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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Art Can Transform Plastic Pollution into Ocean Conservation

This is a guest post by artist-activist Pam Longobardi and naturalist-photographer Wayne Sentman, originally posted on NOAA’s Marine Debris Blog.

Pam Longobardi’s art installation made from marine debris.

Pam Longobardi’s art piece “Consumption Driftweb,” made from marine debris, in OCEANOMANIA at Nouveau Musée National de Monaco, 2011. Credit: Pam Longobardi.

Art can be premonitory; it can be seen as a red flag or a warning as sensitive artists notice and respond to change and impactful events. More and more artists around the world are responding to the degradation of our ocean systems by human-made plastic pollution. Art created from this material is increasingly being used as a mechanism of environmental education, helping to create an emotional connection to the problem among the viewing public, utilizing marine debris as a material to create awareness among multiple communities.

Creative artists now play a role in both interpreting this environmental challenge to the public and helping to inspire creative solutions to what at times seems like an unsolvable problem. Public art installations can help create a new public consciousness that promotes pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors.

Dead albatross with stomach full of plastic litter.

Laysan albatross carcass with ingested plastic debris. Credit: C. Fackler, NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.

On Midway Atoll, a remote National Wildlife Refuge in the North Pacific, Wayne has witnessed the effects of plastic marine pollution firsthand for many years. Albatross chicks’ decaying carcasses have filled viewers with a sense of “culpable ignorance.” Seeing these decayed bodies laden with plastic where their stomachs would be reminds us that we are connected to the natural world. That plastic toothbrush that we threw out, those bottle caps that we walk past on the street, and the multitude of plastic that we have not recycled ends up where we least expect it.

Over the years artists have been the messengers of the “un-natural” history of this problem so easily viewed in the field at Midway Atoll. The albatross at Midway are a harbinger of the amount of plastic in the ocean since they happen to feed along one of the largest concentrations of marine debris in the North Pacific. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service researchers have estimated that each year at least 5 tons of plastic marine debris is brought to (landfilled at) Midway Atoll by albatross regurgitating to their young. Recent studies indicate that marine plastic pollution is also ending up in fish from these same areas and is now integrated into the marine food chain.

Additionally, artists are starting to work collaboratively with scientists and activists to create a synergistic, multi-disciplinary approach to raising public awareness and defining positive actions that can be undertaken to address the issue. The United Nations Environmental Program and NOAA co-sponsored the 5th International Marine Debris Conference in Honolulu, Hawaii, and the conference was a model of this type of relationship.

The unique thing about this conference was the enormous presence of art at what was basically a scientific conference. UNEP and NOAA invited us to put together the art program, and we were able to raise enough funds to hold a professional fine art exhibition within the conference. Pam also put together a digital stream of nearly 40 other artists from around the world working with this issue. The overwhelming response by artists all over the world to her call for artwork was in itself a wonderful and heartening experience.

The conference brought together the plastics industry, scientists, artists, and activists like Surfrider Foundation and Plastics Pollution Coalition—people from all over the world (440 people from 36 countries). Many of these stakeholders are on opposite sides of the issue, but the conference managed to provide a forum that brought everyone to the table. What resulted was the Honolulu Commitment, which we see as the “Kyoto Protocol of plastic.” The artist/activist contingent worked very hard to get specific language about micro-plastics, endocrine disruptors, and heavy metal contamination into the document that all parties agreed to. It felt momentous.

Pam is also working on a project with the Alaska SeaLife Center [leaves this blog] and the Anchorage Museum to send an expedition of artists and scientists to the remote stretch of the Aleutian Islands off Alaska that form the northern rim of the North Pacific Gyre. We had our first planning meeting of all the partners in June and filmed a promotional video that involved a beach landing in Resurrection Bay, with Carl Safina and Pam surveying what was found there. This project is very large scale and still over a year away from being initiated, but Pam and Howard Ferren, Director of Conservation at the Alaska SeaLife Center, have already been working on it for over a year, and it continues to evolve and take shape.

Few people are able to visit remote places such as Midway Atoll or the Aleutian Islands. Art can serve as the bridge to these wildlife populations and the environmental issues that could only otherwise be appreciated through firsthand field experience. When professional artists from around the globe begin to explore the topic of marine debris, the public is made aware that this problem is not simply limited to a remote island group but is global in scale and therefore we all are connected to, and part of, the problem. Once a viewer appreciates this connection, discovered through viewing art, they may become engaged with the marine environment and more invested in finding solutions to reducing marine pollution sources.

