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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How Your Fleece Jacket Could Be Contributing to the Degradation of Marine Habitats

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When you pull your favorite fleece jacket snugly around you, you probably never think about how it could be contributing to marine pollution.

However, recent research has investigated exactly that, exploring whether synthetic fabric products (such as fleece) could be a potential source of microscopic plastic fibers in the ocean and on beaches.

While at University College Dublin (Ireland), lead researcher Mark Browne conducted an experiment which included washing fleece clothing and then counting the number of fibers left over in the wastewater from the washing machines. He found that one piece of clothing could yield nearly 2,000 plastic fibers in a single wash—which would wind up not only in the wastewater but eventually in the marine environment.

In a complimentary experiment, he explored whether similar plastic fibers end up in beach sediments. His research uncovered that microplastic fibers, mostly polyester and acrylic, are showing up on beaches across the world, whether samples were gathered near sites where wastewater was discharged or not.

In other words, teeny plastic fibers from your synthetic clothing could make their way to the ocean. Because synthetics (plastics) can persist for a long time and travel along ocean currents, the topic of microplastic pollution has emerged in the past five years as a cause for concern.

The premise and conclusions of Dr. Browne’s research are provocative. This study is one of the first of its kind to pinpoint a specific source of microplastic marine debris. Because of the complexity of the topic, we still don’t have good estimates for how much of this debris is out there and how it enters the environment.

Dr. Browne’s work is a good example of a hypothesis-driven research project that has filled important knowledge gaps in our estimation of what kinds of debris end up on beaches. It has implications for how we could prevent this source of microplastic marine pollution. His research is also timely—an international working group (GESAMP) has just taken up the topic of microplastic debris and will be performing a global assessment of its sources and impacts.

More than anything, this research points to the complex nature of marine debris. Who would have thought that plastic particles from our clothing could make their way into the ocean? Unfortunately, there is not a single solution that will fix all the problems associated with marine debris, but good science allows us to find the best options for dealing with them.

For now, wash carefully, and educate yourself and others on the issue of plastics in our ocean.


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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52.9 Million Cigarette Butts on the Beach

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Jar of cigarette butts.

Visitors to the NOAA booth tried to guess the number of cigarettes butts in the jar (1,523) to qualify to win a T-shirt, donated by the non-profit Legacy. The NOAA exhibit on marine debris was designed to raise awareness of how toxic cigarette butts can harm the marine environment. (NOAA)

52.9 million.

That is the disgustingly large number of cigarette butts beach cleanup volunteers have collected over the past 25 years during the International Coastal Cleanup, an annual event sponsored by the Ocean Conservancy. Consistently the number one piece of litter found, cigarette butts represent an astounding 32 percent of total debris items gathered overall at these cleanups. And that’s sadly not only the case on beaches but elsewhere too.

Most cigarette filters are made of a type of plastic, cellulose acetate, which doesn’t biodegrade and can persist in the environment for a long time. Fish, birds, and other animals can mistake small pieces of plastic, like cigarette butts, for food. Eating them could cause cause the animal to choke or starve to death because the plastic isn’t digested, filling up their stomachs.

Cigarette butts contain toxins (such as heavy metals and the organic compounds nicotine and ethylphenol) and not a lot is known about how those toxins impact the environment, wildlife, and humans. However, studies show they have a negative health impact on fish. For example, according to public health non-profit Legacy®, a recent laboratory test demonstrated that one cigarette butt soaked in a liter of water was lethal to half of the fish exposed to it.

Boy holding jar of cigarette butts.

A local student visiting the NOAA booth with his mom, guessed how many cigarettes butts were in the jar in hope of winning a T-shirt at Louisiana Earth Day, April 22, 2012. He came close, and got a shirt. (NOAA)

In an effort to raise awareness about this common source of pollution, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration hosted a booth at the Louisiana Earth Day environmental festival in Baton Rouge on April 22, 2012. The festival is one of the largest Earth Day events in the nation, covering several downtown blocks and attracting thousands of people.

