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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What’s in the Oil from the Deepwater Horizon Spill? What’s in ANY Oil?

Heavy band of oil in the Gulf of Mexico

Heavy band of oil seen during an overflight in the Gulf of Mexico on May 12,2010. Credit: NOAA.

What is in oil? Well, there are literally thousands of individual compounds in oil. So what was in the oil flowing out of the Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico last summer?

Researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution took samples in order to figure this out and just published some of their findings on the chemical composition of the Deepwater Horizon oil in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [PDF]. You can read a non-scientist’s summary of these findings at Scientific American.

The Scientific American story points out that crude oil is not a single substance but is a mix of different hydrocarbons and other chemicals and trace metals. But did you know that there are also thousands of different kinds of crude and refined oils?

Oil from the Alaska North Slope is really different than oil from Alaska’s Cook Inlet, not to mention places like Angola, Nigeria, or Venezuela. The chemical components of the oil depend on the geologic formation they are extracted from, and even oil from the same geologic formation can vary over time.

Another way to think about this is to imagine separate regions of the world that make “wine.” There are many types of wine, but a merlot doesn’t taste like a chardonnay because the grapes are a different variety. But even a merlot with grapes grown in California will have a distinct flavor from a merlot grown in France, from a neighboring valley in California, and even from the same vineyard from year to year. Why? Because the ingredients in the soil, the weather conditions, and how the grapes were grown create these differences in the grapes. All of these and other factors come together to give you a different kind of “wine.” It’s a similar concept for oil.

Comparing diesel and bunker fuel oils

Diesel fuel, left, is a much lighter oil than the heavy, slow-moving bunker fuel on the right. Credit: Doug Helton, NOAA.

These differences in the ratios of certain hydrocarbons and other chemicals (the varying “recipes” for oils) make a difference in the extraction and refining process—as well as in spill cleanup. Some crude oils are heavy and viscous (sticky and slow-moving), like roofing tar, while others are light, like diesel fuel. Some oils have a lot of sulfur compounds. These are called sour crudes. Oils without a lot of sulfur are referred to as sweet crudes.

Some oils are so heavy that they sink beneath the water surface when spilled, and some are so light that a large fraction will evaporate. Some will mix with water and form stable emulsions, like an oil-based salad dressing. Some oils are amenable to specific response strategies such as burning or chemical dispersants. Because these variations in oil can make a big difference when oil is spilled, we have computer programmers who created and maintain a database of oils and their properties to help make decisions during spill responses.

Our Automated Data Inquiry for Oil Spills (ADIOS2) model has a database containing more than a thousand crude oils and refined products and provides quick estimates of the expected characteristics and behavior of spilled oil.

The database was compiled from different sources, including Environment Canada, the U.S. Department of Energy, and industry. Take a look for yourself at all of the information about oil in the database, and then create a mock spill to calculate how much of the oil would have evaporated, been naturally dispersed in the water column, and is still remaining on the water surface.

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NOAA Is On Scene at the Site of the Yellowstone River Pipeline Oil Spill

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is officially on scene at the Yellowstone River spill, in Billings, Mont., where an ExxonMobil pipeline ruptured on July 1, 2011, releasing an estimated 31,500 to 42,000 gallons of oil into the iconic river, which was at flood-stage level at the time of the spill.

Oiled winter wheat from the Yellowstone River pipeline spill

Bob Gibson of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks displays oil on winter wheat from the ExxonMobil pipeline spill on the Yellowstone River. Credit: Sarah Clune/PBS News Hour, Creative Commons, some rights reserved.

Being part of NOAA, the Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) usually sticks to the ocean and coasts—the “O” in NOAA is for Oceanic, after all—but sometimes we venture inland when other federal agencies ask for our help. In this case, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has asked us to start the initial stages of a Natural Resource Damage Assessment on their behalf for the Yellowstone spill. This process, which usually kicks off at the same time as cleanup, studies the overall effects of a spill on fish, wildlife, surrounding habitat, and public use of those resources (i.e. fishing or boating). Scientists work together to identify the extent of damage, figure out how to rehabilitate those resources, and specify the type and amount of restoration needed. Our staff is expert in this damage assessment process because we do it all the time thanks to the mandate of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.

