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Breaking Ice: A Personal Journey amid Preparations for Arctic Oil Spills

Editor’s Note: September is National Preparedness Month. It is a time to prepare yourself and those in your care for emergencies and disasters of all kinds. The following story follows one way NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is preparing for a potential oil spill emergency in the Arctic. To learn more about how you can be prepared for other types of emergencies, visit http://www.ready.gov.

This is the second in a series of posts about Arctic Shield 2013 by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Zach Winters-Staszak. Read his first post, “Arctic-bound.”

Fog and snow obscure the tundra below as the plane descends. The seat belt sign goes off and a man reaches for his bag in the overhead bin, the quote on the back of his shirt spelling out just how far I now am from Seattle: “Vegetarian. An ancient tribal slang for the village idiot who can’t hunt, fish or ride.” I’ve returned to Barrow, Alaska, top of the world for now, but I have higher latitudes in my future.

Bowhead whale bones and a sign announcing Barrow as the northernmost city in America welcomed me to the Arctic.

Bowhead whale bones and a sign announcing Barrow as the northernmost city in America welcomed me to the Arctic. (NOAA)

On previous trips to Barrow, the village was blanketed by snow, chilled by negative air temperatures, and surrounded by coastal sea ice. As I step out from the baggage claim, the air is balmy and the landscape is thawed, leaving only mud and gravel for me to drag the now-useless wheels of my luggage and heavy equipment case across. When I arrive at the hotel lobby, I hear familiar voices from conference calls over the last few months as we prepared for this logistically complex undertaking, and I quickly begin to put faces to names and voices.

Top of the World

In a previous blog post, I gave a brief overview of my involvement in the oil spill training exercise Arctic Shield 2013. I was joining scientists, analysts, the United States Coast Guard (USCG), and the crew aboard the USCG Cutter Healy to demonstrate the capabilities of oil spill response technologies in the remote and challenging environment of the Arctic Ocean.

At the Iñupiat Heritage Center in Barrow, Alaska, you can see local artists carve traditional icons into the jawbone of a bowhead whale.

At the Iñupiat Heritage Center in Barrow, Alaska, you can see local artists carve traditional icons into the jawbone of a bowhead whale. (NOAA)

But before I dive into those details, I first wanted to share my behind-the-scenes story of life aboard this Coast Guard icebreaker—because this was no ordinary “office” for our work. We would travel north up and over the broken sheets of Arctic sea ice before turning south through the Bering Sea, east to the Gulf of Alaska and finally dock in Seward, Alaska.

Even though I’ve been here before, Barrow still retains an uncompromising allure. Bowhead whale bones, baleen, umiaqs (seal-skin hulled canoes used for spring whaling), and caribou pelts can be seen at every turn, affirming the traditional ways synonymous with Arctic communities—as well as what’s at stake if a major oil spill occurred here.

Each time I come to Barrow, I make it a point to visit the Iñupiat Heritage Center. Local subsistence hunters and community elders can be found there, continuing to create the traditional tools and artwork they have for centuries. As I listen to stories of generations of hardship and perseverance on the ice, I’m quickly reminded of what’s at stake and why it’s imperative to be ready to protect the natural resources they rely on.

Cultural tourism has become a major draw to Barrow but is perhaps overshadowed by the destination itself. From a geographical and strategic standpoint, Barrow is a major checkpoint for international travel by sea.

U.S. and circumpolar shipping routes through the Arctic, as viewed in NOAA's online mapping tool, Arctic ERMA.

U.S. and circumpolar shipping routes through the Arctic, as viewed in NOAA’s online mapping tool, Arctic ERMA. Click to enlarge. (NOAA)

During my time in the village, there was a German cruise boat traveling through from the Northwest Passage and Greenland that anchored just offshore and was busy unloading European tourists by Zodiac. This alone highlights the importance of field demonstrations like Arctic Shield. Transportation activities for tourism and commerce are increasing in the region, escalating the risk of oil spills and accidents. Ironically, the Healy is anchored just offshore as well, giving our team a spectacular view into our next couple weeks.

