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 Tracks Path of Possible Japan Tsunami Dock off Washington Coast

This is a post by Amy MacFadyen, oceanographer and modeler in the Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division.

A dock washed up on the rocky northern coast of Washington.

The dock washed up on the rocky northern coast of Washington state, as viewed from a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter on December 18, 2012. (U.S. Coast Guard)

As a NOAA oceanographer working in pollution response, part of my job is to predict where pollutants (mostly oil) spilled into the ocean will end up. Sometimes I am asked to forecast possible paths, or trajectories, for other objects spotted at sea—such as a large dock recently reported to be floating off the coast of Washington state, approximately 16 nautical miles northwest of Grays Harbor.

We suspect [Editor’s note 1/18/13: Japan has confirmed this as a piece of tsunami debris.] that this dock began its oceanic journey in March of 2011 at the Port of Misawa, Japan, following the devastating Tōhoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Three* docks were ripped away from this port.  After approximately 15 months at sea, one of the docks turned up on Agate Beach near Newport, Ore., in June 2012. A second dock suspected** to be from Misawa was spotted offshore of the Hawaiian Islands in September. The vast difference in the paths of these three docks is a good illustration of how turbulent ocean currents and winds can scatter widely objects floating at sea.

When this latest dock was spotted on Friday, December 14, we at NOAA were asked to forecast where winds and currents might move the dock over the next few days. The dock is a large, unlit, concrete structure and hence posed a significant hazard to navigation. Furthermore, with stormy weather and strong onshore winds in the forecast, it seemed likely the dock would end up on the beach. Many beaches along the northern Washington coast are quite remote, varying from sandy or rocky beaches to cliffs dropping right down to the water. Depending on where the dock came ashore, access could prove difficult and might allow possible invasive species hitching a ride on the dock time to spread into local ecosystems. To be better prepared to take action, we needed to know where and when the dock might come ashore so it could be located quickly.

In order to predict the trajectory of an object floating at sea, we require forecasts of winds and ocean currents. Those of us who live in the Pacific Northwest are especially familiar with the difficulty involved in predicting the weather. Although weather forecasts are generally reliable for the first few days of a forecast period, a forecast always contains some uncertainty which tends to increase over time. For example, this weekend’s weather forecast is generally more accurate than next weekend’s forecast.

Forecasting ocean currents faces similar difficulties, which may be compounded by a lack of observations. There are few (if any) direct measurements of real-time ocean currents on the Washington coast. In addition, there is further uncertainty about how a floating object such as a large dock will move in response to the currents and winds. For example, an object that is floating high in the water will “feel” the winds more than an object floating lower in the water. While we could estimate this effect for the dock, it adds another source of uncertainty to the mix.

Map of the northern Washington coast shows projected and actual locations of the dock.

This map of the northern Washington coast shows an example output from the GNOME model for the predicted “best guess” area (red ellipse) and uncertainty boundary (blue ellipse). The location where the dock was found is shown by the black arrow. (NOAA)

So what can we do with all this uncertainty when “I don’t know” is not an acceptable answer? The approach we took was twofold. In addition to providing a “best estimate” trajectory for the dock, in which we considered the wind and currents forecasts as truth, we also ran multiple scenarios in our trajectory model to determine where else the dock possibly could end up. These additional scenarios might use different values approximating how much the dock gets pushed along like a sailboat or they might adjust the wind and current forecasts slightly to see how this affects the projected path of the dock.

After running the trajectory model multiple times, we produced a map that indicated the most likely area that the dock would come ashore, but the map also included a larger area of uncertainty around it (an “uncertainty boundary”) where the dock might be found if, for example, the currents were stronger than predicted.

Because the dock was not spotted again after the initial report on December 14, our trajectory could only narrow down the search area to an approximately 50 mile stretch of the Washington coast (remember, forecast error grows with time).

