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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University of Washington Helps NOAA Examine Potential for Citizen Science During Oil Spills

Group of people with clipboards on a beach.

One area where volunteers could contribute to NOAA’s scientific efforts related to oil spills is in collecting baseline data before an oil spill happens. (Credit: Heal the Bay/Ana Luisa Ahern, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

This is a guest post by University of Washington graduate students Sam Haapaniemi, Myong Hwan Kim, and Roberto Treviño.

During an oil spill, how can NOAA maximize the benefits of citizen science while maintaining a high level of scientific integrity?

This was the central question that our team of University of Washington graduate students has been trying to answer for the past six months. Citizen science is characterized by volunteers helping participate in scientific research, usually either by gathering or analyzing huge amounts of data scientists would be unable to do on their own.

Dramatic improvements in technology—particularly the spread of smartphones—have made answering this question more real and more urgent. This, in turn, has led to huge growth in public interest in oil spill response, along with increased desire and potential ability to help, as demonstrated during the 2007 M/V Cosco Busan and 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill responses.

As the scientific experts in oil spills, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration has a unique opportunity to engage citizens during spills and enable them to contribute to the scientific process.

What’s in it for me?

Our research team found that the potential benefits of citizen science during oil spills extend to three groups of people outside of responders.

  • First, professional researchers can benefit from the help of having so many more people involved in research. Having more citizen scientists available to help gather data can strengthen the accuracy of observations by drawing from a potentially greater geographic area and by bringing in more fine-grain data. In some cases, citizen scientists also are able to provide local knowledge of a related topic that professional researchers may not possess.
  • The second group that benefits is composed of the citizen scientists themselves. Citizen science programs provide a constructive way for the average person to help solve problems they care about, and, as part of a collective effort, their contributions become more likely to make a real impact. Through this process, the public also gets to learn about their world and connect with others who share this interest.
  • The final group that derives value from citizen science programs is society at large. When thoughtfully designed and managed, citizen science can be an important stakeholder engagement tool for advancing scientific literacy and reducing risk perception. Citizen science programs can provide opportunities to correct risk misconceptions, address stakeholder concerns, share technical information, and establish constructive relationships and dialogue about the science that informs oil spills and response options.

How Should This Work?

Volunteer scrapes mussels off rocks at Hat Island.

A volunteer samples mussels off of Everett, Washington, as part of the citizen science-fueled NOAA Mussel Watch Program. (Credit: Lincoln Loehr, Snohomish County Marine Resources Committee)

Recognizing these benefits, we identified three core requirements that NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration should consider when designing a citizen science program for oil spills.

  1. Develop a program that provides meaningful work for the public and beneficial scientific information for NOAA.
  2. Create a strong communication loop or network that can be maintained between participating citizens and NOAA.
  3. Develop the program in a collaborative way.

Building on these core requirements, we identified a list of activities NOAA could consider for citizen science efforts both before and during oil spill responses.

Before a response, NOAA could establish data collection protocols for citizen scientists, partner with volunteer organizations that could help coordinate them, and manage baseline studies with the affiliated volunteers. For example, NOAA would benefit from knowing the actual numbers of shorebirds found at different times per year in areas at high risk of oil spills. This information would help NOAA better distinguish impacts to those populations in the event of an oil spill in those areas.

During a response, NOAA could benefit from citizen science volunteers’ observations and field surveys (whether open-ended type or structured-questionnaire type), and volunteers could help process data collected during the response. In addition, NOAA could manage volunteer registration and coordination during a spill response.

How Could This Work?

Evaluating different options for implementing these activities, we found clear trade-offs depending on NOAA’s priorities, such as resource intensity, data value, liability, and participation value. As a result, we created a decision framework, or “decision tool,” for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration to use when thinking about how to create a citizen science program. From there, we came up with the following recommendations:

  1. Acknowledge the potential benefits of citizen science. The first step is to recognize that citizen science has benefits for both NOAA and the public.
  2. Define goals clearly and recognize trade-offs. Having clear goals and intended uses for citizen scientist contributions will help NOAA prioritize and frame the program.
  3. Use the decision tool to move from concept to operation. The decision tool we designed will help identify potential paths best suited to various situations.
  4. Build a program that meets the baseline requirements. For any type of citizen science program, NOAA should ensure it is mutually beneficial, maintains two-way communication, and takes a collaborative approach.
  5. Start now: Early actions pays off. Before the next big spill happens, NOAA can prepare for potentially working with citizen scientists by building relationships with volunteer organizations, designing and refining data collection methods, and integrating citizen science into response plans.

