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An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution

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Digging for Data at the Alaska Marine Science Symposium

This is a post by NOAA Environmental Scientist Dr. Amy Merten.

View of Kruzof Island, Sitka Sound, Alaska.

The ShoreZone project photographs, maps, and collects information about Pacific Northwest shorelines, like in this view of Kruzof Island, Sitka Sound, Alaska. (NOAA Fisheries)

As Chief of the Spatial Data Branch in NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, my focus is all about data. In particular, that means figuring out how to access data related to oil spills: the type of information useful for planning before a spill and for the response, environmental injury assessment, and restoration after a spill. Once we get that data, which often comes from other science agencies, universities, and industry, we can then ingest it into Arctic ERMA®, NOAA’s online mapping tool for environmental disaster data. While at the Alaska Marine Science Symposium this week, I have spent much of my time working with experts who provide and manage that kind of data.

For example, the Alaska Ocean Observing System (AOOS) provides real-time and historical coastal data to multiple stakeholders, including NOAA for Arctic ERMA. AOOS is also the host for the newly signed data-sharing agreement [PDF] between NOAA and three oil companies (Shell, ConocoPhillips, and StatOil). These companies have agreed to share the physical oceanographic, geological, and biological data they have been collecting near areas of Arctic offshore oil and gas activities since 2009. This is an unprecedented amount of data that the industry now is sharing with the federal government and the public. The data are available at

A view of Anchorage from the Alaska Marine Science Symposium.

A view of Anchorage from the Alaska Marine Science Symposium. (NOAA)

My colleague and our Arctic ERMA geographic information system (GIS) expert, Zach Winters-Staszak, attended the Arctic Mapping Workshop sponsored by our partners at the University of Alaska Fairbanks GINA program. Their geographic information network gives us access to high-resolution base maps, imagery, high frequency radar, ice radar, webcams, and more.  Zach learned about new data sets and new ways for pulling high impact data into Arctic ERMA.

Another helpful information source I learned more about was NOAA’s ShoreZone project.  ShoreZone [PDF] is a popular Pacific Northwest dataset of high-resolution aerial videos and photographs of the shoreline in Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon at extreme low tide. The photos and videos are augmented with habitat classifications of the different zones along the shoreline, such as salt marsh or kelp beds. We already pull in ShoreZone data layers into our Arctic and Pacific Northwest ERMA sites.

These data are valuable for preparedness and response to oil spills and for understanding places where oil and marine debris may accumulate naturally. It’s especially useful for understanding what the shoreline might look like before going out to survey for signs of oil or marine debris accumulation. It can help you decide how you’re going to access the shore (boat, helicopter, on foot) and what you might expect to find. ShoreZone surveyed the Kotzebue and North Slope regions of the Alaskan Arctic this past summer, which we’re excited to draw into Arctic ERMA when they are available.

Read more about Arctic ERMA and our plans for this environmental data tool.

Amy Merten with kids from Kivalina, Alaska.

Dr. Amy Merten is pictured here with children from the Alaskan village of Kivalina. She was in Alaska for an oil spill workshop in the village of Kotzebue.

Amy Merten is the Spatial Data Branch Chief in NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. Amy developed the concept for the online mapping tool ERMA (Environmental Response Mapping Application). ERMA was developed in collaboration with the University of New Hampshire. She expanded the ERMA team at NOAA to fill response and natural resource trustee responsibilities during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill. Amy oversees data management of the resulting oil spill damage assessment. She received her doctorate and master’s degrees from the University of Maryland.

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Japan Confirms Dock on Washington Coast Is Tsunami Marine Debris

A worker uses a 30% bleach spray to decontaminate the Japanese dock which made landfall on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula in December 2012.

January 3, 2013 — A worker uses a 30% bleach spray to decontaminate and reduce the spread of possible marine invasive species on the Japanese dock which made landfall on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula in December 2012. (Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife/Allen Pleus)

The Japanese Consulate has confirmed that a 65-foot, concrete-and-foam dock that washed ashore in Washington’s Olympic National Park in late December 2012 is in fact one of three* docks from the fishing port of Misawa, Japan. These docks were swept out to sea during the earthquake and tsunami off of Japan in March 2011, and this is the second dock to be located. The first dock appeared on Agate Beach near Newport, Ore., in June 2012.

