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


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Five Years After Deepwater Horizon, How Is NOAA Preparing for Future Oil Spills?

The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Five Years Later

This is the ninth and final story in a series of stories over the past month looking at various topics related to the response, the Natural Resource Damage Assessment science, restoration efforts, and the future of the Gulf of Mexico.

Oil in a boat wake on the ocean surface.

Keeping up with emerging technologies and changing energy trends helps us become better prepared for the oil spills of tomorrow, no matter where that may take us. (NOAA)

When the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground in Alaska and spilled nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil in 1989, the world was a very different place. New laws, regulations, and technologies followed that spill, meaning future oil spills—though they undoubtedly would still occur—would do so in a fundamentally different context.

This was certainly the case by 2010 when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig suffered an explosion caused by a well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. Tankers transporting oil have become generally safer since 1989 (thanks in part to now-required double hulls), and in 2010, the new frontier in oil production—along with new risks—was located at a wellhead nearly a mile under the ocean surface.

Since that fateful April day in 2010, NOAA has responded to another 400 oil and chemical incidents. Keeping up with emerging technologies and changing energy trends helps us become better prepared for the oil spills of tomorrow, whether they stem from a derailed train carrying particularly flammable oil, a transcontinental pipeline of diluted oil sands, or a cargo ship passing through the Arctic’s icy but increasingly accessible waters.

So how is NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration preparing for future oil spills?

The Bakken Boom

Crude oil production from North Dakota’s Bakken region has more than quadrupled [PDF] since 2010, and responders must be prepared for spills involving this lighter oil (note: not all oils are the same).

Bakken crude oil is highly flammable and evaporates quickly in the open air. Knowing the chemistry of this oil can help guide decisions about how to respond to spills of Bakken oil. As a result, we’ve added Bakken as one of the oil types in ADIOS, our software program which models what happens to spilled oil over time. Now, responders can predict how much oil naturally disperses, evaporates, or remains on the water’s surface using information customized for Bakken’s unique chemistry.

We’ve also been collaborating across the spill response community to boost preparedness for these types of oil spills. Earlier this year, NOAA worked with the National Response Team to teach responders about how to deal with Bakken crude oil spills, with a special emphasis on health and safety.

The increase of Bakken crude poses another challenge to the nation: spills from oil-hauling trains. There are few ways to move Bakken crude from wells in North Dakota to refiners and consumers across the country. To keep up with the demand, producers have turned to rail transport as a quick alternative. In 2010, rail moved less than five million tons of crude petroleum. By 2013, that number had jumped to nearly 40 million.

NOAA typically responds to marine spills, but our scientific experience also proves useful when oil spills into a navigable river, as can happen when a train derails. To help answer response questions for waterways at risk, we’re adding even more data to our tools for spill responders. Ongoing updates to the Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA), our online mapping tool for environmental response data, illustrate the intersection of railroads and sensitive habitats and species, which might be affected by a spill from a train carrying oil.

Our Neighbor to the North

Oil imports from Canada, where oil sands (also known as tar sands) account for almost all of the country’s oil, have surged. Since 2010 Canadian oil imports have increased more than 40 percent.

Oil sands present another set of unique challenges. This variety is a thick, heavy crude oil (bitumen), which has to be diluted with a thinner type of oil to allow it to flow through a pipeline for transport. The resulting product is known as diluted bitumen, or dilbit.

Because oil sands are a mixture of products, it’s not completely clear how they react in the environment. When this product is released into water, the oils can separate quickly between lighter and heavier parts. As such, responders might have to worry about both lighter components vaporizing into toxic fumes in the air and heavier oil components potentially sinking down into the water column or bottom sediments, becoming more difficult to clean up. This also means that bottom-dwelling organisms may be more vulnerable to spills of oil sands than other types of oils.

As our experts work to assess the impacts from oil sands spills (including the 2010 Enbridge pipeline spill in Michigan), their studies both inform restoration for past spills and help guide response for the next spill. We’ve been working with the response and restoration community around the country to incorporate these lessons into spill response, including at recent meetings of the West Coast Joint Assessment Team and the International Spill Control Organization.

Even Further North

As shrinking summer sea ice opens shipping routes and opportunities for oil and gas production in the Arctic, the risk of an oil spill increases for that region. By 2020, up to 40 million tons per year of oil and gas are expected to travel the Northern Sea route through the Arctic Ocean.

Responding to oil spills in the Arctic will not be easy. Weather can be harsh, even in August. Logistical support is limited, and so is baseline science. Yet in the last five years, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration has made leaps in Arctic preparedness. For example, since 2010, we launched Arctic ERMA, a version of our interactive response data mapping tool customized for the region, and released Arctic Ephemeral Data Guidelines, a series of guidelines for collecting high-priority, time-sensitive data in the Arctic after an oil spill. But we still have plenty of work ahead of us.

Ship breaking ice in Arctic waters.

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy breaks ice in Arctic waters. A ship like this would be the likely center of operations for an oil spill in this remote and harsh region. (NOAA)

During a spill, we predict where oil is going, but Arctic conditions change the way oil behaves compared with warmer waters. Cold temperatures make oil more viscous (thick and slow-flowing), and in a spill, oil may be trapped in, on, and under floating sea ice, further complicating predictions of its movement.

We’ve been working to overcome this challenge by improving our models of oil movement and weathering in icy waters and researching response techniques and oil behavior to close gaps in the science. This May, we also find ourselves in a new role as the United States takes chairmanship of the Arctic Council. Amy Merten of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration will chair the Arctic Council’s Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response Working Group, where we hope to continue international efforts to boost Arctic spill preparedness.

