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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Attempting to Answer One Question Over and Over Again: Where Will the Oil Go?

The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Five Years Later

This is the first 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.

Oil spills raise all sorts of scientific questions, and NOAA’s job is to help answer them.

We have a saying that each oil spill is unique, but there is one question we get after almost every spill: Where will the oil go? One of our primary scientific products during a spill is a trajectory forecast, which often takes the form of a map showing where the oil is likely to travel and which shorelines and other environmentally or culturally sensitive areas might be at risk.

Oil spill responders need to know this information to know which shorelines to protect with containment boom, or where to stage cleanup equipment, or which areas should be closed to fishing or boating during a spill.

To help predict the movement of oil, we developed the computer model GNOME to forecast the complex interactions among currents, winds, and other physical processes affecting oil’s movement in the ocean. We update this model daily with information gathered from field observations, such as those from trained observers tasked with flying over a spill to verify its often-changing location, and new forecasts for ocean currents and winds.

Modeling a Moving Target

One of the biggest challenges we’ve faced in trying to answer this question was, not surprisingly, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Because of the continual release of oil—tens of thousands of barrels of oil each day—over nearly three months, we had to prepare hundreds of forecasts as more oil entered the Gulf of Mexico each day, was moved by ocean currents and winds, and was weathered, or physically, biologically, or chemically changed, by the environment and response efforts. A typical forecast includes modeling the outlook of the oil’s spread over the next 24, 48, and 72 hours. This task began with the first trajectory our oceanographers issued early in the morning April 21, 2010 after being notified of the accident, and continued for the next 107 days in a row. (You can access all of the forecasts from this spill online.)

Once spilled into the marine environment, oil begins to move and spread surprisingly quickly but not necessarily in a straight line. In the open ocean, winds and currents can easily move oil 20 miles or more per day, and in the presence of strong ocean currents such as the Gulf Stream, oil and other drifting materials can travel more than 100 miles per day. Closer to the coast, tidal currents also can move and spread oil across coastal waters.

While the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig and wellhead were located only 50 miles offshore of Louisiana, it took several weeks for the slick to reach shore as shifting winds and meandering currents slowly moved the oil.

A Spill Playing on Loop

Over the duration of a typical spill, we’ll revise and reissue our forecast maps on a daily basis. These maps include our best prediction of where the oil might go and the regions of highest oil coverage, as well as what is known as a “confidence boundary.” This is a line encircling not just our best predictions for oil coverage but also a broader area on the map reflecting the full possible range in our forecasts [PDF].

Our oceanographers include this confidence boundary on the forecast maps to indicate that there is a chance that oil could be located anywhere inside its borders, depending on actual conditions for wind, weather, and currents. Why is there a range of possible locations in the oil forecasts? Well, the movement of oil is very sensitive to ocean currents and wind, and predictions of oil movement rely on accurate predictions of the currents and wind at the spill site.

In addition, sometimes the information we put into the model is based on an incomplete picture of a spill. Much of the time, the immense size of the Deepwater Horizon spill on the ocean surface meant that observations from specialists flying over the spill and even satellites couldn’t capture the full picture of where all the oil was each day.

Our inevitably inexact knowledge of the many factors informing the trajectory model introduces a certain level of expected variation in its predictions, which is the situation with many models. Forecasters attempt to assess all the possible outcomes for a given scenario, estimate the likelihood of the different possibilities, and ultimately communicate risks to the decision makers.

In the case of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, we had the added complexity of a spill that spanned many different regions—from the deep Gulf of Mexico, where ocean circulation is dominated by the swift Loop Current, to the continental shelf and nearshore area where ocean circulation is influenced by freshwater flowing from the Mississippi River. And let’s not forget that several tropical storms and hurricanes crossed the Gulf that summer [PDF].

A big concern was that if oil got into the main loop current, it could be transported to the Florida Keys, Cuba, the Bahamas, or up the eastern coast of the United States. Fortunately (for the Florida Keys) a giant eddy formed in the Gulf of Mexico in June 2010 (nicknamed Eddy Franklin after Benjamin Franklin, who did some of the early research on the Gulf Stream). This “Eddy Franklin” created a giant circular water current that kept the oil largely contained in the Gulf of Mexico.

