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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You Know What’s Scary? Halloween Debris

Great reminder for Halloween!

NOAA's Marine Debris Blog

Halloween is almost here and with it comes lots of scary, spooky things—monsters, mayhem, and… marine debris!

Child's drawing of a marine debris monster. Drawing by Teeger B., Grade 8, California, art contest winner featured in the 2013 Marine Debris Calendar.

Unfortunately, Halloween often means more trash that can become marine debris. Wrappers are one of the top debris items in general and the many candy wrappers that are part of this spooky holiday can substantially add to their accumulation. On top of that, some of those cool Halloween decorations that are placed in our yards blow away, never to return to their storage boxes. So, as you’re trick-or-treating, handing out candy, or getting into other kinds of Halloween mischief, make sure to keep in mind that we can all do our part to make sure Halloween ends with buckets full of candy, and not waters full of debris.

Make sure those spooky decorations are securely…

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In Some Situations, Ships Dump Oil on Purpose

Oil on water.

Port Sulphur, La. (Nov. 29)–An aerial view of a section of the Mississippi River containing a dense amount of the Nigerian ‘sweet’ crude oil spilled by the M/V Westchester Nov. 28, 2000. USCG photo by PA1 Jeff Hall

 

We generally think of oil being accidentally spilled, but there are situations when oil might be intentionally spilled.

Historically, ships at sea have sometimes intentionally dumped some of their cargo to save the ship and perhaps prevent a complete loss. However, this is a thorny area of maritime and environmental law, made even more complex by the engineering stresses on a foundering vessel and the political dynamics underlying a decision to intentionally dump oil.

On March 18, 1973, the tanker Zoe Colocotronis ran aground on a reef 3.5 miles off the southwest coast of Puerto Rico. The master unilaterally ordered cargo from the forward tank jettisoned to help get the vessel off the reef, and 1.5 million gallons of crude oil were intentionally released. The tanker was refloated with the remaining 6.3 million-gallon cargo, but the captain was later convicted for multiple violations.

When the Argo Merchant ran aground on Nantucket Shoals in 1976, jettisoning was suggested but rejected. The vessel eventually broke apart and the entire cargo was lost. In 1996, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences developed a lengthy report, “Purposeful Jettison of Petroleum Cargo,” to clarify when such a drastic measure might be the best way to prevent a larger spill.

Aircraft in distress may also sometimes intentionally jettison fuel to reduce landing weight. Even though the dumped fuel is thought to vaporize rapidly, this technique is rare, in part because of environmental concerns.

Dumping oil at sea hasn’t always been prohibited. In fact, steamships and lifeboats were required to carry equipment to slowly release oil (generally vegetable or fish oil) at sea during storms. The lifeboats carried by the Titanic fell under British Merchant Shipping Act of 1894 that required carriage of “oil for use in stormy weather.”

The USCG regulations also used to require that lifeboats be equipped with storm oil. What? How does spilling oil help you in a lifeboat?

One of the behaviors that makes oil hard to clean up — its ability to spread rapidly into thin layers — has the effect of reducing the wave height and breaking waves. This is also why spilled oil becomes a “slick”. Oil spilled on the water absorbs energy and dampens out the surface waves making the oil appear smoother or “slicker” than the surrounding water.

Drawing of a cone-shaped container with labels.

A commercial ship’s lifeboat sea anchor. From the U.S. Coast Guard Manual for Lifeboatmen, Able Seamen, and Qualified Members of the Engine Department. “Oil, storm. One gallon of vegetable, fish, or animal oil must be provided in a suitable metal container so constructed as to permit a controlled distribution of oil on the water, and so arranged that it can be attached to the sea anchor.”

This phenomenon has been studied for a long time. The U.S. Navy produced several reports on the topic back in the 1880s, but my favorite is the research conducted by Benjamin Franklin. Everyone knows about his famous kite flying during an electrical storm, but in the 1760s, he also did some intentional oil spill experiments. On a sea voyage to Europe he noted that the greasy discharge from a nearby ship’s galley had smoothed the water, and later did studies on lakes to test his theories (these lakes were in England, not his home state of Pennsylvania). His letters were later summarized in a journal report on the “stilling of waves.” Franklin reported that “not more than a tea spoonful produced an instant calm, over a space several yards square, which spread amazingly, and extended itself gradually till it reached the lee side, making all that quarter of the pond, perhaps half an acre, as smooth as a looking glass.”

