats and which incorporate both natural habitat and built infrastructure. They aim to provide the same benefits as nature, such as shoreline stabilization, improved water quality, and wildlife habitat. The project was rounded out by planting marsh shrubs and trees along the shoreline and by seeding and mulching the soil cover on top of the landfill.

All the while during these construction operations, the cleanup team had a trained professional clearing the munitions and explosives to provide safe working conditions as they transformed this dump into a safe place for fish, birds, and wildlife.

The close partnership among several federal and state agencies, including the Navy, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Maryland Department of the Environment, and the trustees, was instrumental in successfully and efficiently converting this former landfill into vibrant habitat, resulting in savings of more than $700,000.

Recycling for Wildlife

A similar transformation has occurred at a landfill on the base’s Site 36. This landfill, most likely originally part of Chickamuxen Creek and a nearby wetland, was used from 1972 to 1974 and has been inactive since that time. The fill material dumped into the creek was believed to contain metal casings from mines, bombs, and torpedoes—not exactly normal working conditions.

Cleanup focused on removing scrap metal and potential munitions items from the surface of the landfill and the shoreline. The multi-agency team hauled away more than 57,000 pounds of metal and other materials from the site, with much of it recycled rather than left under the existing soil cover. By taking a common-sense approach to removing this debris, the project managed risk and minimized environmental impacts by maintaining natural habitats, including forests and wetlands, whenever possible, while also ensuring the landfill’s soil cover would control pollution.

While there is still work to be done, progress abounds elsewhere on the naval facility. For example, the multi-agency cleanup team removed creek sediments contaminated with mercury and surrounding floodplain soils to protect and enhance restoration of habitat along a tributary to Mattawoman Creek. The tributary has been blocked off from the main channel to prevent mercury from getting to Mattawoman Creek, but with the mercury gone, there is now potential for opening up the tributary and reconnecting it with the creek.

Naval Support Facility Indian Head occupies a unique place in military history, and thanks to efficient collaboration among federal and state agencies working to clean it up, this locale again provides valuable and healthy habitat for fish, birds, and wildlife along the Chesapeake Bay.


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Five Key Questions NOAA Scientists Ask During Oil Spills

Responders in a small boat pressure-wash rocky shore at the site of an oil spill.

Responders pressure wash the Texas shoreline after the tank ship Eagle Otome oil spill in January of 2010. (NOAA)

During an emergency situation such as an oil spill or ship grounding, scientists in NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration are guided by five central questions as they develop scientifically based recommendations for the U.S. Coast Guard.

These recommendations help the Coast Guard respond to the incident while minimizing environmental impacts resulting from the spill and response.

Identified in the late 1980s by NOAA, these questions provide a sequential framework for identifying key information at each step that will then inform answers to subsequent questions raised during an oil spill. For example, in order to predict “where could it go?” (question two), you first need to know “what spilled?” (question one), and so on.

Questions guiding NOAA's oil spill response science, with a ship leaking oil, surrounded by boom, with flying birds and a benzene molecule.

Naturally, during a spill response, it may become necessary to revisit earlier questions or assumptions as conditions change and more—or better—information becomes available.

The Scene of the Spill

Establishing what happened is the first step. What is the scenario for this incident and where is it occurring? Gathering this information means figuring out facts such as:

  • the type of incident (e.g., pipeline rupture versus oil tanker collision).
  • the volume and types of oil involved.
  • the incident environment (e.g., stormy, calm).
  • the incident location (e.g., open ocean, near shore, water temperature).

Forecast: Cloudy with a Chance of Oil

Dr. Amy MacFadyen is a NOAA physical oceanographer who frequently works on the next step, which is predicting where the oil is going to go. In most of the spills we respond to, the oil is spilled at or near the water surface and is less dense than water. Initially, the oil will float and form a slick. Dr. MacFadyen looks at what is going on in the environment with wind and waves, which can break up the slick, causing some of the oil to mix into the water column in the form of small droplets.

An important point is that responders can potentially clean up what is on top of the water but recovering oil droplets from the water column is practically impossible. This is why it is so important to spill responders to receive accurate predictions of the movement of the surface slicks so they can quickly implement cleanup or prevention strategies.