Using our trajectory forecast model, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration helped predict the approximate location of the dock after an initial sighting reported it to be floating somewhere off of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. When the dock finally came aground, it ended up both inside the bounds of NOAA’s Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary and a designated wilderness portion of Olympic National Park.

Japanese tsunami dock located on beach within Olympic National Park and National Marine Sanctuary.

In order to minimize damage to the coastline and marine habitat, federal agencies are moving forward with plans to remove the dock. In addition to being located within a designated wilderness portion of Olympic National Park, the dock is also within NOAA’s Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary and adjacent to the Washington Islands National Wildlife Refuge Complex. (National Park Service)

According to the Washington State Department of Ecology, representatives from Olympic National Park, Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Washington Sea Grant Program have ventured out to the dock by land several times to examine, take samples, and clean the large structure.

Initial results from laboratory testing have identified 30-50 plant and animal species on the dock that are native to Japan but not the United States, including species of algae, seaweed, mussels, and barnacles.

In addition to scraping more than 400 pounds of organic material from the dock, the team washed its heavy side bumpers and the entire exterior structure with a diluted bleach solution to further decontaminate it, a method approved by the National Park Service and Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary.

Government representatives are examining possible options for removing the 185-ton dock from this remote and ecologically diverse coastal area.

Look for more information and updates on Japan tsunami marine debris at

*[UPDATE 4/5/2013: This story originally stated that four docks were missing from Misawa, Japan and that “the first dock was recovered shortly afterward on a nearby Japanese island.” We now know only three docks were swept from Misawa in the 2011 tsunami and none of them were found on a Japanese island. This dock has now been removed from the Washington coast.]

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Report Reveals Hudson River and Wildlife Have Suffered Decades of Extensive Chemical Contamination

Sign by Hudson River warning against eating contaminated fish.

According to the report, “Fish not only absorb PCBs directly from the river water but are also exposed through the ingestion of contaminated prey, such as insects, crayfish, and smaller fish…New York State’s ‘eat none’ advisory and the restriction on taking fish for this section of the Upper Hudson has been in place for 36 years.” (NOAA)

The Hudson River Natural Resource Trustees, including NOAA, released a report today outlining the magnitude of toxic chemical pollution in New York’s Hudson River. The report, “PCB Contamination of the Hudson River Ecosystem” [PDF], documents six years of data and analysis showing that the Hudson River, for more than 200 miles below Hudson Falls, N.Y., is extensively contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

Starting in 1947 and for approximately 30 years, manufacturing plants operated by General Electric Company (GE) discharged PCBs into the upper Hudson River,  with additional releases of PCBs occurring as well.

According to the report, PCBs are a “group of highly toxic compounds that are known to cause cancer, birth defects, reproductive dysfunction, growth impairment, behavioral changes, hormonal imbalances, damage to the developing brain, and increased susceptibility to disease in animals.” Hazardous at even very low levels, they make their way up the food chain and become stored in the tissues of wildlife and fish, posing a health threat if people consume them.

Analysis of the river from 2002 to 2008 shows that PCBs permeate nearly every part of the river: surface waters, sediments, floodplain soils, fish, birds, wildlife, and other natural resources. The report further documents decades of high levels of PCBs and likely harmful effects on living organisms exposed to the contamination in the Hudson River. PCB levels in fish were often 10 or more times the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) standards for safe consumption (pp. 10) and in water samples tested “10 to 10,000 times higher than that deemed safe for aquatic life, fish-eating wildlife and human consumers of fish” (pp. 5).

As a result of this pollution, the public has lost the use of these natural resources, for example, due to restrictions and advisories for catching and eating fish and navigational losses due to contamination of the Champlain Canal.

A Hudson River PCB Forum is being held on January 16, 2013 at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. The intent of the forum is to provide mid-Hudson communities with an update on the PCB dredging project and restoration planning by the Natural Resource Trustees.

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Looking out for Sea Lions and Salmon Before a Grounded Rig Could Spill a Drop of Oil

This is a post by OR&R’s Alaska Regional Coordinator Dr. Sarah Allan.

conical drilling unit Kulluk sat aground on the southeast shore of Sitkalidak Island

Here you can see the rocky coast and habitats near where the conical drilling unit Kulluk sat aground on the southeast shore of Sitkalidak Island about 40 miles southwest of Kodiak City, Alaska, in 40 mph winds and 20-foot seas on Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2013. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Fortunately, when Royal Dutch Shell’s offshore drilling platform, the Kulluk, ran aground on a remote Alaskan island on New Year’s Eve, it did not lead to an oil spill. However, the rig held 140,000 gallons of diesel fuel, and throughout the response, the potential for a spill remained a concern.

