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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Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill Data: New Monitoring Updates

Man on ship with machine about to drop into ocean.

Scientists from Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium deploy a water sensor called a CTD sonde rosette to collect water samples to test for oxygen levels during the 2015 R/V Pelican’s shelf wide hypoxia cruise. (LUMCON)

By  Alexis Baldera 

The 2010 Deepwater oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico revealed a challenge with the way scientific monitoring information is shared and stored.

At the time, the scientific records of monitoring efforts in the Gulf of Mexico were dispersed across many entities from universities, natural resource management agencies, private industries to non-governmental organizations. In most cases monitoring systems were developed independently, often narrowed to specific questions, such as how many oysters should be harvested and how many should be left in the water?

Monitoring systems are rarely coordinated across states and other agencies, and the scattered nature of these information systems makes it difficult for any one group of scientists or organizations to find and access the full expanse of data available.

To help address this issue Ocean Conservancy produced the 2015 report Charting the Gulf: Analyzing the Gaps in Long-term Monitoring of the Gulf of Mexico. The report compiles an extended inventory of nearly 700 past and existing long-term monitoring efforts in the Gulf. Ocean Conservancy’s goal was to provide scientists, academics, and restoration decision-makers with a cohesive inventory that could save time and money when planning monitoring for restoration projects or programs.

Recently, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, charged with supporting science information needs during oil spills, began hosting Ocean Conservancy’s inventory of monitoring programs through NOAA’s map-based Gulf of Mexico Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA). Combining this monitoring data with ERMA is a great step towards creating sustained visibility of existing data sources in the Gulf.

“Ocean Conservancy’s gap analysis of long-term monitoring programs in the Gulf of Mexico will serve as a valuable resource for the NRDA Trustees as they plan, implement, and monitor restoration progress in the Gulf of Mexico over the next 25 years,” said Melissa Carle, NOAA Monitoring and Adaptive Management Coordinator, Deepwater Horizon Restoration Program.

The new gap analysis dataset in ERMA will allow trustees to visualize the footprint of existing monitoring programs, assisting in the identification and prioritization of gaps that impact planning restoration actions and evaluate restoration progress for the habitats and resources injured by the spill.

Graphic of coastline and the Gulf Of Mexico.

Ocean Conservancy’s gap analysis dataset in ERMA. (NOAA)

Alexis Baldera is the Staff Restoration Scientist for Ocean Conservancy Gulf Restoration Program.


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Argo Merchant: A Woods Hole Scientist’s Personal Perspective

Large ship on the ocean.

WHOI RV Oceanus carried scientists to the 1976 Argo Merchant oil spill. Courtesy of the Image Gallery Archive of WHOI

By John W. Farrington

The scientific community at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) responded to the oil spill from tanker Argo Merchant on Dec. 15, 1976, out of a sense of public responsibility to assist in minimizing adverse effects on Georges Bank and nearby coastal regions. This was driven by a heightened awareness among scientists and the general public of humankind’s abuse of the environment. The first Earth Day had occurred six years earlier in 1970.

In addition, WHOI wanted to learn more about oil spills in the marine environment. It is important to view the scientific response to this oil spill within a broad framework of other ongoing activities. The United States government, through the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of land Management (BLM), had just initiated a Baselines Study Program in the U. S. Outer Continental Shelf areas in anticipation of potential leasing, exploration and development activities, including the Georges Bank area.

Because of these activities and ongoing concerns about oil tanker and barge accidental spills, the United States Coast Guard and NOAA had developed a contingency plan for assessment responses that included other federal agencies. They also reached out widely to academic scientists and others in the region with possible experience and resources to bring to spill studies.

Several researchers at WHOI, led by Max Blumer, Howard Sanders, and John Teal, had been studying the fate and effects of two No. 2 fuel oil spills in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts — one in 1969 and another in 1974. I joined these efforts as a postdoc in Blumer’s laboratory in 1971 after conducting research on chronic oil pollution in Narragansett Bay with my advisor, Professor James G. Quinn in the Graduate School of Oceanography (GSO) at the University of Rhode Island (URI). WHOI researchers, along with colleagues at the United States Geological Survey and National Marine Fisheries Service, had been studying the Georges Bank region for years. ERCO, a consulting company funded by the BLM, was spinning up measurements of petroleum hydrocarbons in the Georges Bank ecosystem led by Paul Boehm, a recent graduate of Professor Quinn’s laboratory.