The U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker, Healy, sits just offshore of Barrow, shortly before we set sail.

The U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker, Healy, sits just offshore of Barrow, shortly before we set sail. (NOAA)

Working Aboard an Icebreaker

When you’re on a ship, you have no choice but to eat whatever the galley serves up, three times a day. The Coast Guard puts Sriracha hot sauce on everything: eggs (makes sense), grilled cheese (OK), the hardly identifiable steamed broccoli (understandable), and chicken marsala (not so sure). As I get to know both the crew and the science team after one such meal, questions about the Healy itself come up. The galley chief quickly proclaims, “Have you seen the engine room? We call it PFM or Pure Freaking Magic. The Healy generates more power than the whole village of Barrow.” To put that in perspective, Barrow is the largest village on Alaska’s North Slope, with a population over 4,100 people.

Essentially, the ship itself is a floating village. The Healy has amenities to support over 100 people, makes ample (and screaming hot) fresh water on site, and houses multiple scientific laboratories with a combined area of 4,200 ft².  Designed to operate in temperatures down to -50°F, the Healy can break 4.5-foot-thick ice continuously and has the capacity of backing and ramming 8-foot-thick ice. Indeed, watching chunks of ice the size of minivans come rolling up from under the bow of the ship is impressive.

The sound of breaking ice from below deck is at first nerve-racking, but eventually it actually begins to lull you to sleep at night. Then, just as soon as the landscape of fragmented sea ice and frigid temperatures becomes familiar, it vanishes. The morning after completing the response technology demonstrations, I wake up and the ship has turned south. We have escaped the ice floe and are once again surrounded by open ocean. Walruses and whales swim by, understandably in a hurry considering a 420-foot red island is steaming in their direction at 14 knots.

As we pass through the Bering Strait, Russia comes into view. And as we travel through Unimak Pass, the Aleutian Islands, and on to Seward, I take in the unforgettable landscapes that I hope our preparations during Arctic Shield will help protect.

Stay tuned for my next post, when I’ll give an in-depth look at the critical response technologies we demonstrated on the Healy, some humbling insights for me to consider as an oil spill responder, and an update on whether my personal goal to see a polar bear remained elusive.

Zach Winters-StaszakZach Winters-Staszak is a GIS Specialist with OR&R’s Spatial Data Branch. His main focus is to visualize environmental data from various sources for oil spill planning, preparedness, and response. In his free time, Zach can often be found backpacking and fly fishing in the mountains.


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Are We Prepared to Communicate Well During the Next Disaster?

Editor’s Note: September is National Preparedness Month. It is a time to prepare yourself and those in your care for emergencies and disasters of all kinds. NOAA and our partners are making sure that we are prepared in every regard for whenever the next disaster strikes. To learn more about how you can be prepared for all types of emergencies, visit www.ready.gov.

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Kate Clark.

Ever had a crisis? Did you have a plan for getting people the information they needed during that crisis? Chances are you answered first yes, then no. It is not often we are able to anticipate what our next crisis or disaster will be, but that doesn’t mean we should be caught off guard (however unusual the event).

The Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) is no stranger to dealing with crisis. Whether it’s an oil spill, influx of marine debris, or chemical release, we plan and prepare to deal with environmental disasters as a part of our work each day.

As environmental disasters continue to happen and media coverage becomes more instantaneous, we must also be prepared to communicate with the public about these disasters in a way that is factual, timely, and helpful.

On September 19, 2013, I was able to attend a crisis communications workshop sponsored by the Ad Council. It featured three esteemed and accomplished communication experts: Dee Dee Myers, Managing Director of the Glover Park Group and former White House Press Secretary; Camille Johnston, Vice President, Corporate Affairs for Siemens Corporation and former spokesperson for First Lady Michelle Obama; and Morgan Binswanger, Executive Vice President, Government Relations and External Affairs for the LIVESTRONG Foundation.