While there is not one path to incorporating citizen science into oil spill responses, we found that there is great potential via many different avenues. Citizen science is a growing trend and, if done well, could greatly benefit NOAA during future oil spills.

You can read our final report in full at https://citizensciencemanagement.wordpress.com.

Sam Haapaniemi, Myong Hwan Kim, and Roberto Treviño are graduate students at the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington. The Citizen Science Management Project is being facilitated through the University of Washington’s Program on the Environment. It is the most recent project in an ongoing relationship between NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration and the University of Washington’s Program on the Environment.


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After an Oil Spill, How—and Why—Do We Survey Affected Shorelines?

Four people walking along a beach.

A team of responders surveying the shoreline of Raccoon Island, Louisiana, on May 12, 2010. They use a systematic method for surveying and describing shorelines affected by oil spills, which was developed during the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. (U.S. Navy)

This is part of the National Ocean Service’s efforts to celebrate our role in the surveys that inform our lives and protect our coasts.

In March of 1989, oil spill responders in Valdez, Alaska, had a problem. They had a very large oil spill on their hands after the tanker Exxon Valdez had run aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound.

At the time, many aspects of the situation were unprecedented—including the amount of oil spilled and the level of response and cleanup required. Further complicating their efforts were the miles and miles of remote shoreline along Prince William Sound. How could responders know which shorelines were hardest hit by the oil and where they should focus their cleanup efforts? Plus, with so many people involved in the response, what one person might consider “light oiling” on a particular beach, another might consider “heavy oiling.” They needed a systematic way to document the oil spill’s impacts on the extensive shorelines of the sound.

Out of these needs ultimately came the Shoreline Cleanup and Assessment Technique, or SCAT. NOAA was a key player involved in developing this formal process for surveying coastal shorelines affected by oil spills. Today, we maintain the only SCAT program in the federal government although we have been working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to help develop similar methods for oil spills on inland lakes and rivers.

Survey Says …

SCAT aims to describe both the oil and the environment along discrete stretches of shoreline potentially affected by an oil spill. Based on that information, responders then can determine the appropriate cleanup methods that will do the most good and the least harm for each section of shoreline.

The teams of trained responders performing SCAT surveys normally are composed of representatives from the state and federal government and the organization responsible for the spill. They head out into the field, armed with SCAT’s clear methodology for categorizing the level and kind of oiling on the shoreline. This includes standardized definitions for describing how thick the oil is, its level of weathering (physical or chemical change), and the type of shoreline impacted, which may be as different as a rocky shoreline, a saltwater marsh, or flooded low-lying tundra.

After carefully documenting these data along all possibly affected portions of shoreline, the teams make their recommendations for cleanup methods. In the process, they have to take a number of other factors into account, such as whether threatened or endangered species are present or if the shoreline is in a high public access area.

It is actually very easy to do more damage than good when cleaning up oiled shorelines. The cleanup itself—with lots of people, heavy equipment, and activity—can be just as or even more harmful to the environment than spilled oil. For sensitive areas, such as a marsh, taking no cleanup action is often the best option for protecting the stability of the fragile shoreline, even if some oil remains.

Data, Data Everywhere

Having a common language for describing shoreline oiling is a critical piece of the conversation during a spill response. Without this standard protocol, spill responders would be reinventing the wheel for each spill. Along that same vein, responders at NOAA are working with the U.S. EPA and State of California to establish a common data standard for the mounds of data collected during these shoreline surveys.

Managing all of that data and turning it into useful products for the response is a lot of work. During bigger spills, multiple data specialists work around the clock to process the data collected during SCAT surveys, perform quality assurance and control, and create informational products, such as maps showing where oil is located and its level of coverage on various types of shorelines.