Thus, when phone calls came in from the NOAA folks in the first days after the spill, there were meetings of the aforementioned groups, already familiar with each other’s capabilities, planning what should, and could, be done from a research response. The Coast Guard and NOAA were on the front lines of the spill, innovating frequently for unanticipated situations and keeping all research groups informed of conditions at the scene.

The WHOI vessel R/V Oceanus was on a research cruise in the nearby North Atlantic. The WHOI leadership recalled the vessel and it sailed for the area near the spill site on Monday, Dec. 20. Sedimentologist  John Milliman was the chief scientist and wrote about the cruise in 1977 in OCEANUS magazine. The mix of scientists on board (see Fig. 1) included NOAA physical oceanographer Jerry Galt. Our local Massachusetts State Representative Richard Kendall came with us, proving a valued liaison with state government.

After only a few samples were obtained, a winter storm struck and forced us back to Woods Hole early on Dec. 21. The Oceanus sailed on a second cruise Dec. 28-29, 1976 (see Fig. 2 for the list of scientists on board). Thereafter, R/V Oceanus’ sister ship, R/V Endeavor — new and just delivered to GSO-URI— took over the task for academic research cruises. In short, fortunately the wind and water circulation pushed much of the spilled oil away from nearby coastal areas and away from Georges Bank, thereby minimizing adverse effects in the region.

A debt of gratitude is owed by all to the Coast Guard and NOAA personnel responding to the Argo Merchant spill. They devoted many hours during the December 1976-January 1977 holiday season to this pioneering effort which informed future oil spill responses.

 

John W. Farrington is Dean emeritus at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

This is the sixth in a series of six stories examining the oil spill in 1976 of tanker Argo Merchant that resulted in the creation of the Office of Response and Restoration.

Typed letter authroizing research vessel to the Argo Merchant spill.

Fig. 1. Authorization letter from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution director for the Dec. 20, 1976 cruise to the Argo Merchant spill with the ships roster of scientists. Credit: WHOI

Fig. 2. Authorization letter from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution director for the Dec. 28, 1976 cruise to the Argo Merchant spill with the ships roster of scientists. Credit: WHOI

Fig. 2. Authorization letter from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution director for the Dec. 28, 1976 cruise to the Argo Merchant spill with the ships roster of scientists. Credit: WHOI

 

 

 

 

 


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Tools and Products: 40 Years of Spill Technology

 

A bright orange Saildrone floats in front of a NOAA ship in the Bering Sea

NOAA has deployed the Saildrone to study fisheries in the Bering Sea. (NOAA)

Earlier stories have described the Argo Merchant oil spill as the catalyst for the creation of the Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R). Its ongoing partnership with the United States Coast Guard (USCG) and other agencies has expanded from scientific support to include the latest developments in spill response technology.

Over the years, OR&R has continued to provide scientific support to the Coast Guard when it responds to oil or chemical spills. On its own, or in partnership with other agencies, OR&R provides software, guidance documents, and training on the scientific aspects of oil and chemical spill response. In addition, OR&R is constantly refining techniques, tools, and training in spill response.

Expanding OR&R’s Tools and Products

Modeling marine spills: After the Argo Merchant spill, standard methods for assessing marine spills were established, and a series of trajectory and fate modeling programs were created.

In 1979, the On-Scene Spill Model (OSSM) was developed to predict the possible route, or trajectory, a pollutant might follow in, or on, water. In 1999, OSSM became GNOME, General NOAA Operational Modeling Environment program.

The GNOME Online Oceanographic Data Server (GOODS), helps GNOME users access the base maps, ocean currents, and winds needed to run trajectories in their own regions. In addition, OR&R is nearing completion of a multi-year project to produce the next generation of GNOME, which will include integration of ADIOS, a program modeling how different types of oil weather (undergo physical and chemical changes) in the marine environment.

Mapping sensitive shorelines and species: In 1979 the Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) maps were created after the Ixtoc 1 exploratory oil well blowout. ESI provides information about coastal shoreline sensitivity, biological species and habitats, and human-use resources. The maps allow spill responders to quickly identify resources at risk before and during an oil spill, in order to establish cleanup methods and priorities.

