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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In Case of Offshore Oil Drilling in Cuba and the Bahamas

Map of potential oil producing areas in the North Cuban Basin.

Potential oil producing areas in the North Cuban Basin. (U.S. Geological Survey)

For the past year, we at NOAA and the U.S. Coast Guard have been studying the possible threats that new offshore oil drilling activity near the Florida Straits and the Bahamas pose to Florida.

For example, the proximity of Cuba’s oil fields to U.S. waters has raised a lot of concerns about what would happen if a spill like the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil well blowout happened. If a large oil spill did occur in the waters northwest of Cuba, currents in the Florida Straits could carry the oil to U.S. waters and coastal areas in Florida. However, a number of factors, like winds or currents, would determine where any oil slicks might go.

NOAA’s National Ocean Service has more information about how we’re preparing for worst-case scenarios there:

The study focuses on modeling the movement of oil in water to predict where, when, and how oil might reach U.S. shores given a spill in this region of the ocean.

Models help to determine the threat to our coasts from a potential spill by accounting for many different variables, such as the weathering processes of evaporation, dispersion, photo-oxidation, and biodegradation – all of which reduce the amount of oil in the water over time.

Currents and winds also play a role in determining where oil will move in water. For example, there are three major currents that would dominate movement of spilled oil near the Florida Straits: Loop Current, Florida Current, and the Gulf Stream.

A diver explores coral in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

A diver explores coral in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. (NOAA)

If oil did reach U.S. waters, marine and coastal resources in southern Florida could be at risk, including coral reefs and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, located north of the Cuban drilling sites.

We’ll be watching the drilling activity there very carefully. If a spill does happen, NOAA will be ready to share our scientific expertise on oil spill response with the U.S. Coast Guard.


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Early Restoration to Begin in Gulf of Mexico After Deepwater Horizon/BP Oil Spill

All links leave this blog.

Workers in a marsh and boat.

An area of marsh oiled in the Gulf of Mexico during the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill. (NOAA)

An estimated $60 million in early restoration projects soon will begin along the Gulf Coast following the nation’s largest oil spill, according to the Deepwater Horizon Natural Resource Damage Assessment Trustee Council.

“The early restoration projects will drive both ecological and economic renewal,” said NOAA trustee Monica Medina, Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere. “Through these and future projects, the trustees intend to build a regional restoration economy.”

With finalization of the “Deepwater Horizon Phase I Early Restoration Plan & Environmental Assessment,” [PDF] eight restoration projects will be implemented in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The projects provide for marsh creation, coastal dune habitat improvements, nearshore artificial reef creation, and oyster cultch restoration, as well as the construction and enhancement of boat ramps to compensate for lost human use of resources.

This is the first early restoration plan under the unprecedented April 2011 agreement with BP to fund $1 billion in early restoration projects in the Gulf of Mexico. Meant to address injuries to natural resources caused by the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill, the funding enables the trustees to begin restoration  before the completion of damage assessment activities.

The $1 billion will go towards the following early restoration projects:

  • Each Gulf state—Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas—will select and implement $100 million in projects;
  • The Federal Resource Trustees, NOAA and the U.S. Department of the Interior, will each select and implement $100 million in projects;
  • The remaining $300 million will be used for projects selected by NOAA and Department of the Interior.

“This milestone agreement will allow us to jump-start restoration projects that will bring Gulf Coast marshes, wetlands, and wildlife habitat back to health after the damage they suffered as a result of the Deepwater Horizon spill,” said Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.

During what has been deemed the largest oil spill in U.S. history, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration provided forecasts of oil movements, advised the U.S. Coast Guard on cleanup operations, produced and maintained the Common Operational Picture, and managed large volumes of data streams and assessed resources threatened by spilled oil. We continue to work with state and federal agencies to document impacts to the Gulf of Mexico’s natural resources and the public’s lost use of them.


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56 years after Gruesome Chemical Catastrophe, Science Prevented Second Texas City Disaster

In addition to authors Vicki Loe and CJ Beegle-Krause, Charlie Henry, Doug Helton, and Amy Merten contributed to this post.

On a cool April morning in 1947, the S.S. Grandcamp sat docked in Texas City, waiting as it was loaded with sacks of ammonium nitrate fertilizer. A few years earlier, this humble cargo ship had been part of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet. After World War II, the U.S. government gave it to France as a gift to help rebuild a shattered Europe, where it was renamed the Grandcamp and converted into a slightly less grand cargo ship, which now found itself waiting fatefully in a Texas port.

