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 [leaves this blog].

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500 Miles from Help, Preparing for the Worst in a Remote Arctic Village

Kotzebue Sound.

The Great White North: Looking out onto an iced-over Kotzebue Sound, Alaska. Credit: NOAA.

In a small town set not far above the Arctic Circle, residents of Kotzebue, Alaska, brace themselves for a worst-case scenario that looms uncomfortably close: an oil spill in the frigid, remote waters of the Chukchi Sea. This fall, they and a variety of federal and state agencies, including NOAA, imagined what would happen if a fuel barge broke up, spilling 400,000 gallons of oil onto the northwestern Alaska coast near Kotzebue. Would subsistence hunters in the area be affected? What would happen to nearby whales, seals, or shorebirds?

Kotzebue workshop break-out group.

A break-out group discusses NOAA's projections at one of the oil spill workshops. Siikauraq Martha Whiting, left, is mayor of the Northwest Arctic Borough, where Kotzebue is located. Credit: NOAA.

This nightmarish scenario presented everyone, from Kotzebue’s mayor (of a town that is almost three-quarters Alaska Native) to the U.S. Coast Guard, with the dilemma of figuring out how and which cultural and natural resources to protect—if even possible—in the event of a major oil spill.

Oceanographers from the Office of Response and Restoration used NOAA models to forecast where the intermediate fuel oil released in this scenario might end up. They projected that hundreds of thousands of gallons would wash onto an Arctic coast that in the summer, according to OR&R ecologist Alan Mearns, is not unlike Louisiana, with barrier islands and large lagoons hosting extensive marshes and packed with migratory birds and other wildlife. In the scenario, thousands of gallons of fuel oil slipped into several lagoons. Most of the oil, however, came ashore at the village of Shishmaref, about 100 miles southwest of Kotzebue.

Recalling the headaches of dealing with oiled Gulf of Mexico marshes, Mearns walked away from the Kotzebue exercises realizing that these sensitive lagoons needed to be protected during a spill. The Coast Guard has response equipment in Anchorage, but, for a town more than 500 miles away, what could the community do before this kind of equipment arrived? Those attending the exercise saw the need to train local residents to be the first line of defense against oil spills. Mearns likens this to the model of volunteer fire departments. He notes a (quite effective) example of this already exists among Washington state’s San Juan Islands: the community-staffed Islands’ Oil Spill Association [leaves this blog].

However, the next phase of spill response would have to come from the “big guns,” an established rapid response organization that could bring in the heavy equipment and experience in dealing with oil spills. Unfortunately, there aren’t any such organizations currently committed to filling this role for the northwest coast of Alaska. Even if there were, it would take five to ten days to get most equipment to Kotzebue in the first place. That, in itself, is a challenge: imagine a helicopter transporting a skimming boat across the Arctic horizon.

Once response equipment is there to deal with any oil, a new suite of concerns appears for the local Native community. For example, they have burial sites and historic camps from traditional subsistence activities—fishing, whaling, trapping, camping, etc.—spread across the coast. Because these places are so meaningful for local Natives, decision makers should also be planning where (and where not) to land a helicopter or send out trucks loaded with oil boom.

“Some of the greatest concerns [are about] the ability of the environment to recover from a spill and provide healthy subsistence and cultural resources to communities,” said Ukallaysaaq Tom Okleasik, Planning Director of the Northwest Arctic Borough, based in Kotzebue. “Subsistence is inseparable from the way of life in rural villages that would be impacted by an oil spill in the Northwest Arctic—it would impact a way of life.”

Large sled with city pickup truck.

A large sled, next to a City of Kotzebue pickup truck, highlights the mix of Native and Western cultures at play in this corner of the world. Credit: NOAA.

Native Elders, hunters, and fishers also represent an extensive and too-often underutilized source for what is known as “traditional ecological knowledge” about local plants, animals, and the environment. Elevating and acknowledging this resource could be an important step in building up an arsenal of tools to use against a spill, whether it comes from maritime transport or the offshore oil and gas drilling expected to begin in the Chukchi Sea in 2012.

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration and the other federal, state, and local organizations involved in this workshop in remote Kotzebue are trying to bridge the gap between ecology and culture in evaluating potential impacts of responding to oil spills. And that’s just the first step: Once a spill happens, these groups need to be ready not only to evaluate the impacts of the spill itself, but how to compensate for those impacts and restore natural resources. Of course, these questions—and their proposed solutions—can be complicated by the shifting conditions in the Arctic [leaves this blog] as the air and sea temperatures continue to rise. Which is why there is no such thing as being too prepared, especially in a place like the Arctic.

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What Are Tarballs?

Tarball close up.

Close up of a tarball on Dauphin Island, Alabama, from May 2010. Credit: NOAA.

During the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill last summer, “tarballs” began washing up both on Gulf shores and into the language of average Americans. But what are tarballs? Where do they come from? Are they hazardous to people’s health?

Here are tarballs, demystified:

Q. What are tarballs?

A. Tarballs are small, dark-colored pieces of oil that sometimes appear on beaches and shorelines. The weathering processes of wind and waves physically and chemically change spilled oil, evaporating the lighter components of oil and leaving the denser ones behind. This heavier oil mixes with water and forms a thick emulsion (think mayonnaise), which continues to be stretched and torn into smaller patches and pieces. These much thicker and stickier pieces of oil are tarballs.

Q. What do they look like?

A. Some tarballs can be as large as pancakes, but most are about the size of a coin. Eventually, tarballs resemble the consistency of a toasted marshmallow: hard and crusty on the outside and soft and gooey on the inside.

Q. Where do they come from?

A. Tarballs originate from a variety of sources, including accidental oil spills, vessel operations, illegal discharges, and, especially in the Gulf of Mexico and Southern California, natural oil seeps. Tarballs are very persistent in the marine environment and can travel hundreds of miles.

Q. Are tarballs hazardous to people’s health?

A. While limited exposure to tarballs does not pose a serious health threat, we still recommend staying away from them. Some people who are especially sensitive to chemicals may have an allergic reaction or develop rashes even from brief contact with oil.

If contact occurs, wash the area with soap and water, baby oil, or a widely used, safe cleaning compound such as the cleaning paste sold at auto parts stores.

Q. What should I do if I find a tarball?

A. New tarballs, especially an unusual number of them, appearing on a beach may indicate an oil spill. To report a release or spill, contact the federal government’s centralized reporting center, the National Response Center (NRC), at 1-800-424-8802 (available 24 hours a day).

Find out more about tarballs from this NOAA fact sheet [PDF, leaves this blog] or by watching Oil Spill 101: Tarballs | Video from NOAA’s National Ocean Service.