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 Likes Rivers Too

A view of the Hudson River in the fall.

A view of the Hudson River in the fall. NOAA is involved with assessing the environmental impacts to the Hudson River due to industrial pollution from two General Electric plants. (Photo: Roy Saplin, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic License)

June is National Rivers Month. You might think those of us at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are concerned only with water in the ocean or sky. But we’re actually big fans of rivers too. Many rivers flow out to the ocean, creating areas where fresh and saltwater mix called estuaries. These important and unique ecosystems are where many animal species, especially fish and birds, eat, nest, and breed.

NOAA also keeps an eye on rivers when they get polluted, either from oil spills or industrial pollution, and looks out in particular for the interests of aquatic species that spend time both in the ocean and rivers. Just take a look at a few examples of how NOAA protects and preserves America’s rivers:

You can hear more about the importance of rivers—and keeping them healthy—from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Margaret Byrne, an environmental health scientist involved in the Hudson River Natural Resource Damage Assessment:

My work on the Hudson River has taught me about the incredibly diverse and important habitats found in this unique place. The Hudson River has been called “the river that flows in two directions” because the tides of the Atlantic Ocean push water back upstream twice a day. These tides help to create homes for many different kinds of plants and animals …

This month, I celebrate National Rivers Month with a solemn knowledge that the incredible ecological resources of the Hudson River have been extensively contaminated with chemicals called polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.

These toxic chemicals have been found in the water, fish and other wildlife, and sediment of the Hudson River below General Electric Company’s plants at Hudson Falls and Fort Edward in New York.

We know that PCBs can cause serious harm to wildlife and other natural resources and we are in the process of determining the scope of the injuries caused by this contamination. (Read my colleague’s blog post about studies on Hudson River mink and learn about the difference between the EPA’s Superfund cleanup and the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process.)

Read the rest of Byrne’s post over at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region blog, and let us know in the comments how you help keep rivers and their inhabitants safe and healthy.


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Why Are Tropical Storms and Hurricanes Named?

This is a post by NOAA Office of Response and Restoration’s Katie Krushinski.

The 2013 Atlantic hurricane season's first named storm was Tropical Storm Andrea, pictured here on June 8 crossing over Florida and up the East Coast. (NASA)

The 2013 Atlantic hurricane season’s first named storm was Tropical Storm Andrea, pictured here on June 8 crossing over Florida and heading up the East Coast. (NASA)

Have you ever wondered why storms are named? Up until the early 1950s, tropical storms and hurricanes were tracked by year and the order in which each one occurred during that year.

In time, it was recognized that people remembered shorter names more easily. In 1953, a new approach was taken and storms were named in alphabetical order by female name. The process of naming storms helps differentiate between multiple storms that may be active at the same time.

By 1978, both male and female names were being used to identify Northern Pacific storms. This was adopted in 1979 for the Atlantic storms and is what we use today.

The World Meteorological Organization came up with the lists of names, male and female, which are used on a six-year rotation. In the event a hurricane causes a large amount of damage or numerous deaths, that name will be retired. Since the 1950s, when it became normal to name storms, there have been 77 names retired, including Fran (1996), Katrina (2005), Rita (2005), and Sandy (2012).

To find out this year’s storm names and for a complete list of retired names, visit the National Weather Service’s website. And if you haven’t started your own severe-weather preparations, don’t delay; the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season (predicted to be more active than usual) has already begun.

The Gulf of Mexico region, in particular, experiences frequent natural and human-caused disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and oil spills.

NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center aims to reduce the resulting impacts by helping to prepare federal, state, and local decision makers for a variety of threats, creating more adaptive and resilient coastal communities. Learn more about this valuable resource and center of NOAA expertise on the Gulf Coast.

Katie Krushinski

Katie Krushinski

Katie Krushinski works at NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center in Mobile, Ala., where she is responsible for coordinating training events, producing external communications, and writing and editing. Katie has a background in emergency response and management. NOAA’s Disaster Response Center serves as a one-stop shop, streamlining the delivery of NOAA services that help the Gulf region prepare for and deal with disasters.


