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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The $1.4 Million Question: What’s the Best Way to Clean Up an Oil Spill?

That’s the lucrative question the X PRIZE Foundation is asking and one of up to ten innovative teams may help answer this summer in the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X CHALLENGE.

“This X CHALLENGE was developed as a result of the increasing awareness and disappointment at the inefficiency of our oil spill cleanup capabilities,” said Wendy Schmidt, President of The Schmidt Family Foundation and title sponsor of the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X CHALLENGE, in a press release [leaves this blog].

When the X PRIZE Foundation was searching for the competition’s judges and needed an expert on responding to oil spills, Dave Westerholm, Director of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration [leaves this blog], stepped up to the challenge.

“It is a great honor and is very exciting to be a part of this kind of project,” said Westerholm.  “At NOAA we pride ourselves on bringing scientific solutions to pollution and I look forward to working on this X CHALLENGE that will take innovative ideas and turn them into new methods of oil spill response and recovery.  The X CHALLENGE has already stimulated investment in research and development and inspired new ideas that I expect to benefit our economies, communities, and ecosystems in the future.”

Westerholm and the rest of the judging panel will be selecting winners for the $1.4 million in prizes after the competition’s top teams go head-to-head this summer at OHMSETT, the National Oil Spill Response Research & Renewable Energy Test Facility in New Jersey. The teams will each be trying to demonstrate that their new inventions and processes most efficiently and quickly recover oil from the surface of seawater.

Find out more about the Oil Cleanup X CHALLENGE at [leaves this blog] and in this informational video from the X PRIZE Foundation:

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Up in the Air

Oil spills are mostly a water pollution problem, but the best perspective on a spill is generally from the air rather than the deck of a ship.  As a result, we end up flying in helicopters and small planes to track how the oil moves.

These visual observations in the field are passed along to the command post to help plan cleanup, but the information is also used by my colleagues in Seattle who create computer models of oil spills. The observations we make in flight, along with weather and water currents, are used to predict where the oil slick may head.  That information helps those of us responding to a spill to position equipment such as skimmers, floating booms, and cleanup teams in the areas most likely to be oiled.

Steve Lehmann, our Scientific Support Coordinator in New England, in a helicopter over a spill in Buzzards Bay, Mass.

Steve Lehmann, our Scientific Support Coordinator in New England, in a helicopter over a spill in Buzzards Bay, Mass. Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

Working in small planes and helicopters can be dangerous, so we do a lot of training and carry a lot of safety gear.  And if we can, we like to fly with the door open to have a better view.

In this picture, Steve Lehmann, our Scientific Support Coordinator in New England, is wearing a helmet, safety visor, intercom to the pilot, inflatable vest, and fire-resistant coveralls.  The inflatable vest is a special design for helicopters and contains a small emergency breathing tank called a HEED (Helicopter Emergency Egress Device) with about two minutes of air.  Helicopters that fly over water have inflatable floats on their landing gear, but if the helicopter had to land in the water, it could tip over, so the emergency air bottle gives extra time to escape.

On the seat next to Steve, you can see an orange inflatable life raft with a water-activated strobe light.  The yellow device with the black antenna is called an EPIRB.  That stands for Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon. This automatically sends out a distress signal to search and rescue teams if the raft is launched.

Responders undergo safety training in a pool, using SCUBA tanks to refill HEED air tanks.

Here, responders use SCUBA tanks to refill HEED air tanks. Credit: NOAA

In addition to all of the gear, we also do a lot of training on flight safety and what to do in emergencies.  Every couple years we practice in a swimming pool with a mock-up of a helicopter.  This “dunker” simulates a helicopter rolling and sinking after hitting the water.

I’ve flown on a lot of commercial and military helicopters during spills and thankfully never had to use my HEED.  Keeping up with safety in the air is important, even when the mess is in the water.

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Podcast: Eyes on the Scene of the Deepwater Horizon/BP Oil Spill

In today’s Making Waves Podcast, the National Ocean Service looks back at NOAA’s role in the Deepwater Horizon spill response—the months when oil was spilling into the Gulf—through the eyes of one of the first NOAA responders to the spill. Debbie Payton, chief of the Office of Response and Restoration’s (OR&R) Emergency Response Division, joins in on this reflection of how thousands of NOAA staff plunged their efforts into the oily Gulf waters one year ago.