Expecting the Unexpected

After decades of dealing with oil spills, we know one thing for certain—we have to be ready for anything.

In the last five years, we’ve responded to spills from the mangroves of Bangladesh to the banks of the Ohio River. These spills have involved Bakken crude, oil sands, and hazardous chemicals. They have resulted from well blowouts, leaking pipelines, derailed trains, grounded ships, storms, and more. In fact, one of the largest spills we’ve responded to since Deepwater Horizon involved 224,000 gallons of molasses released into a Hawaiian harbor.

Whatever the situation, it’s our job to provide the best available science for decisions. NOAA has more than 25 years of experience responding to oil spills. Over that time, we have continued to fine-tune our scientific understanding to better protect our coasts from this kind of pollution, a commitment that extends to whatever the next challenge may bring.


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What Have We Learned About Using Dispersants During the Next Big Oil Spill?

The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Five Years Later

This is the eighth in a series of stories over the coming weeks looking at various topics related to the response, the Natural Resource Damage Assessment science, restoration efforts, and the future of the Gulf of Mexico.

A U.S. Air Force plane drops an oil-dispersing chemical onto an oil slick on the Gulf of Mexico

A U.S. Air Force plane drops an oil-dispersing chemical onto an oil slick on the Gulf of Mexico May 5, 2010, as part of the Deepwater Horizon response effort. (NOAA)

Five years ago, in the middle of the response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, I was thrown into a scientific debate about the role of chemical dispersants in response to the spill. Dispersants are one of those things that are talked about a lot in the context of oil spills, but in reality used pretty rarely. Over my more than 20 years in spill response, I’ve only been involved with a handful of oil spills that used dispersants.

But the unprecedented use of chemical dispersants on and below the ocean’s surface during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill raised all sorts of scientific, public, and political questions. Questions about both their effectiveness in minimizing impacts from oil as well as their potential consequences for marine life in the Gulf of Mexico.

Did we understand how the ingredients and components of the dispersants behave? How toxic are they? What are the potential risks of dispersants and do they outweigh the benefits?

We knew the flood of questions wouldn’t end when the gushing oil well was capped; they would only intensify the next time there was a significant oil spill in U.S. waters. NOAA, as the primary scientific adviser to the U.S. Coast Guard, would need to keep abreast of the surge of new information and be prepared to answer those questions. Five years later, we know a lot more, but many of the scientific, public, and policy questions remain open to debate.

What Are Dispersants?

Dispersants are a class of chemicals specifically designed to remove oil from the water surface. One commonly used brand name is Corexit, but there are dozens of different dispersant mixtures (see this list of all the products available for use during an oil spill).

They work by breaking up oil slicks into lots of small droplets, similar to how dish detergent breaks up the greasy mess on a lasagna pan. These tiny droplets have a high surface area-to-volume ratio, making them easier for oil-eating microbes to break them down (through the process of biodegradation). Their small size also makes the oil droplets less buoyant, allowing them to scatter throughout the water column more easily.

Why Does Getting Oil off the Ocean Surface Matter?

Oil slicks on the water surface are particularly dangerous to seabirds, sea turtles, marine mammals, sensitive early life stages of fish (e.g., fish eggs and embryos), and intertidal resources (such as marshes and beaches and all of the plants and animals that live in those habitats). Oil, in addition to being toxic when inhaled or ingested, interferes with birds’ and mammals’ ability to stay waterproof and maintain a normal body temperature, often resulting in death from hypothermia. Floating oil can drift long distances and then strand on shorelines, creating a bigger cleanup challenge.

However, applying dispersants to an oil slick instead shifts the possibility of oil exposure to animals living in the water column beneath the ocean surface and on the sea floor. We talk about making a choice between either protecting shorelines and surface-dwelling animals or protecting organisms in the water column.

But during a large spill like the Deepwater Horizon, this is a false choice. No response technology is 100 percent effective, so it’s not either this or that; it’s how much of each? If responders do use dispersants, some oil will still remain on the surface (or reach the surface in the case of subsurface dispersants), and if they don’t use dispersants, some oil will still naturally mix into or remain in the water column.

Why Don’t We Just Clean up Oil with Booms and Skimmers?

Cleaning up oil with mechanical response methods like skimmers is preferable because these vessels actually remove the mess from the environment by skimming and collecting oil off the water surface. And in most spills, that is all we use. There are thousands of small and medium-sized spills annually, and mechanical cleanup is the norm for these incidents.

But these methods, known as “mechanical recovery,” can only remove some of the oil. Under ideal (rather than normal) circumstances, skimmers can recover—at best—only around 40 percent of an oil spill. During the Deepwater Horizon oil spill response, skimmers only managed to recover approximately 3 percent of the oil released.

Dispersants generally are only considered when mechanical cleanup would be swamped or is considered infeasible. During a big spill, mechanical recovery may only account for a small percentage of the oil. Booms (long floating barriers used to contain or soak up oil) and skimmers don’t work well in rough seas and take more time to deploy. Booms also require constant maintenance or they can become moved around by wind and waves away from their targeted areas. If they get washed onto shore, booms can cause significant damage, particularly in sensitive areas such as marshes and wetlands.

Aircraft spraying dispersant are able to treat huge areas of water quickly while a skimmer moves very slowly, only one to two miles per hour. In the open ocean spilled oil can spread as fast, or faster, than the equipment trying to corral it.

Isn’t There Something Better?

Chemical product label for Corexit dispersant.

