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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How Beach Cleanups Help Keep Microplastics out of the Garbage Patches

Basket full of faded, old plastic bottles on a beach.

Cleaning up a few plastic bottles on a beach can make a big difference when it comes to keeping microplastics from entering the ocean. (NOAA)

These days plastic seems to be everywhere; unfortunately, that includes many parts of the ocean, from the garbage patches to Arctic sea ice. With this pollution increasingly in the form of tiny plastic bits, picking up a few bottles left on the beach can feel far removed from the massive problem of miniscule plastics floating out at sea.

However, these two issues are more closely connected than you may think.

But how do we get from a large plastic water bottle, blown out of an overfilled trash can on a beach, to innumerable plastic pieces no bigger than a sesame seed—and known as microplastics—suspended a few inches below the ocean surface thousands of miles from land?

The answer starts with the sun and an understanding of how plastic deteriorates in the environment.

The Science of Creating Microplastics

Plastic starts breaking down, or degrading, when exposed to light and high temperatures from the sun. Ultraviolet B radiation (UVB), the same part of the light spectrum that can cause sunburns and skin cancer, starts this process for plastics.

This process, known as photo-oxidation, is a chemical reaction that uses oxygen to break the links in the molecular chains that make up plastic. It also happens much faster on land than in the comparatively cool waters of the ocean.

For example, a hot day at the beach can heat the sandy surface—and plastic trash sitting on it—up to 104 degrees Fahrenheit. The ocean, on the other hand, gets darker and colder the deeper you go, and the average temperatures at its surface in July can range from 45 degrees Fahrenheit near Adak Island, Alaska, to 89 degrees in Cannon Bay, Florida.

Back on that sunny, warm beach, a plastic water bottle starts to show the effects of photo-oxidation. Its surface becomes brittle and tiny cracks start forming. Those larger shards of plastic break apart into smaller and smaller pieces, but they keep roughly the same molecular structure, locked into hydrogen and carbon chains. A brisk wind or child playing on the beach may cause this brittle outer layer of plastic to crumble. The tide washes these now tiny plastics into the ocean.

Once in the ocean, the process of degrading slows down for the remains of this plastic bottle. It can sink below the water surface, where less light and heat penetrate and less oxygen is available. In addition, plastics can quickly become covered in a thin film of marine life, which further blocks light from reaching the plastic and breaking it down.

An Incredible Journey

Lots of tiny pieces of plastic covering rocks.

Microplastics, tiny bits of plastic measuring 5 millimeters or less, are often the result of larger pieces of plastic breaking down on land before making it into the ocean. They can also come from cosmetics and fleece clothing. (NOAA)

In general, plastic breaks down much, much more slowly in the ocean than on land. That means plastic objects that reach the ocean either directly from a boat (say trash or nets from a fishing vessel) or washed into the sea before much degradation has happened are much less likely to break into smaller pieces that become microplastics. This also applies to plastics that sink below the ocean surface into the water column or seafloor.

Instead, plastic that has spent time heating up and breaking down on land is most likely to produce the microplastics eventually accumulating in ocean gyres or garbage patches, a conclusion supported by the research of North Carolina State University professor Anthony Andrady and others.

Of course, microplastics in the form of “microbeads” in face wash and other cosmetics or microfibers in fleece clothing also can reach the ocean by slipping through waste water treatment systems.

However, regularly patrolling your favorite beach or waterway and cleaning up any plastic or other marine debris can go a long way to keeping millions of tiny microplastics—some so tiny they can only be seen with a microscope—from reaching the garbage patches and other areas of the ocean.

The great thing is anyone can do this and you don’t have to wait for the International Coastal Cleanup each September to get started.

Find more tips and resources to help you on your way:


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This Is How We Help Make the Ocean a Better Place for Coral

Large corals on the seafloor.

The ocean on its own is an amazing place. Which is why we humans like to explore it, from its warm, sandy beaches to its dark, mysterious depths. But when humans are involved, things can and often do go wrong.

That’s where we come in. Our corner of NOAA helps figure out what impacts have happened and what restoration is needed to make up for them when humans create a mess of the ocean, from oil spills to ship groundings.

In honor of World Ocean Day, here are a few ways we at NOAA make the ocean a better place for corals when ships accidentally turn them into undersea roadkill.

First, we literally vacuum up broken coral and rubble from the seafloor after ships run into and get stuck on coral reefs. The ships end up crushing corals’ calcium carbonate homes, often carpeting the seafloor with rubble that needs to be removed for three reasons.