Data management tools such as GPS trackers and georeferenced photographs help speed up that process, but the next step is moving from paper forms used by SCAT field teams to electronic tools that enable these teams to directly enter their data into the central database for that spill.

Our goal is to create a data framework that can be translated into any tool for any handheld electronic device. These guidelines would provide consistency across digital platforms, specifying exactly what data are being collected and in which structure and format. Furthermore, they would standardize which data are being shared into a spill’s central database, whether they come from a state government agency or the company that caused the spill. This effort feeds into the larger picture for managing data during oil spills and allows everyone working on that spill to understand, access, and work with the data collected, for a long time after the spill.

Currently, we are drafting these data standards for SCAT surveys and incorporating feedback from NOAA, EPA, and California. In the next year or two, we hope to offer these standards as official NOAA guidelines for gathering digital data during oiled shoreline surveys.

To learn more about how teams perform SCAT surveys, check out NOAA’s Shoreline Assessment Manual and Job Aid.


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NOAA’s Online Mapping Tool ERMA Opens up Environmental Disaster Data to the Public

Six men looking at a map with a monitor in the background.

Members of the U.S. Coast Guard using ERMA during the response to Hurricane Isaac in 2012. (NOAA)

This is a post by the NOAA Office of Response and Restoration’s Jay Coady, Geographic Information Systems Specialist.

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March 15-21, 2015 is Sunshine Week, an “annual nationwide celebration of access to public information and what it means for you and your community.” Sunshine Week is focused on the idea that open government is good government. We’re highlighting NOAA’s Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA) as part of our efforts to provide public access to government data during oil spills and other environmental disasters.    

Providing access to data is a challenging task during natural disasters and oil spill responses—which are hectic enough situations on their own. Following one of these incidents, a vast amount of data is collected and can accumulate quickly. Without proper data management standards in place, it can take a lot of time and effort to ensure that data are correct, complete, and in a useful form that has some kind of meaning to people. Furthermore, as technology advances, responders, decision makers, and the public expect quick and easy access to data.

NOAA’s Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA®) is a web-based mapping application that pulls in and displays both static and real-time data, such as ship locations, weather, and ocean currents. Following incidents including the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill and Hurricane Sandy in 2012, this online tool has aided in the quick display of and access to data not only for responders working to protect coastal communities but also the public.

From oil spill response to restoration activities, ERMA plays an integral part in environmental data dissemination. ERMA reaches a diverse group of users and maintains a wide range of data through a number of partnerships across federal agencies, states, universities, and nations.

Because it is accessible through a web browser, ERMA can quickly communicate data between people across the country working on the same incident. At the same time, ERMA maintains a public-facing side which allows anyone to access publically available data for that incident.

ERMA in the Spotlight

During the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, ERMA was designated as the “common operational picture” for the federal spill response. That meant ERMA displayed response-related activities and provided a consistent visualization for everyone involved—which added up to thousands of people.

Screen grab of ERMA map.

ERMA map showing areas of dispersant application during the response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. (NOAA)

To date, the ERMA site dedicated solely to the Deepwater Horizon spill contains over 1,500 data layers that are available to the public. Data in ERMA are displayed in layers, each of which is a single set of data. An example of a data layer is the cumulative oil footprint of the spill. This single data layer shows, added together, the various parts of the ocean surface the oil spill affected at different times over the entire course of the spill, as measured by satellite data. Another example is the aerial dispersant application data sets that are grouped by day into a single data layer and show the locations of chemical dispersant that were applied to oil slicks in 2010.

Even today, ERMA remains an active resource during the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process, which evaluates environmental harm from the oil spill and response, and NOAA releases data related to these efforts to the public as they become available. ERMA continues to be one of the primary ways that NOAA shares data for this spill with the public.

ERMA Across America

While the Deepwater Horizon oil spill may be one ERMA’s biggest success stories, NOAA has created 10 other ERMA sites customized for various U.S. regions. They continue to provide data related to environmental response, cleanup, and restoration activities across the nation’s coasts and Great Lakes. These 10 regional ERMA sites together contain over 5,000 publicly available data layers, ranging from data on contaminants and environmentally sensitive resources to real-time weather conditions.