Dispersants, such as Corexit, are a class of chemicals specifically designed to remove oil from the water surface by breaking up oil slicks into lots of small droplets. (NOAA)

Well, researchers are trying to develop more effective response tools, including safer dispersants. And the questions surrounding the potential benefits and risks of using dispersants in the Gulf of Mexico have led to substantial research in the Gulf and other waters at risk from spills, including the Arctic. That research is ongoing, and answering one question usually leads to several more.

Unfortunately, however, once an oil spill occurs, we don’t have the luxury of waiting for more research to address lingering scientific and technical concerns. A decision will have to be made quickly and with incomplete information, applied to the situation at the moment. And if, during a large spill, mechanical methods become overwhelmed, the question may be: Is doing nothing else better than using dispersants?

That summer of 2010, in between trips to the Gulf and to hearings in DC, we began to evaluate the observations and science conducted during the spill to build a foundation for planning and decision making in future spills. In 2011, NOAA and our partners held a national workshop of federal, state, industry, and academic scientists to discuss what was known about dispersants and considerations for their use in future spills. You can read the reports and background materials from that workshop.

That was not the only symposium focused on dispersant science and knowledge. Almost every major marine science conference over the past five years has devoted time to the issue. I’ve been involved in workshops and conferences from Florida to Alaska, all wrestling with this issue.

What Have We Learned?

Freshly spilled crude oil in the Ohmsett saltwater test tank starts turning brown after dispersants applied.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill spawned a larger interest in researching dispersants. Here, you can see freshly spilled crude oil in the Ohmsett saltwater test tank in New Jersey, where the oil starts changing a few minutes after dispersants were applied. Note that some of the oil is still black, but some is turning brown. (NOAA)

Now, five years later, many questions remain and more research is coming out almost daily, including possible impacts from these chemicals on humans—both those active in the response as well as residents near the sites of oiling. Keeping up with this research is a major challenge, but we are working closely with our state and federal partners, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Coast Guard, as well as those in the academic community to digest the flow of information.

The biggest lesson learned is one we already knew. Once oil is spilled there are no good outcomes and every response technology involves trade-offs.

Dispersants don’t remove oil from the environment, but they do help reduce the concentration of the oil by spreading it out in the water (which ocean currents and other processes do naturally), while also increasing degradation rates of oil. They reduce the amount of floating oil, which reduces the risk for some organisms and environments, but increases the risk for others. We also know that some marine species are even more sensitive to oil than we previously thought, especially for some developmental stages of offshore fish including tuna and mahi mahi.

But we also know, from the Exxon Valdez and other spills, that oil on the shore can persist for decades and create a chronic source of oil exposure for birds, mammals, fish, and shellfish that live near shore. We don’t want oil in the water column, and we don’t want oil in our bays and shorelines. Basically, we don’t want oil spills at all. That sounds like something everyone can agree with.

But until we stop using, storing and transporting oil, we have the risk of spills. The decision to use dispersants or not use dispersants will never be clear cut. Nor will it be done without a lot of discussion of the trade-offs. The many real and heart-felt concerns about potential consequences aren’t dismissed lightly by the responders who have to make tough choices during a spill.

I am reminded of President Harry Truman who reportedly said he wanted a one-handed economist, since his economic advisers would always say, “on the one hand…on the other.”


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NOAA Builds Tool to Hold Unprecedented Amounts of Data from Studying an Unprecedented Oil Spill

This is a post by Benjamin Shorr of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.

The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Five Years Later

This is the seventh in a series of stories over the coming weeks looking at various topics related to the response, the Natural Resource Damage Assessment science, restoration efforts, and the future of the Gulf of Mexico.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill was the largest marine oil spill in U.S. history. In the wake of this massive pollution release, NOAA and other federal and state government scientists need to determine how much this spill and ensuing response efforts harmed the Gulf of Mexico’s natural resources, and define the necessary type and amount of restoration.

That means planning a lot of scientific studies and collecting a lot of data on the spill’s impacts, an effort beginning within hours of the spill and continuing to this day.

Scientists collected oil samples from across the Gulf Coast. Oil spill observers snapped photographs of oil on the ocean surface from airplanes. Oceanographic sensors detected oil in the water column near the Macondo wellhead. Biologists followed the tracks of tagged dolphins as they swam through the Gulf’s bays and estuaries. Scientists are using this type of information—and much more—to better understand and assess the impacts to the Gulf ecosystem and people’s uses of it.

But what is the best way to gather together and organize what would become an unprecedented amount of data for this ongoing Natural Resource Damage Assessment process? Scientists from across disciplines, agencies, and the country needed to be able to upload their own data and download others’ data, in addition to searching and sorting through what would eventually amount to tens of thousands of samples and millions of results and observations.

First, a Quick Fix

Early on, it became clear that the people assessing the spill’s environmental impacts needed a single online location to organize the quickly accumulating data. To address this need, a team of data management experts within NOAA began creating a secure, web-based data repository.

This new tool would allow scientific teams from different organizations to easily upload their field data and other key information related to their studies, such as scanned field notes, electronic data sheets, sampling protocols, scanned images, photographs, and navigation information. Graphic with gloved hands pouring liquid from sample jar into beaker and numbers of samples, results, and studies resulting from NOAA efforts. While this data repository was being set up, NOAA needed an interim solution and turned to its existing database tool known as Query Manager. Query Manager allowed users to sort and filter some of the data types being collected for the damage assessment—including sediment, tissue, water, and oil chemistry results, as well as sediment and water toxicity data—but the scope and scale of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill called for more flexibility and features in a data management tool. When NOAA’s new data repository was ready, it took over from Query Manager.

