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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Photos and Reactions from a NOAA Responder Living through Hurricane Sandy

Hurricane Sandy caused flooding in the streets of this neighborhood along coastal New Jersey.

Hurricane Sandy caused flooding in the streets of this neighborhood along coastal New Jersey. (Frank Csulak)

Here in Seattle, like people all over the country, I was concerned to hear about Hurricane Sandy heading straight towards the East Coast, especially the New Jersey shore where I have enjoyed going to the beach for my entire life. My thoughts were with all the people I know in the area, including my colleague, NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator (SSC) Frank Csulak. He has worked for the NOAA Office of Response and Restoration in New Jersey for much of his career.

Raised on the New Jersey shore, he is the primary scientific adviser to the U.S. Coast Guard for oil and chemical spill planning and response in the area. Scientific Support Coordinators are technical advisers to the U.S. Coast Guard and Federal On-Scene Coordinators. He and fellow SSC Ed Levine work in U.S. Coast Guard District 5, which includes New Jersey and New York’s Atlantic coast. While Frank’s office is in Highlands, N.J., he has a house at the shore in Beach Haven, on Long Beach Island, the second barrier island to the north of Atlantic City. Before and after Hurricane Sandy hit, Csulak and Levine were hard at work, but we received the following message from Frank the morning after the storm passed over New Jersey, on Tuesday October 30. It captures the sense of emergency and the extraordinary nature of this particular storm.

October 30, 2012

“Well, made it through the storm, power went out around 6:00 p.m. last night, remains out. The winds had to be in the 80-90 mph range. Trees down all over.  Power outages all over.  Large tree fell on neighbor’s house going right through roof, injuring owner who was then hospitalized due to possible heart attack. At the height of the storm there was an unbelievable thunder and lightning storm like I had never experienced before, something out of a sci-fi movie.

Just starting to get light out, so will go survey my property. Plan to head back to beach house as soon as evacuations lifted. That ride should be interesting. Reports were that there were several areas where ocean and bay were connected and southern portion of island, Holgate, washed away, which is mostly U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refuge area.

My bikes, cars, and trucks are all okay. Max, my dog is okay. Daughter and parents okay.  So, all is good. Now I just need a hot cup of coffee. Want to thank everyone for their thoughts and well wishes throughout this ordeal. Will let you know how the beach house made out probably tomorrow.”

Later, Frank made it down to Beach Haven and sent us these photos of the storm’s aftermath in the area surrounding his house.

Today, on November 1, he took time out again to bring us the following update.

November 1, 2012

“All the neighbors where my parents live are all helping each other out with removing trees and debris from yards, pumping out basements. Power still out. Mile-long lines of cars at gas stations. Most stores remain closed due to power outage. Although somehow Dunkin Donuts is open. What is their slogan, “America runs on Dunkin”?  Well, certainly appropriate here at the Jersey shore!”

For more photos of the storm’s impacts along the New Jersey coast, check out the first round of Hurricane Sandy damage assessment imagery now available from NOAA’s National Geodetic Survey.


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Let’s Get Chemical: What Is Oil?

This is a post by Vicki Loe with OR&R chemist Robert Jones. Technical review by Robert Jones and OR&R biologist Gary Shigenaka.

Emulsified oil from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP spill pooled on marsh vegetation.

Emulsified oil from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP spill remains on, and pooled below, vegetation in Pass a Loutre, La., following a previous week’s storm. Image shot on May 22, 2010. (NOAA)

I recently began an ongoing conversation on this blog about our relationship with oil and oil products and the large part oil plays in all of our lives. Walking through just the first hour of a typical day for me, I managed to list 20 products I use that come from oil. But for something that we all depend on every day, how much do we really understand about what it is and why it’s so useful?

As most of us know, oil comes from beneath the ground. It is made of dead animal and plant matter, buried deep under layers of sedimentary rock. Pressure and heat cause oil deposits to form over long periods of time. But what is oil at its most basic?

Diagram of the molecular structure of benzene.

A diagram of the molecular structure of benzene, an aromatic hydrocarbon and component of oil.