The Grandcamp’s freight that day, ammonium nitrate fertilizer, is usually a relatively safe cargo, but it can quickly become unstable and explosive under certain conditions, which is also why it is used as an industrial and military explosive. Arriving by train in Texas City, this cargo may have become too warm to ship safely, but at the time, few chemical safety regulations existed, and the fertilizer was packed onto the Grandcamp along with its previous shipments of twine, peanuts, tobacco, and 16 cases of small arms ammunition.

Around 8:00 a.m. on April 16, after about 2,300 tons of fertilizer were loaded, workers noticed smoke and vapors coming from the ship. No one knew what caused the fire in the hold. The captain ordered the hatches battened and tarpaulins thrown over them, calling for steam to be piped into the ship—a firefighting technique he hoped would put out the fire but preserve the cargo. However, this would only make things worse.

Barge cast 100 feet inland by explosion.

This barge, originally located near the explosion, was lifted out of the water and landed 100 feet inland. The firetruck at left (behind the man) was thrown there by the second explosion. Photo taken April 18, 1947. (Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries. UH Digital Library)

Shortly after 9:00 a.m., the ship exploded with tremendous force. The resulting explosion launched the cargo 2,000 to 3,000 feet into the sky, caused a 15-foot tidal wave, and was felt as far as 250 miles away.

A nearby ship, the S.S. High Flyer, also loaded with ammonium nitrate, ignited and about 16 hours later, also exploded.

The combined explosions resulted in the largest industrial disaster of its time in the U.S., taking the lives of an estimated 500–600 people. Thousands more were injured.

Damaged houses in Texas City in 1947.

Damaged Texas City houses one mile away from the explosion. Photo taken on April 18, 1947. (Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries. UH Digital Library)

On a warm November evening in 2003, Barge NMS 1477 sat docked in Texas City, just across from the same dock where the Grandcamp had been waiting fatefully 56 years earlier. Loaded with 197,000 gallons of concentrated sulfuric acid (>97%), the barge capsized during the final stages of loading on November 3.

With the barge now floating upside down at the dock, acid began slowly leaking from the vents as seawater rushed in, dangerously diluting the acid.

Charlie Henry, then NOAA’s Scientific Support Coordinator for the region, quickly reported to the scene to support the United States Coast Guard Captain of the Port. While the situation appeared stable, the threat of a possible disaster was slowly growing. Inside the bowels of the barge, an aggressive chemical reaction was taking place.

Barge NMS 1477 tilted on its side at a Texas City dock.

Barge NMS 1477 later tilted on its side, where it was coincidentally located at the same Texas City dock as the S.S. High Flyer. (NOAA)

Highly concentrated acid is actually stable when shipping, but partially diluted concentrated sulfuric acid is highly corrosive. As the acid began mixing with small amounts of seawater, it began eating away at the barge’s steel structure, releasing heat and explosive hydrogen gas.

The gravity of this situation was not lost on Charlie and others involved in the response. This was quickly becoming a very dangerous situation for the responders and the local public.

With the gruesome 1947 catastrophe on their minds, the local NOAA responders along with a Louisiana State University chemist providing scientific support arrived at the site of the partially sunken barge on November 5, and the Seattle-based NOAA response team also went into high gear.

The response team included the U.S. Coast Guard, the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality, Texas Parks and Wildlife, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and NOAA, as well as representatives from the barge’s operator, Martin Product Sales LLC, all working together to minimize the impact of this incident.

The dock where the barge overturned in the Port of Texas City.

The dock where the barge overturned in the Port of Texas City in 2003. (NOAA)

The barge had now tilted on its side and rested on the bottom at the dock. This was the same spot that the unfortunate S.S. High Flyer was docked in 1947. Everyone’s immediate concern was the potential for an explosion from the hydrogen gas now built up in the barge. The gas had expanded the barge’s side-plates and vigorously bubbled from vents located underwater near where the side of the barge rested on the bottom.

Since 1947, this area in Texas City had been extensively developed to support the chemical and oil industries, meaning that an explosion on the barge could lead to even more damage and disaster than before.

Because the threat of explosion was so great, the responders made the unusual but necessary decision to do a controlled spill of the vessel’s remaining sulfuric acid into the adjacent harbor waters. To dilute such large volumes of acid to a concentration considered below an environmental hazard, it would have to be mixed with huge volumes of water. The buffering salts in seawater would also help mitigate the acid. The operation was complete by November 13, nine days after the accident.