Next, a New Data Management Solution

As efforts to both curtail and measure the spill’s impacts continued, the amount and diversity of scientific data began pouring in at unprecedented rates. The NOAA team working on the new repository took stock of the types of data being entered into it and realized a database alone would not be enough. They searched for a better way to not only manage information in the repository but to organize the data and make them accessible to myriad scientists on the Gulf Coast and in laboratories and offices across the country.

Building on industry standard, open source tools for managing “big data,” NOAA developed a flexible data management tool—known as a “data warehouse”—which gives users two key features. First, it allows them to integrate data sets and documents as different as oceanographic sensor data and field observations, and second, it allows users to filter and download data for further analysis and research.

Now, this data warehouse is a little different than the type of physical warehouse where you stack boxes of stuff on row after row of shelves in a giant building. Instead, this web-based warehouse contains a flexible set of tables which can hold various types of data, each in a specific format, such as text documents in .pdf format or images in .jpg format.

Screenshot of data management tool showing map with locations of various data.

NOAA’s data management tool allows users to integrate very different data sets and documents, such as water and oil samples and field observations, as well as filter and download data for further analysis and research. (NOAA)

To fill this digital warehouse with data, the development team worked with the scientific and technical experts, who in many cases were out collecting data in places impacted by the oil spill, to establish a flow of information into the appropriate tables in the warehouse. In addition, they standardized formats for entering certain data, such as date, types of analysis, and names of species.

Manual and automated checks ensure the integrity of the data being entered, a process which gets easier as new data arrive in the warehouse and are incorporated into the proper table. The process of standardizing and integrating data in one accessible location also helps connect cross-discipline teams of scientists who may be working on different parts of the ecosystem, say marsh versus nearshore waters.

The NOAA team has also created a custom-built “query tool” for the data warehouse that can search and filter all of those diverse data in a variety of ways. A user can filter data by one or more values (such as what type of analysis was done), draw a box around a specific geographic area to search and filter data by location, select a month and year to sort by date sampled, or even type in a single keyword or sample ID. This feature is critical for the scientists and technical teams tasked with synthesizing data across time and space to uncover patterns of environmental impact.

Download the Data Yourself

NOAA’s data warehouse currently holds validated damage assessment data from more than 53,000 water, tissue, oil, and sediment samples, which, once these samples were analyzed, have led to over 3.8 million analytical results, also stored within the new tool. Together, NOAA’s samples and analytical results have informed more than 16 scientific studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, as well as many other academic and scientific publications.

While not all of the data from the damage assessment are publicly available yet, you can access validated data collected through cooperative studies or otherwise made available through the Natural Resource Damage Assessment legal process.

You can find validated data exported from NOAA’s digital data warehouse available for download on both the Natural Resource Damage Assessment website and NOAA’s interactive online mapping tool for this spill, the ERMA Deepwater Gulf Response website. Stay tuned for more about this new tool, including additional details on how it works and where you can find it.


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Recalling the Early Hours—and Challenges—of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Five Years Later

This is the sixth in a series of stories over the coming weeks looking at various topics related to the response, the Natural Resource Damage Assessment science, restoration efforts, and the future of the Gulf of Mexico.

Charlie Henry explains something to a small group of men and women.

NOAA’s Charlie Henry (second from left) discusses details of the response in the early days of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill with Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal (right) and other key members of the response. (NOAA)

“Mr. Henry, I’m sorry to wake you, but we have a problem offshore.” This was a young U.S. Coast Guard officer calling me during the night of April 20, 2010. He told me there was an explosion and fire aboard the drilling platform Deepwater Horizon, 50 miles offshore of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico.

At this point, there were far more unknowns than facts. What we did know was that the rig had been evacuated and the primary response efforts were focused on rescuing the 126 crewmen still on the rig. Early reports said a fire continued to burn, but we didn’t know then if it was due to a well blowout situation or a fire from fuel on the vessel.

Waking up to an Emergency

I replied that I would start working up an initial oil spill trajectory analysis (which you can see represented on this map [PDF]) and then drive to the Coast Guard office in Morgan City, Louisiana. As the NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator for the western Gulf of Mexico, my role at the time was to serve as a science adviser to the U.S. Coast Guard on the core team responding to spills.

The only thing worse than being woken up in the middle of the night, is calling others and waking them up. My first call was to my colleague Glen Watabayashi, an experienced oceanographer and modeler with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, located back in our Seattle spill response “war room.” Assessing the ocean currents and wind predictions for the area around the burning rig would provide a foundation for both a prediction of any oil’s path on the surface and might even contribute to the search and rescue activities for missing survivors.

This information soon would assist those people making important response decisions. For everyone that morning, oil pollution some 50 miles offshore was less of a priority than saving lives. If my memory serves, there were more than 60 crew unaccounted for when I was first notified. I could do little else at that point but dress and drive to the Coast Guard office.

A Developing Picture Emerges

Burning Deepwater Horizon rig with firefighting ships in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Deepwater Horizon incident claimed the lives of 11 rig workers and released millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. (U.S. Coast Guard)

It was still dark when I arrived. Coast Guard search and rescue operations continued, joined by “Good Samaritan” vessels in the area. Photos of the burning Deepwater Horizon rig illuminating the dark night were trickling into the command post.

The number of missing crew members continued to drop that morning and into the day, until the number reached 11—and stopped. Those 11 men who died that night were primarily the crew operating the well at the time of the explosion. When the Deepwater Horizon rig rolled to its side and sank nearly a mile to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico two days after the explosion, those crewmen were still aboard.