Absorbent booms and pads corral crude oil from ExxonMobil's broken pipeline along the Yellowstone River. Credit: Sarah Clune/PBS News Hour, Creative Commons, some rights reserved.

In Montana, OR&R will be establishing the damage assessment structure and process, assessing the situation, and beginning injury planning and implementation for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Charlene Andrade of OR&R’s Assessment and Restoration Division arrived at the command post in Montana on July 16 and will remain there for approximately two weeks.

Additionally, OR&R scientists John Lomnicky and Jordan Stout are on scene modeling what happened to the oil, where it is headed, and what responders should expect to see at the scene of the spill. Also, NOAA meteorologists from the Weather Forecast Office in Billings, Mont., are providing critical weather data to guide the response and ensure the safety of workers.

While we’re happy to be helping, our friends at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are the ones leading the overall cleanup effort for this incident, and they have lots of up-to-date information at, including answers to frequently asked questions on the last page of this incident update [PDF].

Due to its location on the east side of the Continental Divide, the Yellowstone River flows from west to the northeast, meaning the spilled oil is headed away from Yellowstone National Park. It also happens to be the longest undammed river in the continental U.S.

To get a closer look at how a Natural Resource Damage Assessment works, check out NOAA’s video on this process in the Gulf of Mexico in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill:

Photos are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license.

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Talkin’ Trash with Our Nation’s Educators

Program cover for 2011 National Marine Educators Association conference.

Program cover for the 2011 National Marine Educators Association conference.

“Diving with Dragons”
“City Fish and Country Fish”
“Ultimate Squid Dissection”
“Small Fry to Go: Growing a new generation of citizen scientists”
“Ghostbusting in the Chesapeake”

You know you’re going to a conference of educators when you see presentation names like these! These were only a handful of over 200 educational presentations at this year’s National Marine Educators Association (NMEA) conference. This year’s conference was held June 29-July 3 on the gorgeous campus of Northeastern University in Boston.

So much to learn, so little time! Educators from all across the U.S. and even a handful from countries such as Australia and Japan were in attendance, each bringing knowledge and experience in outreach and education. My week was spent trying to download and absorb as much information as I could, coupled with networking with as many people as possible. The wealth of educational programs, resources, tools, and materials out there is staggering and utterly impressive. You could find everything from a toolkit to help you teach about plankton to information on how to use GPS drifters for hands-on oceanography.

Of course, you could also learn about the incredibly fascinating subject of “Plastics and the Patches: Information and Resources on Marine Debris.” My presentation was on the very last day of the conference and right before lunch. I had to wonder how many folks would actually show up. You see, I was one of ten presenters all slated for the same time slot and thus participants had to choose carefully as they could only go and see one of the ten. I must say that I was pleasantly surprised with a completely full room!

Pacific Garbage Patch map 2010

Map of the North Pacific Ocean showing major currents and the areas known as “garbage patches.” Credit: NOAA Marine Debris Program.

We have all seen stories in the media about plastic marine debris and areas of our oceans known as the “garbage patches” (areas of the ocean where marine debris tends to concentrate). The myriad of information, sometimes contradictory, has left the public confused. Why haven’t I seen a photo of a patch? Do plastics truly degrade? In an attempt to arm educators with the sound science and the resources and materials to help make their work easier, my presentation provided up-to-date science-based information to help demystify and clarify what is known about plastic marine debris and the patches. I was blown away by not only the level of interest, enthusiasm, and passion for the topic of marine debris, but also the desire for good, solid, science-based information.

Boston at sunset

Boston at sunset. Credit: NOAA Marine Debris Program.

The week flew by and before I knew it, I was headed home. I left with my luggage much heavier than when I arrived, my notebook bursting at the seams with new information, my business card holder overflowing with new contacts. The educators’ passion fueled my passion and renewed my hope and belief that there will be an end to this worldwide problem. To all the educators–thank you and keep rockin’!

–Carey Morishige, NOAA Marine Debris Program

Carey also blogs for the NOAA Marine Debris Program over at