  1. To prevent it from smashing into healthy coral nearby.
  2. To clear space for re-attaching coral during restoration.
  3. To allow for tiny, free-floating coral babies to settle in the cleared area and start growing.

Check it out:A SCUBA diver using a suction tube to vacuum coral rubble from the seafloor during coral restoration after the VogeTrader ship grounding.Sometimes, however, the broken bits get stuck in the suction tube, and you have to give it a good shake to get things moving. SCUBA divers shaking a suction tube to clear it on the seafloor.Next, we save as many dislodged and knocked over corals as we can. In this case, popping them into a giant underwater basket that a boat pulls to the final restoration site.

SCUBA diver placing coral piece into a large wire basket on the seafloor during coral restoration after the VogeTrader ship grounding.Sometimes we use “coral nurseries” to regrow corals to replace the ones that were damaged. This is what that can look like:

Staghorn coral fragments hanging on an underwater tree structure of PVC pipes.Then, we cement healthy corals to the seafloor, but first we have to prepare the area, which includes scrubbing a spot for the cement and coral to stick to.

SCUBA diver scrubbing a spot on the seafloor for the cement and coral to stick to.(And if that doesn’t work very well, we’ll bring out a power washer to get the job done.)

SCUBA diver using a power washer to clear a spot on the seafloor for the cement and coral to stick to during coral restoration after the VogeTrader ship grounding.Finally, we’re ready for the bucket of cement and the healthy coral.

SCUBA diver turning over a bucket of cement on the seafloor during coral restoration after the VogeTrader ship grounding.

Instead of cement, we may also use epoxy, nails, or cable ties to secure corals to the ocean floor.

After all that work, the seafloor goes from looking like this:

View of seafloor devoid of coral before restoration.To this:

View of seafloor covered with healthy young coral and fish after restoration due to the VogeTrader grounding.

Ta-da! Good as new, or at least, on its way back to being good-as-new.

When that’s not enough to make up for all the harm done to coral reefs hit by ships, we look for other restoration projects to help corals in the area, like this project to vacuum invasive algae off of coral reefs in Oahu.

Watch how this device, dubbed the “Super Sucker,” works to efficiently remove the yellow-brown algae that is smothering the corals:

Or, as another example of a coral restoration project, we set sail each year to the remote Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to pull more than 50 tons of giant, abandoned fishing nets off of the pristine coral reefs.

In 2014, that included removing an 11 ton “monster net” from a reef:

For the most part, the coral restoration you’ve seen here was completed by NOAA and our partners, beginning in October 2013 and wrapping up in April 2014.

These corals were damaged off the Hawaiian island of Oahu in February of 2010 when the cargo ship M/V VogeTrader ran aground and was later removed from a coral reef in Kalaeloa/Barber’s Point Harbor.


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Transforming Dusty Fields into Vibrant Salt Marshes in San Francisco Bay

Vibrant marsh with lots of ducks and trucks on the highway in the background.

Just after the Cullinan Ranch restoration site was re-flooded, huge flocks of waterfowl began using the marsh, including Canvasback, Scaup, Northern Pintail, Mallards, and American Wigeon. (Ducks Unlimited)

What happens when you fill a dry, dusty 1,200 acre field at the northern edge of San Francisco Bay with tide waters unseen in that place for more than a century?

You get a marsh with a brand new lease on life.

In January 2015, this is exactly what took place at the salt marsh restoration site called Cullinan Ranch (known as that due to its history as a hay farm).

Check out the photos taken of the restoration site in November 2013, after the new boat ramp and wildlife viewing platform were built but before the levees holding back the bay were breached, and compare them with those taken in the same spot in January 2015, after the waters returned.

Brackish waters once again cover the low-lying area, long pushed down below sea level due to farming dating back to the 1880s. The presence of salt water has transformed this arid field into tidal wetland habitat, where birds, fish, and wildlife, such as the endangered Ridgway’s rail, the salt marsh harvest mouse, steelhead, Chinook salmon, and other fish can thrive.

According to Ducks Unlimited biologist Craig Garner, whose organization has been a key player in this site’s restoration, “When the ranch was newly flooded, we saw a tremendous response by waterfowl. Large numbers of birds were recorded using the area, particularly Canvasback,” a species of diving duck.