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Why You Should Thank a Hydrographer

NOAA's Office of Coast Survey created this digital terrain model of the wreck of the freighter Fernstream, a 416-foot motor cargo vessel that sank near San Francisco, Calif., in 1952. The different colors indicate water depth and helps inform us on the structural integrity of the wreck, which may still have stores of oil aboard. (NOAA)

NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey created this digital terrain model of the wreck of the freighter Fernstream, a 416-foot motor cargo vessel that sank near San Francisco, Calif., in 1952. The different colors indicate water depth and helps inform us on the structural integrity of the wreck, which may still have stores of oil aboard. (NOAA)

World Hydrography Day is celebrated each year on June 21. But before we start thanking hydrographers, we first should explain: What is a hydrographer?

Basically, a hydrographer measures and documents the shape and features of the ocean floor and coasts. These scientists then create charts showing the ocean’s varying depths and the location of underwater obstructions, such as rocky outcroppings or shipwrecks. As our fellow NOAA colleagues at the Office of Coast Survey (an office full of hydrographers) further elaborate, “hydrographic surveying ‘looks’ into the ocean to see what the sea floor looks like,” with most of the work “primarily concerned with water depth.”

Mariners, unlike drivers on a dangerous road, can’t see the whole picture of the path their ships are taking. Is this harbor deep enough for a large ship to enter safely? Where should they avoid sensitive coral reefs? They rely on NOAA’s nautical charts to show them what is on the sea floor and where there are objects or areas to avoid.

Sometimes, however, ships do run afoul with underwater features—which, for example, could be coral reefs, pipelines, or damaged oil service platforms—leading to oil spills or crushed coral reef habitats. That brings our office into the picture to help minimize the environmental damage and then work to restore it.

This is why we at the Office of Response and Restoration are grateful for the hydrographers who are diligently creating and updating the charts that keep our ocean and its travelers safe. Beyond that, here are a few more reasons why we (and hopefully you) would want to thank a hydrographer.

Modeling Leaking Shipwrecks

Remote sensing data from hydrographic surveys are, in many instances, the first picture we have of a shipwreck and give us some sense of what state the ship is in before NOAA sends down divers or remotely operated vehicles (ROV). We know that even ships broken into two or three sections can still hold a significant amount of oil (from fuel or cargo). Recently, we worked with NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries to evaluate the thousands of shipwrecks in U.S. waters for those with the potential to leak oil still onboard. In a report to the U.S. Coast Guard, we highlighted 17 wrecks, in particular, that should be assessed further and possibly have any remaining oil removed.

Coast Survey recently finished surveying one of these wrecks, the freighter Fernstream [PDF], which sank after colliding with another ship near San Francisco Bay in 1952. One of their physical science technicians then created a vibrant three-dimensional model of the wreck, with the colors representing different water depths detected by multibeam sonar. From this kind of information, maritime archaeologists can interpret how the wrecked ship might be oriented on the sea floor and estimate where oil tanks could be located.

Mapping Environmental Responses

Bathymetry, or water depth measurement, data is one of the primary data sets we use as a base layer in ERMA®, our online mapping tool for environmental planning and response. We often display high resolution bathymetry data in ERMA to better understand areas of interest, such as the site of a ship spilling oil. ERMA can readily pull in bathymetry data feeds from NOAA and university partners to help our scientist refine models of the water column and classify aquatic habitat. High resolution bathymetry data was particularly useful for visualizing the area surrounding the damaged wellhead for the Deepwater Horizon wreckage and has aided in assessing risk to nearshore habitats on the Gulf Coast.

In this view of the online mapping tool, ERMA Deepwater Gulf Response, the multi-colored bathymetry, or water depth measurement, data are shown for estuaries off the coast of Louisiana and Alabama. This information aided in assessing risk to nearshore habitats on the Gulf Coast after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill. (NOAA)

In this view of the online mapping tool, ERMA Deepwater Gulf Response, the multi-colored bathymetry, or water depth measurement, data are shown for estuaries off the coast of Louisiana and Alabama. This information aided in assessing risk to nearshore habitats on the Gulf Coast after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill. (NOAA)

During the response to an oil spill or ship grounding, we sometimes work with hydrographers who may be able to do new underwater surveys of the affected area. In addition, with access to huge databases of bathymetry data, they can offer much more detailed information than what is on the average nautical chart, helping us guide response decisions, such as where response vessels can be anchored safely. For example, when Shell’s Arctic drilling rig Kulluk ran aground off Kodiak Island, Alaska, on Dec. 31, 2012, a Coast Survey specialist, using detailed nautical charts and data, helped us identify nearby Kiliuda Bay as a suitable safe harbor to relocate the rig.