After the explosion, the only thing holding the Deepwater Horizon in place was the riser and drill pipe connection between the floating platform and the wellhead some 5,000 feet below the ocean surface. During the first two days, the released oil and gas were mostly burning at the sea surface.

When the rig sank, the situation began to change—but deceivingly at first. Remotely operated vehicle (ROV) surveys found that fractures in the riser pipe created when the vessel sank were releasing oil and gas. Released under the high pressure of the well and at extreme ocean depth, this oil and gas became a cloudy plume of oil droplets and gas bubbles. The larger droplets of oil rose to the ocean surface in four to six hours, the smaller droplets might take a day or longer, and the smallest droplets never reached the surface.

As a result, what we saw of the oil at the surface grew slowly during the first couple days. At first, nobody knew how much oil was actually coming from the twisted, bent riser and pipe, but within a few days the amount of oil visible on the water provided evidence that it was a lot of oil.

Enduring a Spill Unlike any Other

On April 29, 2010, at a press conference during the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill, NOAA's Scientific Support Coordinator Charlie Henry explained a map of where spilled oil was predicted to spread in the Gulf of Mexico. To the left of Henry is Rear Admiral Mary Landry, U.S. Coast Guard.

On April 29, 2010, at a press conference during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, NOAA’s Scientific Support Coordinator Charlie Henry explained a map of where spilled oil was predicted to spread in the Gulf of Mexico. To the left of Henry is Rear Admiral Mary Landry, U.S. Coast Guard. (NOAA)

Many superlatives have been attached to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The largest oil spill in U.S. waters. The most expensive spill in history. The largest cleanup, the most studied, the most litigious. It has been called by some the worst ecological disaster in U.S history. Prior to 2010, the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 held many of these superlatives.

Many of the NOAA team responded at the scene of both spills, and for us, the unusual length and high stress of such extended spill responses become personal. Your normal family and life is in part replaced by the NOAA family, as you work long hours far from home and often share supper with your colleagues in the evenings, helping offset some of the difficulties encountered.

Most oil spill–related emergencies are over in a matter of days, and few receive more than a paragraph in the local newspaper. This incident was different. The magnitude and extent of the Deepwater Horizon response reached from the Gulf of Mexico to Washington, DC, and eyes were on it from across the nation and world.

The video feed of the gushing wellhead which was in the corner of many TV channels was a constant and painful reminder that oil was still spilling into the Gulf despite the efforts of a huge and growing response. As oil spill responders and stewards of our marine resources, we were just as frustrated.

NOAA’s primary role in spill response is science that supports decision making. Managing such a major science response seemed at times just as daunting as the unfettered flow of oil from the seafloor. Research cruises that normally take years to plan were launched in days. A new generation of oil research began seemingly overnight. And my colleagues and I remained in emergency mode for weeks on end.

About six weeks into the spill, I did sleep in one Saturday morning. Normally, I would leave the house around 5:15 a.m. to make a 6:00 a.m. briefing.

My wife woke me in a panic, saying, “Honey, you must have over slept.” I answered, “No, I took the morning off on purpose.” She smiled, “You remembered today was our anniversary.”

To be honest, I hadn’t. I was just in need of a few extra hours of sleep, but sometimes you just get lucky. It was nice to have those few extra hours with my wife before returning to what seemed like the endless challenges and stresses of an oil spill I know my NOAA colleagues and I will never forget.


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In Mapping the Fallout from the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, Developing One Tool to Bring Unity to the Response

This is a post by Katie Wagner, Amy Merten, and Michele Jacobi of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.

The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Five Years Later

This is the fifth in a series of stories over the coming weeks looking at various topics related to the response, the Natural Resource Damage Assessment science, restoration efforts, and the future of the Gulf of Mexico.

After an explosion took place on the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010, responders sprang into action.

Vessels surveyed the area around the platform, oil booms were deployed, aerial surveying operations were launched, risk assessment and shoreline cleanup teams set out, and many other response activities were underway. Field teams and technical experts from around the country were immediately called to help with the response.

Mapping Organized Chaos

People at a crowded table with computers and maps.

During the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, NOAA debuted the online mapping tool ERMA, which organized crucial response data into one common picture for everyone involved in this monumental spill.

Among our many other responsibilities during this spill, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration reported to the scene to help manage the data and information being collected to inform spill response decisions occurring across multiple states and agencies.

The process of responding to an oil spill or natural disaster can often be described as “organized chaos.” Effectively managing the many activities and influxes of information during a response is crucial. Responders need to be aware of the local environment, equipment, and associated risks at the scene of the spill, and government leaders from the closest town to Washington, DC, need to make informed decisions about how to deal with the event. Data-rich maps are one way to organize these crucial data into one common operational picture that provides consistent “situational awareness” for everyone involved.

The Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA®) was developed by NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the University of New Hampshire in 2007 as a pilot project, initially focused on the New England coast. ERMA is an online mapping tool that integrates both static and real-time data, such as ship locations, weather, and ocean currents, in a centralized, interactive map for environmental disaster response.

In late March of 2010, ERMA was tested in a special oil spill training drill known as the Spills of National Significance Exercise. The industry representatives, U.S. Coast Guard, and state partners participating in this mock oil spill response recognized ERMA’s potential for visualizing large amounts of complex data and for sharing data with the public during an oil spill.