For example, in 2012, NOAA used Atlantic ERMA to assist the U.S. Coast Guard, Environmental Protection Agency, and state agencies in responding to pollution in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Weather data were displayed in near real time as the storm approached the East Coast, and response activities were tracked in ERMA. The ERMA interface was able to provide publically available data, including satellite and aerial imagery, storm inundation patterns, and documented storm-related damages. You can also take a look at a gallery of before-and-after photos from the Sandy response, as viewed through Atlantic ERMA.

Screen grab of an ERMA map.

An ERMA map showing estimated storm surge heights in the Connecticut, New York and New Jersey areas during Hurricane Sandy. (NOAA)

In addition, the ERMA team partnered with NOAA’s Marine Debris Program to track Sandy-related debris, in coordination with state and local partners. All of those data are available in Atlantic ERMA.

Looking to the north, ERMA continues to be an active tool in Arctic oil spill response planning. For the past two years, members of the ERMA team have provided mapping support using Arctic ERMA during the U.S. Coast Guard’s Arctic Technology Evaluation exercises, which took place at the edge of the sea ice north of Barrow, Alaska. During these exercises, the crew and researchers aboard a Coast Guard icebreaker tested potential technologies for use in Arctic oil spill response, such as unmanned aircraft systems. You can find the distributions of sensitive Alaskan bird populations, sea ice conditions, shipping routes, and pictures related to these Arctic exercises, as well as many more data sets, in Arctic ERMA.

Screen grab of an Arctic ERMA map.

ERMA is an active tool in Arctic oil spill response planning. (NOAA)

To learn more about the online mapping tool ERMA, visit http://response.restoration.noaa.gov/erma.

Jay Coady is a GIS Specialist with the Office of Response and Restoration’s Spatial Data Branch and is based in Charleston, South Carolina. He has been working on the Deepwater Horizon incident since July 2010 and has been involved in a number of other responses, including Post Tropical Cyclone Sandy.


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For Alaska’s Remote Pribilof Islands, a Tale of Survival and Restoration for People and Seals

Set in the middle of Alaska’s Bering Sea, a string of five misty islands known as the Pribilof Islands possess a long, rich, and at times, dark history. A history of near extinction, survival, and restoration for both people and nature. A history involving Alaska Natives, Russians, the U.S. government and military, and seals.

It begins with the native people, known as the Unangan, who live there. They tell a story that, as they say, belongs to a place, not any one person. The story is of the hunter Iggadaagix, who first found these islands many years ago after being swept away in a storm and who wanted to bring the Unangan back there from the Aleutian Islands. When the Unangan finally did return for good, it was in the 18th century, and their lives would become intimately intertwined with those of the northern fur seals (Callorhinus ursinus). Each summer roughly half of all northern fur seals breed and give birth in the Pribilof Islands.

Map of fur seal distributions in Bering Sea and Pacific Ocean, with location of Pribilof Islands.

An 1899 map of the distribution (in red) and migrations of the American and Asiatic Fur Seal Herds in the Bering Sea and North Pacific Ocean. Based on data collected 1893-1897. The Pribilof Islands (St. Paul and St. George) are visible north of the main Aleutian Islands, surrounded by the center collections of red dots. Click to enlarge. (U.S. Government)

But these seals and their luxurious fur, along with the tale of Iggadaagix, would eventually bring about dark times for the seals, the Unangan, and the islands themselves. After hearing of Iggadaagix and searching for a new source of furs, Russian navigator Gavriil Loginovich Pribylov would land in 1786 on the islands which would eventually bear his name. He and others would bring the Unangan from the Aleutian Islands to the Pribilof’s St. George and St. Paul Islands, where they would be put to work harvesting and processing the many fur seals.

In these early years on the islands, Russian hunters so quickly decimated the fur seal population that the Russian-American Company, which held the charter for settling there, suspended hunting from 1805 to 1810. The annual limit for taking fur seals was then set at 8,000 to 10,000 pelts, allowing the population to rebound significantly.

The United States Arrives at the Islands

Fast forward to 1867, when the United States purchased Alaska, including the Pribilof Islands, from Russia for $7.2 million.