As OR&R works to improve our crisis communication strategy and strengthen our rapport with stakeholders, I thought these five pieces of advice from the seminar would help inform our efforts:

  1. Outreach. Using the time leading up to a crisis to educate the public, stakeholders, and the press about your mission can save a lot of valuable time during the crisis. This will allow for clearer and more germane dialogue when a crisis does occur.
  2. Plan ahead. What is the most likely crisis scenario? Who will speak for the organization? How we will disseminate information?
  3. Time is of the essence. Information is available through social media within seconds of an event occurring. This leaves a small window of time to react and respond.
  4. Be transparent. In today’s day and age, almost everything becomes public, so transparency and honesty in the very early stages are crucial to maintaining trust and credibility.
  5. Humility goes a long way. It’s OK to say, “We don’t know, but we are working very hard to get an answer.”

OR&R and the whole NOAA family is constantly learning and adapting to the changing pace of communications in today’s information landscape. Let us know how you think we’re doing. Where would you look for information from NOAA during a disaster, such as a hurricane or oil spill? This blog? Facebook or Twitter? NOAA.gov? Somewhere else?

We are thankful to the Ad Council for sponsoring this seminar and providing great reminders as we continually work to improve our dialogue with the people we work for—the U.S. public.

Kate Clark.Kate Clark is a regional resource coordinator for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, Assessment and Restoration Division. She has responded to and conducted damage assessment for numerous environmental pollution events for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, managed NOAA’s Arctic policy portfolio, and served as a senior analyst to the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling.


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Celebrate Where Rivers Meet the Sea during National Estuaries Week

This is a post by Lou Cafiero of NOAA’s Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management.

A resting kayak at the Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in Rhode Island.

A resting kayak at the Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in Rhode Island. Kayaking is just one of the many recreation opportunities available at our 28 National Estuarine Research Reserves. (Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve)

National Estuaries Day rolls in like the tide on the last Saturday of September each year. Established in 1988, this annual event inspires people to learn about and protect the unique environments formed where rivers and other freshwater flow into the ocean, creating bays, lagoons, sounds, or sloughs.

This year, the 25th anniversary of National Estuaries Day will be celebrated around the country on September 28, 2013, but for the first time we are taking an entire week to celebrate, from September 23-29. Outdoor lovers can learn and have fun at each of the 28 National Estuarine Research Reserves throughout the country. Managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in partnership with coastal states and territories, these special reserves were set aside for long-term research and education activities in estuaries.

However, they also offer abundant recreational opportunities, such as swimming, boating, fishing, wildlife viewing, and bird watching. In some reserves you can spot sea otters or manatees swimming with their young, or great blue herons and ospreys soaring in the skies above.

Celebrate at a National Estuarine Research Reserve

First, locate the estuarine research reserve nearest you. You’ll find contact information and directions to all 28 reserves. There are numerous nation-wide activities in honor of National Estuaries Day and Week, such as:

  • Photography contests in Florida.
  • Canoe trips in Washington.
  • Estuary cleanups in North Carolina.
  • Exhibits at state capitals.
  • Guided estuary tours in Texas.
  • Festivals in California.

Find even more events, including one near you, on this National Estuaries Week map of events.

How Estuaries Affect You

Aerial view of estuary.

A total of 1.3 million acres of coastal wetland areas are managed and conserved through NOAA’s National Estuarine Research Reserves. (NOAA)

Estuaries are incredibly diverse and productive ecosystems. Learn more and then help spread the word about why estuaries matter. For example, estuaries:

  • Are vital temporary homes for migratory species, such as mallards and striped bass.
  • Provide critical nesting and feeding habitat for a variety of aquatic plants and animals, including shrimp, oysters, and other commercial seafood.
  • Help prevent coastal erosion.
  • Filter harmful pollutants washing off the land.
  • Reduce flooding during storms.
  • Are important recreational and tourist destinations.
  • Are crucial to our future and the health of the ocean.

