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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Help NOAA Track Marine Debris from the Japanese Tsunami

The March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan were tragic events, but you can help NOAA in the aftermath of these disasters by staying on the lookout for debris washing up in Hawaii, Alaska, and along the West Coast.

Watch this video for a quick summary about the debris from the Japan tsunami headed toward the United States:

As the surge of water from the tsunami receded, it washed tons of debris out into the Pacific Ocean: everything from boats and pieces of crumbled buildings to appliances and all kinds of plastic, metal, and rubber objects.

The heaviest things sank near the Japanese shore, but lighter objects floated out to sea, forming large patches previously spotted by satellites and aerial photography. However, winds and ocean currents have broken up these patches to the point where debris is no longer visible from low-resolution satellites.

How do you deal with debris that could now impact U.S. shores but is difficult to find?

Citizen monitoring and reporting can help NOAA scientists better understand the location and nature of the debris generated by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

Ships traveling the Pacific Ocean and beachcombers on the coast can now report significant sightings. If reporting a sighting, be sure to include what you saw, when you saw it, and where it was located.  Individuals or groups can request shoreline monitoring guides [leaves this blog] by emailing

Since debris washes up on our shores regularly, you can also help by downloading the Marine Debris Tracker app [leaves this blog] for iPhone and Android phones or emailing to request a shoreline survey guide to start collecting information on the amount and location of trash at your beach. This allows NOAA to track changes in how much debris is showing up on U.S. coasts

When will the debris from the tsunami in Japan reach the U.S.?

UPDATE (5/2/2012): Find more up-to-date information about NOAA modeling efforts and an adrift fishing vessel which arrived off the west coast of Canada and sports balls on a remote Alaskan island.

Since winds and ocean currents constantly change, it’s very difficult to predict an exact date and location for the debris’ arrival on U.S. shores without more information.

NOAA has run OSCURS (Ocean Surface Current Simulator), a numeric model for ocean surface currents, to predict the movement of marine debris generated by the Japan tsunami over five years. The results are shown here. Year 1 = red; Year 2 = orange; Year 3 = yellow; Year 4 = light blue; Year 5 = violet. The OCSURS model is used to measure the movement of surface currents over time, as well as the movement of what is in or on the water. Map courtesy of J. Churnside (NOAA OAR) and created through Google.

Independent models run by NOAA and University of Hawaii researchers agree on the general direction and drift rate of debris generated by the tsunami in Japan. Right now, models tell us some debris could pass near or wash ashore:

  • In the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (a remote area spanning the distance from San Diego, Calif., to Vancouver, British Columbia) as early as the 2011-2012 winter.
  • On the West Coast of the United States and Alaska in 2013.
  • On the main Hawaiian Islands (circling back) in 2014 to 2016.

Researchers remind us that models are only predictions (like a weather forecast). Conditions in the ocean constantly change, and items can sink, break down, and disperse across a huge area. Because of this, scientists can’t say for sure if any debris will wash ashore.

Carey Morishige, Pacific Islands Regional Coordinator for the NOAA Marine Debris Program, helps explain what we know about the tsunami debris right now and what dangers the debris may pose to coral reefs and coastal areas. Click to listen to the podcast below.

Is the debris radioactive?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Food and Drug Administration monitored for radioactivity following the event and found normal levels. Because most of the debris would have washed out to sea before the Fukushima nuclear disaster, it is considered highly unlikely the tsunami-generated marine debris would be contaminated with radioactive material.

Learn more at the NOAA Marine Debris Program website [leaves this blog].


How Should We Talk About Science During Oil Spills?

This is a guest post from graduate students at the University of Washington.

Where do you go to get reliable information about things that matter to you?

Do you send news to friends and family using Facebook or Twitter?

Are you interested in learning more about oil spills in your area?

These are a few of the questions our team [leaves this page] of three graduate students at the University of Washington are interested in answering for our community partner, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R). We want to know, how can governmental organizations like the Office of Response and Restoration leverage social media to communicate science better during oil spills? Our project, which OR&R is sponsoring, is part of an Environmental Management Certificate Program.

The project is officially known by the title, “Using Social Media to Communicate Science and Exploring the Role of Information During Environmental Disasters.” It focuses on oil spills and ongoing environmental problems like oceanic debris. We have been studying the role social media plays in informing the public about environmental disasters such as oil spills, both large and small. With our recommendations, OR&R hopes to engage more effectively with the public and expand their use of social media tools, especially during emergencies and disasters.