Detecting Submerged Hurricane Debris

After a hurricane, lots of debris from on land, including oil drums, shipping containers, and chemical tanks, can get swept into the ocean. This has been a notable issue following Hurricane Sandy in the fall of 2012. Currently, Coast Survey is collecting hydrographic data to update their charts from North Carolina to Connecticut, the states affected by Hurricane Sandy. We will be focusing in particular on the data they gather for New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut and whether they find items on the sea floor larger than one cubic meter in size (about 35 cubic feet). That survey data then will be processed by the University of New Hampshire’s Joint Hydrographic Center. Their analyses will inform our Marine Debris Program’s future efforts to prioritize and remove the submerged debris items detected in these surveys.

Thanks also go to the Office of Response and Restoration’s Doug Helton, Michele Jacobi, and Jason Rolfe and the Office of Marine Sanctuaries’ Lisa Symons for contributing to this post.


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NOAA Opens Its Doors (and Scientists) in City-wide Celebration of Science

People of all ages were able to learn about NOAA's work, including these kids trying on survival suits, at the 2013 Seattle Science Festival EXPO Day. (NOAA)

People of all ages were able to learn about NOAA’s work, including these kids trying on survival suits, at the 2013 Seattle Science Festival EXPO Day. (NOAA)

Do you know the difference between a seal skull and a sea lion skull?

Have you walked under a bottom trawl net used for fishery science?

Have you ever seen an ocean wave glider used to collect oceanographic data?

Have you ever held a piece of a dock that floated across the Pacific Ocean?

Visitors to the 2nd annual NOAA Open House in Seattle, an event held in conjunction with the Seattle Science Festival, can answer “Yes!” to these questions, and many more. On June 14, NOAA’s Seattle Sand Point campus opened its doors to the public.

Four tours were offered that focused on different aspects of NOAA’s mission: Marine Mammal Science—featuring the bone collection; Fisheries Surveys—showing off the net loft; Physical Science—including ocean engineering, the dive center, and the weather forecasting floor; and a Shoreline Restoration walk emphasizing the connection between aquatic environments and our everyday lives.

NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration highlighted our work in marine debris at the 2013 NOAA Open House, featuring pieces of concrete, metal, and Styrofoam from the two Japanese docks that came ashore in Washington and Oregon after the 2011 tsunami. (NOAA)

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration highlighted our work in marine debris at the 2013 NOAA Open House, featuring pieces of concrete, metal, and Styrofoam from the two Japanese docks that came ashore in Washington and Oregon after the 2011 tsunami. (NOAA)

The Open House also featured exhibit booths, a movie room, and a kid’s corner. Over 500 visitors attended, ranging from families with school-aged children to a bus full of retirees.

Visitors had the chance to meet NOAA scientists and managers at exhibit booths highlighting NOAA programs that weren’t featured on the tours, including the work of the NOAA Fisheries’ Northwest Fisheries Science Center whose campus is located 3 miles away.

The 2013 Seattle Science Festival was an 11-day celebration of science and technology that happened in our community from June 6-16, 2013.

Kids learn about marine debris with NOAA at the Seattle Science EXPO Day. (NOAA)

Kids learn about marine debris with NOAA at the Seattle Science EXPO Day. (NOAA)

It featured luminaries from the science world in opening and closing night events, a free Science EXPO Day featuring hands-on activities and special stage programs at the Seattle Center, and a variety of Signature Programs at venues around the region and occurring throughout the Festival.

In addition to our Open House, NOAA had a large presence at the Seattle Science Festival Expo day at Seattle Center where at least 2,000 visitors learned about NOAA through hands-on activities. Almost 100 NOAA staff across all line offices participated in these Seattle Science Festival activities to bring NOAA science to kids of all ages.

In addition to the Pacific Science Center, regional sponsors included the Boeing Company, Aerojet, Amgen, Facebook – Seattle, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Google, Microsoft, and others.


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NOAA Lifts 14 Metric Tons of Fishing Nets and Plastics from Hawaiian Coral Reefs

NOAA Fisheries Biologist Matthew Parry also contributed to this post.