Could it be that Cullinan Ranch provides California wildlife with a new refuge from the current scarcity of freshwater habitats further inland? Garner suggests, “Though it is tough to gauge without waterfowl survey data, I would say that Cullinan Ranch could be offsetting the effects of drought conditions on diving duck habitat at all” levels of the tidal cycle.

Of course, people will also be able to enjoy this transformation occurring at Cullinan Ranch via the new recreational facilities. (Launching your boat into a dry field probably wouldn’t be much fun, after all.)

But it’s not just fun and games. People will benefit from this renewed salt marsh acting as a natural filter, increasing the quality of the water passing through it on the way to the bay and its fisheries, and as a sponge for moderating flooding during storms. The plant life growing in the marsh also serves to capture and hold excess carbon dioxide from the nearby urban areas. In addition, taking out the 19th-century levees holding out the bay’s tides reduces the chances of a catastrophic failure and cuts out the expense of maintaining poorly built levees.

Watch as the last satisfying scoops of the muddy barrier disappear and salty waters rush in:

Excavator removing a dirt levee and allowing tide waters to rush into a dry marsh.

Taking out the first levee at the Cullinan Ranch marsh restoration project in central California in January 2015. (NOAA)

Learn more about the efforts to restore this tidal wetland and another long-dry area known as Breuner Marsh. Both of these restoration projects were made possible with funding from a natural resource damage assessment settlement paid by Chevron to make up for years of dumping mercury and oil pollution from its Richmond, California, refinery into the shallow waters of nearby Castro Cove. NOAA partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to achieve the 2010 Chevron settlement and contribute to these two important restoration projects.

In the fall of 2014, Breuner Marsh also saw the return of its daily infusion of saltwater and is looking more and more like a natural salt marsh and less like the next site of urban development.

Aerial view of marsh with tide waters channeling across the shore.

An aerial view of the tide waters retaking their normal course at the restoration site Breuner Marsh on San Francisco Bay in the fall of 2014. (Castro Cove Natural Resource Damage Trustees)


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In the Wake of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, Gulf Dolphins Found Sick and Dying in Larger Numbers Than Ever Before

The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Five Years Later

This is the third in a series of stories over the coming weeks looking at various topics related to the response, the Natural Resource Damage Assessment science, restoration efforts, and the future of the Gulf of Mexico.

A dolphin is observed with oil on its skin on August 5, 2010, in Barataria Bay, La.

A dolphin is observed with oil on its skin on August 5, 2010, in Barataria Bay, Louisiana. (Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries/Mandy Tumlin)

Dolphins washing up dead in the northern Gulf of Mexico are not an uncommon phenomenon. What has been uncommon, however, is how many more dead bottlenose dolphins have been observed in coastal waters affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the five years since. In addition to these alarmingly high numbers, researchers have found that bottlenose dolphins living in those areas are in poor health, plagued by chronic lung disease and failed pregnancies.

Independent and government scientists have undertaken a number of studies to understand how this oil spill may have affected dolphins, observed swimming through oil and with oil on their skin, living in waters along the Gulf Coast. These ongoing efforts have included examining and analyzing dead dolphins stranded on beaches, using photography to monitor living populations, and performing comprehensive health examinations on live dolphins in areas both affected and unaffected by Deepwater Horizon oil.

The results of these rigorous studies, which recently have been and continue to be published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, show that, in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill and in the areas hardest hit, the dolphin populations of the northern Gulf of Mexico have been in crisis.

Troubled Waters

Due south of New Orleans, Louisiana, and northwest of the Macondo oil well that gushed millions of barrels of oil for 87 days, lies Barataria Bay. Its boundaries are a complex tangle of inlets and islands, part of the marshy delta where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico and year-round home to a group of bottlenose dolphins.

During the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, this area was one of the most heavily oiled along the coast. Beginning the summer after the spill, record numbers of dolphins started stranding, or coming ashore, often dead, in Barataria Bay (Venn-Watson et al. 2015). One period of extremely high numbers of dolphin deaths in Barataria Bay, part of the ongoing, largest and longest-lasting dolphin die-off recorded in the Gulf of Mexico, persisted from August 2010 until December 2011.