How We Affect Estuaries

Estuaries need everyone’s help and hard work to keep them clean and safe. There are many things you can do to help protect and conserve estuaries. Check out these 10 ways to protect estuaries and then explore even more ways to protect estuaries, from taking easy steps around your house to outings at the beach and onto your boat. An example of one important way to keep estuaries clean is to report oil spills or fuel leaks by calling the U.S. Coast Guard National Response Center at 1-800-424-8802.

But sometimes oil spills can be much bigger than one person and have serious impacts for estuaries, commerce, and people. For example, in June of 1989, the Greek tanker World Prodigy hit ground in Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay, releasing approximately 290,000 gallons of home heating oil into New England’s largest estuary. Not only did the oil affect vast numbers of lobsters, crabs, fish, and shellfish at various stages of life, but the spill also closed beaches and the bay to commercial and recreational clammers.

Through a legal settlement for the World Prodigy grounding’s environmental damages, NOAA secured $567,299 to restore these natural resources. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, through the Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program, partnered with the Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve on one of the resulting restoration projects. In 1996 and 1997, the NOAA team and its partners transplanted eelgrass beds in Narragansett Bay to restore habitat for the species affected by the spill. More than 7,000 eelgrass plants were transplanted in 10 locations within Narragansett Bay. Dubbed “meadows of the sea,” eelgrass beds provide shelter, spawning grounds, and food for fish, clams, crabs, and other animals while helping keep coastal waters clean and clear.

Don’t Forget to Get Involved

Help celebrate National Estuaries Week this September! Get involved with estuaries by visiting the reserve nearest you. Check out the events scheduled at the reserves or at other estuary locations around the country. Volunteer or become a friend of the National Estuarine Research Reserves and participate in the many educational programs offered.

Louis Cafiero is the communications lead for NOAA’s Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management and works closely with the National Estuarine Research Reserves and other federal and nonprofit partners to coordinate outreach efforts to promote National Estuaries Day.


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Deep Sea Ecosystem may take Decades to Recover from Deepwater Horizon spill

Sample Cylinders into Gulf

Sample Cylinders into Gulf – Multicorer sampling operation in Gulf of Mexico on the RV Gyre. (Credit – with permission from: Texas A&M-University Corpus Christi, Sandra Arismendez.)

Scientists publish first analysis of post-spill sediment ecosystem impacts surrounding well head

The deep-sea soft-sediment ecosystem in the immediate area of the 2010’s Deepwater Horizon well head blowout and subsequent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico will likely take decades to recover from the spill’s impacts, according to a scientific paper reported in the online scientific journal PLoS One.

The paper is the first to give comprehensive results of the spill’s effect on deep-water communities at the base of the Gulf’s food chain, in its soft-bottom muddy habitats, specifically looking at biological composition and chemicals at the same time at the same location.

“This is not yet a complete picture,” said Cynthia Cooksey, NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science lead scientist for the spring 2011 cruise to collect additional data from the sites sampled in fall 2010. “We are now in the process of analyzing data collected from a subsequent cruise in the spring of 2011. Those data will not be available for another year, but will also inform how we look at conditions over time.”

“As the principal investigators, we were tasked with determining what impacts might have occurred to the sea floor from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill,” said Paul Montagna, Ph.D., Endowed Chair for Ecosystems and Modeling at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies, Texas A&M University Corpus Christi. “We developed an innovative approach to combine tried and true classical

Processing Core Sample Cylinder from Gulf

Processing Core Sample Cylinder from Gulf – Rick Kalke Harte Research Institute processing multicorer sediment sample aboard the RV Gyre. (Credit – with permission from: Texas A&M-University Corpus Christi, Sandra Arismendez.)

statistical techniques with state of the art mapping technologies to create a map of the footprint of the oil spill.”

“Normally, when we investigate offshore drilling sites, we find pollution within 300 to 600 yards from the site,” said Montagna. “This time it was nearly two miles from the wellhead, with identifiable impacts more than ten miles away. The effect on bottom of the vast underwater plume is something, which until now, no one was able to map. This study shows the devastating effect the spill had on the sea floor itself, and demonstrates the damage to important natural resources.”