Some of the NOAA forecast team likened our efforts that spring and summer to the movie Groundhog Day, in which the main character is forced to relive the same day over and over again. For our team, every day involved modeling the same oil spill again and again, but with constantly changing results.  Thinking back on that intense forecasting effort brings back memories packed with emotion—and exhaustion. But mostly, we recall with pride the important role our forecast team in Seattle played in answering the question “where will the oil go?”


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What Happens After Abandoning Ship

Twenty three years after running aground on a reef in Alaska and causing one of the largest spills in U.S. history, the tanker Exxon Valdez is back in the news—this time to keep it from being intentionally grounded on a beach in India.

The Indian Supreme Court has ruled that the Exxon Valdez (now called the Oriental Nicety) cannot be grounded and cut apart on the shores of Gujarat until it can be cleaned of residual oils and other contaminants.

Workers scrap ships for parts and metal on a beach in Bhatiari, Chittagong, Bangladesh.

Workers scrap ships for parts and metal (“ship breaking”) on a beach in Bhatiari, Chittagong, Bangladesh. Credit: Naquib Hossain, Creative Commons License: Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0).

What’s known as “ship breaking” is a dirty business, and many of the world’s tired and obsolete vessels end up being grounded on beaches in India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan and cut apart for scrap steel.

In recent years the business of ship scrapping has become a major health and environmental concern. Many ship breaking yards in these developing countries have little or no safety equipment or environmental protections, and toxic materials from these ships, including oils, heavy metals, and asbestos, escape into the environment.

A derelict vessel grounded on a coal reef in Samoa.

A rusted-out derelict vessel still sits grounded on a coal reef in Samoa. (NOAA/Doug Helton)

Obsolete vessels and ship scrapping can also be a problem here in the U.S. Last year, the 431-foot S/S Davy Crockett made the news down on the Columbia River near Vancouver, Wash.

Mysterious oil sheens on the river were traced upriver to the former Navy Liberty ship that had begun leaking oil due to improper and unpermitted salvage operations.

Next week I will be at the Clean Pacific Conference in Long Beach, Calif., and presenting information on the challenges of dealing with abandoned and derelict vessels in the U.S. I know that the Davy Crockett and the issues it raised will come up.

Vessels are abandoned for all sorts of reasons, including storms (particularly hurricanes/typhoons which may damage large numbers of boats), community-wide economic stress or change (e.g., declining commercial fishing industries), and financial or legal issues of individual owners.  The high cost of proper vessel disposal can lead some folks to just walk away.

Hopefully we can help improve how we respond to these vessels and increase prevention programs to prevent abandonment. If you are interested in this issue, there is more information on NOAA’s Abandoned Vessel Program.


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Abandoned Vessels: Drifting Across the Pacific Ocean Since 1617

Adrift Japanese fishing vessel.

The derelict Japanese fishing vessel RYOU-UN MARU drifts more than 125 miles from Forrester Island in southeast Alaska. The fishing vessel has been drifting unmanned at sea since the 2011 Japanese earthquake and subsequent tsunami more than a year ago (U.S. Coast Guard, Air Station Kodiak).

You might have already heard about the rusted-out, abandoned fishing vessel adrift off British Columbia, Canada. The 170 foot (53 meter) long vessel is the Ryou-Un Maru, a squid boat that broke free from a dock in Hokkaido, Japan, after the March 11, 2011 tsunami. Fortunately, no one was on board when the tsunami happened.

Over the past year it has drifted across the Pacific Ocean and was first observed in Canadian waters. The U.S. Coast Guard is now tracking the drift of the vessel, which entered U.S. waters March 31, 2012, and currently it is about 155 nautical miles away from Baranof Island in southeast Alaska.

The drift of the vessel confirms what generations of beach combers have known for a long time. The Pacific Ocean currents form a giant conveyor belt that carries flotsam (floating items) across the Pacific. Over the years I’ve found glass fish floats, glass bottles, and other Japanese items that have washed up along the coast of Washington state where I live.