In the summer of 2011, researchers also measured the health of dolphins living in Barataria Bay, comparing them with dolphins in Sarasota Bay, Florida, an area untouched by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Differences between the two populations were stark. Many Barataria Bay dolphins were in very poor health, some of them significantly underweight and five times more likely to have moderate-to-severe lung disease. Notably, the dolphins of Barataria Bay also were suffering from disturbingly low levels of key stress hormones which could prevent their bodies from responding appropriately to stressful situations. (Schwacke et al. 2014)

“The magnitude of the health effects that we saw was surprising,” said NOAA scientist Dr. Lori Schwacke, who helped lead this study. “We’ve done these health assessments in a number of locations across the southeast U.S. coast and we’ve never seen animals that were in this poor of condition.”

The types of illnesses observed in live Barataria Bay dolphins, which had sufficient opportunities to inhale or ingest oil following the 2010 spill, match those found in people and other animals also exposed to oil. In addition, the levels of other pollutants, such as DDT and PCBs, which previously have been linked to adverse health effects in marine mammals, were much lower in Barataria Bay dolphins than those from the west coast of Florida.

Dead in the Water

Based on findings from the 2011 study, the outlook for dolphins living in one of the most heavily oiled areas of the Gulf was grim. Nearly 20 percent of the Barataria Bay dolphins examined that year were not expected to live, and in fact, the carcass of one of them was found dead less than six months later (Schwacke et al. 2014). Scientists have continued to monitor the dolphins of Barataria Bay to document their health, survival, and success giving birth.

Considering these health conditions, it should come as little surprise that record high numbers of dolphins have been dying along the coasts of Louisiana (especially Barataria Bay), Alabama, and Mississippi. This ongoing, higher-than-usual marine mammal die-off, known as an unusual mortality event, has lasted over four years and claimed more than a thousand marine mammals, mostly bottlenose dolphins. For comparison, the next longest lasting Gulf die-off (in 2005–2006) ended after roughly a year and a half (Litz et al. 2014 [PDF]).

Researchers studying this exceptionally long unusual mortality event, which began in February 2010, identified within it multiple distinct groupings of dolphin deaths. All but one of them occurred after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which released oil from April to July 2010, and corresponded with areas exposed heavily to the oil, particularly Barataria Bay (Venn-Watson et al. 2015). In early 2011, the spring following the oil spill, Mississippi and Alabama saw a marked increase in dead dolphin calves, which either died late in pregnancy or soon after birth, and which would have been exposed to oil as they were developing.

The Gulf coasts of Florida and Texas, which received comparatively little oiling from the Deepwater Horizon spill, did not see the same significant annual increases in dead dolphins as the other Gulf states (Venn-Watson et al. 2015). For example, Louisiana sees an average of 20 dead whales and dolphins wash up each year, but in 2011 alone, this state recorded 163 (Litz et al. 2014 [PDF]).

The one grouping of dolphin deaths starting before the spill, from March to May 2010, took place in Louisiana’s Lake Pontchartrain (a brackish lagoon) and western Mississippi. Researchers observed both low salinity levels in this lake and tell-tale skin lesions thought to be associated with low salinity levels on this group of dolphins. This combined evidence supports that short-term, freshwater exposure in addition to cold weather early in 2010 may have been key contributors to those dolphin deaths prior to the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Legacy of a Spill?

A bottlenose dolphin swims in the shallow waters along a sandy beach with orange oil boom.

A bottlenose dolphin swims in the shallow waters along the beach in Grand Isle, Louisiana, near oil containment boom that was deployed on May 28, 2010. Oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill began washing up on beaches here one month after the drilling unit exploded. (U.S. Coast Guard)

In the past, large dolphin die-offs in the Gulf of Mexico could usually be tied to short-lived, discrete events, such as morbillivirus and marine biotoxins (resulting from harmful algal blooms). While studies are ongoing, the current evidence does not support that these past causes are responsible for the current increases in dolphin deaths in the northern Gulf since 2010 (Litz et al. 2014).

However, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill—its timing, location, and nature—offers the strongest evidence for explaining why so many dolphins have been sick and dying in the Gulf since 2010. Ongoing studies are assessing disease among dolphins that have died and potential changes in dolphin health over the years since the spill.

As is the case for deep-sea corals, the full effects of this oil spill on the long-lived and slow-to-mature bottlenose dolphins and other dolphins and whales in the Gulf may not appear for years. Find more information related to dolphin health in the Gulf of Mexico on NOAA’s Unusual Mortality Event and Gulf Spill Restoration websites.


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At the Bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, Corals and Diversity Suffered After Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Five Years Later

This is the second in a series of stories over the coming weeks looking at various topics related to the response, the Natural Resource Damage Assessment science, restoration efforts, and the future of the Gulf of Mexico.