Providing a Common Operational Picture (COP): Developed after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, the online mapping tool ERMA® soon became the COP for the Deepwater Horizon response as well as other spills. ERMA integrates both static and real-time data, such as ESI maps, ship locations, weather, and ocean currents, in a centralized, easy-to-use format for environmental responders and decision makers.

ERMA is designed to:

Learn more about the ever-evolving tools and techniques that OR&R uses to respond to environmental spills.

Looking to the Future

Drone technologies to assess shorelines: OR&R is exploring emerging technologies such as drones, or Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASs), for shoreline assessment during spills and exercises, particularly when the shoreline is steep or inaccessible. The UAS imagery can be quickly displayed in the COP for response during a spill, and for a Natural Resource Damage Assessment.

Recently, OR&R teamed up with the California Office of Spill Prevention and Response, USCG, and Chevron Corporation to explore the utility of drones as a reconnaissance tool for shoreline oiling. During an oil spill, the nature and extent of shoreline oiling are usually determined by ground-based surveys using the Shoreline Cleanup Assessment Technique (SCAT). In situations when shorelines cannot be safely accessed or when they include sensitive habitats like marshes, SCAT may be limited to conducting helicopter-based and/or ground-based binocular surveys, or no surveys at all. Emerging technologies like drones may become important elements in future SCAT survey efforts.

This is the fourth in a series of six stories examining the oil spill in 1976 of tanker Argo Merchant that resulted in the creation of the Office of Response and Restoration.


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Argo Merchant: The Birth of Modern Oil Spill Response

Black and White photo of ship sinking in ocean.

The Argo Merchant was carrying 7.7 million gallons of fuel oil when it went off course and became stuck on Dec. 15, 1976. Credit: Coast Guard Historian

When the Argo Merchant ran aground on Nantucket Shoals off Massachusetts early on Dec. 15, 1976, and spilled nearly 8 million gallons of heavy fuel oil, it became the worst marine oil spill the United States had seen. It also led to the eventual creation of the Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R).

The maverick research team

In 1974, as work began on the Alaska pipeline, NOAA scientists and academics realized there were important unanswered questions about oil spills.

“How does oil behave in water, that’s what we wanted to know,” recalled Peter Grose, who was then at NOAA’s Environmental Data Services Center in the District of Columbia. “The Environmental Research Lab in Boulder were looking at impacts from Alaskan drilling. We had the simplest models then of how oil moved with wind and waves. Jerry Galt was the modeler in ERL. …. He was kind of leader of the pack.”

Santa Barbara oil spill research

“What made me stand out at the moment was I was focusing my work on oil trajectories,” Galt said. The Boulder group was looking for a way to study oil spills. It was suggested they go to Santa Barbara, where they could observe natural ocean oil seeps. Galt, along with other interested NOAA researchers, formed the first Spilled Oil Response (SOR) team.

“We were sort of mavericks,” Galt said. “This was all sort of unofficial.”

The team set some ground rules for that first trip, Galt said. All equipment had to fit into a suitcase and ocean flyovers would be from a Cessna 172, the  most commonly available rent-a-plane and already certified by Federal Aviation Administration to fly with the doors off. That made it easier for the team to drop dye into the ocean and photograph how it spread.

After a week in Santa Barbara, according to Galt, “We said well, let’s think about this and what we learned, make some notes and get together after Christmas. … Well, we didn’t make Christmas.”

The Argo Merchant spill

Word of the Argo Merchant spill spread quickly, and because the loosely formed SOR team (Galt’s colleagues from Boulder and Grose’s in D.C.) had a preliminary oil spill plan, it was decided they would head to Massachusetts.

“We took planes and shuttles to Hyannis,” said Grose. “We wanted to know if the oil stayed together or broke into smaller chunks. Did it absorb into the water column? We wanted to look at weather.”

On the trip with Grose, a physical oceanographer, was chemical oceanographer James Mattson and marine ecologist Elaine Chan. Galt’s team from Boulder included David Kennedy. The team embarked on two weeks of intense observations.

“We started being obnoxious, asking scientific questions,” Galt said. “I immediately contacted people in Woods Hole and MIT doing oceanography there and we went and talked to the Coast Guard about getting on over-flights.”

At first, the team was not there in an official capacity, but that soon changed.

“We found out a truism of oil spills: If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem,” said Galt. “So, the Coast Guard said, ‘You want to go out on our airplanes? We need observers. You work for us, all right?’ We said OK and off we went.”