Lost or discarded fishing nets frequently get lodged on corals and smother or break the corals underneath them. Here, a diver removes them from a reef near Midway Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. (NOAA)

Lost or discarded fishing nets frequently get lodged on corals and smother or break the corals underneath them. Here, a diver removes them from a reef near Midway Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. (NOAA)

The sea life around Hawaii’s remote Midway Atoll is swimming easier after NOAA recently removed 14 metric tons of debris from its waters (a metric ton equals about 2,204 pounds). The removal team, consisting of members of the NOAA Coral Reef Ecosystem Division, spent 19 days collecting debris both from along the shoreline and in the water around Midway Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. As usual, the bulk of the items recovered were abandoned fishing gear and plastics.

During the 2013 cruise, the NOAA team discovered and hauled away a 23-foot-long boat that was confirmed to have been washed away from Japan during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. (NOAA)

During the 2013 cruise, the NOAA team discovered and hauled away a 23-foot-long boat that was confirmed to have been washed away from Japan during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. (NOAA)

Notably, the team also removed a 23-foot-long derelict vessel weighing close to three-quarters of a metric ton. This vessel was confirmed as having been lost from Japan during the 2011 earthquake and resulting tsunami. (Learn more about marine debris from the tsunami.)

This current round of marine debris removal efforts began in 2011 when a plan was put in place to help restore the environment injured after the research ship M/V Casitas ran aground on the coral reefs of Pearl and Hermes Atoll in 2005. This atoll is located in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in what is now the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. Our office, along with our partners, undertook a Natural Resource Damage Assessment for this ship grounding. This process resulted in a legal settlement which provided NOAA with funds to conduct marine debris removal projects over several summers, starting in 2011. The 2011 efforts removed 15 metric tons of marine debris while the 2012 cruise brought in 52 metric tons. Since 2011, NOAA has collected a total of 81 metric tons or 178,000 pounds of debris from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

The 2013 NOAA team collected 14 metric tons of fishing gear, plastic, and other debris from the shoreline and waters around Midway Atoll. (NOAA)

The 2013 NOAA team collected 14 metric tons of fishing gear, plastic, and other debris from the shoreline and waters around Midway Atoll. (NOAA)

Marine debris, particularly discarded and lost fishing gear, is a substantial source of coral damage in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. Fishing nets frequently get lodged on corals and smother or break the corals underneath them. NOAA and our partners determined that removing nets from coral reefs in this area would prevent similar injuries to corals as those that occurred during the M/V Casitas grounding and subsequent response.

Learn more about efforts to restore coral reefs after this ship grounding [PDF].


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Historic New England Town, Once Plagued by Tack Factory’s Toxic Pollution, Enjoys Revitalized Coastal Marshes

In spring of 2013, the transformation of the polluted Atlas Tack Superfund site into vibrant coastal habitat is hard to miss. Here, you can see the new freshwater marsh with the town of Fairhaven, Mass., in the background. (NOAA)

In spring of 2013, the transformation of the polluted Atlas Tack Superfund site into vibrant coastal habitat is hard to miss. Here, you can see the new freshwater marsh with the town of Fairhaven, Mass., in the background. (NOAA)

For much of the 20th century, the Atlas Tack Corporation was the main employer in the historic coastal town of Fairhaven, Mass., a place settled in the 1650s by Plymouth colonists. But the presence of this tack factory, shuttered in 1985, left more than a history of paychecks for the area’s residents. It also left saltwater marshes so stocked with cyanide and heavy metals that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) listed the location of the factory as a Superfund site in 1990 and slated it for three intensive rounds of cleanup.

A Brief History of Atlas Tack

Atlas Tack Corporation became one of the nation’s largest manufacturers of wire tacks, bolts, shoe eyelets, bottle caps, and other small hardware. January 17, 1955. (Spinner Publications/All rights reserved)

Atlas Tack Corporation became one of the nation’s largest manufacturers of wire tacks, bolts, shoe eyelets, bottle caps, and other small hardware. Unfortunately, these decades of production left a toxic legacy for Fairhaven’s coastal marshes. January 17, 1955. (Spinner Publications/All rights reserved)

Henry H. Rogers, Standard Oil multimillionaire and friend of famed American author Mark Twain, formed the Atlas Tack Corporation after consolidating several tack manufacturing companies in 1895. The Fairhaven company became one of the nation’s largest manufacturers of wire tacks, bolts, shoe eyelets, bottle caps, and other small hardware.

However, decades of acids, metals, and other chemical wastes oozing through the factory floor boards and being dumped in building drains, the nearby Boys Creek marsh, and an unlined lagoon left the property contaminated with hazardous substances. Found in the soils, waters, and surrounding marsh were volatile organic compounds, cyanide, heavy metals such as arsenic, pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (a toxic oil compound).

