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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


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

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

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Junior Scientists on Call: Saving Rubber Ducks from an Oily SpongeBob

For a group called “The Tsunamis” gathered in what’s known as the “War Room,” the 10 junior high students were a rather subdued force. Cheerfully, Mark Dix introduced the quiet group to the Emergency Response Division of the Office of Response and Restoration. Mark prodded the group with questions about coral reefs and why oil spills are bad when a distinct ring broke the air. Students sat up: The emergency phone was ringing!

Mark answered the phone, “Hello, NOAA Emergency Response Division.”

Oceanographer hands oil vial to student

NOAA oceanographer Amy MacFadyen helps Science Campers explore what happens when oil, water, and a rubber duck come together. As one camper put it, “No! Duck!” Credit: Ashley Braun, NOAA.

“There’s been a collision in Shilshole Bay,” replied a representative from the U.S. Coast Guard. “The container ship M/V SpongeBob was struck at 9 a.m. today and is losing about 250 barrels of fuel oil. We’re looking for the spilled oil’s trajectory and what natural resources are at risk from it. Can you help?”

“We’re on it.”

The scientists leapt into action, shepherding the young group of NOAA Science Campers through the five key questions of oil spill response: What happened? Where will it go? Who or what will it hit? How will it cause injury? How can we help?

Each camper took on a role in this staged oil spill: oceanography, biology, resources at risk. NOAA oceanographers Chris Barker and Amy MacFadyen explained how different types of oil won’t behave the same way on the water and how the Weather Service helps them understand the conditions the oil is in by providing the latest data on wind and currents for the affected area. A filled fish tank, rubber ducks, and the forces of nature (e.g., a spoon and a fan) illustrated the influence of water and weather on spilled oil, which smelled suspiciously like sesame oil.

Whipping out NOAA charts of the region, Chris and the campers plotted the location of the collision and, with currents and wind data, calculated how long the Coast Guard had to act until the oil would be swept ashore: around 6 hours.

Student charting oil

A student marks the site of the M/V SpongeBob’s spilled oil on a NOAA chart. Credit: Ashley Braun, NOAA.

With the clock ticking, the oceanographers entered all of this data into the special computer model they’ve developed for projecting the possible path of spilled oil and other pollutants, GNOME (General NOAA Operational Modeling Environment) [leaves this blog].

Seeing that the campers were mesmerized by the program’s moving arrows (currents) and dots (oil), Chris mentioned, “All of you can download it from our website and use it for free.” One boy responded, “That’s awesome.”

Passing off the baton to marine biologist Gary Shigenaka, the NOAA group had the campers pour different kinds of “oil” (light and heavy) onto various beach types (sand vs. gravel) and think about how that might affect cleanup strategies. The kids, showing their Pacific Northwest upbringing, were particularly concerned about geoducks [leaves this blog], a big clam that burrows deep in sandy beaches, which could help oil penetrate the surface of the sand.

Girl pours oil on sand

A Science Camper pours “oil” onto sand to see how oil moves through different kinds of beach sediments and what that means for cleaning it up. Credit: Ashley Braun, NOAA.

The Science Campers examined Environmental Sensitivity Index maps [leaves this blog] to identify other organisms, habitats, and human resources (such as a marina) that could be at risk from the spilled oil. This led to a lively discussion about how animals and plants could be hurt from oil. “Can you breathe oil?” asked a young girl. “Think about when you go to the gas station,” replied Gary. “Oh!” she exclaimed.

“Weren’t they talking about drilling in the Arctic?” inquired another curious camper. Gary’s response about figuring out how to clean oil off of a polar bear got a big reaction from the campers, who next dipped feathers in oil and wrestled with cleaning them off.

A final exercise gave the campers the chance to act out the spill and response on huge maps. Black rice stood in for oil and students either used forks and fans to simulate the projected spread of oil or manned toy boats to skim the oil and placed boom (rolled-up tape) to protect sensitive areas. Oceanographer Amy asked, “Who is winning? The forces of nature or the forces of cleanup?” A camper, starting to realize the scope and difficulty of the task, replied, “Not cleanup. Definitely not cleanup.” Smiling, Amy pointed out how well the boom was working in this scenario.