Some people considered the lucrative Pribilof Islands fur seal industry to have played a role in this purchase. In fact, this industry more than repaid the U.S. government for Alaska’s purchase price, hauling in $9,473,996 between 1870 and 1909.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw various U.S. military branches establish stations on the Pribilof Islands, as well as several (at times unsuccessful) attempts to control the reckless slaughter of fur seals. From 1867 until 1983, the U.S. government managed the fur seal industry on the Pribilof Islands.

In 1984, the Unangan finally were granted control of these islands, but the government had left behind a toxic legacy from commercial fur sealing and former defense sites: hazardous waste sites, dumps, contaminants, and debris.

Making Amends with the Land

This is where NOAA comes into the picture. In 1996, the Pribilof Islands Environmental Restoration Act called on NOAA to restore the environmental degradation on the Pribilof Islands. In particular, a general lack of historical accountability on the islands had led to numerous diesel fuel spills and leaks and improperly stored and disposed waste oils and antifreeze. By 1997 NOAA had removed thousands of tons of old cars, trucks, tractors, barrels, storage tanks, batteries, scrap metal, and tires from St. Paul and St. George Islands. Beginning in 2002, NOAA’s efforts transitioned to cleaning up soil contamination and assessing potential pollution in groundwater.

However, the Department of Defense has also been responsible for environmental cleanup at the Pribilof Islands. The U.S. Army occupied the islands during World War II and left behind debris and thousands of 55-gallon drums, which were empty by 1985 but had previously contained petroleum, oils, and lubricants, which could have leaked into the soil.

By 2008, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration had fulfilled its responsibilities for cleaning up the contamination on the Pribilof Islands, closing a dark chapter for this remote and diverse area of the world and hopefully continuing the healing process for the Unangan and fur seals who still call these islands their home.

Learn More about the Pribilof Islands

Man posing with schoolchildren.

Dr. G. Dallas Hanna with a class of Aleut schoolchildren on St. George Island, Alaska, circa 1914. (National Archives)

You can dig even deeper into the wealth of historical information about the Pribilof Islands at pribilof.noaa.gov.

There you can find histories, photos, videos, and documents detailing the islands’ various occupations, the fur seal industry, the relocation of the Unangan during World War II, the environmental contamination and restoration, and more.

You can also watch:


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NOAA Assists with Response to Bakken Oil Train Derailment and Fire in West Virginia

Smoldering train cars derailed from the railroad tracks in snowy West Virginia.

On Feb. 18, 2015, response crews for the West Virginia train derailment were continuing to monitor the burning of the derailed rail cars near Mount Carbon next to the Kanawha River. The West Virginia Train Derailment Unified Command continues to work with federal, state and local agencies on the response efforts for the train derailment that occurred near Mount Carbon on February 15, 2015. (U.S. Coast Guard)

On February 16, 2015, a CSX oil train derailed and caught fire in West Virginia near the confluence of Armstrong Creek and the Kanawha River. The train was hauling 3.1 million gallons of Bakken crude oil from North Dakota to a facility in Virginia. Oil coming from the Bakken Shale oil fields in North Dakota and Montana is highly volatile, and according to an industry report [PDF] prepared for the U.S. Department of Transportation, it contains “higher amounts of dissolved flammable gases compared to some heavy crude oils.”

Of the 109 train cars, 27 of them derailed on the banks of the Kanawha River, but none of them entered the river. Much of the oil they were carrying was consumed in the fire, which affected 19 train cars, and an unknown amount of oil has reached the icy creek and river. Initially, the derailed train cars caused a huge fire, which burned down a nearby house, and resulted in the evacuation of several nearby towns. The evacuation order, which affected at least 100 residents, has now been lifted for all but five homes immediately next to the accident site.

The fires have been contained, and now the focus is on cleaning up the accident site, removing any remaining oil from the damaged train cars, and protecting drinking water intakes downstream. So far, responders have collected approximately 6,800 gallons of oily water from containment trenches dug along the river embankment.

Heavy equipment and oily boom on the edge of a frozen river.