In order to make predictions about oil movement, Dr. MacFadyen uses a computer model which includes ocean current and wind forecasts to generate an oil trajectory forecast map. Trajectory forecast models may be updated frequently, as conditions at the site of the spill change. Although the trajectory map shows the position of the oil, there is an element of uncertainty as the forecasts are based on other predictions, such as weather forecasts, which are not always perfect and are themselves subject to change.

To reduce uncertainty, trajectory forecasts incorporate information from trained observers flying over the slick who can confirm the actual location of the oil over the course of the spill response. MacFadyen can then incorporate that updated information as she runs the trajectory forecast model again.

A Sense of Sensitivity

In order to answer what the oil might affect, NOAA developed Environmental Sensitivity Index maps to identify what might be harmed by a spill in different habitat types. It is necessary for responders and decision makers to know what shoreline types exist in the path of the oil, as well as vulnerable species and habitats so that they can plan for the appropriate protection (such as booming) or cleanup method (such as skimming). Cleaning up oil off a sandy beach is very different than a salt marsh, mudflat, or rocky shore.

Animals, plants, and habitats at risk can include those on the water (e.g., seabirds), below the surface (e.g., fish), and on the bottom (e.g., mussels), as well as on the shoreline (e.g., marsh grasses).

Jill Petersen, manager of the Office of Response and Restoration Environmental Sensitivity Index map program, works to ensure that these maps of each U.S. coastal region are up-to-date so that this information is readily available should a spill occur.

Raise the Alarm for Harm

The next step is to look at what harm the oil could cause. When oil is released into the water, it can cause harm to marine animals and the environment. Oil contains thousands of chemical compounds. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons [PDF], or PAHs as they are commonly known, are a class of oil compounds that have been associated with toxic effects in exposed organisms. Because of this, scientists frequently study PAHs in spilled oil to gauge the oil’s potential environmental impact.

However, the complexity of each oil’s chemistry and the changes that occur once it is in the environment make the assessment of risk a challenging task. In order to do so, response biologists consider the type of oil, the sensitivity of potentially exposed organisms, and how the oil is expected to behave in the environment.

Oil spills can involve releases of large volumes of oil that overwhelm whatever natural capacity there might be to absorb impacts, which leads to the photographs we see of heavy oil covering plants and animals. But recent research studies have shown that even minute amounts of petroleum can harm marine eggs and larvae—which means the decisions we make during a response are even more critical to the long-term health of the affected habitats.

NOAA marine biologist Dr. Alan Mearns is an expert on how pollution from oil harms the environment. Each year, he reviews and summarizes recent research in this field to ensure oil spill response recommendations and decisions are based on the most current science that exists.

Sending Help

A skimmer picks up oil off the surface of the Delaware River.

A skimmer picks up oil off the surface of the Delaware River after the tanker Athos spilled oil in 2004. (NOAA)

Answering the previous questions allows us to determining what can be done to help. Doug Helton, the Office of Response and Restoration’s Incident Operations Coordinator, describes possible solutions as usually falling under three categories: containing the source, cleaning up, and protecting the shore.

To contain the source means to limit the further release of pollution by plugging the leak in the pipeline or containing the spill, for example, by keeping the ship from sinking and losing its entire cargo of oil.

Cleanup on the water could be conducted by mechanical means, such as booming and skimming, or through alternative technologies, such as burning the oil in open water or using chemicals to disperse the oil.

Cleanup along the shoreline can be done manually or mechanically using methods such as pressure washing. When considering cleanup options, sometimes monitoring the situation is the best option when a response method could actually cause more harm to the environment. One example is in an oiled marsh because these habitats are especially vulnerable to oil but also to being damaged by people walking through them trying to remove oil.

In addition to providing scientific support to the U.S. Coast Guard, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration develops oil spill response software and mapping tools. For responders, NOAA has published a series of job aids and manuals that provide established techniques and guidelines for observing oil, assessing shoreline impact, and evaluating accepted cleanup technologies for a variety of oil spill situations.

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