EPA led the Superfund cleanup (referred to as a “remedy”) of this hazardous waste site, and the Office of Response and Restoration, through NOAA’s Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program, contributed scientific and technical guidance to the EPA during the cleanup and restoration of the site’s coastal marshes.

Determining the Remedy: Scalpel vs. Cleaver

Before restoration: A June 2007 view of the area north of the hurricane dike, following the removal of contaminated sediments. (NOAA)

Before restoration: A June 2007 view of the area north of the hurricane dike, following the removal of contaminated sediments. (NOAA)

The original cleanup goals would have required excavating the entire marsh—ripping out the whole thing, despite some areas still functioning as habitat for the area’s plants and animals. As a result, NOAA, EPA, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were reluctant to excavate the entire wetland. Instead, the agencies took a more targeted approach, beginning in 2001 and 2002.

First, they completed a bioavailability study to determine where natural resources were adversely exposed to contaminants from the old tack factory. This study determined which areas of the existing marsh could be preserved while removing the toxic sediment that posed a risk to human health and the environment.

The next part of the remedy was undertaken in three phases from 2006 to 2008. Phase one included demolishing several buildings, sheds, and the power plant and excavating 775 cubic yards of contaminated soil and sludge from 10 acres of the designated commercial area of the manufacturing site. Phase two excavated and disposed off-site 38,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil and debris.  With NOAA’s scientific and technical assistance—and later with help from the Army Corps—EPA, as part of phase three, excavated and later restored 5.4 acres of saltwater and freshwater marsh.

More Than a Remedy: Working Toward Revitalization

After restoration: A newly created northern salt marsh, shown in June 2013, at the site of the former Atlas Tack factory. Bare spots are filling in but a fully covered wetland landscape is likely still a few years away. (NOAA)

After restoration: A newly created northern salt marsh, shown in June 2013, at the site of the former Atlas Tack factory. Bare spots are filling in but a fully covered wetland landscape is likely still a few years away. (NOAA)

While planning to remove the contaminated wetland sediments, we recognized that the culvert running under the hurricane dike prevented the nearby Atlantic Ocean’s tide from replenishing the upstream native saltwater marsh. As a result, invasive reeds were taking over the marsh above the dike.

Reconstructing the culvert would have cost millions of dollars, so the agencies got creative. They designed a new strip of land that would divide the existing, poorly functioning saltwater marsh into a smaller, productive saltwater marsh that could be supported with the existing saltwater supply and a new freshwater wetland supported by rainfall and groundwater. The agencies also removed contaminated sediment from and then replanted a salt marsh south of the dike. Across all three marshes, more than 14,000 native marsh plants were planted, providing valuable habitat for birds and other animals.

By working together, NOAA, EPA, and Army Corps created an effective cleanup solution for the polluted factory site while enhancing the environment by returning this contaminated marsh to a functioning and sustainable habitat, a process known as ecological revitalization. Today, NOAA, along with the EPA, Army Corps, and Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, is helping observe and monitor the success of the restoration projects. A recent visit revealed that two of the marshes already are brimming with healthy plants and wildlife, while the salt marsh which had contaminants removed is showing considerable improvement.


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Celebrate World Ocean Day on June 8 by Keeping it Clean

A sunset viewed from Kure Atoll, located near Midway Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. An atoll is an island of coral that encircles a lagoon partially or completely. (NOAA)

A sunset viewed from Kure Atoll, located near Midway Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. An atoll is an island of coral that encircles a lagoon partially or completely. (NOAA)

June 8 is World Ocean Day, a time to celebrate the ocean which covers most of our planet.

The ocean—it’s blue, deep, and full of strange-looking forms of life. But beyond its natural beauty and mystery, the ocean is useful to have around for many practical reasons, such as: past ocean life produced enough oxygen to make this planet a nice place to live; it affects the atmosphere, and therefore, the weather and climate; it is full of food humans like to eat; it is fun to play in; and it has lots of materials and mineral resources we use for energy, manufacturing, and transportation.

What is the best way to give your thanks for the many benefits the ocean offers us? By protecting it and keeping it clean, of course.

Here are a few suggestions for keeping a healthy and pollution-free ocean:

What are other ways you could protect and celebrate the ocean?

Follow the countdown to World Ocean Day with NOAA’s Ocean Service.