Some oil from the derailed train cars has been observed frozen into the river ice, but no signs of oil appear downstream. (NOAA)

The area, near Mount Carbon, West Virginia, has been experiencing heavy snow and extremely cold temperatures, and the river is largely frozen. Some oil has been observed frozen into the river ice, but testing downstream water intakes for the presence of oil has so far shown negative results. NOAA has been assisting the response by providing custom weather and river forecasting, which includes modeling the potential fate of any oil that has reached the river.

The rapid growth of oil shipments by rail in the past few years has led to a number of high-profile train accidents. A similar incident in Lynchburg, Virginia, last year involved a train also headed to Yorktown, Virginia. In July 2013, 47 people were killed in the Canadian town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, after a train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed and exploded. NOAA continues to prepare for the emerging risks associated with this shift in oil transport in the United States.

Look for more updates on this incident from the U.S. Coast Guard News Room and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.


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NOAA Experts Help Students Study up on Oil Spills and Ocean Science

Person on boat looking oiled sargassum in the ocean.

Mark Dodd, wildlife biologist from Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources, surveying oiled sargassum in the Gulf of Mexico. (Credit: Georgia Department of Natural Resources)

Every year high school students across the country compete in the National Ocean Sciences Bowl to test their knowledge of the marine sciences, ranging from biology and oceanography to policy and technology. This year’s competition will quiz students on “The Science of Oil in the Ocean.” As NOAA’s center for expertise on oil spills, the Office of Response and Restoration has been a natural study buddy for these aspiring ocean scientists.

In addition to providing some of our reports as study resources, three of our experts recently answered students’ questions about the science of oil spills in a live video Q&A. In an online event hosted by the National Ocean Sciences Bowl, NOAA environmental scientist Ken Finkelstein, oceanographer Amy MacFadyen, and policy analyst Meg Imholt fielded questions on oil-eating microbes, oil’s movement in the ocean, and much more.

Here is a sampling of the more than a dozen questions asked and answered, plus a bit of extra research to help you learn more. (You also can view the full hour-long video of the Q&A.)

What are the most important policies that relate to the oil industry?

There are lots of policies related to the oil industry. Here are a few that impact our work:

  • The Clean Water Act establishes rules about water pollution.
  • The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 establishes the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund to support oil spill response and holds companies responsible for damages to natural resources caused by a spill.
  • The National Contingency Plan guides preparedness and response for oil and hazardous material spills. It also regulates the use of some response tools such as dispersants.
  • The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act gives the Department of Interior authority to lease areas in federal waters for oil and gas development and to regulate offshore drilling.
  • The Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act establish rules for protected species that companies must consider in their operations.

How do waves help transport oil?

Waves move oil in a few ways. First is surface transport. Waves move suspended particles in circles. If oil is floating on the surface, waves can move it toward the shore. However, ocean currents and winds blowing over the surface of the ocean are generally much more important in transporting surface oil. For example, tidal currents associated with rising and falling water levels can be very fast — these currents can move oil in the coastal zone at speeds of several miles per hour. Over time, all these processes act to spread oil out.

Waves are also important for a mixing process called dispersion. Most oils float on the surface because they are less dense than water. However, breaking waves can drive oil into the water column as droplets. Larger, buoyant droplets rise to the surface. Smaller droplets stay in the water column and move around in the subsurface until they are dissolved and degraded.

How widespread is the use of bacteria to remediate oil spills?

Some bacteria have evolved over millions of years to eat oil around natural oil seeps. In places without much of this bacteria, responders may boost existing populations by adding nutrients, rather than adding new bacteria.

This works best as a polishing tool. After an initial response, particles of oil are left behind.  Combined with wave movement, nutrient-boosted bacteria help clean up those particles.

Are oil dispersants such as Corexit proven to be poisonous, and if so, what are potential adverse effects as a result of its use?

Both oil and dispersants can have toxicological effects, and responders must weigh the trade-offs. Dispersants can help mitigate oil’s impacts to the shoreline. When oil reaches shore, it is difficult to remove and can create a domino effect in the ecosystem. Still, dispersants break oil into tiny droplets that enter the water column. This protects the shoreline, but has potential consequences for organisms that swim and live at the bottom of the sea.

