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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NOAA Launches ERMA Mapping Tool for Responding to Arctic Oil Spills

Ice and open water in the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska.

Ice and open water in the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska. (NOAA)

The uncertain, rapidly changing conditions of the Arctic Ocean call for emergency responders to take extra precautions in preparing for the possibility of a remote oil spill. Because of this, NOAA‘s Office of Response and Restoration, along with the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), have launched an Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA®) for the Arctic region.

Arctic ERMA, the same interactive online mapping tool used by federal responders during the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill, will help address the many complex challenges the Arctic presents. This comes at a key time for the area, as growing ship traffic and proposed energy development, including offshore drilling, are increasing the risk of oil spills.

ERMA brings together all of the available information needed for an effective emergency response in the Arctic. In an emergency situation, ERMA is equipped with constantly updated oceanographic observations and weather data from NOAA as well as critical information from BSEE and other federal and state response agencies. Depending on the need, responders can further customize the tool with environmental, logistical, and operational data, such as areas where sensitive species may be, fisheries may be closed, or navigation may be restricted.

“Arctic ERMA builds on the lessons we learned on usability, data management, and data visualization from the Deepwater Horizon/BP disaster,” commented Dr. Amy Merten, OR&R Spatial Data Branch Manager. “The Arctic ERMA team is thrilled to work with our diverse group of partners, ranging from Alaskan village elders to federal agencies, as they challenge us in how we share data and visualize information that can improve our collective oil spill preparedness. The Arctic ERMA site is now live, but it’s a living work in progress.” Dr. Merten led the team developing Arctic ERMA.

Aerial view of belugas in formation in the Chukchi Sea.

An aerial view of beluga whales, a species which may be vulnerable during an Arctic oil spill, in formation in the Chukchi Sea. (Laura Morse/NOAA)

Integrating and synthesizing data—some in real time—into a single interactive map, ERMA provides a quick visualization of the situation, improving communication and coordination among responders and environmental stakeholders.

NOAA developed Arctic ERMA to address escalating energy exploration and transportation activity in the region, which increases the risk of oil spills and other accidents.

The Alaska Ocean Observing System; the State of Alaska; the University of Alaska, Fairbanks; the University of New Hampshire; and Alaska’s Northwest and North Slope Arctic Boroughs are working with NOAA to keep this database current with information as it becomes available. Arctic ERMA pulls into one platform data such as the location, extent, and concentration of sea ice; locations of ports and pipelines; and vulnerable environmental resources. This tool also includes cultural and subsistence resources based on traditional and local knowledge.

In addition to providing local and natural resource information, BSEE has helped improve access to key environmental, commercial, and industrial data sources throughout lease areas in the Arctic. BSEE and other organizations will optimize real-time sensors to feed the data directly into ERMA during both potential oil spills and exercises simulating the release of hazardous materials.

You can view Arctic ERMA online at

Earlier this summer, NOAA, BSEE, and the U.S. Coast Guard used Arctic ERMA during an industry-sponsored training exercise simulating an oil spill in the Chukchi Sea. “It’s an incredibly popular tool,” said John Whitney, NOAA’s Scientific Support Coordinator for Alaska. “My colleagues responding to oil spills in local, state, and federal government as well as industry continue to give very positive feedback about how valuable Arctic ERMA will be when they are trying to get information about a spill.”

Arctic ERMA is the product of a partnership among NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, NOAA’s Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management, the Oil Spill Recovery Institute, DOI’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, and the University of New Hampshire’s Coastal Response Research Center. Besides the Arctic, ERMA is currently available for seven other geographic regions. The launch of Arctic ERMA is part of ongoing efforts by the Interagency Working Group on Coordination of Domestic Energy Development and Permitting in Alaska, which President Obama established in July 2011. This working group aims to coordinate the federal agencies responsible for overseeing the safe and responsible development of onshore and offshore energy in Alaska.

Read the press release here.

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NOAA at the Jersey Shore

Lifeguards prepare for another day of keeping swimmers safe.

Lifeguards prepare for another day of keeping swimmers safe on Brigantine. (NOAA)

Imagine your first trip to the ocean: walking along a sandy beach, listening to the sounds of waves and shorebirds, appreciating the smell of salt in the wind.  I was surprised to read recently that beaches only gained popularity as places to relax and enjoy during the past century. Before that, according to author John Gillis, the coast was associated with ship wrecks, danger, and the hard labor accompanying fishing and maritime industry. This trend changed when beaches became more accessible, and people began to see the shore as a refuge and even “sanctuary.”

My family vacationing on Brigantine in the 1960s.

My family vacationing on Brigantine in the 1960s. (Vicki Loe)

I still return to the same beach in Brigantine, New Jersey, which I visited every year as a child. I am happy to say that, in spite of the increased residential development of that island, it seems not much has changed since I started vacationing there in the 1960s. However, the future of our beaches is uncertain when faced with threats such as climate change and sea level rise, severe hurricanes, overdevelopment, oil spills, and marine debris.