U.S and international regulations no longer require equipping life boats with storm oil. The requirement was removed in 1983, the same year the United States Coast Guard replaced open lifeboats with the requirement to carry fully and partially enclosed lifeboats.

Photo with old type from a 1774 document.

 


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Understanding How Oil Reacts on Water: A Simple Experiment

Rainbow sheen.

Rainbow sheen, such as the one shown here from a different incident in the Gulf of Mexico, has been spotted near the leaking natural gas well off the Louisiana coast. (NOAA)

Have you ever seen a rainwater puddle on a street and wondered why it seemed to have a rainbow floating on top? That rainbow effect is caused when oil on the street floats to the top of the puddle.

Understanding how oil and water react together is an essential part of the science of cleaning up oil spills. One of the goals of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) is to share our scientific expertise and experience. Fostering scientific understanding of oil spills helps everyone prevent and prepare for marine pollution.

Here is a simple experiment for elementary-aged children that can be done with common household items to understand how oil reacts in water.

OR&R has more experiments and activities for elementary school students and life-long learners on our education page.


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Sticky Black Gobs on the Beach: The Science of Tarballs

People walking on beach with tarballs on sand.

Extensive tarballs are visible in the foreground and surf zone in this image from the Gulf Islands National Seashore, FL., shot on July 1, 2010. Credit NOAA.

Walking on the beach one of life’s great pleasures. The walking on the beach and ending up with sticky black balls attached to your feet is not so pleasurable.

Tarballs, those sticky black gobs, are often leftover from an oil spill. When crude oil (or a heavier refined product) hits the ocean’s surface it undergoes physical change. The change process is called “weathering.” As the wind and waves stretch and tear the oil patches into smaller pieces, tarballs are formed. Tarballs can be as flat and large as pancakes or as small as a dime. How long do tarballs remain sticky? Are tarballs hazardous to your health? How are tarballs removed from affected beaches? Those and other questions, including how to report new sightings of tarballs, can be found here.

Block glob of tar on sand.

Tarball found on Dauphin Island, AL. Credit NOAA.


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Now Open: The Annual NOAA Marine Debris Program Art Contest!

Grab your crayons! It’s that time again!

NOAA's Marine Debris Blog

Get your art supplies ready, because this year’s NOAA Marine Debris Program Art Contest is now officially open!

Students grades K-8 can submit artwork through November 30th that answers the questions:

  • How does marine debris impact the oceans and Great Lakes?
  • What are you doing to help prevent marine debris?

Winning entries will be featured in our 2018 Marine Debris Calendar. Be creative and help raise awareness about marine debris! For a complete list of contest rules, visit our website and download the student entry form and art contest flyer.

Ready… set… draw!

Art contest flyer. This year’s NOAA Marine Debris Program Annual Art Contest runs from October 17th through November 30th. Check out our website for more information!

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Deadline Extended: FY17 Community-based Marine Debris Removal Grant Opportunity

There is still time to apply for the grants.

NOAA's Marine Debris Blog

The deadline for the NOAA Marine Debris Program’s 2017 “Community-based Marine Debris Removal” federal funding opportunity has been extended due to disruption from Hurricane Matthew affecting many of our potential applicants. The new deadline is Thursday,October 202016.

This opportunity provides funding to support locally-driven, marine debris assessment and removal projects that will benefit coastal habitat, waterways, and NOAA trust resources. Projects awarded through this grant competition implement on-the-ground marine debris removal activities, with priority for those targeting medium- to large-scale debris, including derelict fishing gear and abandoned and derelict vessels. There is also a secondary priority for projects that conduct post-removal habitat monitoring to assess the beneficial impacts of debris removal. Through this funding opportunity, NOAA works to foster awareness of the effects of marine debris to further the conservation of living marine resource habitats, and contributes to the understanding of marine debris composition, distribution, and impacts…

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Hurricane Matthew Aerial Photos

Aerial photo of coastline with houses.

Edisto Beach, South Carolina before Hurricane Matthew.

Hurricane Matthew caused death and destruction from North Carolina to the Caribbean. From Oct. 7-10, 2016, the National Geodetic Survey collected aerial photos from more than 1,200 square miles of flooding and damage in the hurricane’s aftermath. The photos were taken in specific areas of the nation identified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Weather Service. National Ocean Services has more information on how the photos were collected.

All the photos can be accessed online. The areas with imagery are shown as blocks on the map; zoom in to see the high-resolution aerial photos (which may take a few seconds to load).

For more coastal weather conditions NOAA’s nowCOAST web portal is a near-real-time, one-stop look at coastal conditions and includes storm surge flooding maps.