To help answer questions like these, we partnered with the Coastal Response Research Center at the University of New Hampshire to fund research on dispersants and dispersed oil. Already, this research is being used to improve scientific support during spills.

What are the sources of oil in the ocean? How much comes from natural sources and how much comes from man-made sources?

Oil can come from natural seeps, oil spills, and also runoff from land, but total volumes are difficult to estimate. Natural seeps of oil account for approximately 60 percent of the estimated total load in North American waters and 40 percent worldwide, according to the National Academy of Sciences in a 2003 report. In 2014, NOAA provided scientific support to over 100 incidents involving oil, totaling more than 8 million gallons of oil potentially spilled. Scientists can identify the source of oil through a chemical technique known as oil fingerprinting. This provides evidence of where oil found in the ocean is from.

An important factor is not only how much oil is in the environment, but also the type of oil and how quickly it is released. Natural oil seeps release oil slowly over time, allowing ecosystems to adapt. In a spill, the amount of oil released in a short time can overwhelm the ecosystem.

What is the most effective order of oil spill procedure? What is currently the best method?

It depends on what happened, where it’s going, what’s at risk, and the chemistry of the oil.  Sometimes responders might skim oil off the surface, burn it, or use pads to absorb oil. The best response is determined by the experts at the incident.

Bag of oiled waste on a beach.

Oiled waste on the beach in Port Fourchon, Louisiana. On average, oil spill cleanups generate waste 10 times the amount of oil spilled. (NOAA)

What do you do with the oil once it is collected? Is there any way to use recovered oil for a later use?

Oil weathers in the environment, mixing with water and making it unusable in that state. Typically, collected oil has to be either processed before being recycled or sent to the landfill, along with some oiled equipment. Oil spill cleanups create a large amount of waste that is a separate issue from the oil spill itself.

Are the effects of oil spills as bad on plants as they are on animals?

Oil can have significant effects on plants, especially in coastal habitat. For example, mangroves and marshes are particularly sensitive to oil. Oil can be challenging to remove in these areas, and deploying responders and equipment can sometimes trample sensitive habitat, so responders need to consider how to minimize the potential unintended adverse impact of cleanup actions.

Does some of the crude oil settle on the seafloor? What effect does it have?

Oil usually floats, but can sometimes reach the seafloor. Oil can mix with sediment, separate into lighter and heavier components, or be ingested and excreted by plankton, all causing it to sink, with potential impacts for benthic (bottom-dwelling) creatures and other organisms.

When oil does reach the seafloor, removing it has trade-offs. In some cases, removing oil could require removing sediment, which is home to many important benthic (bottom-dwelling) organisms. Responders work with scientists to decide this on a case-by-case basis.

To what extent is the oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill still affecting the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem?

NOAA and our co-trustees have released a number of studies as part of the ongoing Natural Resource Damage Assessment for this spill and continue to release new research. Some public research has shown impacts on dolphins, deep sea ecosystems, and tuna. Other groups, like the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, are conducting research outside of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment.

How effective are materials such as saw dust and hair when soaking up oil from the ocean surface?

Oil spill responders use specialized products, such as sorbent materials, which are much more effective.


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How NOAA Oil Spill Experts Got Involved With Chemical Spill Software

Fire and smoke on a container ship carrying hazardous materials at sea.

The aftermath of a March 2006 explosion of hazardous cargo on the container ship M/V Hyundai Fortune. The risks of transporting hazardous chemicals on ships at sea sparked the inspiration for NOAA oil spill responders to start designing chemical spill software. (Credit: Royal Netherlands Navy)

It was late February of 1979, and the Italian container ship Maria Costa [PDF] had sprung a leak. Rough seas had damaged its hull and the ship now was heading to Chesapeake Bay for repairs. Water was flooding the Maria Costa’s cargo holds.

This was a particular problem not because of its loads of carpets and tobacco, but because the vessel was also carrying 65 tons of pesticide. Stored in thick brown paper bags, this unregulated insecticide was being released from the clay it was transported with into the waters now flooding the cargo holds.

Ethoprop, the major ingredient of this organophosphate insecticide, was not only poisonous to humans but also to marine life at very low concentrations (50 parts per billion in water). Waters around Norfolk, Virginia, had recently suffered another pesticide spill affecting crabs and shrimp, and the leaking Maria Costa was denied entry to Chesapeake Bay because of the risk of polluting its waters again.