Put your ear to the podcast here:

The main job of OR&R’s Emergency Response Division during an oil or chemical spill is to give solid science to the decision makers, usually the U.S. Coast Guard, who need that information to keep harmful effects on people and planet as low as possible.

What could this scientific support look like during an emergency? It could mean figuring out the chemical make-up of whatever was spilled (for example, is it thick and heavy crude oil or light and thinly spread out diesel?) and what threats it might pose to people, plants, and wildlife. This helps answer important questions about things like seafood safety, public health, and marine mammal protection.

Striped Dolphins
Striped dolphins (Stenella coeruleoalba) observed in emulsified oil in the Gulf of Mexico on April 29, 2010. Credit: NOAA.

Debbie Payton: “Those are all pieces of what NOAA does. The science support is gathering all that information, all that information coming from not only federal scientists, but other scientists as well, and trying to put that into a cohesive information that the Coast Guard, who’s helping to direct the response, can use to answer specific questions: where is the oil going, what’s it going to look like when it gets there, what’s the threat to birds or turtles, or other resources, and how can we best clean it up.”

For the latest updates on what’s going on in the Gulf, keep tabs on And if you just can’t get enough about NOAA’s role in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, head over to the Office of Response and Restoration Deepwater Horizon Incident page.

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Furlongs per Fortnight: Units of Measure and the Deepwater Horizon/BP Oil Spill

It’s been almost a year since I started writing for this blog. Shortly after the first entry, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig caught fire in the Gulf of Mexico, taking the lives of eleven men and creating the biggest spill in U.S. history. As the Incident Operations Coordinator for NOAA, there were days when I barely got an hour of sleep. The past year was hectic and exhausting, so as much as I wanted to, keeping up a blog about oil spills was one of many activities that fell through the cracks when up against actually responding to a massive oil spill.

One of my roles in the response to the spill was outreach to the media and Congress on oil spill science. During the last year, I gave hundreds of interviews, dozens of briefings, and was a witness before both House and Senate hearings. Trying to convey the science of spills in a way in which everyone could relate was challenging, especially when trying to communicate the varied units and scales of spills.

And it seems that every area of science and business has their own units of measure. Many of the stories about the nuclear radiation leaks in Japan right now talk about units such as sieverts and becquerels, which my spell checker doesn’t even recognize.

Understanding the Scale of Oil Released into the Gulf of Mexico

I really wanted everyone to understand the magnitude of the Deepwater Horizon/BP spill, so I tried to provide some of the following examples that everyone could relate to and visualize themselves.

The Deepwater Horizon oil rig was located in about 5,000 feet of seawater, and the depth of the well it was drilling into was approximately 18,000 feet below sea level.  The tallest building in the U.S. is the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) in Chicago, standing at 1,451 feet. Sport divers can’t swim much below 200 feet, and past 1,000 feet down in the ocean, everything has to be done by remotely operated submarine robots.

Many misunderstandings arise because crude oil in the U.S. is typically measured in barrels. Barrels are used in many industries to store bulk liquids, and there is no universal measure. A barrel of beer is 31 gallons. A barrel of wine is 60 gallons.

An oil barrel is 42 U.S. gallons. Elsewhere in the world, oil is commonly measured using cubic meters (m3), also known as metric tons or tonnes. There are approximately 300 gallons per ton of oil, depending on the density of the particular oil. Early reports about a spill incident may use any of these units, so it is important to clarify whether the reports are using gallons, barrels, or tonnes.  We created a desktop conversion program that converts units unique to oil spill response. Try it out:

Right now, our best estimate is that about 4.9 million barrels of oil were released into the Gulf of Mexico over about 87 days. At 42 gallons per barrel, that adds up to 205 million gallons total. To give you some perspective, a typical bathtub is about 40 to60 gallons, and an Olympic-sized swimming pool holds about 660,000 gallons. So imagine 4 million bathtubs or 340 swimming pools filled with oil.