The decision to intentionally spill the cargo wasn’t easy, but later environmental sampling showed that the acid was highly buffered and diluted when it entered the adjacent open bay. Furthermore, tidal flow and the movement of ships in the area appeared to help reduce the environmental impacts as well. Monitoring continued as the “footprint” of the plume of the discharged acid dissipated throughout the waters.

Aerial photo of Texas City Port taken April 20, 1947.

Aerial photo of Texas City Port taken April 20, 1947. (Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries. UH Digital Library)

Fortunately, a smart use of science helped avoid another explosion in Texas City. The scarred propeller from the S.S. High Flyer sits at the entrance to the Port at Texas City as a reminder of a less fortunate emergency response which now happened 65 years ago.

Sources included [all links leave this blog]:
1947 Texas City Disaster | Moore Memorial Public Library
The Texas City Disaster, 1947 By Hugh W. Stephens | University of Texas Press
Sulfuric Acid Barge NMS 1477 Leaking | IncidentNews.noaa.gov
Agencies Respond to Capsized Barge | MarineLink.com

CJ Beegle-KrauseCJ Beegle-Krause is president of Research4D, a Seattle-based nonprofit with a mission to bring peer-reviewed research into decision support. She is a former trajectory modeler with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, who worked on this barge incident. More recently, she has been working again with OR&R on the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill. “Science allows us to predict, and thus to respond most appropriately to smaller rapidly-scaling-up events like this barge as well as larger scale environmental disasters.”


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Abandoned Vessels: Drifting Across the Pacific Ocean Since 1617

Adrift Japanese fishing vessel.

The derelict Japanese fishing vessel RYOU-UN MARU drifts more than 125 miles from Forrester Island in southeast Alaska. The fishing vessel has been drifting unmanned at sea since the 2011 Japanese earthquake and subsequent tsunami more than a year ago (U.S. Coast Guard, Air Station Kodiak).

You might have already heard about the rusted-out, abandoned fishing vessel adrift off British Columbia, Canada. The 170 foot (53 meter) long vessel is the Ryou-Un Maru, a squid boat that broke free from a dock in Hokkaido, Japan, after the March 11, 2011 tsunami. Fortunately, no one was on board when the tsunami happened.

Over the past year it has drifted across the Pacific Ocean and was first observed in Canadian waters. The U.S. Coast Guard is now tracking the drift of the vessel, which entered U.S. waters March 31, 2012, and currently it is about 155 nautical miles away from Baranof Island in southeast Alaska.

The drift of the vessel confirms what generations of beach combers have known for a long time. The Pacific Ocean currents form a giant conveyor belt that carries flotsam (floating items) across the Pacific. Over the years I’ve found glass fish floats, glass bottles, and other Japanese items that have washed up along the coast of Washington state where I live.

But a big fishing vessel—that must be something really unusual—or is it?

In 2003, the 97-foot ship Genei Maru #7 caught fire and was abandoned at sea about halfway between Japan and the United States. This “ghost ship” ran aground on Kodiak, Alaska, after drifting at sea, crewless, for five months. And in 2006, the U.S. Coast Guard found an abandoned coal barge adrift off the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska, which had wandered across the Pacific from Russia.

Cover page of historical record of drifting Japanese vessels.

The document, “Record of Japanese Vessels Driven Upon the North-West Coast of America and its Outlying Islands,” was originally published in 1872.

But there is evidence that vessels have been drifting across the Pacific for a long time. Check out this old document from 1872, “Record of Japanese Vessels Driven Upon the North-West Coast of America and its Outlying Islands.”

Some archaeologists think that Indigenous cultures of the Pacific Northwest Coast have been strongly influenced by the effects of foreign shipwrecks. Artifacts from shipwrecks, including metals and other technologies, may have been used by these tribes (Quimby, G. I. 1985. Japanese Wrecks, Iron Tools, and Prehistoric Indians of the Northwest Coast. Arctic Anthropology 22(2): 7–15.).

And the blog A Blast From the Past has a lengthy discussion on historical and more recent cases of vessels washing across the Pacific.

The oldest record is from 1617, when an abandoned Japanese ship was found near Acapulco, Mexico, but there are likely many other wrecks that went unrecorded because the vessels probably stranded in areas then inhabited only by native tribes.

The March 2011 tsunami certainly added to the amount of debris floating across the Pacific. If you find items you think might be from the tsunami, you can report them to DisasterDebris@noaa.gov.