However, using the forecast guidance, state, federal, and tribal representatives mobilized search teams, and the dock was located on the afternoon of December 18 by a Coast Guard helicopter aerial survey. The dock had been washed ashore, most likely sometime during the evening before, on a rugged stretch of coastline north of the Hoh River. Access to the region is difficult, but personnel from the National Park Service and Washington State Fish and Wildlife are attempting to reach the dock to sample it for invasive species and to attach a tracking buoy in case it refloats before it can be salvaged.

Here you can see an example animation of our trajectory model GNOME showing a potential path of the dock. Particles are released in the model at the position where the dock was initially sighted. The particles move under the influence of winds and ocean currents. They also spread apart over time; this is simulating the small-scale turbulence in the winds and currents. This particular scenario was run after the dock was stranded and uses observed winds from a nearby weather station (wind direction and strength is shown by the arrow on the upper right) and a northward coastal current of approximately 1 knot.

Download the video animation showing the potential path of the dock off the coast of Washington [Quicktime].

*[UPDATE 4/5/2013: This story originally stated that four docks were missing from Misawa, Japan and that “one of the four turned up several weeks later on an island south of Misawa.” We now know only three docks were swept from Misawa in the 2011 tsunami, and none were found on a Japanese island.]

**The dock near Hawaii has not been confirmed by the Japanese Consulate as being from Misawa.

Amy MacFadyen

Amy MacFadyen

Amy MacFadyen is a physical oceanographer at the Emergency Response Division of the Office of Response and Restoration (NOAA). The Emergency Response Division provides scientific support for oil and chemical spill response — a key part of which is trajectory forecasting to predict the movement of spills. During the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Amy helped provide daily
trajectories to the incident command. Before moving to NOAA, Amy was at the University of Washington, first as a graduate student then as a postdoctoral researcher. Her research examined transport of harmful algal blooms from offshore initiation sites to the Washington coast.

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Getting the Download During a Disaster: Mapping the Hurricane Sandy Pollution Response

During a disaster, being able to keep track of the information flowing in about damages and operations can make a huge difference. Here, we give you some from-the-ground perspectives about how essential this can be during a response like the one to Hurricane Sandy.

Station New York aftermath from Hurricane Sandy

Coast Guard Station New York, located on Staten Island, sustains flooding damage and debris after Hurricane Sandy passes through New York Harbor, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012. (U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer 1st Class Josh Janney)

NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator Ed Levine: The last weekend of October became very hectic for those of us in disaster response as Hurricane Sandy moved its havoc up the U.S. eastern seaboard. After the storm passed, initial reports indicated that coastal New York and New Jersey, especially around Long Island Sound and New York Harbor, were among the hardest hit.

When I arrived at the U.S. Coast Guard’s base of operations on Staten Island, N.Y., I was surprised to find that the building was on generator power and back-up lighting; was without heat or telephones; and had minimal computer access and cell phone connectivity. In other words, they were part of the disaster.

Fairly quickly, however, they managed to set up an incident command post. Soon I was able to survey the coastal damage and pollution threats in a Coast Guard helicopter.
Many areas were extremely impacted. There were oils spills in a national park, within the harbor, along the coast, and in the Arthur Kill waterway bordering Staten Island. Shipping containers had been washed off piers and docks into the water and others were strewn about on land, not far from the piles of smaller boats run aground.

Having previously responded to several hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, I realized how quickly data management would become a major issue for tracking the pollution response as it progressed. The Coast Guard and other responders need accurate, up-to-date information and maps to coordinate their planning, inform their decisions, and execute their operations. That’s where our team of information management specialists enter the picture.

In a city still plagued by power outages, supply shortages, and long lines for gasoline, our Geographic Information Systems (GIS) specialists arrived to a hectic scene at the response command post. They began processing data coming in from field reconnaissance and feeding it into NOAA’s Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA®) for the Atlantic Coast. ERMA is an online mapping tool that integrates and synthesizes data—often in real time—into a single interactive map, providing a quick visualization of the situation after a disaster and improving communication and coordination among responders and environmental stakeholders.