Toy boat skimmer and boom try to contain oil (rice) being spread by currents (fork)

A skimming boat and boom (rolled-up tape) battle the forces (forks?) of nature working to spread out the oil (black rice). Credit: Ashley Braun, NOAA.

After the campers reported back to the Coast Guard with projections and recommendations, you could sense their excitement bubbling up into questions and further discovery. This oil spill scenario was meant to prepare them for some environmental sleuthing later in the week, when oceanographer Chris Barker, along with the National Weather Service, showed them how knowledge of the weather and ocean currents could help them figure out what might have happened to hypothetical fish found dead on the shore near a smelly, black substance.

This time, the students input the weather data into the GNOME computer program themselves and modeled the transport of a possible oil spill. Experimenting with the model, the students developed a map of where oil found on the beach was more or less likely to have come from. They determined that the oil probably did not come from the stream mouth where dead fish were found and could therefore conclude that the oil likely did not kill the fish.

Piecing together clues to the mystery with campers learning from other NOAA offices, the Science Campers mirrored much of the work our scientists do every day: asking questions, making calculations, weighing costs and benefits, collaborating with others, and coming up with solutions to keep people, environments, and economies safe and thriving. One difference, however, is that SpongeBob and rubber ducks aren’t usually quite so involved.

Chris Barker contributed to this post.


What Killed the Fish? Young Scientists Test the Waters

One by one, teams of campers took the stage on the morning of the first day of NOAA Science Camp to present their depictions of scientists. Some of the drawings had wild hair, lab coats, and pocket protectors, while others wore scuba gear and swam with dolphins. Throughout the rest of the week, campers would be introduced to more than a dozen real NOAA scientists, some matching those depictions and others resembling completely different images of ocean science.

Girl identifying algae

A Science Camper tries her hand at identifying algae found at the scene of the environmental “mystery,” trying to determine whether they are a harmful algal type. Credit: Ashley Braun, NOAA.

Marla Steinhoff and I usually don’t wear lab coats or scuba gear as part of our work for the Office of Response and Restoration’s Assessment and Restoration Division (ARD), but we do use environmental science–chemistry, mapping, and toxicology–to investigate the sources and effects of contaminants at hazardous waste sites and oil spills.

For the last two weeks in July, we teamed up with staff from NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Lab to host a group of 11 Science Campers to investigate the water chemistry surrounding a mysterious (hypothetical) fish kill in Puget Sound while other small groups went to different NOAA offices to explore other aspects of the fish kill. The situation: A woman walking her dog along a beach first stumbles upon dead fish at the mouth of a creek and later, a smelly, black slime on the shore. She looks out to the water and sees the bobbing heads and fins of some animals offshore.

Armed with these snippets of information, campers developed their own theories about what could have caused the fish kill. An oil spill? A “red tide” from harmful algae? Chemical runoff? They arrived at our lab with questions about dissolved oxygen, turbidity (how murky the water appears), pesticides, oil, algae, and more. With guidance from PMEL, the campers examined scanning electron microscope photographs of plankton taken from the location of the fish kill and, comparing them to identification charts, were able to rule out the possibility of red tide.

Girl comparing water sample to colorimetric reference kit

A budding scientist compares her water sample’s dissolved oxygen level to the reference kit during a colorimetric test. Credit: Ashley Braun, NOAA.

The campers’ next steps were colorimetric tests for dissolved oxygen, pH, and (Word of the Day) chlorpyrifos, a chemical insecticide. In these tests, campers added to the water samples a reactive chemical which changes color in the presence of, for example, oxygen or a pesticide, and they compared the results to a reference range of hues. Just as we do for our real-life hazardous waste sites and oil spills, we looked at data from the scientific literature to determine the safe and unsafe levels of oxygen, pH, chlorpyrifos, and oil for fish and compared our measurements to those levels. We mapped the results: See if you can identify the source of the chlorpyrifos.