Very little, if any, light from the sun successfully travels to the extreme bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. At these dark depths, the water is cold and the inescapable pressure of thousands of feet of ocean bears down on everything.

Yet life in the deep ocean is incredibly diverse. Here, delicate branches of soft coral are embraced by the curling arms of brittlestars. Slender sea fans, tinged with pink, reach for tiny morsels of food drifting down like snow from above. From minute marine worms to elongated fish, the diversity of the deep ocean is also a hallmark of its health and stability.

However, this picture of health was disrupted on April 20, 2010. Beginning that day and for almost three months after, the Macondo wellhead unleashed an unprecedented amount of oil and natural gas nearly a mile beneath the ocean. In addition, the response to this oil spill released large amounts of chemical dispersant, both at the source of the leaking oil and on the ocean surface. These actions were meant to break down oil that might have threatened life at the sea surface and on Gulf shores. Nevertheless, the implications for the ocean floor were largely unknown at the time.

In the five years since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, a number of academic and independent scientists along with state and federal agencies, including NOAA and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, have been collaborating to study just how this oil spill and response affected the deep ocean and seafloor of the Gulf. What they found was the footprint of the oil spill on the seafloor, stamped on sickened deep-sea corals and out-of-balance communities of tiny marine invertebrates.

A Sickened Seafloor

A part of the world difficult to reach—and therefore difficult to know—the depths of the Gulf of Mexico required a huge collaborative and technological effort to study its inhabitants. Beginning in the fall of 2010, teams of scientists set out on multiple research cruises to collect deep-sea data, armed with specialized equipment, including remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), cameras capable of withstanding the crushing pressure of the deep ocean, and devices that could bore into the ocean bottom and scoop up multiple samples of sediments at a time.

Through these efforts, researchers have uncovered large areas of the Gulf of Mexico seafloor that contain most of the oil spill’s notable deep-sea impacts. One area in particular surrounds the damaged wellhead and stretches to the southwest, following the path of the massive underwater plume of Deepwater Horizon oil. At times, up to 650 feet thick and over a mile wide, the oil plume drifted at depths more than 3,500 feet beneath the ocean surface, leaving traces of its presence on the bottom as it went (Camilli et al. 2010).

The Macondo wellhead sits at the center of a bull’s-eye–shaped pattern of harm on the seafloor, with oil-related impacts lessening in intensity farther from the oil’s source. Further tying this pattern of injury to the Deepwater Horizon spill, a conservative chemical tracer of petroleum turned up in surface seafloor sediments extending 15 miles from the wellhead (Valentine et al. 2014).

Diversity Takes a Nose Dive

Few people ever see the bottom of the deep ocean. So what do these impacted areas actually look like? Starting several months after the leaking well was capped, researchers used ROVs and special cameras to dive down roughly 4,500 feet. They found multiple deep-sea coral colonies showing recent signs of poor health, stress, and tissue damage. On these corals, the polyps, which normally extend frilly tentacles from the corals’ branching arms, were pulled back, and excessive mucus hung from the corals’ skeletons, which also revealed patches of dead tissue. All of these symptoms have been observed in corals experimentally exposed to crude oil (White et al. 2012 PDF).

Five photos of deep-sea coral showing the progression of impacts over several years.

A time series of coral showing the progression of typical impacts at a site of coral colonies located less than seven miles from the source of Deepwater Horizon oil. You can see the brown “floc” material present in November 2010 disappears by March 2011 and afterward, is replaced by fuzzy gray hydroids and the coral loses its brittlestar companion. (Credit: Hsing et al. 2013)

Many of these coral colonies were partly or entirely coated in a clumpy brown material, which researchers referred to as “floc.” Chemical analysis of this material revealed the presence of petroleum droplets with similar chemical markers to Deepwater Horizon oil. The brittlestars usually associated with these corals also appeared in strange colors and positions. Some entire coral colonies were dead.

Research teams noted these observations only at corals within roughly 16 miles of the wellhead (White et al. 2012 PDF, Fisher et al. 2014). However, many similar coral colonies located further from the spill site showed no poor health effects.

Even one and two years later, deep-sea corals within the footprint of the spill still had not recovered. Hydroids took the place of the brown floc material on affected corals. Relatives of jellies, hydroids are fuzzy, grayish marine invertebrates that are known to encrust unhealthy coral.