Grad students asking Doug Helton questions in the OR&R "War Room."

OR&R's Doug Helton answers our team's questions about responding to oil spills. Credit: NOAA.

We have just passed the halfway mark and have learned so much already. In addition to interviewing members of the OR&R team, we have researched how they have used social media tools in the past, read academic literature on how to effectively communicate scientific information, and examined current trends in social media communications.

This research will inform a strategy for effectively using common digital tools, such as Facebook, Twitter, mobile applications, and YouTube, to communicate about oil spills. We have also investigated cutting-edge technologies for tracking how information is spread and how to engage new volunteers successfully during disaster response efforts.

The project will wrap up in March, and we will present our final report and list of recommendations to the Office and Response and Restoration. NOAA has a long history of partnerships with the University of Washington, and our final report will include ways for NOAA to continue to provide opportunities to students while also adding value to the work carried out at the agency.

You can read our proposed list of deliverables on our blog [leaves this blog], where we will continue to update our progress on the project. We are thrilled to have this opportunity and would love to hear about how you use social media during disasters. Feel free to use the comments here to let us know.

We look forward to hearing your feedback,
Jeremy, Libby, Elspeth, and Bob

Jeremy, Libby, and Elspeth are graduate students at the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Affairs and the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs. They are supported by their mentor and adviser on the project, Dr. Robert Pavia [leaves this page], Affiliate Associate Professor at the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs. This project is a community partnership between the University of Washington (Seattle, Wash.) and NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.

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Follow the Race to Refuel Nome, Alaska

The city of Nome, Alaska, is running short of fuel and an unusual winter delivery is underway to resupply the remote, icebound community. Nome is located on the northern edge of the Bering Sea, along the far western corner of the state. This fall, a severe storm prevented the last scheduled fuel delivery, and now the port is icebound, preventing regular fuel barges from reaching the area. Now, a U.S. icebreaker and a Russian tanker are battling the pack ice to deliver 1.3 million gallons of heating oil and gasoline.

Healy escorts the tanker Renda through the icy Bering Sea.

BERING SEA – The Coast Guard Cutter Healy approaches the Russian-flagged tanker Renda while breaking ice around the vessel 97 miles south of Nome, Alaska, Jan. 10, 2012. The two vessels departed Dutch Harbor for Nome on Jan. 3, 2012, to deliver more than 1.3 million gallons of petroleum products to the city of Nome. (U.S. Coast Guard)

As of Thursday, the tanker Renda and the icebreaker Healy were less than 100 miles from Nome and breaking through ice two to three feet thick, making their journey slow but steady. Weather in Nome includes temperatures 20–30 degrees below 0°F and wind chill dropping to 45–50 below 0°F. Without the delivery, Nome could run short of fuel before a barge delivery becomes possible in late spring when the ice starts breaking up.

NOAA is providing weather and ice data to the ships and helping identify routes with lighter icepack. NOAA is also working on contingency plans and safety measures to ensure a safe fuel transfer.


BERING SEA – The Coast Guard Cutter Healy approaches the Russian-flagged tanker Renda while breaking ice around the vessel 97 miles south of Nome, Alaska, Jan. 10, 2012. The two vessels departed Dutch Harbor for Nome on Jan. 3, 2012, to deliver more than 1.3 million gallons of petroleum products to the city of Nome. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Crews are working in Nome to be ready for the tanker’s arrival later this week, but even then, the delivery will be challenging. The ice next to shore is much thicker, which will prevent the tanker from getting close to shore. The ship Renda is equipped with more than a mile of hose that will be strung across the ice to reach the port. The exact transfer date remains unknown at this time, because there are still operational issues pending. Weather will play a big factor in the timing and ability to make this happen.

The fuel delivery to Nome brings to mind another famous wintertime resupply effort—the 1925 race to bring diphtheria medicine to Nome. An epidemic was raging and blizzards prevented aircraft from delivering the medicine to the snowbound city. A dogsled relay carried the medicine across the state. The annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race commemorates this historic event.

Check out the links below to track the ships’ progress and images of the icebreaking:

Track the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy

Hourly photos from Healy


NOAA Flexes Mussels for Tracking Pollution

This is a post by Gunnar Lauenstein at NOAA’s Center for Coastal Monitoring and Assessment.