From Test to Trial by Fire

Twenty-five days later, the Deepwater Horizon disaster began. In the first couple of days after the accident, the ERMA team recognized that the scale of the still-developing oil spill would call for exactly the type of tools and skills for which their team had prepared.

A few days into the disaster, the ERMA team created a new, regional version of their web-based mapping application, incorporating data specific to the Gulf of Mexico and the rapidly escalating Deepwater Horizon oil spill. This included geographic response plans (which guide responses to oil spills in specific areas), oil spill trajectories, and locations of designated response vessels, aerial surveys of oil, oiled shoreline assessments, critical habitats, and fishery closure areas.

Screen shot of mapping program for Gulf of Mexico with oil spill data.

A few days into the disaster, the ERMA team created a new, regional version of their web-based mapping application, incorporating data specific to the Gulf of Mexico and the rapidly escalating Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Here, ERMA shows the location of the wellhead, the days of cumulative oiling on the ocean surface, and the level of oiling observed on shorelines. (NOAA)

Due to the size of the spill, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration was able to expand the team working on ERMA to include members skilled in data management and scientists familiar with the type of data being collected during a spill response. The ERMA team trained dozens of new Geographic Information Systems (GIS) staff to help upload and maintain the new Deepwater Horizon ERMA site as hundreds of data layers were created weekly.

Within a week of the start of the oil spill, NOAA sent the first of many ERMA team members to work in the command posts in Louisiana, where they could translate the needs of the Federal On-Scene Commanders (those in charge of the spill cleanup and response) into updates and changes for ERMA software developers to make to the mapping application.

ERMA played a critical role in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill response effort. Around a month into the spill, the U.S. Coast Guard selected ERMA as the official common operational picture for all federal, state, and local spill responders to use during the incident. With this special designation, the ERMA tool provided a quick visualization of the sprawling, complicated oil spill situation, and improved communication and coordination among responders, environmental stakeholders, and decision makers. On June 15, 2010 the White House presented a publicly accessible version of the Deepwater Horizon ERMA website, which drew more than 3 million hits the first day it was live. This was an unprecedented effort to make transparent data usually only shared within the command post of an oil spill.

The value of the new tool to the response won it praise from retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the national incident commander for the spill, who described its impact, saying, “It allowed us to have a complete picture of what we were doing and what was occurring in the Gulf. The technology has been there, but it’s never been applied in a disaster that was this large scale. It is something that is going to have to incorporate this system into our disaster response doctrine.” Additionally the NOAA development team was one of the finalists for the 2011 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal for Homeland Security contributions by a member of the federal civil service.

From Response to Restoration

In addition to mapping the Deepwater Horizon response and cleanup efforts, ERMA continues to be an active resource throughout the ongoing Natural Resource Damage Assessment and related restoration planning. The Gulf of Mexico coastal resources and habitat data available in ERMA are helping researchers assess the environmental injuries caused by the oil spill.

Five years after this mapping tool’s debut on the national stage during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, developers continue to improve the platform. NOAA now has nine other ERMA sites customized for various U.S. regions, each of which is kept up-to-date with basic information available around the clock and is publicly available. All regional ERMA websites now reside in the federally approved Amazon Cloud environment for online scalability and durability, and the platform has a flexible framework for incorporating data sources from a variety of organizations.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill shifted our perspective of who needs data and when they need it. With the help of ERMA, the public, academic communities, and those outside of the typical environmental response community can access data collected during a disaster and be engaged in future incidents like never before.

Visit ERMA Deepwater Gulf Response for a first-hand look at up-to-date and historical data collected during the response, assessment, and restoration planning phases of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.


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Who Is Funding Research and Restoration in the Gulf of Mexico After the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill?

This is a post by Kate Clark, Acting Chief of Staff with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, and Frank Parker, Associate Director for the NOAA RESTORE Act Science Program, with NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science.

The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Five Years Later

This is the fourth in a series of stories over the coming weeks looking at various topics related to the response, the Natural Resource Damage Assessment science, restoration efforts, and the future of the Gulf of Mexico.

When an oil spill takes place, people want to see the coasts, fish, wildlife, and recreational opportunities affected by that spill restored—so they can be as they were before, as quickly as possible. Fortunately, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 supports this. After most major oil spills, what routinely happens is the government undertakes a Natural Resource Damage Assessment, a rigorous, scientific process of assessing environmental injuries and, with public input, identifying and implementing the appropriate amount of restoration to compensate for the injuries resulting from this spill (all paid for by those responsible for the pollution).

What is not routine in the wake of an oil spill is the groundswell of support for even more research and restoration, beyond the scope of the usual damage assessment process, to bolster the resilience of the impacted ecosystem and coastal communities. Yet that is exactly what happened after the Deepwater Horizon well blowout in 2010, which renewed a national interest in the unique environment that is the Gulf of Mexico.

In the wake of this disaster, there have been various additional investments, outside of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process, in more broadly learning about and restoring the Gulf of Mexico. These distinct efforts to fund research and restoration in the Gulf have been sizable, but keeping track of them can be, frankly, a bit confusing.

The many organizations involved are working to ensure the Gulf’s new infusions of funding for restoration and research are well coordinated. However, keep in mind that each effort is independent of the others in funding mechanism, primary mandate, and process.

Tracking Dollars for Gulf Restoration

In one effort, announced while the Macondo well was still gushing oil, BP dedicated up to $500 million dollars to be spent over 10 years “to fund an independent research program designed to study the impact of the oil spill and its associated response on the environment and public health in the Gulf of Mexico.” This investment spawned the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, or GOMRI, which is governed by an independent, academic research board of 20 science, public health, and research administration experts and independent of BP’s influence.