The team rose at dawn to catch the Coast Guard’s flight over the spill, taking photos. For perhaps the first time, divers were enlisted to go under the spill to determine if the oil was getting into the water column. Oil samples were taken. Then the team would convene at a local hotel to analyze the day’s data.

“We learned how to develop film in a hotel room,” Galt said. “I was there for a week to start with and during that week I think I spent 10 hours in bed. … I went home for Christmas dinner and fell asleep at the table, and after I woke up I went back to the spill.”

From HAZMAT to OR&R

In addition to publishing a report in record time, the team’s experiences resulted in the improvement of science equipment and oil-spill-response techniques.

“With Argo Merchant we developed a camera that could record time,” said Grose. “It’s hard to photograph a spill in intervals when you don’t have a timestamp on the photo. That seems like a little thing, but when you come back with 10 rolls of film it ends up being a big thing.”

The experience with the Argo Merchant spill answered some of team’s questions, and showed the need for more spill information, leading to the creations of the Hazardous Materials Response Division (HAZMAT), and finally to the Office of Response and Restoration.

“In the end,” Grose said, “what we learned was how much there was to still learn about oil spills.”

This is the third in a series of six stories examining the oil spill in 1976 of tanker Argo Merchant resulting in the creation of the Office of Response and Restoration.


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Emergency Response and Assessment 40 Years after Argo Merchant

Ship sinking in ocean.

The Argo Merchant spilling its heavy fuel oil southeast of Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. (NOAA)

By Robin Garcia

On Dec. 15, 1976, the tanker Argo Merchant ran aground off the coast of Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. Despite attempts to refloat the tanker, the Argo Merchant split in half in strong winds and high waves, spilling more than 7.5 million gallons of oil. It was the largest oil spill in United States history at the time.

In responding to the grounding and oil spill, the U. S. Coast Guard (USCG) was overwhelmed with competing, and often conflicting, scientific recommendations. The Coast Guard asked NOAA’s recently formed Spilled Oil Research Team to serve as its scientific advisor and unofficial liaison with the scientific community.

As a result of that collaboration, NOAA formed the Hazardous Material Response Division, now the Emergency Response Division (ERD) of the Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R). Scientific Support Coordinators were strategically located across the country. ERD now represents NOAA as the primary scientific support during oil and hazardous chemical spills as indicated in the National Contingency Plan. ERD also provides annual trainings to prepare government and industry responders and planners for future spills.

In the wake of Argo Merchant, trajectory and fate modeling programs were developed to further assist USCG with spill response. OR&R currently has a suite of preparedness, response and assessment tools for oil spills and chemical spills to support responders and planners.

NOAA also created standard methods for damage assessment after oil spills following the Argo Merchant; this activity is now carried out by OR&R’s Assessment and Restoration Division (ARD). Today, ARD provides environmental protection during cleanup and conducts Natural Resource Damage Assessments. ARD is also a partner in Damage Assessment, Remediation and Restoration Program (DARRP) a collaboration among OR&R, NOAA General Counsel, and the National Marine Fisheries Restoration Center.

The sinking of the Argo Merchant was NOAA’s first coordinated oil spill response. Today, the Office of Response and Restoration is a center of expertise in preparing for, responding to, and evaluating threats to coastal environments including oil spills. OR&R is looking back on the 40 years following Argo Merchant this week, highlighting the history of emergency oil spill response and assessment, the advances that have been made and what a response would look like if Argo Merchant ran aground today.

Robin Garcia is the Policy Analyst for the Office of Response and Restoration. She supports congressional and partner outreach for the Emergency Response Division, the Assessment and Restoration Division, and NOAA’s Disaster Response Center.


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Constituent and Legislative Affairs Internship

Large white building with green lawn in front.

The U.S. Capitol Building. (Architect of the Capitol)

We invite you to join a dedicated and enthusiastic team at NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration where you will gain invaluable resume-building experience and an insider’s perspective from the nation’s leader in ocean conservation and management.

As an intern, you will work on a variety of projects focusing on outreach and public engagement. Based at our headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland. (easily accessible on Metro’s Red Line), you will be in the loop on and encouraged to attend marine policy events, lectures, conferences, and receptions that provide fantastic networking opportunities for your career development.