Map of insecticide levels hypothetically found in Puget Sound during a Science Camp exercise

Map of insecticide levels hypothetically found during a Science Camp exercise. Click image for larger view.

Once reunited with their larger groups, the campers pieced together information from multiple NOAA offices to deduce an explanation for the fish kill. They created posters describing their hypotheses, their investigation methods, and their conclusions, and on the last day of camp, proudly presented the posters to their parents, NOAA scientists, and camp staff. When I showed up at the poster session as a judge, I met excited crowds of campers eager to talk about their work.

ARD also got involved with other parts of camp. Along with physical scientist Ian Zelo, I planned and taught a session in which campers used watershed models to simulate groundwater flow and surface runoff.

Campers identified sources and effects of nonpoint source pollution in the environment and came up with creative solutions for pollution prevention and cleanup. The groundwater model is always a hit with the campers. It is a clear, rectangular plastic tank of sand and gravel that looks something like an ant farm. We can pump water through the tank to see the water table rise and fall, and we can add food coloring to represent groundwater pollutants. Although it’s usually out of sight, groundwater becomes visible with this model, and campers can see how pollutants can be transported with the groundwater into wells, lakes, or rivers.

Science Campers with one of the watershed models

Campers explore how pollution can travel through a watershed and affect marine life with one of the watershed models. Credit: NOAA Science Camp.

Additionally, this year’s camp introduced a career and leadership program for high school-age campers, which included interviews with NOAA staff about education and career paths. I met with two of the high school students for an interview about OR&R’s work and about NOAA scholarships and fellowships. The students were full of questions about work, internships, school, and science.

Camper presenting his group's scientific conclusions

A camper presents his group’s scientific conclusions at the end of Science Camp. Credit: NOAA Science Camp.

It felt great to share my excitement about OR&R’s work with a brainy and enthusiastic group of students (and camp staff). Wherever their interests take them, I hope they keep thinking critically to solve problems and protect the environment, just as they did as junior scientists at NOAA Science Camp.

(Stay tuned for an upcoming post about a mock oil spill scenario my co-workers in OR&R’s Emergency Response Division staged with students during Science Camp!)


Large Amount of 7th and 8th Graders Spilled onto NOAA during 2011 Science Camp

Dozens of barrels of laughs and curiosity spill onto NOAA’s Seattle campus at Sand Point for a couple weeks each July. Spills of this size are usually a cause for concern among those of us who work for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R). However, for these two weeks, we allow this overflow of youthful enthusiasm to spill into our world for NOAA Science Camp [leaves this blog]. Take a look at what’s in store for these 7th and 8th graders from Seattle, Wash., each summer:

We believe in getting today’s students excited about becoming tomorrow’s scientists. Likewise, President Obama is also working to “improve the participation and performance of America’s students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)” through his Educate to Innovate campaign [leaves this blog]. Since 2003, NOAA’s Western Regional Center in Seattle and Washington Sea Grant have been immersing Seattle middle school students in true-to-life scientific activities such as donning dive gear, identifying whales, testing water quality, and, of course, thinking critically and asking questions.

Stay posted for more in-depth looks at the type of Science Camp fun OR&R pulls together, from responding to the M/V SpongeBob’s mock oil spill to sleuthing an environmental mystery. For now, enjoy a few snapshots from the past two weeks:

Kids examining what oil does on different types of beaches

Kids gather around to see how "oil" moves through different kinds of beach sediments, such as gravel or sand. Credit: Ashley Braun, NOAA.

Oceanographer Amy MacFadyen and Science Camp kids around fish tank of oil and water.

NOAA oceanographer Amy MacFadyen helps this year's Science Camp students explore what oil does on water, the effects of winds and currents, and the (here, miniature) organisms that might encounter spilled oil. Credit: Ashley Braun, NOAA.

Student testing water sample

A young NOAA Science Camper tests a water sample for its level of dissolved oxygen, hoping to solve part of an ecological mystery. Credit: Ashley Braun, NOAA.