“The tremendous biodiversity of meiofauna in the deep-sea area of the Gulf of Mexico we studied has been reduced dramatically,” said Jeff Baguley, Ph.D., University of Nevada, Reno expert on meiofauna, small invertebrates that range in size from 0.042 to 0.300 millimeters in size that live in both marine and fresh water. “Nematode worms have become the dominant species at sites we sampled that were impacted by the oil. So though the overall number of meiofauna may not have changed much, it’s that we’ve lost the incredible biodiversity.”

The oil spill and plume covered almost 360 square miles with the most severe reduction of biological abundance and biodiversity impacting an area about 9 square miles around the wellhead, and moderate effects seen 57 square miles around the wellhead.

The research team, which included members from University of Nevada, Reno, Texas A&M University Corpus Christi, NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science and representatives from BP, is conducting the research for the Technical Working Group of the NOAA-directed Natural Resource Damage Assessment.

Others working on the study with Montagna, Baguley, and Cooksey were NOAA scientists, Ian Hartwell and Jeffrey Hyland.

The PLoS One paper can be found online.

The NOAA Office of Response and Restoration supported parts of this study through both its spill response and Natural Resource Damage Assessment operations. 

Contacts:
Texas A&M University Corpus Christi, Cindy McCarrier, 361.825.2336/361.871.0837, Cynthia.McCarrier@tamucc.edu; Gloria Gallardo, 361.825.2427 or 361.331.5093 (cell); Cassandra Hinojosa, 361.825.2337 or 361.658.5829 (cell)

University of Nevada, Reno, Mike Wolterbeek, 775.784.4547, mwolterbeek@unr.edu

NOAA, Ben Sherman/Keeley Belva, 301.713.3066, Ben.Sherman@noaa.gov, Keeley.Belva@noaa.gov


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After Sandy, Adapting NOAA’s Tools for a Changing Shoreline

Editor’s Note: September is National Preparedness Month. It is a time to prepare yourself and those in your care for emergencies and disasters of all kinds. NOAA and our partners are making sure that we have the most up-to-date tools and resources for whenever the next disaster strikes. To learn more about how you can be prepared for all types of emergencies, visit www.ready.gov.

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Vicki Loe and Jill Petersen.

While the beach season has come to an end for the East Coast, communities of the northeast continue to repair remaining damage from last fall’s Post Tropical Cyclone Sandy and prepare for future storms. As beachgoers arrived at the shore this past summer, they found a lot of repaired structures and beautiful beaches. But this was side-by-side with reconstruction projects, damaged buildings, and altered shorelines.

In addition to damaging manmade structures, Sandy’s strong winds and waves caused considerable change to shorelines, particularly in the metropolitan New York area, northern Long Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey.

Tools for Coastal Disasters

In the wake of Sandy, under the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013, funds were allocated to update the Office of Response and Restoration’s existing northeast Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) maps to reflect changes caused by the storm and to add information that would enhance the maps’ value when another disaster strikes. Historically used mostly for oil and chemical spills, these maps have also proved to be effective tools in preparing for and responding to storms and hurricanes.

ESI maps provide a concise summary of coastal resources that could be at risk in a disaster. Examples include biological resources (such as birds and shellfish beds), sensitive shorelines (such as marshes and tidal flats), and human-use resources (such as public beaches and parks). They are used by both disaster responders during a disaster and planners before a disaster.

Segment of an existing Environmental Sensitivity Index map of the New Jersey coast.

Segment of an existing Environmental Sensitivity Index map of the New Jersey coast. Used in conjunction with a key, this map provides valuable information to planners and responders on the wildlife, habitats, and geographical features of the area.

In the region affected by Sandy, maps will be updated from Maine to South Carolina. The ESI maps are produced on a state or regional basis. They typically extend offshore to include all state waters, and go inland far enough to include coastal biology and human use resources. In addition to the outer coastal regions, navigable rivers, bays, and estuaries are included. In the northeast, these include the Hudson River and Chesapeake Bay, which are among those maps being updated with the Sandy funding, as well as Delaware Bay, which was already in progress before the storm hit.

