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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Keeping the Great Lakes’ Freshwater Clean is a Tall Order

Lighthouse with waves.

Lake Michigan waves at Michigan City lighthouse following superstorm Sandy. October 29, 2012. Credit: S. Lashley, NOAA NWS.

North America’s Great Lakes contain 6 quadrillion gallons of freshwater within the five lakes of Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario. With roughly 20 percent of the world’s surface freshwater, the Great Lakes are the world’s largest freshwater system, and contain enough water to cover the entire lower 48 states to a depth of almost 10 feet.

Shared by two countries, eight states, and one province; the Great Lakes’ centralized location, favorable geography, climate, and water rich environment culminate into a natural hub for manufacturing, business, agriculture and tourism, and home to over 40 million people who depend on the lakes for their domestic and industrial water supply.

In addition to their freshwater needs, many of these same economies are equally dependent on petroleum products, which travel to and through the region via a mix of transportation modes. While all environments are sensitive to oil spills, the Great Lakes are especially sensitive due to a number of unique risk factors.

Unique Risk Factors

Freshwater is the most obvious unique risk factor for the Great Lakes and for good reason. Approximately 44 billion gallons of water is withdrawn each day for industrial and domestic use. The first question for every spill in the Great Lakes is location of the closest freshwater intake. Shutting down freshwater intakes can cause widespread economic and political impacts, not normally associated with a spill in the marine environment.

Take for example the 2014 harmful algal bloom event that shut down Toledo, Ohio water intakes for 500,000 residents. That emergency shut down local businesses and universities at a cost of millions for the city and state. This is a very real and unique concern for spills in the Great Lakes and other freshwater environments.

The density of freshwater can make spills in the Great Lakes more challenging as well. Oil usually floats because it is less dense than the water it is floating on. Density is the mass, or weight, of a substance divided by its volume. The density of freshwater is usually about 1 gram per cubic centimeter (g/cc). Ocean saltwater is denser (usually around 1.02 to 1.03 g/cc) because it contains more salt. The higher the salinity of water, the denser it is. Densities of oils generally range from 0.85 g/cc for a very light oil, like gasoline, to 1.04 g/cc for a very, very heavy oil. Most types of oils have densities between about 0.90 and 0.98 g/cc. These oils will float in either fresh or salt water. However, heavy oils, which have a density of 1.01 g/cc, would float in salt water, but sink in the freshwater of the Great Lakes.

Water in the Great Lakes originates from thousands of streams and rivers covering a drainage basin of approximately 201,000 square miles. This water exits the Great Lakes so slowly through the St. Lawrence River that it essentially makes the Great Lakes a closed system. The retention time — the amount of time it takes for lakes to discharge water and pollutants — ranges from 2.6 years for Lake Erie to 191 years for Lake Superior. With no more than one percent of the water in the Great Lakes exiting the system each year, any residual oil spill contaminants have the potential to reside within the lakes for a substantial time.

LT Greg Schweitzer is a NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator in the Great Lakes and Midwest Region with OR&R.


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You Know What’s Scary? Halloween Debris

Great reminder for Halloween!

NOAA's Marine Debris Blog

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

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

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

Make sure those spooky decorations are securely…

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Understanding How Oil Reacts on Water: A Simple Experiment

Rainbow sheen.

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

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

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

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

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


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Sticky Black Gobs on the Beach: The Science of Tarballs

People walking on beach with tarballs on sand.

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

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

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

Block glob of tar on sand.

Tarball found on Dauphin Island, AL. Credit NOAA.


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

Grab your crayons! It’s that time again!

NOAA's Marine Debris Blog

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

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

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

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

Ready… set… draw!

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

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

There is still time to apply for the grants.

NOAA's Marine Debris Blog

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

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

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Hurricane Matthew Aerial Photos

Aerial photo of coastline with houses.

Edisto Beach, South Carolina before Hurricane Matthew.

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

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

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