This was especially true because the Kulluk was located in an area with many sensitive natural resources, including harbor seals, marine birds, critical habitat for Steller sea lions, and salmon streams. On top of that, pacific cod and tanner crab harvests take place in that part of Sitkalidak Island, south of Kodiak. Subsistence foragers from the Old Harbor Native village harvest razor clams from a bed near the grounding site.

In light of the potential for an oil spill, restoration specialists from NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, collaborating with federal and state natural resource trustees, began planning an assessment of the possible harm to natural resources. What if the oil did spill and impact those natural resources? How would we determine what was injured and how badly?

Spill Today, Gone Tomorrow

One of the first steps in this planning effort was to consider where the diesel might go if it spilled and what natural resources it might impact. Spill responders—those considering oil cleanup options—often see diesel spills as less of a concern than spills that involve thicker, heavier oils. This is due to the way that diesel acts when it is spilled on the ocean surface; most of it evaporates into the air and disperses into the water in a few hours, especially in high winds and waves. In this case, NOAA scientists estimated that almost all of the Kulluk’s diesel would evaporate or disperse in 4–5 hours if it spilled. This means there would be very little oil for cleanup workers to try to recover from the water’s surface.

The Kulluk was grounded near shore and, in the event of a spill, the wind and waves would have pushed the diesel towards the shoreline. In this scenario, diesel could have impacted nearby ocean areas, beaches, rocky shorelines, and stream outlets. The Unified Command took precautionary measures during the grounding and removal of the Kulluk, which included placing containment boom across the mouths of streams in the area to keep out any potentially spilled diesel.

A Toxic Shock

A life raft belonging to the conical drilling unit Kulluk, sits on the beach adjacent to the rig.

A life raft belonging to the conical drilling unit Kulluk, sits on the beach adjacent to the rig 40 miles southwest of Kodiak City, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2012. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Though diesel may not remain for very long in the environment, it is very toxic to many aquatic species. A diesel fuel spill would have had an immediate and negative effect on the environment. In high seas, like those around the grounded Kulluk, as much as 90 percent of the diesel would disperse into the water. The dispersed diesel could affect marine organisms that live in the water column, on the ocean bottom, or along the shoreline.

Past spills of comparable fuels in similar marine environments have killed large numbers of organisms living in the water column or on the ocean bottom in the area where the oil was released: the barge North Cape grounded and spilled oil off Rhode Island during bad weather in 1996, and the ship Tampico Maru grounded and spilled diesel on a remote, rough shoreline in Northern Baja California in 1957.

Diesel is acutely toxic to many zooplankton, bivalve, and crustacean species as well as unhatched and young salmon. Organisms can become “tainted” when they are either exposed to diesel at levels that don’t kill them (sublethal) or when they eat other organisms exposed to those levels. In that case, responders would test seafood for safety, and those of us evaluating environmental damages would assess marine organisms’ exposure levels with additional testing. Even these sublethal exposures can cause toxic effects that need to be considered in a damage assessment.

While initially preparing for a potential damage assessment, we focused on planning for water, sediment, and bivalve (razor clams and blue mussels) sampling as well as on planning shoreline assessments for evidence of injured or dead animals. If we could do this sampling before and/or immediately after a spill, we would have a more accurate assessment of damages to natural resources. Assessing exposure and injury to natural resources is time sensitive, especially in the case of a short-lived contaminant like diesel.

Weather Or Not

However, the far-flung location of the grounding site, as well as the harsh weather conditions, would make sampling in the area challenging. Our planning had to address those logistical challenges. That meant having resources and personnel standing by 40 miles away in Kodiak City, Alaska; arranging for transportation to the site of the rig; securing permission to access the area, and procuring the resources we needed to sample. Given the conditions, accessing the site would have required a helicopter or boat trip to the island and overland transit through grizzly bear habitat, across rough terrain, and private property.