But a big fishing vessel—that must be something really unusual—or is it?

In 2003, the 97-foot ship Genei Maru #7 caught fire and was abandoned at sea about halfway between Japan and the United States. This “ghost ship” ran aground on Kodiak, Alaska, after drifting at sea, crewless, for five months. And in 2006, the U.S. Coast Guard found an abandoned coal barge adrift off the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska, which had wandered across the Pacific from Russia.

Cover page of historical record of drifting Japanese vessels.

The document, “Record of Japanese Vessels Driven Upon the North-West Coast of America and its Outlying Islands,” was originally published in 1872.

But there is evidence that vessels have been drifting across the Pacific for a long time. Check out this old document from 1872, “Record of Japanese Vessels Driven Upon the North-West Coast of America and its Outlying Islands.”

Some archaeologists think that Indigenous cultures of the Pacific Northwest Coast have been strongly influenced by the effects of foreign shipwrecks. Artifacts from shipwrecks, including metals and other technologies, may have been used by these tribes (Quimby, G. I. 1985. Japanese Wrecks, Iron Tools, and Prehistoric Indians of the Northwest Coast. Arctic Anthropology 22(2): 7–15.).

And the blog A Blast From the Past has a lengthy discussion on historical and more recent cases of vessels washing across the Pacific.

The oldest record is from 1617, when an abandoned Japanese ship was found near Acapulco, Mexico, but there are likely many other wrecks that went unrecorded because the vessels probably stranded in areas then inhabited only by native tribes.

The March 2011 tsunami certainly added to the amount of debris floating across the Pacific. If you find items you think might be from the tsunami, you can report them to DisasterDebris@noaa.gov.


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Follow the Race to Refuel Nome, Alaska

The city of Nome, Alaska, is running short of fuel and an unusual winter delivery is underway to resupply the remote, icebound community. Nome is located on the northern edge of the Bering Sea, along the far western corner of the state. This fall, a severe storm prevented the last scheduled fuel delivery, and now the port is icebound, preventing regular fuel barges from reaching the area. Now, a U.S. icebreaker and a Russian tanker are battling the pack ice to deliver 1.3 million gallons of heating oil and gasoline.

Healy escorts the tanker Renda through the icy Bering Sea.

BERING SEA – The Coast Guard Cutter Healy approaches the Russian-flagged tanker Renda while breaking ice around the vessel 97 miles south of Nome, Alaska, Jan. 10, 2012. The two vessels departed Dutch Harbor for Nome on Jan. 3, 2012, to deliver more than 1.3 million gallons of petroleum products to the city of Nome. (U.S. Coast Guard)

As of Thursday, the tanker Renda and the icebreaker Healy were less than 100 miles from Nome and breaking through ice two to three feet thick, making their journey slow but steady. Weather in Nome includes temperatures 20–30 degrees below 0°F and wind chill dropping to 45–50 below 0°F. Without the delivery, Nome could run short of fuel before a barge delivery becomes possible in late spring when the ice starts breaking up.

NOAA is providing weather and ice data to the ships and helping identify routes with lighter icepack. NOAA is also working on contingency plans and safety measures to ensure a safe fuel transfer.

nome-fuel-transfer-preparation_coast-guard-charly-hengen

BERING SEA – The Coast Guard Cutter Healy approaches the Russian-flagged tanker Renda while breaking ice around the vessel 97 miles south of Nome, Alaska, Jan. 10, 2012. The two vessels departed Dutch Harbor for Nome on Jan. 3, 2012, to deliver more than 1.3 million gallons of petroleum products to the city of Nome. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Crews are working in Nome to be ready for the tanker’s arrival later this week, but even then, the delivery will be challenging. The ice next to shore is much thicker, which will prevent the tanker from getting close to shore. The ship Renda is equipped with more than a mile of hose that will be strung across the ice to reach the port. The exact transfer date remains unknown at this time, because there are still operational issues pending. Weather will play a big factor in the timing and ability to make this happen.