Life on and under the sediment at the bottom of the Gulf also suffered, with the diversity of a wide range of marine life dropping across an area roughly three times the size of Manhattan (Montagna et al. 2013). Notably, numbers of tiny, pollution-tolerant nematodes increased in areas of moderate impact but at the expense of the number and types of other species, particularly copepods, small crustaceans at the base of the food chain. These effects were related to the concentration of oil compounds in sediments and to the distance from the Deepwater Horizon spill but not to natural oil seeps.

Top row, from left,  two types of crustaceans and a mollusk. Bottom row shows three types of marine worms known as polychaetes.

Examples of some of the common but very small marine invertebrates found living on and under the Gulf of Mexico seafloor. The top row shows, from left, two types of crustaceans and a mollusk, which are more sensitive to pollution. The bottom row shows three types of marine worms known as polychaetes, which tended to dominate ocean sediments with higher oil contamination found near corals. (Courtesy of Paul Montagna, Texas A&M University)

More sensitive to pollution, fewer types and numbers of crustaceans and mollusks were found in sediments around coral colonies showing impacts. Instead, a few types of segmented marine worms known as polychaetes tended to dominate ocean sediments with higher oil contamination near these corals (Fisher et al. 2014).

A Long Time Coming

Life on the bottom of the ocean moves slowly. Deep-sea corals live for hundreds to thousands of years, and their deaths are rare events. Some of the corals coated in oily brown floc are about 600 years old (Prouty et al. 2014). The observed impacts to life in the deep ocean are tied closely to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, but the full extent of the harm and the eventual recovery may take years, even decades, to manifest (Fisher and Demopoulos, et al. 2014).

Learn more about the studies supported by the federal government’s Natural Resource Damage Assessment for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which determines the environmental harm due to the oil spill and response and seeks compensation from those responsible in order to restore the affected resources.


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Three and a Half Things You Didn’t Know About the History of Oil Spills

Lakeview oil gusher surrounded by sandbags.

The largest oil spill in the United States actually took place in 1910 in Kern county, California. The Lakeview #1 gusher is seen here, bordered by sandbags and derrick removed, after the well’s release had started to subside. (U.S. Geological Survey)

Like human-caused climate change and garbage in the ocean, oil spills seem to be another environmental plague of modern times. Or are they?

The human relationship with oil may be older than you think. In California’s San Joaquin Valley, that relationship may date back more than 13,000 years. Archaeologists have discovered a long history of Native Americans using oil from the area’s natural seeps, including the Yokut Indians creating dice-like game pieces out of walnut shells, asphalt, and abalone shells. At an archaeological site in Syria, the timeline extends back even further: bitumen oil was used to affix handles onto Middle Paleolithic flint tools dating to around 40,000 BC.

As history has a tendency to repeat itself, we can benefit from occasional glimpses back in time to place what is happening today into a context beyond our own fast-moving lives. When it comes to oil spills, you may be surprised to learn that this history goes far beyond—and is much more complicated than—simply the 2010 Deepwater Horizon and 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spills.

Based on the research of NOAA oil spill biologist Gary Shigenaka, here we present three and a half things you probably didn’t know about the history of oil spills.

1. Oil spills have been happening for more than 150 years, but society has only recently started considering them “disasters.”

If you look back in time for historical accounts of oil spills, you may have a hard time finding early reports. When the first oil prospectors in Pennsylvania would hit oil and it almost inevitably gushed into the nearby soil and streams, people at the time saw this not as “environmental degradation” but as a natural consequence of the good fortune of finding oil. In an 1866 account of Pennsylvania’s oil-producing Venango County, this attitude of acceptance becomes apparent:

When the first wells were opened…there was little or no tankage ready to receive it, and the oil ran into the creek and flooded the land around the wells until it lay in small ponds.  Pits were dug in the ground to receive it, and dams constructed to secure it, yet withal the loss was very great…the river was flooded with oil, and hundreds of barrels were gathered from the surface as low down as Franklin, and prepared as lubricating oil.  Even below this point oil could be gathered in the eddies and still water along the shore, and was distinctly perceptible as far down as Pittsburgh, one hundred and forty miles below.

2. The largest oil spill in the United States didn’t take place in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 but in the California desert a hundred years earlier.

But similar to the Deepwater Horizon, this oil spill also stemmed from a runaway oil well. In Maricopa, California, the people drilling Lakeview Well No. 1 lost control of the well, which would eventually spew approximately 378 million gallons of oil into the sandy soil around it. The spill lasted more than a year, from March 14, 1910 until September 10, 1911, and only ceased after the well collapsed on itself, leaving a crater in the desert surrounded by layers of oil the consistency of asphalt.