Welcome organizers of chaos, the team mapped high-priority locations of pollution and debris, displayed aerial imagery and on-the-ground photography, helped coordinate field team deployment, and identified areas of concern for environmental sensitivity and cultural and historical significance.

A view of Atlantic ERMA showing Coast Guard field team photos and the aerial survey path taken at Great Kills Harbor Marina.

A view of Atlantic ERMA showing Coast Guard field team photos (red) and the aerial survey path (green) taken at Great Kills Harbor Marina on Staten Island, N.Y., during the post-Hurricane Sandy assessment and cleanup. The data are shown on top of NOAA National Geodetic Survey aerial images taken after the storm and show the impact along the shoreline. The photos were processed in the NOAA Photologger database at the Coast Guard incident command post on Staten Island, uploaded to ERMA, and used by the Coast Guard to prioritize cleanup and plan for the next day’s activities, as well as for briefing agency leaders and partners. (NOAA) Click to enlarge.

NOAA Geographic Information Specialist Jill Bodnar and her team: During the Hurricane Sandy pollution response, my colleagues and I divided the GIS work into two areas: general information management and ERMA support.
Information management is important because it becomes a source of accountability and for providing updates on the progress of cleanup operations and impacts to the surrounding natural resources. Well-run information management is crucial in identifying the priorities and status of pollution events quickly and correctly, which, for example, can help keep a leaking chemical drum from reaching a nearby estuary full of nesting birds.

the U.S. Coast Guard oversees the removal of a drum with unknown contents with New York City in the background.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the U.S. Coast Guard oversees the removal of a drum with unknown contents with New York City in the background. NOAA’s ERMA application helped responders prioritize the removal of pollution threats such as this one. (U.S. Coast Guard)

At the Staten Island command post, Coast Guard field teams would arrive from a day of work and hand their cameras, GPS units, and often their field notes to our information management specialists. Then, we would upload photos, GPS coordinates, and field observations into software programs and spreadsheets, and the work of verifying the data would begin: Did we have all the data pieces we needed? Was it all correct?

Then, the information would get pulled into our central, web-based GIS application, ERMA. There are a few main roles for ERMA at a command post like the one on Staten Island. One of the foremost functions is to help Coast Guard operations field staff members visualize their field data, such as the pollution targets and field photos, and overlay them with post-hurricane satellite imagery onto a map.

NOAA Geographic Information Specialist Matt Dorsey: Field photos are very informative and give a lot of insight to some of the unique and complex issues for pollution prevention and removal following a hurricane or other emergency situations. Some of the less frequent but more challenging scenarios include vessels inside houses, vessels aground a mile away from the closest waterway, and many vessels swept out of marinas into sensitive marsh areas.

Vessels that had been swept into marshes were a big issue while I was there. The Coast Guard wanted to know which sensitive marsh areas had vessels washed into them, how to prioritize these boats for removing oil or gas aboard them, and how to put together a plan for removing the actual vessel without disturbing the area too much more than it already had been.

Jill Bodnar and her team: Using ERMA as the “big picture” of the response helps responders tell the story of a pollution site, such as a grounded fishing boat with a leaking fuel tank. The Coast Guard operations staff was using ERMA to identify these priority locations before they went in the field, and created their own customized maps to take with them. ERMA gave them a lot of freedom in planning their field activities because they did not have to rely solely on a GIS specialist to create and print maps for them.

ERMA also plays other roles for the Unified Command, which uses it to see the most current field data to plan for the next day’s activities, to brief Coast Guard leadership on the scale and status of their teams’ cleanup operations.

The benefit of everyone using a tool like ERMA is that everyone involved in the response—the Coast Guard, NOAA, Environmental Protection Agency, States of New York and New Jersey, and other agencies—is looking at the most up-to-date data, instead of information that may be a few days old. All of the responders and decision makers, both inside and outside of the incident command post, know they are looking at the same, consistent, high-quality information and using that to prioritize response decisions. Everyone sees the same picture–whether it’s the frenzied first day after a disaster or weeks later.

Ed Levine.