The fuel delivery to Nome brings to mind another famous wintertime resupply effort—the 1925 race to bring diphtheria medicine to Nome. An epidemic was raging and blizzards prevented aircraft from delivering the medicine to the snowbound city. A dogsled relay carried the medicine across the state. The annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race commemorates this historic event.

Check out the links below to track the ships’ progress and images of the icebreaking:

Track the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy
http://www.sailwx.info/shiptrack/shipposition.phtml?call=NEPP

Hourly photos from Healy
http://icefloe.net/Aloftcon_Photos/index.php?album=2012


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From Research to Response, the Evolving Role of Science in Oil Spills

Argo Merchant aground

The tanker Argo Merchant run aground Nantucket Shoals, southeast of Nantucket Island, Mass., in December 1976. Credit: NOAA.

It’s now been 35 years since NOAA began its first major coordinated response to an oil spill, jumping to the aid of the wrecked tanker Argo Merchant near Nantucket Island, Mass., and launching what would eventually become the NOAA emergency response team I’m now part of.

Before this, NOAA scientists had been working on oil pollution issues for many years, but the focus was on research rather than emergency support during spills. That focus changed, however, when the storm-struck Argo Merchant ran aground on the Nantucket Shoals December 15, 1976, and six days later broke in half, spilling its entire cargo of 7.7 million gallons of oil near the famous Massachusetts fisheries.

The Spilled Oil Research Team

Earlier that year, NOAA had established the Spilled Oil Research (SOR) Team to study the effects of oil and gas exploration in Alaska. This team was a network of coastal geologists, marine biologists, chemists, and oceanographers that could go on-scene at “spills of opportunity” with the goal of investigating oil spill impacts.

Argo Merchant sinking.

On December 21, 1976, the Argo Merchant broke apart and spilled its entire cargo of 7.7 million gallons of No. 6 fuel oil. Credit: NOAA.

The Argo Merchant spill was the first major deployment of the SOR Team. The U.S Coast Guard, charged with directing the spill response and cleanup effort, was inundated with competing and often conflicting scientific recommendations. To sort this out, the Coast Guard asked the SOR Team to act as its scientific adviser and be an informal liaison with the scientific community concerned with the spill.

This informal relationship quickly became invaluable. The Coast Guard began to rely on the SOR Team to coordinate the complex scientific issues that arose at spills after the Argo Merchant, including: the Metula, a crude ship grounding off of Tierra del Fuego, Chile; the Amoco Cadiz, a 1.6 million barrel oil spill off the Breton coast of France; and the IXTOC I well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in June 1979.

Evolution of the Emergency Response Division

The Spilled Oil Research Team — now the Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division — has grown from a handful of oceanographers, mathematicians, and computer modelers into a highly diverse team of chemists, biologists, geologists, information management specialists, and technical and administrative support staff. The informal role of scientific support coordinators is now formally recognized in the National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan.

It’s been a busy 35 years (on top of events like the Deepwater Horizon/BP spill), and some of that old history has been forgotten. A couple years ago when I was cleaning out an equipment store room, I discovered this artifact of the earlier days on some old coveralls:

Spilled Oil Research Team badge.

A badge from the original NOAA Spilled Oil Research Team. Credit: Doug Helton, NOAA.

You can find out more about the evolving history of NOAA’s involvement in oil spill response and OR&R’s Emergency Response Division.


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Oil Spills Don’t Take a Holiday

As we get ready for Thanksgiving, I am reminded of a couple oil spills that have occurred over that weekend in the past. Most of our work takes place each day from 9-5, but when a spill happens, we respond 24-7 regardless of holiday schedules.

On November 26, 1997, the day before Thanksgiving, the M/V Kuroshima, a 368-foot frozen seafood freighter, broke away from its anchorage during a severe storm. While the vessel was attempting to move to a safer anchorage, winds in excess of 100 knots blew the freighter into Second Priest Rock near the entrance of Dutch Harbor, Alaska, puncturing several of the vessel’s fuel tanks. The disabled vessel subsequently ran aground at Summer Bay, spilling about 39,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil.

M/V Kuroshima run aground.