During the Maria Costa incident, two NOAA spill responders boarded the ship to take samples of the contaminated water and assess the environmental threat. Even though this event predated the current organization of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, NOAA had been providing direct support to oil spills and marine accidents since showing up as hazardous materials (hazmat) researchers during the Argo Merchant oil spill in 1976.

Blood and Water

The NOAA scientists had blood samples taken before and after spending an hour and a half aboard the damaged vessel taking samples of their own. The results indicated that water in the ship’s tanks had 130 parts per million of ethoprop and the two men’s blood showed tell-tale signs of organophosphate poisoning.

After the resolution of that incident and an ensuing hospital visit by the two NOAA scientists, the head of the NOAA Hazardous Materials Response Program, John Robinson, realized that responding to releases of chemicals other than oil would take a very different kind of response. And that would take a different set of tools than currently existed.

From Book Stacks to Computer Code

John Robinson leaning on the edge of a boat.

John Robinson led the NOAA Hazardous Materials Response Program in its early years and helped guide the team’s pioneering development of chemical spill software tools for emergency responders. (NOAA)

Following the Maria Costa, Robinson got to work with the Seattle Fire Department’s newly formed hazmat team, allowing NOAA to observe how local chemical incidents were managed. Then, he initiated four large-scale exercises around the nation to test how the scientific coordination of a federal response would integrate with local first responder activities during larger-scale chemical incidents.

It didn’t take long to understand how important it was for first responders to have the right tools for applying science in a chemical response. During the first exercise, responders laid out several reference books on the hoods of cars in an attempt to assess the threat from the chemicals involved.

Researching and synthesizing complex information from multiple sources during a stressful situation proved to be the main challenge. Because the threat from chemical spills can evolve so much more rapidly than oil spills—a toxic cloud of chemical vapor can move and disappear within minutes—it was very clear that local efforts would always be front and center during these responses.

Meanwhile, NOAA scientists created a computer program employing a simple set of equations to predict how a toxic chemical gas would move and disperse and started examining how to synthesize chemical information from multiple sources into a resource first responders could trust and use quickly.

Learning from Tragedy

Then, in December of 1984, tragedy struck Bhopal, India, when a deadly chemical cloud released from a Union Carbide plant killed more than 2,000 people. This accidental release of methyl isocyanate, a toxic chemical used to produce pesticides, and its impact on the unprepared surrounding community led the U.S. government to examine how communities in the United States would have been prepared for such an accident.

By 1986, Congress, motivated by the Bhopal accident, passed the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA). As a result, certain facilities dealing with hazardous chemicals must report these chemicals and any spills each year to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Apple II+ computer hooked up to Apple graphics tablet, color TV, and printer.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, NOAA’s hazmat team wrote the first version of the ALOHA chemical plume modeling program, now part of the CAMEO software suite for hazardous material response, for this Apple II+ computer. (NOAA)

Because NOAA had already started working with first responders to address the science of chemical spill response, EPA turned to NOAA as a partner in developing tools for first responders and community awareness. From those efforts, CAMEO was born. CAMEO, which stands for Computer-Aided Management of Emergency Operations, is a suite of software products for hazardous materials response and planning.

Getting the Right Information, Right Now

The goal was to consolidate chemical information customized for each community and be able to model potential scenarios. In addition, that information needed to be readily available to the public and to first responders.

In 1986, attempting to do this on a computer was a big deal. At that time, the Internet was in its infancy and not readily accessible. Computers were large desktop affairs, but Apple had just come out with a “portable” computer. NOAA’s Robinson was convinced that with a computer on board first response vehicles, science-based decisions would become the norm for chemical preparedness and response. Today, responders can access that information from their smartphone.

NOAA and EPA still partner on the CAMEO program, which is used by tens of thousands of planners and responders around the world. Almost 30 years later, the program and technology have evolved—and continue to do so—but the vision and goal are the same: providing timely and critical science-based information and tools to people dealing with chemical accidents. Learn more about the CAMEO suite of chemical planning and response products.

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