3. The Alaskan Arctic is not untouched by oil spills; the first one happened in 1944.

The Naval ship S.S. Jonathan Harrington surrounded by Arctic sea ice.

The Naval ship S.S. Jonathan Harrington surrounded by Arctic sea ice. This ship likely caused the first major oil spill in Alaskan Arctic waters in August 1944. (U.S. Navy)

NOAA and many others are doing a lot of planning in case of an oil spill in the Alaskan Arctic. But whatever may happen in the future, in August of 1944, Alaska Native Thomas P. Brower, Sr. witnessed what was likely the first oil spill in the Alaskan Arctic. The U.S. Navy cargo ship S.S. Jonathan Harrington grounded on a sandbar near Barrow, Alaska. To lighten the ship enough to get off the sandbar, the crew apparently chose to release some of the oil it was carrying. In a 1978 interview, Brower describes the scene and its impacts on Arctic wildlife:

About 25,000 gallons of oil were deliberately spilled into the Beaufort Sea…the oil formed a mass several inches thick on top of the water. Both sides of the barrier islands in that area…became covered with oil.  That first year, I saw a solid mass of oil six to ten inches thick surrounding the islands.

…I observed how seals and birds who swam in the water would be blinded and suffocated by contact with the oil.  It took approximately four years for the oil to finally disappear. I have observed that the bowhead whale normally migrates close to these islands in the fall migration … But I observed that for four years after that oil spill, the whales made a wide detour out to sea from these islands.

And because the last point refers more to oil than oil spills, we’re counting it as item three and a half:

3½. The oil industry probably saved the whales.

Cartoon of whales throwing a ball with banners.

On April 20, 1861, this cartoon appeared in an issue of Vanity Fair in the United Kingdom. It hails the “Grand ball given by the whales in honor of the discovery of the oil wells in Pennsylvania.” (Public Domain)

The drilling of the first oil well in Pennsylvania in 1859 touched off the modern oil industry in the United States and beyond—and likely saved the populations of whales, particularly sperm whales, being hunted to near-extinction for their own oil, which was used for lighting and lubrication. The resulting boom in producing kerosene from petroleum delivered what would eventually be a lethal blow to the whaling industry, much to the whales’ delight.


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How Do You Keep Invasive Species out of America’s Largest Marine Reserve?

A young monk seal and birds on the beach of French Frigate Shoals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

The coral reefs of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument are the foundation of an ecosystem that hosts more than 7,000 species, including marine mammals, fishes, sea turtles, birds, and invertebrates. Many are rare, threatened, or endangered, including the endangered Hawaiian monk seal. At least one quarter are found nowhere else on Earth. (NOAA)

From Honolulu, it takes a day and a half to get there by boat. But Scott Godwin, an expert in the ways “alien” marine life can travel and take hold in new places, knows what is at risk. He understands perfectly well what might happen if a new species manages to make that journey to the remote and incredible area under his watch.

Godwin works for the Resource Protection Program in NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. Along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and State of Hawaii, he is charged with protecting Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, a tall order considering that it is one of the largest marine conservation areas in the world. This monument includes an isolated chain of tropical islands, atolls, and reefs hundreds of miles northwest of the main Hawaiian Islands—appropriately known as the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands—as well as nearly 140,000 square miles of surrounding waters. The monument is home to a host of rare and unique species, some found exclusively within its borders, as well as some of the healthiest and least disturbed coral reefs on Earth.

Map of main and Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument is the single largest fully protected conservation area under the U.S. flag, and one of the largest marine conservation areas in the world. It encompasses 139,797 square miles of the Pacific Ocean — an area larger than all the country’s national parks combined. (NOAA)

And it is Godwin’s job to keep it that way. Along with climate change and marine debris, invasive species have been identified as one of the top three threats to this very special place, which, in addition to being a national monument, is also a national wildlife refuge and United Nations World Heritage Site. Fortunately, invasive species also happen to be Godwin’s area of expertise.

If new species were to break into the monument’s borders—and in some cases, they already have—the risk is of them exhibiting “invasive” behavior. In other words, outcompeting the native marine life among the coral reefs and taking the lion’s share of the most valuable resources: food and space.

But considering how remote and expansive the area is—the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands stretch across 1,200 nautical miles and are closed to the general public—how would anything find its way there in the first place?