With all of this in mind during my annual visit there last week, I looked at the Jersey shore with new eyes. I realized how appreciative I am of the work that NOAA and other organizations do to preserve our beaches so that future generations can continue to enjoy them the way I have been able to.

A little girl takes tentative steps into the surf while holding on to mom's hand.

A little girl takes tentative steps into the surf while holding on to mom’s hand. (NOAA)

Brigantine is only one of the many small ocean communities that generations of Americans look forward to visiting along our coasts each year. It is a barrier island just north of Atlantic City. Settled in 1890, it is now home to nearly 9,500 residents.  The island is less than seven miles long, with the entire northern third of the island devoted to a wildlife refuge.

Uninhabited by humans, the refuge is composed of sand dunes, maritime forest, and tidal marsh. During the summer visitors can see a variety of endangered birds, including Piping Plover, Black Skimmer, American Oystercatcher, and Least Tern. When I was there last September, I watched a pod of bottlenose dolphins playing near the shore. That was shortly after Hurricane Irene made landfall near Brigantine on the morning of August 28, causing significant beach erosion and flooding.

A young girl goes surf fishing with her father in the early evening.

A young girl goes surf fishing with her father in the early evening. (NOAA)

In the developed area to the south, most of the beaches are guarded during the day in the summer to keep swimmers safe. In the evenings, after people have gone home with their umbrellas and beach chairs, the remainder surf, fish, and walk the beach. Boating and recreational fishing are a big part of life on the bay side of the island.

What does NOAA do to protect coastal areas like this around the country? The National Weather Service provides valuable information on weather conditions, including severe weather warnings.

Recently, they helped guide the development of a smartphone application that gives the U.S. Coast Guard, beach lifeguards, and researchers a way to report and receive up-to-date warnings on dangerous rip currents, which have been a particular problem for swimmers this past year.

NOAA also provides nautical charts for the coastal waterways surrounding islands like Brigantine to ensure safe navigation for commercial and recreational boating and fishing as well as commercial shipping.

Kids play in the sand the same way they have for generations.

Kids play in the sand the same way they have for generations. (NOAA)

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration works closely with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on hazardous waste sites in coastal areas to protect human health and minimize damage to NOAA marine resources. When an accident or hazardous substance release occurs, NOAA’s Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program works to assess injury and implements rehabilitation and restoration.

Additionally, the Office of Response and Restoration has customized an online mapping tool called ERMA® (Environmental Response Management Application) for this part of the Atlantic coast. ERMA integrates data such as ship locations, weather, and ocean currents, in a centralized, easy-to-use format for environmental responders and decision makers. This tool would be especially valuable in the case of an oil spill, for example.

Guidelines for visitors reduce the risk of injury or stress to the North Brigantine Natural Area.

Guidelines for visitors reduce the risk of injury or stress to the North Brigantine Natural Area. (NOAA)

The NOAA Marine Debris Program provides education on the harm caused by man-made litter polluting the ocean and coasts. Even this year, beaches not far from Brigantine reported sightings of medical waste washing up near the shore. The program also provides valuable information to fishers on the proper disposal of monofilament fishing line, which can entangle and injure birds and other wildlife.

Through a partnership with NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, the Marine Mammal Stranding Center (based on Brigantine) responds to marine mammals and turtles in distress along all of New Jersey’s waterways and oversees their rehabilitation and release back into the wild.

NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator Frank Csulak.

NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator Frank Csulak.

Frank Csulak is a good example of one of the many individuals who has devoted his career to the preservation of our coastal resources. Csulak is NOAA’s Scientific Support Coordinator and has worked for the Office of Response and Restoration in New Jersey for years. Raised on the New Jersey shore, he is the primary scientific adviser to the U.S. Coast Guard for oil and chemical spill planning and response in the area. Through his tireless work, he helps reduce the influence of pollution on the waterways and shores of the Mid-Atlantic states.

So, the next time you visit the Jersey shore, you can thank Frank Csulak, NOAA, and our many partners for delivering another beautiful day at the beach.

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Waking up to our Relationship with Oil

When I think about oil consumption, I immediately think of gasoline and how much I drive. And I often feel pretty good about it because I drive a relatively fuel-efficient car. But oil is part of plenty of other products in our lives too.

Seattle, the city in which I live, recently has banned plastic bags, which are made from oil, and also prohibits restaurants and grocery stores from using Styrofoam (oil-based) containers for take-out food. A lot of people would agree that society’s heavy dependence on oil has some negative consequences, which means we are happy about improving fuel efficiency and avoiding Styrofoam cups.

Protest sign reading 'spOILed.'