Art is a powerful way to increase public participation and awareness of the problems of marine debris by showcasing it in an educational yet judgment-neutral manner across a diverse stakeholder base. When students and community members view and interact with items of collected marine debris in large-scale works of art, the intimacy with the items will facilitate an understanding of individual connectedness to this problem. Art can showcase the problem, helping individuals to become motivated to contribute to solutions without assigning blame to other segments of the community.

–Pam Longobardi and Wayne Sentman

About the guest bloggers:

Pam Longobardi.

Pam Longobardi.

“The first time I came face to face with enormous piles of plastic debris on South Point of the Big Island in 2006, I was amazed at the beautiful colors against the black lava beach, because that’s what plastic does, it charms and seduces us. Then I got closer and I could see what it all was, it was all our JUNK, and it just hit me like a thunderbolt. There was even a toilet seat among the piles, and it was such a sick sad metaphor for how we treat the earth. It changed me right then and there, and I began gathering it up and cleaning beaches, to drag it back and show it, to put it in front of people so we can see what the material legacy of the human race has become. This was the start of the Drifters Project.

Wayne Sentman.

Wayne Sentman.

As an artist, I have always dealt with trying to understand the psychological relationship between humans and nature. We are in a kind of dualistic isolation from it, at once an integral part of it and yet somehow outside of it. I am interested in the idea of the positioning of the ego in an attempt to locate the self amidst the incomprehensibility of the external natural world at large. Culture functions as a way to try to navigate or map this territory.”  –Pam Longobardi

After many years working in remote field locations around the globe, where I witnessed the impacts on wildlife related to marine pollution, I have become very interested in the value of art as a way to interpret “hidden” environmental issues to the public. Art has the power to facilitate an understanding of an individual’s connectedness to this problem. –Wayne Sentman

The NOAA Marine Debris Program, one of three divisions within the Office of Response and Restoration, serves as a centralized program within NOAA, coordinating, strengthening, and promoting marine debris activities within the agency and among its partners and the public.


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19 Years after Hurricane Andrew, Hurricane Irene Provides a New Reminder

Satellite image of 2011 Hurricane Irene.

An enhanced satellite image of Hurricane Irene passing over Puerto Rico, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. Credit: NOAA.

Today, August 24, is the 19th anniversary of Hurricane Andrew, one of the most destructive U.S. hurricanes on record and only the third Category 5 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Scale [leaves this blog] to ever make landfall in the U.S. On the anniversary of Hurricane Andrew, which produced peak winds of 164 miles per hour, another hurricane threatens our coast: Hurricane Irene.

Even if you didn’t know about the storm named Irene [leaves this blog] that recently passed over the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, the name Hurricane Irene might sound familiar because there was another storm of the same name that made landfall in Florida in 1999. For more information on the status of the current Hurricane Irene, go to NOAA’s National Hurricane Center website  [leaves this blog].

The previous Hurricane Irene formed in the Caribbean Sea on October 12,1999 and made landfall as a hurricane in Key West and Cape Sable, Fla., before moving offshore near Jupiter, Fla. Its winds peaked at 110 mph before encountering cooler North Atlantic waters and slowly dissipating but not before causing an estimated $900 million in damage in Florida alone and 8 indirect deaths in the U.S. It could have been much worse, and if it had been, the World Meteorological Organization would have retired the name Irene permanently from its list of future storm names, as it did with Andrew and Katrina.

While it is interesting to reflect on the coincidence of two storms with the same name threatening the same region of our coast, I have a serious point here: Tropical storms are a very real threat to life and property.

We All Rely on NOAA during Disasters

While I work as a scientist for NOAA, I don’t forecast storms or severe weather. That duty and responsibility belongs to my NOAA colleagues in the National Weather Service. I’m an environmental and marine scientist by education and a NOAA emergency responder by vocation. I’ve lived along the Gulf of Mexico most of my adult life, and like you, I rely on the dedicated women and men of the NOAA National Hurricane Center and my local NOAA Weather Forecast Office to provide me the best early warnings so that I can both prepare to protect my home and family and prepare to respond as emergency manager.

As an emergency responder for more than two decades, I truly hate oil and chemical spills, and probably most of all, I hate severe tropical weather. However, I believe so strongly in our mission to protect the public, the responders, and the environment, that I have made emergency response my career. I might marvel at the complexity and immense size of such natural events as hurricanes, but I do fear hurricanes. I’m not paralyzed by this fear but instead intensely motivated to prepare and respond.