Position Description

Volunteers pick up marine debris on a beach in Washington state. (NOAA)

OR&R faces the challenges of supporting NOAA and federal initiatives while keeping pace with Congress and constituents in support of our major programs:

  • Emergency response support for 120–200 oil and chemical spills in coastal waters each year
  • Natural Resource Damage Assessment and environmental restoration planning
  • NOAA’s Marine Debris Program
  • NOAA’s Disaster Response Center

OR&R works on critical environmental hazard issues, such as oil spill response, offshore drilling policy, marine debris prevention and reduction, and restoring natural resources. We are looking for motivated self-starters who enjoy independent as well as group work to join our team. The ideal candidate for this internship will possess a strong academic background and the desire to immerse him or herself in the world of marine policy and the internal workings of a federal office.

Two people on beach picking up trash.

Volunteers pick up marine debris on a beach in Washington state. (NOAA)

Major Responsibilities

  • Assist in preparations for one-on-one meetings with key OR&R constituents and events to support OR&R programs; assist in note-taking at events and prepare debrief materials.
  • Attend NGO, interagency, and Congressional events and prepare debrief materials for OR&R staff
  • Assist in preparation for and execution of congressional outreach events, such as briefings, hearings, and testimonies
  • Write and update biographical profiles for key members of Congress and stakeholder groups
  • Track progress of key legislation and policy initiatives
  • As experience permits, provide input on federal policy initiatives, including permits, administration views, and agreements
  • Assist in special projects as needed that fit your interest and skill areas, including research reports, video production, or media relations

Desired Qualifications

  • Interest or experience in marine policy and communications

    A heavy band of oil is visible on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico

    A heavy band of oil is visible on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico during an overflight of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on May 12, 2010. Predicting where oil like this will travel depends on variable factors including wind and currents. (NOAA)

  • Strong writing and verbal communications skills
  • Familiarity with MS Word, Excel, and PowerPoint software
  • Excellent attention to detail and a strong work ethic
  • Experience researching academic literature or legislation
  • Familiarity with Gmail, Google Docs, and Google Calendar

Eligibility and Compensation:

OR&R cooperates with institutions of higher learning and internship coordination programs to support students who have arranged to receive credit for their work. Interns are also expected to develop a project based on their interests and present on the project to the NOAA community. We can accommodate part- time and full-time availability. While the duration of internships can vary, most typically last at least 10 weeks. At this time, stipends are not offered. Internships are open to students age 16 and older. The NOAA Office of Security requires a background check for all interns and staff; this process will begin at the start of your internship.

Non-US citizens must hold an appropriate visa and be accepted as an intern at least 45 days prior to the scheduled start date to complete additional security clearance.

To apply, email a cover letter (including dates of availability), resume and a writing sample to Policy Analyst Robin Garcia at Robin.Garcia@noaa.gov.

Application deadline is Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017

Please review the OR&R Internships page for further details on eligibility for this and other OR&R intern positions.


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Updated Environmental Sensitivity Index Maps and Data for Some Atlantic States

Colored map of grid and ocean.

A section of ESI map for the New York/New Jersey area. (NOAA)

One of the challenges in any oil spill is the ability for spill responders to quickly evaluate protection priorities appropriate to the shoreline, habitats, and wildlife found in the area of the spill. Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) maps and data developed by NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) provide spill responders with a concise summary of coastal resources that are at risk if an oil spill occurs nearby. Additionally, ESI maps can be used by planners—before a spill happens—to identify vulnerable locations, establish protection priorities, and identify cleanup strategies.

OR&R and its partners have recently updated much of the Atlantic Coast ESI data, and Geographic Information System (GIS) data are now available for these states and regions:

  • Maine and New Hampshire
  • Long Island Sound
  • New York/New Jersey Metro area, including the Hudson River and South Long Island
  • Chesapeake Bay, including Maryland and Virginia outer coasts
  • North Carolina
  • South Carolina
  • Georgia

Maps in Portable Document Format (PDF) are currently available for South Carolina, Long Island Sound, Georgia, and the New York/New Jersey region. PDFs for the other regions listed will be coming soon, as well as PDF maps for the Washington/Oregon Outer Coast data published in late 2014. GIS data for Massachusetts/Rhode Island are currently under review and will be available soon.

More Information about OR&R’s ESI Mapping Work

Redrawing the Coast After Sandy: First Round of Updated Environmental Sensitivity Data Released for Atlantic States