M/V Kuroshima run aground in Summer Bay, Alaska. Credit: Jim Severns, Dutch Harbor, with permission.

Fans of “The Deadliest Catch” know these waters—and their dangers—well. The fishing vessels pass this point on their way to and from the Bering Sea fishing grounds. And this incident lived up to that deadly reputation. Two of the ship’s crew were killed during the grounding.

I flew up to Dutch Harbor to help with the response. Late fall in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands is not the best flying weather, and the airport is challenging even during good weather. The airport’s runway is bordered on one side by a drop off into the ocean and the side of a hill on the other. Both ends drop off into open water, with mountains guarding the approach. Winds buffeted the plane, and I remember the airplane taking a couple shaky passes at the runway—one of the shortest commercial runways in North America—before landing.  You can get a sense of what it is like to land there from this video [leaves this blog].

After that flight I vowed to increase my life insurance.

Dutch Harbor runway.

Final approach to Dutch Harbor, Alaska (on a calm day). Credit: Doug Helton, NOAA.

Bitter cold and high winds also hampered the cleanup and salvage of the ship and its spilled contents. It took four months to refloat the vessel, and cleanup lasted for over a year.

Shoreline cleanup in Summer Bay Lake, Alaska.

Shoreline cleanup along Summer Bay Lake, Alaska, December 1997, following M/V Kuroshima oil spill. Credit: Ruth Yender, NOAA.

The damage assessment and restoration effort for the spill took several years. The final restoration plan [PDF], prepared by the state and federal natural resource trustees in consultation with the Qawalangin Tribe of Unalaska, addressed five areas of impacts: birds, vegetation, intertidal shellfish, salmon, and recreation. A settlement was reached in 2002 for natural resource damages, totaling approximately $650,000.

The recreational projects prompted some interesting challenges and solutions. Under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, claims can be made for the lost use of natural resources; in this case, the spill affected the prime recreational beach for the city of Unalaska. As compensation for the lost recreational opportunities during the spill, one project funded a summer outdoor recreation camp for the Qawalangin Tribe. While there, the students learned traditional subsistence harvesting techniques for shellfish and participated in other cultural and environmental activities with Unangan elders. We also arranged for further chemical analysis of the shellfish tissues and educated the community on the safety of the local seafoods.

While the spill response and restoration was successful, the story of the ship doesn’t end well. After the M/V Kuroshima was refloated, it was repaired, sold to a Latvian company and renamed the M/V Linkuva. On June 20, 2000, the ship and 18 crewmembers were lost in Hurricane Carlotta off Acapulco, Mexico.


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Remembering the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

S/S Edmund Fitzgerald.

The S/S Edmund Fitzgerald. Credit: NOAA.

Today, November 10, is the anniversary of the wreck of the S/S Edmund Fitzgerald, the largest shipwreck in the Great Lakes. The ship and entire crew of 29 men were lost in a storm on Lake Superior on November 10, 1975. I remember listening to Gordon Lightfoot’s 1976 hit song about the wreck, and it still catches my attention when I hear it playing.

The sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald, a ship measuring 729 feet long and 26,000 tons, is one of the most well-known disasters in the history of Great Lakes shipping. The ship’s remains lie just over the border in Canadian waters at a depth of 530 feet.

Over the years many ships have sunk in the Great Lakes, and the region is home to a number of maritime museums. NOAA’s Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Lake Huron helps preserve and protect the maritime history of the lakes and is home to dozens of shipwrecks, some of which you can now explore online in 3-D.

My connection to the Edmund Fitzgerald comes from my work on historic ships that may still pose a threat of oil pollution. The ship was designed to carry taconite (iron ore) pellets, but it carried fuel oil for its engines.

Based on the condition and damage of the ship’s hull and the large heaps of taconite around the wreckage, it is unlikely to contain much oil, but we have the ship in our database of potentially polluting wrecks.

The Edmund Fitzgerald is a reminder that our maritime history is not limited to the marine waters. The Great Lakes are very much a coastline (and shipping hub) of the United States, and just like along our saltwater shorelines, NOAA is active in charting, weather, research, and coastal management there as well.