Credit: derek_b; used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) License

But when I look over a list of everyday items made from oil, I am struck by how many of them we might use just in the first hour of a typical day. For starters, the pillow I sleep on likely contains oil products. I wake up every day to the sound of my iPhone alarm at 6:30 a.m., and the phone’s parts and the plastic encasing it wouldn’t exist without oil. It’s a similar story for my shower curtain, shampoo, and bath soap. My toothbrush, toothpaste, and the container that holds my floss are made of oil. Same goes for my deodorant and moisturizer. My hair dryer and brush are plastic, so we can add them to the list. Lots of cosmetics contain oil, so if I wear lipstick or nail polish, there’s another one. If the clothes I put on contain synthetic fibers or my shoes have rubber soles, they too contain oil.

So I grab my sunglasses (made of plastic) and head for my car, which has plastic parts, enamel, and tires that all were derived from oil, and—we can’t forget—the gasoline that still powers it, however efficiently. By now, it’s 7:30 a.m., and I have used at least 20 products that are manufactured with oil, and I haven’t even made it to the coffee shop yet, where, thankfully, my coffee will come in a paper cup (but with a plastic lid).

Beach open: Avoid oil and wildlife sign.

Credit: Lisle Boomer; used under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) License.

Because oil plays such a huge role in most of our lives in the U.S., companies are drilling and transporting a lot of it in marine waters. That means that when accidents happen, oil can—and does—get spilled into the marine environment.

Scientists at the Office of Response and Restoration prepare for and respond to these oil spills: forecasting the movement and behaviors of spilled oil and chemicals, evaluating the risk to natural resources, and recommending the best cleanup measures. That means that we need to understand oil in order to deal with it properly.

Our society’s relationship with oil is complex. For something that is so pervasive in our lives, many of us actually do not know much about it. In a series of blog posts over the next several months, stay tuned as we delve into a variety of topics, including what oil actually is, what makes it so useful, and why it can be so toxic in the marine environment.

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Salmon Celebrate Less Oily Habitat Six Years after Diesel Spill in Washington’s Cascade Mountains

Joe Inslee and Ian Zelo of OR&R’s Assessment and Restoration Division also contributed to this post.

Returning salmon swim through the new engineered log jam habitat.

Returning salmon, possibly a male and female preparing to spawn, swim through the new engineered log jam habitat along the Greenwater River in Washington. (South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group)

Salmon and other water-loving species in Washington’s White River watershed should be breathing (through their gills) a collective sigh of relief. A mile of their habitat on the Greenwater River in the Cascade Mountains finally has returned to a more natural state. This restoration project is compensating for a diesel spill in nearby Silver Creek when a faulty pump overfilled a fuel tank and despoiled the area on November 3, 2006.

This small 200-gallon operating, or “day,” tank was part of a Puget Sound Energy generator station that supplies backup power to the nearby Crystal Mountain ski area. Normally, the system senses when the day tank is low and fills it by pumping fuel from large underground tanks, automatically shutting down the flow of diesel when the day tank is full.  On that November day, however, a system failure sent an extra 18,000 gallons of fuel gushing through the day tank from three 12,000-gallon underground tanks. The wave of diesel eventually seeped underground into Silver Creek, where it not only affected endangered Chinook salmon and bull trout but at least five miles of the creek and 16 acres of wetlands.

NOAA and our co-trustees evaluated how extensive the environmental injuries were and recovered damages from Puget Sound Energy. The trustees then worked with local partners to carry out restoration activities, which are now complete. The projects emphasized Chinook salmon and their river habitat in the White River watershed (where Silver Creek is located).

Crews place large wood material which will become engineered log jam habitat for salmon.

Crews place large wood material which will become engineered log jam habitat for salmon in the Greenwater River. (South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group)

The Greenwater River floodplain project rehabilitated natural river and floodplain processes in order to expand where and how salmon navigate the White River watershed.  According to the Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington, “This project removed road fill along the Greenwater River and incorporated large woody material into the channel as engineered log jams.”

Historically, log jams were prevalent in Pacific Northwest rivers [PDF] and would help slow and redirect a river’s straight, fast-moving currents. The benefits for salmon are two-fold: This action chisels deep pools and pockets into the riverbed, which adult and young salmon need to feed and find refuge from predators, and it also overflows some water outside of the main river channel, creating slower-moving tributaries perfect for older salmon as they prepare to spawn. Engineering log jams through restoration projects like this one helps recreate these benefits for salmon [PDF].

Two key partners in this project’s efforts were South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group and the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.


How Would Chemical Dispersants Work on an Arctic Oil Spill?

This is a post by John Whitney, OR&R’s Scientific Support Coordinator for Alaska.

An Arctic Cod rests in an ice-covered space.