Ed Levine, NOAA’s Scientific Support Coordinator in New York.

Ed Levine works as Scientific Support Coordinator for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, where he provides scientific and technical support during oil and chemical spills in the New York area. 

Jill Bodnar

Jill Bodnar, NOAA GIS specialist.

Jill Bodnar graduated from the University of Rhode Island with a Masters degree in natural resources, specializing in using GIS for oil spill response. She has been a geographic information specialist with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration for over 11 years and has responded to numerous incidents in that time, including Hurricanes Katrina, Ike, Isaac, and Sandy, and the 2007 Cosco Busan and 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spills.


Matt Dorsey.

Matt Dorsey, NOAA GIS specialist.

Matt Dorsey is a GIS specialist for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration based in Long Beach, Calif. Matt has been working on the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill since June of 2010, utilizing GIS systems and ERMA to provide mapping support for the response phase of the spill and continuing into the current damage assessment phase. Matt is the Southwest regional co-lead for the Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA).

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What Are the Increased Risks From Transporting Tar Sands Oil?

This is a guest post by University of Washington graduate students Robin, Terry, Shanese, Jeff, Ali, and Colin.

Scientists assessed impacts to mussel shells from response-related boat traffic after an oil spill in the Kalamazoo River, Michigan.

In July of 2010, an Enbridge-owned pipeline spilled oil — which later turned out to be diluted bitumen from Canadian tar sands — into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. Because the heavier elements of the oil became submerged in the river, response-related boat traffic trying to remove the oil ended up crushing freshwater mussels. The scientists shown here were assessing those impacts. (NOAA)

What are tar sands?

How are they different than other forms of oil, and why have they been such a hot topic in the news recently?

What environmental risks might tar sands oil pose if spilled during transportation?

How would this affect NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R)?

As tar sands production continues to rise in North America, these are some of the core questions NOAA hopes to answer—and therefore, are the focus of our research. Our project team of six graduate students at the University of Washington is working to gather information that will help inform OR&R’s preparedness and response efforts for potential spills of tar sands oil.

Tar Sands: The Basics

Tar sands, also referred to as oil sands, are a combination of clay, sand, water, and heavy black viscous oil called bitumen. They can be extracted and processed to separate the bitumen, which is upgraded to synthetic crude oil and refined to make asphalt, gasoline, and jet fuel.


Bitumen. (Government of Alberta, Canada)

Because of its thick consistency (which resembles peanut butter), bitumen, unlike most conventional crude oils, must be diluted with a cocktail of other petroleum compounds before it is able to flow through pumps and tanks or pipelines for transport. This thinner, more fluid product is called diluted bitumen or dilbit. Another similar blend made from bitumen and synthetic crude oil is called synthetic bitumen or synbit.

Over the past decade, this resource which was previously uneconomical due to the high cost of extraction has become profitable as oil prices have increased and extraction technologies have improved. While many countries, including the U.S., have known deposits of tar sands, the world’s largest reserves are located across three deposits in northern Alberta, Canada—the Athabasca, Cold Lake, and Peace River deposits. The Government of Alberta estimates its total reserves of bitumen at about 170 billion barrels.

A map of current and proposed Canadian and U.S. oil pipelines

A map of current and proposed Canadian and U.S. oil pipelines which carry tar sands oils. It includes the proposed TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline which would cross the U.S.-Canadian border and six U.S. states. (Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers/The Facts on Oil Sands Report 2012)

Increased Spill Risks and NOAA

Canada has been producing tar sands products since 1967, but recently, production has ramped up substantially.

Because Canada exports most of its tar sands products, the transportation infrastructure for bitumen—pipelines, rail, and ships— has been expanding as well.

A notable example is the proposed TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline which would cross the Canadian-U.S. boundary, extending from Alberta to Texas. Other proposed projects would increase transportation capacity for tar sands products on both the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts. Expanding traffic to markets in the U.S., Asia, and elsewhere is predicted to increase the potential for spills in and around the Great Lakes, Washington’s Puget Sound, and at other major U.S. shipping terminals and river crossings.