Even as the occasional smoker strolled by the booth, children crowded in for the chance to win a T-shirt by guessing as close as possible the number of cigarette butts in a large jar (1,523 gathered in only two hours!) and marvel at its grossness. Several of the kids remarked as they looked at the jar how they want their parents to stop smoking. Some of the parents and other grown-up visitors proudly announced how long it had been since they quit.

Couple at NOAA booth.

One couple visiting the NOAA booth try to guess the number of cigarette butts in the jar in order to win one of the T-shirts donated by the public health non-profit Legacy.

One current smoker announced that his girlfriend was making him dispose of his cigarette butts responsibly, rather than tossing them on the ground. Lots of visitors had never considered the negative impacts cigarettes could cause to the marine environment.

But here in this part of the country, next to the Mississippi River and not far from the Gulf of Mexico, most seemed interested in learning about the harmful implications this type of marine debris could cause their environment.

The NOAA Marine Debris Program, part of the Office of Response and Restoration, is educating the public on this specific type of pollution, one that almost seems to be the “last form of acceptable litter.” While most people would be horrified to see, say, some fast food litter tossed out of the car in front of them, unfortunately few of us would be as shocked to see someone throw a cigarette butt on the street.

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

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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.


Japanese Soccer Ball Lost During Tsunami Washes Up in Alaska

UPDATE: The soccer ball’s owner, 16 year-old Misaki Murakami, has been located and confirmed that this is indeed his ball. He lost everything in the 2011 Japan tsunami and is grateful that this object of sentimental value has been found. He received it in 2005 as a gift from his classmates in third grade before moving to a new elementary school, and one of the messages on the ball reads “Good luck, Murakami!!” (or rather “Hang in there, Murakami!!”). David Baxter and his wife Yumi plan to send him the soccer ball. (April 23, 2012)

UPDATE: The volleyball found on the same Alaskan island a few weeks later has been traced to a 19 year-old woman, Shiori Sato, whose home was washed away in the Japan tsunami. (April 24, 2012)

Japanese soccer ball.

The soccer ball with Japanese writing, which came from a school in the tsunami zone and later washed up on an Alaskan island. Credit: David Baxter.


More than a year and thousands of miles later, a soccer ball washed away during the Japan tsunami has turned up on a remote Alaskan island and eventually could be headed back to the Japanese school grounds it originally came from.

An observant beach comber on Middleton Island, in the Gulf of Alaska, found a soccer ball and volleyball with Japanese writing on them. A school name is stenciled on the soccer ball, and his wife was able to translate the writing to trace it to a school. We have confirmed that the school was in the tsunami zone, but because the school is set up on a hill, it wasn’t seriously impacted.

This may be one of the first opportunities since the March 2011 tsunami that a remnant washed away from Japan has been identified and could actually be returned to its previous owner. When something gets washed up on a beach, unless it has a unique and traceable identifier, like the registration numbers on a boat, it can be difficult to tell if the item was set adrift by the tsunami, or if it was lost or discarded at sea some other time.

The NOAA Marine Debris Program [leaves this blog] has been monitoring floating debris from the tsunami for the past year, and some very buoyant items have already made the long journey across the Pacific. The derelict fishing vessel the U.S. Coast Guard ended up sinking off Alaska in early April had drifted at least 4,500 miles before being spotted off Canada’s west coast.

In addition, a few suspect items like plastic fishing floats used in coastal aquaculture in Japan have washed up ashore. But so far most of the reported items can’t be traced definitively back to the tsunami. Marine debris is an everyday problem along the Pacific Coast, and buoyant items like bottles and plastics wash up on our coasts from Asia (and other places) all of the time.

However, some of the most touching items found so far have been these sports balls from Japan. The story of where the soccer ball was found is also interesting.