Zebra mussel sampling in the the Great Lakes.

NOAA researchers Cliff Cosgrove and Gunnar Lauenstein collect samples of zebra mussels in the Great Lakes by using an epibenthic dredge. Credit: Andrew Yagiela (NOAA GLERL).

Mussels and oysters are a great natural tool for finding pollutants in the environment because they filter tiny food bits—along with fine pollutants—out of the surrounding water. They are capable of concentrating contaminants in their body tissues at levels up to 100,000 times above those in the water. This makes our job easier when we’re trying to determine whether those contaminants pose a threat to human health.

These useful traits of shellfish led the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to start the first two national Mussel Watch programs. In 1965, the EPA began collecting mussels and oysters from around the U.S. to determine where pesticides such as DDT [leaves this blog] were concentrated in the environment. The second national program, funded by the EPA from 1976-1978, built on that previous work but broadened the list of pollutants studied to include trace elements, oil-related compounds, and radionuclides.

Analyzing mussel tissue samples at the lab.

Researchers at the TDI-Brooks lab in College Station, Texas performing a silica and alumina cleanup of tissue samples collected through the Mussel Watch Program. Credit: Brad Bernard.

I’ve been involved with the NOAA Mussel Watch Program since NOAA took over from the EPA in 1986. I’m responsible for sample collection, methods documentation, and program direction.

Collecting mussels in New York Harbor after the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

NOAA researcher Gunnar Lauenstein and Todd Chamberlin, TDI-Brooks, collecting mussels in the rocks around Governor’s Island in New York Harbor during December 2001, three months after the attack on the World Trade Center. Credit: Roger Fay (TDI-Brooks).

The NOAA program expanded the 100 or so original EPA sample sites to more than 300 current sites. The additional sites increased the density of the areas covered in the Mussel Watch Program, particularly in Alaska and California. Starting in 1992, the program also expanded its range by sampling the infamous non-native zebra mussels in the Great Lakes.

Initially, NOAA intended to use the Mussel Watch Program to study how effective environmental management activities were as a result of 1970s-era legislation. The NOAA Mussel Watch Program successfully documented and tracked decreases of the pollutants DDT and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) [leaves this blog] across the country through at least 2005. Since then, NOAA has added new contaminants to the watch list and also describes the overall health of the organisms being collected for study.

In recent years, the Mussel Watch Program has increased its collaboration both in and outside of NOAA in response to disasters by helping to determine the extent of environmental change. The program sampled New York Harbor after the events of 9/11 [PDF], after the passage of Hurricanes Rita and Katrina along the Gulf Coast [PDF, pg. 23], and more recently before, during, and after the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill. The Office of Response and Restoration uses this data to help determine the effects of oil spills on the environment, comparing the levels of oil compounds found before and after spills. This helps zero in on hotspots for cleanup.

Mussel Watch stations in the Gulf of Mexico

Each mussel symbol shows where Mussel Watch sampled in the Gulf of Mexico before and after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill. Click for larger view. Source: NOAA.

In addition to the national Mussel Watch programs, the concept has also expanded to regional and local levels, such as in Snohomish County, Wash. [leaves this blog], as well as across Washington state [leaves this blog], where Office of Response and Restoration ecologist Alan Mearns has helped bring in citizen scientists to sample mussels for pollutants such as flame retardants along the Washington coast. NOAA has expanded this level of collaboration to include most of the coastal states. States and other local organizations are now responsible for collecting samples and making recommendations about where new study sites need to be established. As a result, local citizens and state agencies are taking more ownership of the pollution data in their areas.

If you’re interested in learning more about NOAA’s Mussel Watch Program or other research happening at NCCOS, I’ll be blogging at the Coastal Ocean Science Blog at

Gunnar Lauenstein.

Gunnar Lauenstein takes a break during sampling in the Great Lakes. Credit: NOAA/COAST Branch.

Gunnar Lauenstein is Acting COAST Branch Chief at NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science Center for Coastal Monitoring and Assessment [leaves this blog]. Dr. Lauenstein leads NOAA’s Mussel Watch Program [leaves this blog] at NCCOS and led a team of researchers to sample and collect mussels and oysters throughout the Gulf region before, during, and after the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill. You can contact him at