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration has the responsibility to respond to and provide scientific support for oil and chemical spills in U.S. coastal waters. This means OR&R must be able to anticipate and plan for the increased risks that a tar sands oil spill might bring.

At present, knowledge about the chemical properties and behavior of tar sands products during a marine spill is limited. For example, would the diluted bitumen float or sink in the brackish waters of many ports, where rivers’ fresh water mixes with salty seawater? How should responders be ready to remove that oil if it were suspended in the water column instead of floating on the surface?

These gaps in information make effective spill planning and response more difficult for NOAA and its partners. Key information about tar sands’ chemical and physical properties is proprietary, and regulatory agencies’ knowledge of where and when this material is being transported is limited as well. OR&R has been learning on the job how to deal with some of these challenges, as in the 2010 case of an Enbridge pipeline spilling what later turned out to be tar sands oil into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River.

Project Scope

Over the past three months we have begun investigating key environmental, economic, and transportation issues facing tar sands oil production. We have met with key players, including NOAA scientists and responders, U.S. Coast Guard, Washington Department of Ecology, oil industry representatives, and environmental groups, to define our research questions and the project scope. Currently at the halfway point of our project, we are meeting with NOAA to discuss preliminary findings and further refine our research goals for OR&R’s benefit.

Here’s a peek at what we’ve found so far:

  • To be transported, bitumen is diluted with a variety of petroleum compounds, and some of this information may be considered trade secrets and is not generally shared, with potential implications for human health and environmental impacts.
  • Because the base bitumen product has a similar density to water, it has the potential to sink when spilled and undergo significant changes once in the environment—an important consideration for spill response and cleanup.
  • Canadian tar sands are currently transported across Canada and the United States by ship, rail, and pipeline, with plans to expand substantially.
  • Because the tar sands industry is relatively new and key information is proprietary, there are gaps in knowledge that warrant additional information sharing and research to improve NOAA’s and other government agencies’ readiness to deal with tar sands oil spills.

The project will wrap up in March 2013, and we will present our final report to the Office and Response and Restoration. We will update our progress on this blog as we get closer to finishing the final report. We look forward to hearing your feedback.

Learn more at our project website: NOAA Oil Sands Project.

Robin, Terry, Shanese, Jeff, Ali, and Colin are graduate students at the University of Washington in programs at the Evans School of Public Affairs, the Foster School of Business, and the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences. OR&R is sponsoring their research project, “Understanding the Risks from Transportation of Tar Sands and Diluted Bitumen” as part of the Environmental Management Certificate Program at the University of Washington. It focuses on providing information to OR&R that will help inform preparedness and response to future spills. 

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Submit Your Comments: Studying Decades of Environmental Injuries at the Hanford Nuclear Site

This is a post by OR&R’s Charlene Andrade, Mary Baker, and Vicki Loe.

Nuclear reactors line the riverbank at the Hanford Site along the Columbia River in January 1960.

Nuclear reactors line the riverbank at the Hanford Site along the Columbia River in January 1960. The N Reactor is in the foreground, with the twin KE and KW Reactors in the immediate background. The historic B Reactor, the world’s first plutonium production reactor, is visible in the distance. (U.S. Dept. of Energy)

Interesting things are happening at Hanford. After decades of nuclear production, years of cleanup, and chronic contamination, the time has come to begin restoring the land and natural resources of Hanford, Wash. That’s why NOAA, along with other agencies and tribes, has started a natural resource damage assessment and is now publishing a document for public review. The Draft Injury Assessment Plan [PDF] describes the first phase of the restoration process, which is to quantify harm to natural resources at the Hanford Nuclear Site.

For those of you unfamiliar with the history of the site, between 1944 and 1987, Hanford, located in eastern Washington state, produced plutonium for atomic weapons, starting with the “Fat Man” bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945. During the Cold War years, the facilities grew to include nine nuclear reactors and associated processing plants. For decades, Hanford produced radioactive materials for Cold War-era military activities, commercial nuclear energy production, and nuclear medicine. These operations led to the release of radionuclides and contaminants into the arid landscape and the Columbia River, which borders the site, injuring the habitats, wildlife, and people’s ability to enjoy the area for recreational and cultural uses.