An arctic cod, a key part of the Arctic food web, rests in an ice-covered space in Alaska’s Beaufort Sea, North of Point Barrow. This species was one of the subjects of the research program on dispersant effects in the Arctic. (Shawn Harper/Hidden Ocean 2005 Expedition: NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration)

If there were a huge oil spill in the Arctic, would chemical dispersants work under the frigid conditions there?

And once dispersants break down oil into smaller droplets, how toxic are the oil and chemicals to key species in the short Arctic food web?

Would the dispersed oil and dispersant actually biodegrade in cold Arctic waters?

With Shell currently on track to drill several exploratory wells in the Chukchi and Beaufort Sea this summer, these are very timely questions—and finally, we are beginning to find some answers.

For the last three years, a special oil industry research group (called a “joint industry program”) has been trying to resolve these questions before any major oil exploration, development, and production happens off the northern Alaskan Arctic coastline. Lead scientists Dr. Jack Word of Newfields Environmental (Port Gamble, Wash.) and Dr. Robert Perkins of University of Alaska, Fairbanks, coordinated this research program to determine the viability of using dispersants on Arctic Ocean oil spills.

Oil impacts on Arctic food webs

The illustration, not associated with this study, shows potential oil spill impacts to wildlife and habitats in the Arctic Ocean. Click for larger view. Credit: NOAA/Kate Sweeney, Illustration.

Aiming for as realistic Arctic conditions as possible, they captured arctic zooplankton (krill and Calanus copepods, which are tiny marine crustaceans) as well as larval and juvenile fish (arctic cod and sculpin) from the coastal waters of the Beaufort Sea.

These organisms are key players in the Arctic food web and culturing them in order to conduct toxicity tests hopefully would reveal how negative impacts from oil and dispersants could cascade through the ecosystem. The researchers also conducted toxicity and biodegradation tests in actual waters collected from the Beaufort Sea.

Five oil companies were pooling their talents and financial resources to conduct these tests and gather information: Shell, ConocoPhillips, Statoil, ExxonMobil, and BP. As NOAA’s Scientific Support Coordinator for Alaska, I was fortunate enough to serve on a unique, yet very important, part of the group: the Technical Advisory Committee, which is composed of non-industry technical and non-technical stakeholders. We met once a month to discuss the results and advise them on ongoing scientific tests.

Drs. Word and Perkins and their colleagues recently presented the results of this research at a workshop in Anchorage, Alaska. The workshop began with Tim Nedwed of ExxonMobil making a strong case for immediate and robust access to all the major oil spill response options—mechanical methods, in situ burning, and dispersants—in order to deal with a large oil release in the Arctic or any other location.

Mechanical methods (e.g., skimmers) and in situ burning typically encounter spilled oil at low rates, historically removing only 5% to 15% of the oil on the water’s surface. This makes chemical dispersants a very attractive option when approaching a big spill using a large aircraft (such as a C-130) to deliver dispersants. After all, Dr. Nedwed pointed out, the ultimate goal of dispersants is to deliver a significant boost to the rate of oil biodegradation that happens naturally after most oil spills.

Here are some of the major findings from their research:

  1. Arctic marine species show equal or less sensitivity to petroleum after exposure than temperate (warmer water) species.
  2. The Arctic test organisms did not show significant signs of toxicity when exposed to recommended application rates of the dispersant Corexit 9500 by itself, which also tends to biodegrade on the order of several weeks to a few months.
  3. Petroleum does biodegrade with the help of indigenous microbes in the Arctic’s open waters under both summer and winter conditions.
  4. Chemical dispersants more fully degraded certain components of oil than petroleum that was physically dispersed (for example, from wind or waves breaking up an oil slick).
  5. Under various scenarios for large and small oil spills treated with Corexit 9500, the effects on populations of arctic cod, a keystone species in the Arctic, appeared to be minor to insignificant.

This workshop garnered attention from the oil industry, government regulatory and natural resource agencies, academia, Alaska North Slope residents, private consultants, and non-governmental organizations. It concluded with a brief discussion of Net Environmental Benefit Analysis, a scientific process of weighing the costs against the benefits to the environment, with emphasis on the importance of making this process both science-based and, at the same time, compatible with listening to the subsistence Alaska Native population, a significant and valuable voice in the Arctic.

John WhitneyJohn Whitney has served as the Alaskan Scientific Support Coordinator for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration for over 25 years. His responsibilities include primary scientific support to the U. S. Coast Guard, as well as to industry, government agencies, and stakeholders for oil spills and other hazardous materials response in Alaska’s offshore waters. John’s background is in physics and geophysics, earning a PhD in geophysics from the University of Washington in Seattle. Currently, John participates in deliberations with the Arctic Council Emergency Preparedness, Prevention, and Response working group and also chairs the dispersant working group of the Alaska Regional Response Team.