When oil is spilled, it quickly spreads with winds and currents, creating a very thin layer on the sea surface.  Like oil in a puddle after a rainstorm, the thinnest layers of oil can be rainbow-colored or nearly transparent. These thin layers are typically measured in microns, and there are 1,000 microns in 1 millimeter.  Rainbow sheen is typically less than 1 to 5 microns thick.  It is hard to visualize these small units, but standard copy paper is about 100 microns thick. More information on how oil spreads and appears at sea can be found in our “Open Water Oil Identification Job Aid” at [PDF, 4.6 M].

Oil dispersed in water is also hard to visualize. Scientists generally use “parts per million” (ppm) or “parts per billion” (ppb) to describe very low concentrations of contaminants. I tried to use a number of examples to illustrate these low concentrations (a ppm is like one inch in 16 miles, or one second in 11.5 days), but one of the more useful tools was a simple photograph that one of our scientists took. You can see that 1 ppm or 10 ppm still looks like clear water.

Six vials of water showing differences in concentration from 0 parts per million to 10,000 parts per millionEnvironmental sampling and chemical testing can detect some chemicals in extremely small amounts—sometimes creating excessive public concern. We as scientists need to improve how we explain our technical results so that they are meaningful to non-scientists.

And by the way, a furlong per fortnight, as I referenced in the title of this post, is a tongue-in-cheek measure of speed. A furlong is 1/8 of a mile and a fortnight is 14 days, meaning one furlong per fortnight would be about 0.0004 miles per hour, or 1 centimeter per minute.

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When I was young all the gas was so plentiful

This blog post was originally published by Doug Helton on April 2, 2010.

Photograph of a Mobil Service gas station with an "Out of Gas" sign by the pumps, ca. 1974. Photographer is unknown. Washington State Archives/Digital Archives

Photograph of a Mobil Service gas station with an "Out of Gas" sign by the pumps, ca. 1974. Photographer is unknown. Washington State Archives/Digital Archives

I grew up in the ’70s. I remember the 1973-74 fuel embargo and waiting in long gas station lines in my parents’ gas-guzzling 1972 Ford Galaxie (12 mpg). In 1979, my dad parked that car and bought a diesel Volkswagen rabbit (45 mpg).

In high school, “The Logical Song,” a hit single from Supertramp’s 1979 album Breakfast in America, was quickly parodied in “The Topical Song.” The lyrics, “When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful,” became “When I was young, all the gas was so plentiful.”

The early ’80s post-apocalyptic movie “The Road Warrior” told the story of societal breakdown as violent gangs roamed the Australian Outback in search of the world’s most precious commodity: gasoline.

With that childhood, I never thought there would be any oil left when I grew up. I am sometimes amazed that 30 years later I work on oil spills.

Although our oil exploration, production, and transportation systems are remarkably safe and efficient, there are still thousands of oil spills every year in the United States. The goal of this blog is to share information on oil spill response and other related environmental challenges.

To get started, some perspective: Oil is still the predominant source of energy in the United States. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), we consume over 19.5 million barrels of petroleum every day. Domestic production accounts for only 43% of the demand, so we import 11,114,000 barrels a day.

That is a lot of oil, but how much is a barrel? And do they actually ship oil in barrels? A standard barrel is 42 gallons, but unless you live in a remote location like the Alaskan Bush, you will probably never see petroleum in a barrel. Why they picked a conversion unit as weird as 42 gallons is perhaps the subject of a future blog post.

So we use almost 20 million barrels a day: 840 million gallons of petroleum. And that oil is stored in tanks large and small, and transported in tankers, barges, pipeline, trucks, rail cars, and other containers. And everywhere oil is stored or transported, there is the potential for a spill.

Fortunately, only a minute fraction of that oil is spilled. According to a recent report by the American Petroleum Institute, for every barrel of oil used in the U.S., only 0.00003 barrels are spilled. This works out to about 9.1 million gallons spilled every year in the U.S. Enough to keep spill responders busy.

And what really keeps us busy is the knowledge that despite all of the best efforts and precautions, a major spill can happen any time. Transporting all that oil every day takes hundreds of ships and barges and thousands of miles of pipelines, and accidents happen. A single tanker can easily carry over 50 million gallons. Even a large freighter or cruise ship can carry a couple million gallons of fuel oil. It is not a matter of if, but when another large spill will happen in the U.S.

So look for future blog entries on spill response and restoration and related topics.

–Doug Helton, Incident Operations Coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Emergency Response Division