Storms of Motivation

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina passed over the Louisiana Mississippi Delta before again making landfall on the northern Gulf of Mexico coast near Gulfport, Miss. The near-complete devastation left in the wake of this powerful storm destroyed communities, paralyzing critical ports, waterways, offshore oil and gas production, and industry. The financial impact of the storm has been estimated at over $80 billion, but such losses pale against the human tragedy of Hurricane Katrina that left 1,836 known dead, hundreds of thousands of people homeless, and countless lives changed forever.

I remember being at the Emergency Operations Center and consoling a young woman crying in a hallway. She had been working the phone bank receiving emergency calls, some from people trapped in their attic as the waters continued to rise from New Orleans’ failed levees. I had never felt so helpless nor so motivated listening to her. After just a few minutes, her break was over, and she returned to the phones. Across NOAA, women and men like her were stepping up during the emergency: evaluating damage, assisting in rescue operations, and assessing imminent threats to the public.

Even after this immediate emergency phase slowed, the response and recovery effort continued to deal with the hundreds of oil spills, thousands of hazardous material containers in waterways, and sunken vessels and marine debris that littered the coastal zone of three states.

This Is Hurricane Season

What path will the second Hurricane Irene take? What will the threat be to our coast and our coastal communities? I don’t have a crystal ball, so I’ll keep watching NOAA’s updated trajectory forecast [leaves this blog] to plan and prepare. I’ll also be coordinating with Brad Benggio, NOAA’s Regional Scientific Support Coordinator for the southeastern United States and the Caribbean. His job is to provide scientific and technical counsel on the best course of action during emergencies such as hurricanes and oil spills. I would venture a guess that Benggio has similar feelings about storms as I do after surviving and responding to many hurricanes, including Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Damage from Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Hurricane Andrew left a concrete tie beam on a car, among other damage, in Naranja Lakes, Fla. Credit: NOAA National Weather Service.

Hurricane Andrew caused $26.5 billion of damage in the U.S. and claimed 23 lives [leaves this blog]. This is hurricane season—never take it lightly. As part of our preparedness for emergency response, we plan for the worst and hope for the best. If you live in an area potentially threatened by coastal storms, know the evacuation route. It could save your life.

For additional information on hurricanes and planning, visit the NOAAWatch website  [leaves this blog] and click on the Hurricane/Tropical Weather and Storm Surge and Coastal Flooding themes on the right side of the page.


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Doctors to Dolphins: How Did the Deepwater Horizon/BP Oil Spill Affect Gulf Dolphins?

Researchers corral two dolphins in Barataria Bay, Louisiana.

Researchers corral two dolphins in nets in Barataria Bay, La., to determine the status of their health after the 2010 oil spill there. Credit: NOAA.

A small fleet of boats left the docks at Grand Isle, La. at 7 a.m. Within 30 minutes, researchers had encircled two male dolphins with a net and jumped into the murky, waist-deep water to grab the dolphins and keep them calm during the checkup aboard a research vessel.

Veterinary scientists then began to examine their patients: measuring the dolphins’ length and weight; performing an external exam and—with the help of an ultrasound—an internal exam; and collecting samples of blood, blubber, urine, feces, and teeth (for aging).

Taking a blood sample from one dolphin.

Veterinary scientists take a blood sample from a dolphin as part of an overall health assessment. Credit: NOAA.

This marine mammal health exam took place on August 15, about a year after waves of oil had flowed through the waters during the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill. A team of 50 scientists formed the effort behind it, joining forces across federal, state, academic, and private institutions to assess the health of wild dolphins from Barataria Bay, La., an area that had been heavily exposed to oil from the previous year’s spill.

The concern was that dolphins could potentially suffer a variety of short- and long-term health impacts after breathing in fumes of oil or ingesting it in prey. As part of a natural resource damage assessment [leaves this blog], NOAA, the other trustees, and their partners designed a study to compare the health of dolphins from an area contaminated by the oil spill (Barataria Bay) with an area that did not experience oiling (Sarasota, Fla.).

Photographing a dolphin's dorsal fin.

A team of researchers photographs a dolphin’s dorsal fin as a means of identifying the individual. Credit: NOAA.

Before releasing the dolphins back into the wild, researchers took photos of each one’s dorsal fin, which acts like a fingerprint to identify individual dolphins. They also attached satellite and radio tags to allow researchers to track the dolphins and better understand their movement and home range patterns. The entire process took about an hour before the dolphins were returned safely back to the bay.