Meanwhile, BP faced both potential criminal and civil penalties under the Clean Water Act, which regulates the discharge of pollutants into U.S. waters. When such penalties are pursued by the government for pollution events, such as an oil spill, a portion of the criminal monetary penalties are usually paid to a local environmental foundation or conservation organization to administer the funds.

Ultimately, BP agreed to a $4 billion criminal settlement in 2013, with the bulk of that money going to North American Wetlands Conservation Fund, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and National Academy of Sciences.

Chart showing various investments and their recipients for science and restoration efforts in the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Science and restoration initiatives in the Gulf of Mexico following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (NOAA)

That still leaves civil penalties to be determined. Normally, civil penalties under the Clean Water Act are directed to the General Treasury.

However, Congress passed legislation calling for 80 percent of the administrative and civil penalties related to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to be diverted directly to the Gulf of Mexico for ecological and economic restoration. This legislation, known as the RESTORE Act (Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States Act of 2012), passed on July 6, 2012.

While the full extent of BP’s civil penalties have yet to be determined, in 2013 the Department of Justice finalized a civil settlement with Transocean in the amount of $1 billion. This settlement results in more than $800 million going to the Gulf of Mexico under the RESTORE Act. As to penalties for BP, the court has currently ruled on two of the three trial phases. Based on those rulings, currently under appeal, the penalty cap for BP is $13.7 billion. A third trial phase for factors that are taken into account in establishing the penalty at or under that cap was concluded in February 2015. The court has yet to rule on the third phase of the trial, and the pending appeals have not yet been heard by the appeals court.

NOAA and Restoration in the Gulf

So where does NOAA fit into all of this? NOAA is carrying out its usual duties of working with its partners to assess injury to and restore impacted natural resources through the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process. However, NOAA also is involved in supporting broader Gulf research and resilience, which will complement the damage assessment process, in two new ways through the RESTORE Act.

First, NOAA is supporting in the RESTORE Act’s Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, which is chaired by Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker (NOAA sits in the Department of Commerce). Second, NOAA is leading the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Science, Observation, Monitoring, and Technology Program, or more simply, the NOAA RESTORE Act Science Program.

A NOAA ship at dock.

NOAA is leading a science program aimed at improving our understanding of the Gulf of Mexico and the plants and animals that live there, in order to better protect and preserve them. (NOAA)

This program exists because we simply don’t know as much as we need to know about the Gulf of Mexico and the plants and animals that live there in order to reverse the general decline of coastal ecosystems and ensure resilience in the future.

To make sure this new science program addresses the needs of the region, NOAA, in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, met with resource managers, scientists, and other Gulf of Mexico stakeholders to discuss what the focus of the program should be. We heard three key messages loud and clear:

  • Make sure the research we support is closely linked to regional resource management needs.
  • Coordinate with other science initiatives working in the region.
  • Make the results of research available quickly to those who could use them.
Woman checks for bubbles in a sample of water on board the NOAA Ship Pisces.

The NOAA RESTORE Act Science Program is already in the process of making available $2.5 million for research in the Gulf of Mexico, with more opportunities to come. (NOAA)

NOAA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have designed a science plan [PDF] for the NOAA RESTORE Act Science Program that outlines how we will make this happen.

The science plan describes the research priorities highlighted during our engagement with stakeholders and from reviewing earlier assessments of the science needed to better understand the Gulf of Mexico. These priorities will guide how the program directs its funding over the coming years.

The research priorities include improving our understanding of how much and when freshwater, sediment, and nutrients enter the coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico and what this means for the growth of wetlands and the number of shellfish and fish in the Gulf of Mexico. Another priority is developing new techniques and technologies for measuring conditions in the Gulf to help inform resource management decisions.

Apply for Research Funding

Currently, the NOAA RESTORE Act Science Program is holding its first competition for funding, with over 100 research teams already responding. It will make $2.5 million available for researchers to review and integrate what we already know about the Gulf of Mexico and work with resource managers to develop strategies directing the program toward our ultimate goal of supporting the sustainability of the Gulf and its fisheries.

The results of this work also will help inform the direction of other science initiatives and restoration activities in the Gulf region. NOAA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will announce the winners of this funding competition in the fall of 2015.

To learn more about the NOAA RESTORE Act Science Program and future funding opportunities, visit http://restoreactscienceprogram.noaa.gov/.


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In the Wake of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, Gulf Dolphins Found Sick and Dying in Larger Numbers Than Ever Before

The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Five Years Later

This is the third in a series of stories over the coming weeks looking at various topics related to the response, the Natural Resource Damage Assessment science, restoration efforts, and the future of the Gulf of Mexico.

A dolphin is observed with oil on its skin on August 5, 2010, in Barataria Bay, La.

A dolphin is observed with oil on its skin on August 5, 2010, in Barataria Bay, Louisiana. (Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries/Mandy Tumlin)

Dolphins washing up dead in the northern Gulf of Mexico are not an uncommon phenomenon. What has been uncommon, however, is how many more dead bottlenose dolphins have been observed in coastal waters affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the five years since. In addition to these alarmingly high numbers, researchers have found that bottlenose dolphins living in those areas are in poor health, plagued by chronic lung disease and failed pregnancies.

Independent and government scientists have undertaken a number of studies to understand how this oil spill may have affected dolphins, observed swimming through oil and with oil on their skin, living in waters along the Gulf Coast. These ongoing efforts have included examining and analyzing dead dolphins stranded on beaches, using photography to monitor living populations, and performing comprehensive health examinations on live dolphins in areas both affected and unaffected by Deepwater Horizon oil.