Again, we’re happy that the diesel aboard the Kulluk stayed in its tanks while the rig was grounded and moved off of Sitkalidak Island. But new opportunities for oil drilling, commerce, and tourism in the Arctic are expected to bring more marine traffic through these areas. That creates more opportunities for accidents. It is important for us to be prepared to undertake a natural resource damage assessment in the event of an oil spill. Understanding what is at risk, what to expect from the particular oil spilled, and how it all fits in a specific environment is the first step.

Dr. Sarah Allan.

Dr. Sarah Allan.

Dr. Sarah Allan has been working with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration Emergency Response Division and as the Alaska Regional Coordinator for the Assessment and Restoration Division, based in Anchorage, Alaska, since February, 2012. Her work focuses on planning for natural resource damage assessment and restoration in the event of an oil spill in the Arctic.


New Legislation Expands Scope of NOAA Marine Debris Program to Deal with Natural Disaster Debris

Workers scrape marine organisms from the tsunami dock at Agate Beach, Oregon.

A team of about a dozen staff and volunteers organized by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife made quick work of removing marine organisms from the dock on the sand at Agate Beach, Ore. The dock has been confirmed as having gone missing from a Japanese port after the March 2011 tsunami. (Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife)

On December 20, 2012, President Obama signed legislation reauthorizing the NOAA Marine Debris Program [PDF] and its mission to address the harmful impacts of marine debris on the United States. The program, which is housed within NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, was originally created in 2006 by the Marine Debris Research, Prevention, and Reduction Act.

“The NOAA Marine Debris Program is grateful for Congress’s support on this very important issue,” said Nancy Wallace, the program’s director.  “We look forward to continuing our work to ensure the ocean and its coasts, users, and inhabitants are free from the impacts of marine debris.”

For the most part, the NOAA Marine Debris Program’s mandates remain the same: to identify, determine sources of, assess, prevent, reduce, and remove debris, whether along a North Carolina beach or in Lake Michigan. This latest legislation, which was combined with the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Act, also highlights education and outreach, regional coordination, and fishing gear research as key activities for the program.

However, Congress gave the NOAA Marine Debris Program a new core function to address “severe marine debris events,” defined as “atypically large amounts of marine debris” caused by natural disasters. After debris such as floating docks from the March 2011 Japan tsunami began washing up on West Coast beaches, Congress recognized this emerging need to deal with the unusual amounts and types of marine debris which often follow events such as tsunamis or hurricanes.

Learn more about what to do if you think you have found marine debris from the Japan tsunami.

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Rig Refloated: Update on Efforts to Mobilize Grounded Drill Rig Kulluk in Alaska

Survey of the rugged, remote lanscape and the conical drilling unit Kulluk, grounded 40 miles southwest of Kodiak City, Alaska.

A U.S. Coast Guard aerial survey reveals the rugged, remote landscape and the conical drilling unit Kulluk, grounded 40 miles southwest of Kodiak City, Alaska. Two orange life rafts are visible on the beach adjacent to the rig. Thursday, Jan. 3, 2012. (U.S. Coast Guard)


The Kulluk was refloated at approximately 2:10 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, and the tug Aiviq successfully towed the Kulluk to nearby Kiliuda Bay, an intermediate safe harbor of Kodiak Island. Here is video of the rig being towed:

Weather permitting, the U.S. Coast Guard is scheduled to perform an aerial survey at first light to look for any signs of an oil sheen from the rig. Response teams have not detected any oil discharge; both fuel tank soundings taken aboard the Kulluk and infrared equipment trained on the water around the rig as it is being towed indicate that all of the Kulluk‘s oil is still on board.

You can find further updates at the Unified Command’s website:


In the narrow window of daylight and safe weather in the Gulf of Alaska, a 12-person salvage team was able to land on the grounded Dutch Royal Shell drilling rig Kulluk on Thursday, January 3, 2013. They were able to complete their assessment of the rig, and while those results are still pending, they reported again no sightings of oil around the large conical rig. Late on December 31, 2012, during the return transit to Seattle, Wash., for winter maintenance, severe weather and heavy seas forced the Kulluk aground on Sitkalidak Island, just off the larger Alaskan island of Kodiak.