Cocooned F Reactor surrounded by grassland and hills at Hanford.

F Area is home to F Reactor, the third of Hanford’s nine plutonium production reactors built to produce plutonium for the nation’s defense program during both World War II and the Cold War. The reactor operated from 1945 to 1965 and was placed in interim safe storage in 2003. (U.S. Dept. of Energy)

Cleanup at the site began in 1989 and likely will continue well into the future. However, we are concerned about the chronic environmental impacts and believe there is a need to begin restoration now to offset the more than 30 years of injury. Our efforts are different than cleanup. Cleanup involves removing contaminated materials such as buildings, waste, and soil from the landscape.

Restoration, on the other hand, involves accounting for and offsetting the harm done to natural resources that continue to feel these impacts while waiting for full cleanup at the site. For example, during past operations at Hanford, leaks and overflows caused contaminants from nuclear reactors to flow directly into the Columbia River, and even though the facilities have long since been closed, the contaminants in the groundwater, such as chromium, have continued to leach into the river to the present day. These contaminants have reached Chinook salmon spawning grounds and the forage and resting areas for sensitive young salmon near the shoreline.

This is why NOAA, other agencies, and local tribes believe it is time to begin restoration planning.

The Draft Injury Assessment Plan, which is available for your review, is the first step in planning restoration. We are required by law to describe and quantify harm to impacted habitats and species before we can begin restoration on land or in the river, and we have created a Draft Injury Assessment Plan to accomplish that.

F Reactor sits across the Columbia River at the Hanford Nuclear Site.

The now-remediated F Reactor, a former plutonium productor reactor, sits across the Columbia River at the Hanford Nuclear Site. NOAA and the other natural resource trustees hope to begin reversing the decades of environmental harm at this site. (U.S. Dept. of Energy)

No one has completed this kind of assessment at Hanford before, and it will be a challenging and complex task. First, we will pull from existing scientific studies, Hanford site documents, and historical information to create a picture of what harm has been done to the natural resources. Then, we will plan additional studies only where the picture is not already clear.

Once we fill in these missing pieces with data, we will be better prepared to determine the scale and type of restoration needed and begin the appropriate projects. Assessing past, present, and future environmental injuries will not be easy, which is why we need your input on our plan.

Let us know what you think of our proposed approach. You can find out more about our efforts and obtain copies of the Draft Injury Assessment Plan [PDF] at

Submit your comments by January 4, 2013 to:

Mr. Larry Goldstein (
Hanford Natural Resource Trustee Council Chair
Washington State Department of Ecology
Nuclear Waste Program
P.O. Box 47600
Olympia, WA 47600

Mary Baker.

One of the authors, Mary Baker.

In addition, a public meeting will be held on Wednesday, December 12, 2012 from 6:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. in the Richland Public Library’s Gallery Room, 955 Northgate Drive.

Learn more about the Hanford Natural Resource Damage Assessment.

Mary Baker is an environmental toxicologist and the Northwest-Great Lakes Regional Manager in the Office of Response and Restoration’s Assessment and Restoration Division.

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Government of Japan Gifts NOAA $5 Million to Address Tsunami Marine Debris

A 66-foot floating dock from Japan sits on Agate Beach, Oregon.

A 66-foot dock sits on Agate Beach, Oregon. Debris of all different sizes and types from the March 2011 tsunami in Japan has washed ashore in the United States. (Oregon Dept. of Parks and Recreation)

On November 30, 2012, the Government of Japan announced a gift of $5 million to the United States, through NOAA’s Marine Debris Program, to support efforts in response to marine debris washing ashore in the U.S. from the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

The funds will be used to support marine debris response efforts, such as removal of debris, disposal fees, cleanup supplies, detection and monitoring. NOAA anticipates distributing funds to affected regions as the funds are received from Japan and will work to determine immediate needs and plan for future applications.

