NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

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

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

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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.

Author: Ashley Braun

Ashley Braun is the Web Editor for NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R). That means she writes and edits a good portion of what appears on OR&R’s web pages, blog, and social media.

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