This process is being repeated on approximately 30 dolphins from Barataria Bay.  Researchers look forward to getting the results of these health assessments over the next several months to try to understand what impact the oil may have had on Louisiana’s dolphins. If the dolphins are suffering negative effects from the oil, NOAA and the other resource trustees, with public input, will identify restoration actions to offset these impacts [leaves this blog]. Submit your own idea for restoring dolphins, other wildlife, and habitats that might have been impacted by the oil. [leaves this blog]

Several members of the media came along to observe the assessment. You can find video and stories about the dolphin health exams by typing search terms such as “dolphins examined to assess gulf recovery” into a search engine.

To keep up with the latest on the damage assessment from the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill, join our mailing list [leaves this blog] or subscribe to our RSS news feed [leaves this blog].

–Tom Brosnan, Communications Branch Chief in the Office of Response and Restoration’s Assessment and Restoration Division


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How Do You Picture Science?

Explaining the environmental ramifications of the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill [leaves this blog] in the Gulf of Mexico is no easy task. Visualizing those impacts in an easy-to-understand way? Maybe even harder.

Last year NOAA scientists Mary Baker and Debbie Payton needed to figure out how to do just that, and as a communications coordinator for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R), it was my job to make it happen. Although I had yet to work with her, I thought of Kate Sweeney, a medical and scientific illustrator for UWCreative [leaves this blog], out of the University of Washington (Seattle), whose specialty is creating accessible and understandable illustrations that depict complex scientific processes.

After the initial spill in the Gulf, oil moved through the water column in a variety of ways, and the potential for it to move into the sediments at the bottom included several possible scenarios. The challenge for this graphic was to clearly describe the different ways the oil could move into the sediment layer at the ocean floor. Using mapping data provided by OR&R and discussing the concepts with NOAA scientists and myself, Kate developed a single, striking graphic illustration that clearly encompassed all the possibilities. As a result, we were able to use the illustration extensively to inform the public about the spill.

Potential Pathways of Oil

Illustration showing the potential pathways of spilled oil following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP incident in the Gulf of Mexico. Click to view larger image. Credit: NOAA/Kate Sweeney.

Kate compares the process of creating complex scientific images to telling a story, and she has seen demand for her illustrations grow as the expectation for high-quality visuals has increased.

According to Kate, a key component to this process is working collaboratively with the scientists. When we first sat down with her at our office, she created a rough sketch in the first hour that we were able to comment on. With that initial feedback, she returned to her office and developed the first electronic draft. She didn’t hesitate to do several rounds of drafts back and forth, using discussion along with trial and error to get it right.

Kate recently completed another marine illustration for OR&R, “Conceptual Model of Arctic Oil Exposure and Injuries,” that shows natural resources at risk and the potential impacts of an oil spill in the Arctic.

Oil impacts on Arctic food webs

The illustration shows potential oil spill impacts to wildlife and habitats in the Arctic sea. Click for larger view. Credit: NOAA/Kate Sweeney, Illustration.

As sea ice recedes in the Arctic, shipping routes will open, increasing vessel traffic and increasing the likelihood of spills. Increasing pressure for more oil exploration in the region also highlights the need to be prepared in the event of a spill during offshore drilling. This diagram in particular is useful in discussions with the public, industry, and other trustee agencies to reach a common understanding of which resources are most at risk, and what information on those resources is needed now as baseline data we can use for comparison and for planning how to respond in case of a spill.

Kate says that her biggest challenge as a scientific illustrator is gaining enough of a fundamental understanding of the subject matter. Meeting that challenge, however, and executing the drawing successfully is what she enjoys most about her job.

Contact Kate Sweeney at kateswe@u.washington.edu.

Example illustration of repair of a herniated diaphragm

Example of the artist’s recent work for the University of Washington: Repair of Herniated Diaphragm, prepared for JD Godwin, MD, Department of Radiology. A: Front cutaway view of herniated diaphragm B: Plication sutures are placed in the diaphragm C: Top view of sutures before they are drawn tight D: Sutures are drawn tight to reduce the bulge in the diaphragm. Credit: Kate Sweeney.

“To create the images for this surgical procedure, I met with both the radiologist and the surgeon who performs this repair, and we discussed the anatomy and subsequent repair. Over a series of sketches, we developed and refined the views and details of the narrative.”–Kate Sweeney