The first region to be updated will be Long Island Sound. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is partnering with the Center for Coastal Monitoring and Assessment (CCMA) in NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science to develop the biological and human use information for this region. This partnership will take advantage of studies CCMA currently has underway, as well as contacts they have made with the biological experts in the area.

Keeping up with a Changing Shoreline

A large wildlife conservation area that is managed by Bass River State Forest at the north end of Brigantine Island, a popular beach destination located on the New Jersey coast. (NOAA)

You can see representative coastal habitat in a large wildlife conservation area managed by Bass River State Forest at the north end of Brigantine Island, a popular beach destination located on the New Jersey coast. (NOAA)

The coastal environment is constantly changing and ESI maps need to be updated periodically to reflect not just storm damage, but changes to resources caused by human use, erosion, and climate change. The new maps will be created with a broad range of potential disasters in mind. To support this goal, some additional data elements and layers are being considered for the ESI maps developed as part of our post-Sandy effort. These may include such things as flood inundation and storm surge areas, environmental monitoring stations, tide stations, and offshore renewable energy sites.

The end products will provide emergency planners and responders with a better tool for protecting the northeast and mid-Atlantic shoreline when the next coastal disaster occurs.

You can learn more about our Environmental Sensitivity Index maps in our blog post “Mapping How Sensitive the Coasts Are to Oil Spills,” and find more technical insights into our work with ESI maps and data on the NOAA ESI blog at noaaesi.wordpress.com.

Jill PetersenJill Petersen began working with the NOAA spill response group in 1988. Originally a programmer and on-scene responder, in 1991 her focus switched to mapping support, a major component of which is the ESI program. Throughout the years, Jill has worked to broaden the ESI audience by providing ESIs in a variety of formats and developing appropriate mapping tools. Jill has been the ESI program manager since 2001.


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Molasses and Other Weird Things that Have Spilled

Editor’s Note: September is National Preparedness Month. It is a time to prepare yourself and those in your care for emergencies and disasters of all kinds. NOAA and our partners have to be ready to respond to not just oil and chemical spills, but sometimes unusual hazards like molasses! To learn more about how you can be prepared for other types of emergencies, visit www.ready.gov.

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Charlie Henry and Katie Krushinski, both based at NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center in Mobile, Ala.

Response team on board Coast Guard ship in Honolulu Harbor.

The Coast Guard National Strike Force and personnel from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration head to their first location to monitor depleted oxygen and pH levels in Honolulu Harbor, Honolulu, Sept. 15, 2013.  They tested the water at various locations around Honolulu Harbor affected by the molasses spill. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Last week, the Matson Shipping Company reported an unusual spill after a container ship and faulty pipeline leaked 233,000 gallons (1,400 tons) of molasses into Hawaii’s Honolulu Harbor.

The Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division has been working with the Hawaii Department of Health’s Hazard Evaluation and Emergency Response Office and state and federal partners to assess the large underwater plume of molasses and reduce risks to marine life in the area.

Typically we hear about spills of diesel, oil, and chemicals that cause environmental harm. We know these products can be toxic. Molasses, on the other hand, isn’t usually considered pollution. Yet, the Hawaii Department of Health has already collected approximately 25,000 dead fish from Honolulu Harbor and Ke’ehi Lagoon, where the molasses spill has spread and smothered life on the seafloor.

Although this isn’t your run-of-the-mill spill, it’s not the first time strange-sounding things have been spilled into the environment—with at times serious consequences.

Too Much to Drink

On October 17, 1814, a fermented vat of beer exploded, causing adjacent storage tanks to spill and pouring approximately 388,330 gallons of beer throughout the poor London neighborhood of St. Giles and neighboring communities. As a result, at least seven people died in this incident, both from drowning while trapped in slum-like basement apartments and from being buried under the flood’s debris.

