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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From Research to Response, the Evolving Role of Science in Oil Spills

Argo Merchant aground

The tanker Argo Merchant run aground Nantucket Shoals, southeast of Nantucket Island, Mass., in December 1976. Credit: NOAA.

It’s now been 35 years since NOAA began its first major coordinated response to an oil spill, jumping to the aid of the wrecked tanker Argo Merchant near Nantucket Island, Mass., and launching what would eventually become the NOAA emergency response team I’m now part of.

Before this, NOAA scientists had been working on oil pollution issues for many years, but the focus was on research rather than emergency support during spills. That focus changed, however, when the storm-struck Argo Merchant ran aground on the Nantucket Shoals December 15, 1976, and six days later broke in half, spilling its entire cargo of 7.7 million gallons of oil near the famous Massachusetts fisheries.

The Spilled Oil Research Team

Earlier that year, NOAA had established the Spilled Oil Research (SOR) Team to study the effects of oil and gas exploration in Alaska. This team was a network of coastal geologists, marine biologists, chemists, and oceanographers that could go on-scene at “spills of opportunity” with the goal of investigating oil spill impacts.

Argo Merchant sinking.

On December 21, 1976, the Argo Merchant broke apart and spilled its entire cargo of 7.7 million gallons of No. 6 fuel oil. Credit: NOAA.

The Argo Merchant spill was the first major deployment of the SOR Team. The U.S Coast Guard, charged with directing the spill response and cleanup effort, was inundated with competing and often conflicting scientific recommendations. To sort this out, the Coast Guard asked the SOR Team to act as its scientific adviser and be an informal liaison with the scientific community concerned with the spill.

This informal relationship quickly became invaluable. The Coast Guard began to rely on the SOR Team to coordinate the complex scientific issues that arose at spills after the Argo Merchant, including: the Metula, a crude ship grounding off of Tierra del Fuego, Chile; the Amoco Cadiz, a 1.6 million barrel oil spill off the Breton coast of France; and the IXTOC I well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in June 1979.

Evolution of the Emergency Response Division

The Spilled Oil Research Team — now the Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division — has grown from a handful of oceanographers, mathematicians, and computer modelers into a highly diverse team of chemists, biologists, geologists, information management specialists, and technical and administrative support staff. The informal role of scientific support coordinators is now formally recognized in the National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan.

It’s been a busy 35 years (on top of events like the Deepwater Horizon/BP spill), and some of that old history has been forgotten. A couple years ago when I was cleaning out an equipment store room, I discovered this artifact of the earlier days on some old coveralls:

Spilled Oil Research Team badge.

A badge from the original NOAA Spilled Oil Research Team. Credit: Doug Helton, NOAA.

You can find out more about the evolving history of NOAA’s involvement in oil spill response and OR&R’s Emergency Response Division.


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Why Does the Gulf of Mexico Need a Disaster Response Center?

Why is NOAA building a Disaster Response Center in the Gulf region? Images from a recent NOAA-wide photo contest tell the story.

Flooded New Orleans streets after Hurricane Katrina.

View of Hurricane Katrina destruction in the city of New Orleans taken from a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter during an aerial pollution survey, September 5, 2005, New Orleans, La. Credit: Ed Levine, NOAA.

Over the past decade, the greater Gulf of Mexico region has faced both natural and human-caused disasters, including hurricanes, oil spills, tornadoes, droughts, harmful algal blooms, and wildfire. While we often can’t prevent these severe events, we can reduce their impacts by helping to prepare federal, state, and local decision makers for a variety of threats. We can also use cutting-edge technology and the most up-to-date information to make coastal communities more resilient.

NOAA contributes a variety of services before, during, and after these kinds of disasters, from forecasting the paths of hurricanes to restoring the environment after an oil spill. Until recently, however, there was no central point in the Gulf of Mexico to coordinate access to these vital products and services.  Construction of NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center (DRC) [leaves this blog] in Mobile, Ala., is nearly complete, and the facility will streamline the delivery of NOAA services that will help the region prepare for and deal with disasters.

To gear up for the DRC’s grand opening, NOAA employees submitted photographs highlighting three areas: disaster impacts to human infrastructure, disaster impacts to the environment, and disaster response activities along the Gulf Coast. The photos themselves show most clearly the need for a Disaster Response Center in the Gulf.

Disaster Impacts to Human Infrastructure

Barbara Ambrose, a graphic artist with NOAA’s National Coastal Data Development Center in Mississippi, took her first-place photograph Folded House in September 2005 after Hurricane Katrina. The picture was taken on Beach Boulevard in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Hurricane Katrina severely damaged the city of Bay St. Louis and is the most destructive storm on record in terms of economic losses.

Folded house after Hurricane Katrina.

"Folded House." Credit: Barbara Ambrose, NOAA.

Disaster Impacts to the Environment

Ron Wooten, a biologist with NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service in Galveston, Texas, took his first-place photograph Sticking Together on April 29, 2010. While flying over the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill, Wooten captured the image of a large pod of striped dolphins swimming through rows of orange-colored, weathered oil that extended for miles. As the nation’s leading scientific resource for oil spills, NOAA was on the scene from the start, providing coordinated weather and biological response services to federal, state, and local organizations.

Striped dolphins swimming through oiled waters.

"Sticking Together." Credit: Ron Wooten, NOAA.

Disaster Response

Ed Levine, Scientific Support Coordinator with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, took his first place photograph USCG Rescue Swimmer Perspective 2 on September 5, 2005. The image was taken in the midst of rescue operations conducted in New Orleans, La., following Hurricane Katrina, which will be remembered as one of the largest search-and-rescue operations in the history of the United States.

U.S. Coast Guard rescue swimmer during Hurricane Katrina

"U.S. Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer Perspective 2." Credit: Ed Levine, NOAA.

Winning photographs will be showcased throughout the new Disaster Response Center.  You can find all of the incredible photo contest entries at http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/hazards/drc/contest/ [leaves this blog].