Since the disaster, NOAA has been leading efforts with federal, state and local partners to coordinate a response, collect data, assess the debris, and reduce possible impacts to natural resources and coastal communities.

Debris from the disaster has drifted across the Pacific and reached shorelines in the U.S. and Canada. In July, NOAA provided $50,000 each to Alaska, Hawaii, Washington, Oregon, and California to support response efforts.

Items from the tsunami that have drifted to U.S. shores include sports balls, a floating dock, buoys, and vessels. Mariners and the public can help report debris by emailing with information on significant sightings.


A Trip to the Arctic, Where Shrinking Ice Is Creating Bigger Concerns

Barrow, Alaska, monument made of whale bones dedicated to lost sailors

In Barrow, Alaska, stands a monument constructed of bowhead whale bones and dedicated to lost sailors. (NOAA).

It was my first trip to Barrow, Alaska, and I was excited at the possibility of seeing a polar bear for the first time outside of a zoo. Unfortunately I did not get a glimpse of a bear, but as I am telling my friends back in Seattle, perhaps a bear saw me.

In early November, I returned to the Arctic, this time to the northern hub of Barrow (get out your map of Alaska and go straight to the top). Although this was a new destination for me, I came to Barrow with the same intentions when first visiting the Arctic in the city of Kotzebue, Alaska, this spring: to discuss oil spill response and restoration issues with the residents of the North Slope Borough.

As a result of climate change, the Arctic environment is changing rapidly, and the retreat of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean opens new doors for human activity in the region by creating new paths to places previously inaccessible. The all-but-certain increases in ship traffic and offshore oil and gas exploration are setting up a situation where the likelihood of oil spills increases drastically. It was under these circumstances that I found myself sitting in the locally famous Pepe’s North of the Border Mexican restaurant in Barrow on a night in November. I was chatting with my fellow NOAA colleagues and University of New Hampshire Coastal Response Research Center staff about the workshop starting the next morning.

The goals of this two-day workshop revolved around community involvement in responding to oil spills and in assessing and restoring resulting damages to natural resources. The workshop also included discussions about how to integrate local community and traditional knowledge into our new Arctic planning and response tool, the Environmental Response Management Application (Arctic ERMA®). Most importantly, the workshop was an opportunity to enhance relationships between local communities and government agencies.

Directional sign in Barrow, Alaska.

A sign in town points out the remoteness of Barrow, Alaska, from the rest of the world. (NOAA)

During the course of the meeting, community members from Barrow expressed their concerns about oil spill response capabilities and how a spill would affect their subsistence lifestyle.  As this was only the second time my feet had ever walked above the Arctic Circle, I was humbled to hear whaling captains and other residents speak about the remarkably unique natural resources of the Arctic.

During meeting breaks I spoke with several residents who commented on a video playing in the lobby of the meeting center. The video showed numerous local walrus and whale hunts. The residents pointed out features of the ice and how they always had to be prepared at a moment’s notice to deal with the changing ice conditions.

How can we restore environments injured by spilled oil in an amazing setting like this—vast, remote, and mostly undeveloped? While there are no easy answers, we must work together now so we are better prepared if an oil spill occurs and we need to restore the environment.

For NOAA and other government personnel to figure out how much an oil spill has hurt Arctic marine environments and then fix them, we will require the help of local residents who hold generations of knowledge about the landscape. Workshops like these can be an introduction to each other, but we really look forward to sustaining these relationships.

Want to hear more about the challenge of Arctic oil spill response and restoration from the perspectives of Arctic residents? Recently a workshop report from our spring meeting in Kotzebue [PDF] has been released. Staff from our office also just returned from Kotzebue where they attended a meeting about a great new project to map subsistence use of natural resources (e.g., hunting, fishing, etc.) in the Northwest Arctic Borough.

UPDATED 3/29/2013: The workshop report and presentations from the Barrow workshop are now available.