In the wake of the Boston Molasses Disaster of 1919, firemen stood in thick molasses past their ankles as they searched through the debris.

In the wake of the Boston Molasses Disaster of 1919, firemen stood in thick molasses past their ankles as they searched through the sticky debris. (Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.)

A Sticky Mess

Believe it or not, molasses has been spilled before. On January 15, 1919, a tank holding at least 2.2 million gallons of molasses burst, sending a wall of the thick, brown syrup down the streets of Boston, Mass. Reports indicate 21 people died in this spill and 150 were injured.

Boston Harbor was tinted brown for months. Although it wasn’t documented in detail in 1919, fish kills were a likely result. The locals described people and animals being trapped, “like by flypaper.” Local residents rumor that when the weather is hot you can still faintly smell molasses to this day.

A Close Call

On September 13, 2011, an OR&R Scientific Support Coordinator provided the U.S. Coast Guard with a trajectory for a bundle of telephone poles that were drifting in the Gulf of Mexico. The Coast Guard considered these poles a hazard to navigation and a threat to oil platforms at sea. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration applies the same oceanographic modeling tools used for oil spill trajectories to determine where huge bundles of logs, lost containers from cargo ships, and abandoned or derelict vessels might end up. In these cases, the debris itself is less of a concern than what it might encounter on its journey. This type of debris poses a huge threat to fishing vessels, fully loaded oil tankers, and even cruise ships. Floating debris is just another example of an unconventional “spill.”

Unexpected Spill Effects

Just about anything can be a hazard if it happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. For example, saltwater is very common. In fact, about 97% of all water on Earth is saltwater. A spill of saltwater into the ocean (which is also saltwater) is likely to go unnoticed. But if a large quantity of saltwater were spilled into freshwater estuaries and marsh habitat, the spill would likely kill fish, damage vegetation, and impact the long-term viability of the habitat. For example, century-old cypress trees have died and never returned to an area as a result of a saltwater spill into a freshwater system where they were growing.

The All-Hazards Approach

Today we train our emergency responders for all-hazards. By definition, all-hazards can be any incident or event, natural or manmade, which requires an organized response in order to protect human life, the environment, and property as well as to minimize any disruption of government, social, and/or economic services.

Natural disaster such as hurricanes and manmade events such as oil and chemical spills, all require a coordinated response, which is managed under the Incident Command System (ICS) for coordination and stakeholder involvement. While molasses spills aren’t a textbook example for training responders, it would be considered an all-hazard threat in situations like Boston’s tank failure of 1919 and the spill of 2013 in Honolulu harbor. You never know what might go wrong, which is why it pays to be prepared for anything—even molasses!

Katie Krushinski

Katie Krushinski

Katie Krushinski works as Training and Communications Coordinator 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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NOAA Data on Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Plume Now Available Online

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Ben Shorr and Mark Miller.

Fighting the flames on the Deepwater Horizon drill platform in 2010.

Fighting the flames on the Deepwater Horizon drill platform in 2010. (NOAA)

NOAA Physical Scientist Ben Shorr: It was late April 2010, in the first few days of the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill response. It was clear that, in addition to a tragic loss of life, this oil spill was going to be a major event. As I was heading down to the Gulf of Mexico to join my colleagues who were beginning to assess environmental injuries from the spill, I got a call from my supervisor Amy. A research vessel was heading out to collect samples near the leaking wellhead—could I hop on the boat the next day?

That’s how my journey into this oil spill response began and I ended up on the first federal scientific vessel collecting oceanographic and environmental samples, including those from the underwater oil plume. Now, the finalized and standardized analytical chemistry data have been released in NOAA’s online archive. Here’s more about it from the press release:

The dataset, collected to support oil removal activities and assess the presence of dispersants, wraps up a three year process that began with the gathering of water samples and measurements by ships in the Gulf of Mexico during and after the oil release in 2010. NOAA was one of the principal agencies responding to the Macondo well explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, and is the official ocean data archivist for the federal government. While earlier versions of the data were made available during and shortly after the response, it took three years for NOAA employees and contractors to painstakingly catalog each piece of data into this final form.

This Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill dataset, including more than two million chemical analyses of sediment, tissue, water, and oil, as well as toxicity testing results and related documentation, is available to the public online at: http://www.nodc.noaa.gov/deepwaterhorizon/specialcollections.html. A companion dataset, including ocean temperature and salinity data, currents, preliminary chemical results and other properties collected and made available during the response can be found at: http://www.nodc.noaa.gov/deepwaterhorizon/insitu.html.

The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill response involved the collection of an enormous dataset. The underwater plume of hydrocarbon — a chemical compound that consists only of the elements carbon and hydrogen — was a unique feature of the spill, resulting from a combination of high-pressure discharge from the well near the seafloor and the underwater application of chemical dispersant to break up the oil. …

The effort to detect and track the plume was given to the Deepwater Horizon Response Subsurface Monitoring Unit (SMU), led by NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, and included responders from many federal and state agencies and British Petroleum (BP). Between May and November 2010, the SMU coordinated data collection from 24 ships on 129 cruises.

While on this scientific sampling cruise, I found myself working closely with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency scientists, the ship’s captain and oceanographic technicians, BP’s scientific lead and contractors, and NOAA’s Natural Resource Damage Assessment representative. There were also experts from Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans aboard. The work our team began quickly became the basis for the Subsurface Monitoring Unit within the spill response, which coordinated and provided scientific expertise for sampling, analysis, and mapping of the underwater hydrocarbon plume. Our team was made up of NOAA staff, in addition to others from the EPA, U.S. Geological Survey, and Gulf states.

During the first several months of the response, our team worked closely with EPA and other partners to establish common data management protocols that would allow us to coordinate and collect data including chemistry samples, acoustics, particle size, and oceanographic measurements from federal, BP, and academic scientific cruises in the Gulf of Mexico. These datasets were quickly analyzed and used by the scientific advisors and U.S. Coast Guard to make decisions about directing spill response clean-up operations. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration and National Coastal Data Development Center (a division of the National Oceanographic Data Center) formed a close partnership, working with federal, state, and university scientists to gather, organize, process, and analyze oceanographic data—in addition to archiving and making these datasets publicly available.

NOAA Physical Scientist Mark Miller: In October of 2010, shortly after returning from Coast Guard headquarters where I worked during the oil spill, I was asked to help prepare for public release the data collected by the Subsurface Monitoring Unit on the research vessels such as the one my colleague Ben Shorr was on. A few months later in January of 2011, I picked up where Ben left off on coordinating this effort.

Now, I had been involved in database development and deployment for 20 years, so I felt prepared for this task. This was naïve. While at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, DC, I had been closely involved with the group that used some of the same Subsurface Monitoring Unit data to prepare operational reports for the National Incident Commander, Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen.

Yet, I did not realize the scope and depth of the data collected on these research cruises. When told later in the project that there were over 2 million records collected, I quickly gained a much greater appreciation of the long, rigorous process involved in preparing and making this information public. The National Oceanographic Data Center has been releasing and updating this response data on a dedicated public website since early in the spill, and this process is finally complete. Because these data will be archived for at least 75 years, they will be available to help researchers for decades to come.

Ben Shorr has been a Physical Scientist with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration since he came to Seattle (mostly to ski and sail) in 2000. Ben works on a range of topics, from cleanup, damage assessment, and restoration to visualization and spatial analysis. In his spare time, he enjoys hanging out with his 5 and 3 year old kids, which means riding bikes, skiing, and sailing too.

Mark Miller has been with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration in the Emergency Response Division for 25 years, starting the year before the Exxon Valdez oil spill. When not wrestling with data from the Deepwater Horizon/BP spill, he supervises the in-house programming staff and is the NOAA Program Manager for the CAMEO software suite used extensively by fire services across the country to respond to chemical release incidents.