Yet help from humans is how many species arrive in new environments, including the main Hawaiian Islands, where more than 400 non-native marine species are established. That means ships and other human activity coming from Hawaii represent the greatest potential for bringing invasive species into the monument.

Packing List: Bleach, Deep Freezer, and Quarantine Clothes

Dianna Parker of the NOAA Marine Debris Program learned this lesson firsthand. In October 2014, she and colleague Kyle Koyanagi joined a team of NOAA divers from the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center (PIFSC) on a mission to Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument to remove the tons of old fishing nets that wash up on its coral reefs each year.

In the months leading up to her departure from Honolulu, Parker learned she would need something called “quarantine clothes.” In essence, they were a brand-new set of clothes set aside for each time she would step on dry land in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Furthermore, these new clothes had to be sealed in plastic bags and stored in a walk-in freezer for 48 hours before she could wear them. That made for a chilly start to the day, as Parker recalled.

The quarantine clothes were part of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service protocol for limiting both the introduction of foreign species into the monument and the spread of species between islands within it. “Something that’s native to one tiny island could be alien to the next one down the chain,” said Parker. The transmission could happen via a spore on your shoe or a seed stuck to your shirt.

In addition, all of the gear and equipment they were using, such as wet suits, fins, and life vests, had to be soaked in a dilute bleach solution before being used in a new location, a protocol developed by NOAA.

For the roughly month-long mission, Parker brought six full outfits to wear on the six islands the ship planned to visit. In the end, she only visited five islands and was able to turn a t-shirt from the sixth outfit into a makeshift hat to keep the hot sun at bay.

“Having to go through that level of precaution to not bring invasive species into the monument makes you realize just how delicate things are up there,” reflected Parker.

Stowaways Not Welcome

But before Parker and the rest of her team left on their mission, the vessel that would carry them, the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette, first had to undergo a thorough cleaning and inspection before being granted a permit to enter the monument. The hull was scrubbed and checked by specially trained divers for even as much as a rogue barnacle. Ballast water, the water held in tanks on a ship to provide stability, was inspected closely as well because numerous creatures worldwide have been documented hitching a secret ride this way. And, of course, the ship was examined for rats, the perennial stowaways.

However, rats arrived in the monument years ago via the U.S. military activity previously based on Midway Atoll, a strategic naval base during World War II and the Cold War, and French Frigate Shoals, a runway and refueling stop for planes headed to Midway during World War II. While efforts to eradicate rats at these former military bases were successful, attempting a similar project for underwater species would be much more challenging. Marine species spread very quickly and human activities are necessarily limited by the finite amount of time we can spend underwater.

Currently, Godwin has documented about 60 non-native marine species in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, mainly at Midway, but these species—the majority of which are marine invertebrates such as tube worms and sea squirts—are not recent arrivals. Most likely harken back to the area’s military days, which ended in 1994. Today the easiest way for a new marine species to get a foothold on these reefs is by colonizing “disturbed habitat,” or areas humans have altered, such as seawalls or docks, as is the case at Midway and French Frigate Shoals.

“Competition with native species is pretty stiff,” admits Godwin. While marine life from outside the monument can become established, they often don’t have the opportunity to become invasive, he said. “But we never say never,” which is why he helps train NOAA divers going to the monument to recognize the aggressive behaviors of marine invasive species.

Marine Debris and Surprises from Japan

Person pulling bio-fouled net out of water into boat with diver's help.

NOAA divers examining the abandoned fishing nets for potentially invasive species, as they were removing them from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in October 2014. (NOAA)

Godwin was on high-alert, however, when debris washed away from Japan during the 2011 tsunami began showing up in Hawaii. Most marine debris in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands comes in the form of fishing nets typically lost in the open ocean—the kind the NOAA PIFSC team was clearing from reefs. Many of the species colonizing these nets are native to the open ocean and generally do not survive in the monument’s coastal environment.

But the boats and other debris from Japan came from the coast, bringing with them the hardy and flexible marine life capable of surviving the transoceanic journey until they found another coastal home. Fortunately, Godwin found that none of the non-native Japanese species showing up on tsunami debris became established in either Hawaii or the monument.

“Marine debris is a vector [for invasive species],” said Godwin, “but we have very little control,” which is why dealing with it in the monument focuses more on response than prevention. Yet with invasive species, prevention is always the goal. And when you get a glimpse of the unique place that is Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, it is not hard to understand the lengths being taken to protect it.

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