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) has been supporting the U.S. Coast Guard in its response to this grounding. Currently, the response’s focus is on being thoroughly prepared to refloat the Kulluk and move it to a safe harbor nearby. As a result, the Unified Command has flown in significant amounts of salvage and safety gear. The salvage team’s attempt to remobilize the rig will depend on having all the proper equipment in place and a window of good weather for operations. Because the Kulluk’s fuel tanks holding the approximately 140,000 gallons of diesel appear protected in the interior of the rig, the salvage team is not planning to remove the oil prior to relocating the rig.

At this time, NOAA has six people in the command post, based in Anchorage, Alaska:

  • An OR&R Scientific Support Coordinator involved in contingency planning to minimize environmental risks during the response.
  • An OR&R natural resource specialist assisting the Scientific Support Coordinator.
  • An OR&R information management specialist.
  • A National Weather Service incident meteorologist collaborating with the Unified Command on custom weather forecasts for the rig grounding area.
  • A National Marine Fisheries Service biologist helping reduce impacts of the response operations on nearby marine mammals, such as the endangered Steller sea lion.
  • An Office of Coast Survey specialist providing detailed nautical charts and data as well as helping identify suitable safe harbors in the area for relocating the rig.

Here is video from a Coast Guard helicopter survey of the grounded Kulluk from January 2, 2013, showing some of the rough conditions the response is forced to deal with.

For the latest updates from the Unified Command for this incident, visit and


NOAA Responds to Shell Drilling Rig Kulluk Grounding in Gulf of Alaska

Waves crash over the mobile offshore drilling unit Kulluk where it sits aground on the southeast side of Sitkalidak Island, Alaska, Jan. 1, 2013. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Waves crash over the mobile offshore drilling unit Kulluk where it sits aground on the southeast side of Sitkalidak Island, Alaska, Jan. 1, 2013. (U.S. Coast Guard)

UPDATED JANUARY 4, 2013 — The mobile drilling unit Kulluk, Shell Oil’s 266-foot-long floating drill rig, has run aground off the coast of Kodiak Island, Alaska, after encountering severe weather while being towed from Dutch Harbor, Alaska. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is supporting the U.S. Coast Guard in its response to the grounding.

Two tugboats were towing the Kulluk from where it was drilling in the Beaufort Sea south to Seattle, Wash., for winter maintenance when beginning on December 28 the tugs suffered engine trouble and lost connection to the rig in heavy weather and seas approximately 25 miles south of Kodiak Island. The towlines were temporarily reestablished. However, as the towing vessels were guiding the Kulluk to a place of refuge at the west end of Sitkalidak Strait, approximately 20 miles away, stormy weather caused the main tug to lose its connection again and the rig was allowed to drift aground in heavy seas.

Our Scientific Support Coordinator for Alaska is providing modeling products to the Coast Guard in case the approximately 140,000 gallons of diesel fuel aboard the rig start to leak out. He also has been coordinating custom local weather forecasts with the National Weather Service and has participated in one of several aerial surveys of the grounded rig. We have sent an information management specialist to assist at the incident command post in Anchorage, Alaska, and have been gathering data as it becomes available into Arctic ERMA, NOAA’s online GIS tool for environmental disaster response.

As of the evening of January 2, the response has completed a partial assessment of the condition of the rig and fuel tanks, which was hampered by inclement conditions. No leaking oil has been sighted, and the drilling rig appears intact where it grounded near the rocky shoreline. The next step is to finish the assessment and plan to remobilize the rig. Of note is the fact that the shores of Kodiak Island, where the rig grounded, fall within critical habitat for the endangered Steller sea lion.

View from Arctic ERMA showing the location of the drilling rig Kulluk aground on Sitkalidak Island, Alaska, and critical habitat for Steller sea lions.

View from Arctic ERMA showing the location of the drilling rig Kulluk aground on Sitkalidak Island, Alaska, and critical habitat for Steller sea lions. Click to enlarge.

State and federal agencies have been evaluating harm to natural resources from a potential release of diesel fuel from the Kulluk. The rig is located close to two salmon streams, an area where razor clams are harvested for subsistence use, and a planned tanner crab fishery expected to open on January 15. Sampling clams, sediment, and water around the rig would allow NOAA to evaluate harm if fuel would be released and possibly contaminated the surrounding area.  However, because the area is remote, traveling there to perform these samples would be challenging.

For official updates from the Unified Command for this incident, visit and