The results of these rigorous studies, which recently have been and continue to be published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, show that, in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill and in the areas hardest hit, the dolphin populations of the northern Gulf of Mexico have been in crisis.

Troubled Waters

Due south of New Orleans, Louisiana, and northwest of the Macondo oil well that gushed millions of barrels of oil for 87 days, lies Barataria Bay. Its boundaries are a complex tangle of inlets and islands, part of the marshy delta where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico and year-round home to a group of bottlenose dolphins.

During the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, this area was one of the most heavily oiled along the coast. Beginning the summer after the spill, record numbers of dolphins started stranding, or coming ashore, often dead, in Barataria Bay (Venn-Watson et al. 2015). One period of extremely high numbers of dolphin deaths in Barataria Bay, part of the ongoing, largest and longest-lasting dolphin die-off recorded in the Gulf of Mexico, persisted from August 2010 until December 2011.

In the summer of 2011, researchers also measured the health of dolphins living in Barataria Bay, comparing them with dolphins in Sarasota Bay, Florida, an area untouched by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Differences between the two populations were stark. Many Barataria Bay dolphins were in very poor health, some of them significantly underweight and five times more likely to have moderate-to-severe lung disease. Notably, the dolphins of Barataria Bay also were suffering from disturbingly low levels of key stress hormones which could prevent their bodies from responding appropriately to stressful situations. (Schwacke et al. 2014)

“The magnitude of the health effects that we saw was surprising,” said NOAA scientist Dr. Lori Schwacke, who helped lead this study. “We’ve done these health assessments in a number of locations across the southeast U.S. coast and we’ve never seen animals that were in this poor of condition.”

The types of illnesses observed in live Barataria Bay dolphins, which had sufficient opportunities to inhale or ingest oil following the 2010 spill, match those found in people and other animals also exposed to oil. In addition, the levels of other pollutants, such as DDT and PCBs, which previously have been linked to adverse health effects in marine mammals, were much lower in Barataria Bay dolphins than those from the west coast of Florida.

Dead in the Water

Based on findings from the 2011 study, the outlook for dolphins living in one of the most heavily oiled areas of the Gulf was grim. Nearly 20 percent of the Barataria Bay dolphins examined that year were not expected to live, and in fact, the carcass of one of them was found dead less than six months later (Schwacke et al. 2014). Scientists have continued to monitor the dolphins of Barataria Bay to document their health, survival, and success giving birth.

Considering these health conditions, it should come as little surprise that record high numbers of dolphins have been dying along the coasts of Louisiana (especially Barataria Bay), Alabama, and Mississippi. This ongoing, higher-than-usual marine mammal die-off, known as an unusual mortality event, has lasted over four years and claimed more than a thousand marine mammals, mostly bottlenose dolphins. For comparison, the next longest lasting Gulf die-off (in 2005–2006) ended after roughly a year and a half (Litz et al. 2014 [PDF]).

Researchers studying this exceptionally long unusual mortality event, which began in February 2010, identified within it multiple distinct groupings of dolphin deaths. All but one of them occurred after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which released oil from April to July 2010, and corresponded with areas exposed heavily to the oil, particularly Barataria Bay (Venn-Watson et al. 2015). In early 2011, the spring following the oil spill, Mississippi and Alabama saw a marked increase in dead dolphin calves, which either died late in pregnancy or soon after birth, and which would have been exposed to oil as they were developing.

The Gulf coasts of Florida and Texas, which received comparatively little oiling from the Deepwater Horizon spill, did not see the same significant annual increases in dead dolphins as the other Gulf states (Venn-Watson et al. 2015). For example, Louisiana sees an average of 20 dead whales and dolphins wash up each year, but in 2011 alone, this state recorded 163 (Litz et al. 2014 [PDF]).

The one grouping of dolphin deaths starting before the spill, from March to May 2010, took place in Louisiana’s Lake Pontchartrain (a brackish lagoon) and western Mississippi. Researchers observed both low salinity levels in this lake and tell-tale skin lesions thought to be associated with low salinity levels on this group of dolphins. This combined evidence supports that short-term, freshwater exposure in addition to cold weather early in 2010 may have been key contributors to those dolphin deaths prior to the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Legacy of a Spill?

A bottlenose dolphin swims in the shallow waters along a sandy beach with orange oil boom.

A bottlenose dolphin swims in the shallow waters along the beach in Grand Isle, Louisiana, near oil containment boom that was deployed on May 28, 2010. Oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill began washing up on beaches here one month after the drilling unit exploded. (U.S. Coast Guard)

In the past, large dolphin die-offs in the Gulf of Mexico could usually be tied to short-lived, discrete events, such as morbillivirus and marine biotoxins (resulting from harmful algal blooms). While studies are ongoing, the current evidence does not support that these past causes are responsible for the current increases in dolphin deaths in the northern Gulf since 2010 (Litz et al. 2014).

However, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill—its timing, location, and nature—offers the strongest evidence for explaining why so many dolphins have been sick and dying in the Gulf since 2010. Ongoing studies are assessing disease among dolphins that have died and potential changes in dolphin health over the years since the spill.

As is the case for deep-sea corals, the full effects of this oil spill on the long-lived and slow-to-mature bottlenose dolphins and other dolphins and whales in the Gulf may not appear for years. Find more information related to dolphin health in the Gulf of Mexico on NOAA’s Unusual Mortality Event and Gulf Spill Restoration websites.

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