Middleton Island, Alaska [leaves this blog], is by all definitions a very remote place. The 4.5 mile long island in the Gulf of Alaska is about 70 miles from the Alaska mainland, and 50 miles from the nearest island.

A few people work on the treeless and windswept island, where they maintain the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Radar, Navigation, and Communication facilities there. Bird watching and beach combing are popular recreation activities there. It was David Baxter, a technician at the radar station, who ultimately found the sports balls washed up on the beach.

NOAA is working with the U.S. State Department, the Japanese Embassy, and the Japanese consulate in Seattle to confirm the details of the school connection and to set up a process to return any future items. The soccer ball may be the first identifiable item that could be returned. Unfortunately, the volleyball doesn’t have enough information on it for the Japanese consulate to continue investigating a possible owner, although the technician’s wife is continuing the search on her own.

The loss of life and suffering caused by the tsunami will be felt for generations, and the soccer ball is only one small example of how that event has touched us here in North America.

Information on significant marine debris sightings in the North Pacific Ocean and on the coast is a big help to us as we improve our models and predictions about the debris’ paths. If you find an item you think may be related to the Japan tsunami, take a picture, note the location, and report it to us at

NOAA’s Neal Parry also contributed to this post.

Neal Parry.Neal Parry, winner of NOAA’s “Green Steward” award, solves both systemic and acute challenges associated with the issue of marine debris through project management, policy analysis, partnership building, and creative thinking. He currently serves as a contractor to the NOAA Marine Debris Program, and has responded to numerous incidents including Hurricane Katrina, the 2009 American Samoa tsunami, the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill, and the 2011 Japan tsunami.


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 |
Agencies Respond to Capsized Barge |

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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100 Years After the Titanic and the Dangers of Icy Seas

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One of the greatest marine accidents of the 20th century involved an ocean liner hitting an iceberg. The 100th anniversary of the Titanic sinking is April 15, and I always cringe when I think of the crew trying and failing to turn the massive, 883 foot-long ship just before hitting the iceberg.

I know how long it can take to turn and stop a large vessel (sometimes as many as 5 miles). But did you know that another great maritime accident of the 20th century came from a ship changing course to avoid ice?

On March 24, 1989, the tanker Exxon Valdez left its namesake port in Alaska, loaded with 53 million gallons of North Slope crude oil bound for Long Beach, Calif. Most people know that hours later the Exxon Valdez grounded at Bligh Reef, spilling some 10.8 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound.

Just before midnight, Captain Joe Hazelwood called the Coast Guard Vessel Traffic Center on the radio and said he was changing course and diverting from the designated traffic lanes. But the Exxon Valdez wasn’t just taking a short cut across the Sound. The Captain intentionally turned the ship to “wind my way through the ice.”

The Columbia Glacier is about 30 miles from the port town of Valdez, Alaska, and some of the ice that breaks off the glacier floats out into the shipping lanes.

The traffic center acknowledged and confirmed the Exxon Valdez’s new course. A few minutes later the Exxon Valdez made another course change, but this one was was not reported to the Valdez traffic center. Twenty minutes later the Exxon Valdez ran aground. A lengthy analysis of the events leading up to the grounding can be found at the Exxon Valdez Trustee Council website.


Sea ice consists of frozen sea water and is observed in terms of three basic parameters: concentration, stage of development, and form. (NOAA)

Because of the hazard ice poses to shipping, my NOAA office prepared a booklet guide to sea ice [PDF] to make it easier for captains and pilots to report and share information about ice conditions at sea.

Sea ice comes in a lot of forms and sizes and has some colorful names like “brash” and “growler” and “cake” and “bergy bits.” I think the one that the Titanic hit would be called a “large berg,” which can range in size from 401 to 670 feet.

You can find out more information about the Titanic and NOAA’s role in discovering, studying, and protecting the site of this historic shipwreck, now a tragic symbol of the dangers of ice at sea.