Oil is a complex mixture of molecular compounds.  A molecule is the smallest unit of a substance that retains the substance’s characteristics. Molecules, in turn, are composed of atoms.  There are only 90 naturally occurring types of atoms on earth; these form the basis of the innumerable types of molecules found in nature.

Crude oils, while mixtures of thousands of types of molecular compounds, are predominantly composed of only two types of atoms: hydrogen (H) and carbon (C). Molecular compounds composed exclusively of these two elements are called hydrocarbons.

Petroleum hydrocarbons are predominantly one of two types, aromatics or alkanes. Aromatics, which are based on a 6-carbon ring, tend to be the molecular compounds in oil that are the most toxic to marine life. A notable case is polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which have multiple carbon rings and can also be quite persistent in the environment. Alkanes, on the other hand, tend to be less toxic and are much more readily biodegraded naturally; most can be ingested as food by some microorganisms.

For example, the oil spilled from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP well blow-out was relatively high in alkanes and relatively low in PAHs. But, like all crude oils, it contained benzene, toluene, and xylene, which belong to the single-ring aromatic group. Benzene is very toxic and known to cause cancer but is not as persistent as PAHs.

Oil in marsh vegetation during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill.

Oil in marsh vegetation during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill. (NOAA)

Refining crude oil to produce fuel oils like gasoline and diesel does not significantly alter the molecular structure of the oil’s components. So fuel oils usually contain the same types of molecular compounds that are found in their parent crude oils.

Different chemical compounds can be extracted from crude oil and then recombined or altered to make what are called petrochemicals. Petrochemicals are used to make a vast array of products, including acetic acid, ammonia, polyvinyl chloride, polyethylene, lubricants, adhesives, agrochemicals, fragrances, food additives, packaging, paint, and pharmaceutical products. And that’s just the start!

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is the primary science adviser to the U.S. Coast Guard during a major oil spill. Knowledge of the chemical make-up of the particular oil, whether it is a crude oil or refined fuel oil, is critical in making response decisions when there is spill. Among the scientists that work in OR&R’s Emergency Response Division are chemists that are experts in this field.

Crude oil is predominantly a mixture of hydrocarbons, but every crude oil is a unique mixture of molecular compounds. There are thousands of named crude oils in use around the world. Our chemists make recommendations by determining the source of the spill and the optimal cleanup methods and safety issues, based on the unique properties of the oil released.

The next blog post in this series will delve into the toxicity of oil and the harm it can cause when accidentally released into the marine environment.

Robert Jones

Robert Jones

Co-author Robert Jones is a chemist in OR&R’s Emergency Response Division. He is a member of the spill response team and is involved in the development of computer models used to predict the fate and transport of oil and other chemicals in the environment. Robert received his Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry from Indiana University. Prior to joining NOAA in 1990, Robert taught chemistry at Western Washington University.


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How Do You Picture Science?

Explaining the environmental ramifications of the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill [leaves this blog] in the Gulf of Mexico is no easy task. Visualizing those impacts in an easy-to-understand way? Maybe even harder.

Last year NOAA scientists Mary Baker and Debbie Payton needed to figure out how to do just that, and as a communications coordinator for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R), it was my job to make it happen. Although I had yet to work with her, I thought of Kate Sweeney, a medical and scientific illustrator for UWCreative [leaves this blog], out of the University of Washington (Seattle), whose specialty is creating accessible and understandable illustrations that depict complex scientific processes.

After the initial spill in the Gulf, oil moved through the water column in a variety of ways, and the potential for it to move into the sediments at the bottom included several possible scenarios. The challenge for this graphic was to clearly describe the different ways the oil could move into the sediment layer at the ocean floor. Using mapping data provided by OR&R and discussing the concepts with NOAA scientists and myself, Kate developed a single, striking graphic illustration that clearly encompassed all the possibilities. As a result, we were able to use the illustration extensively to inform the public about the spill.

Potential Pathways of Oil

Illustration showing the potential pathways of spilled oil following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP incident in the Gulf of Mexico. Click to view larger image. Credit: NOAA/Kate Sweeney.

Kate compares the process of creating complex scientific images to telling a story, and she has seen demand for her illustrations grow as the expectation for high-quality visuals has increased.

According to Kate, a key component to this process is working collaboratively with the scientists. When we first sat down with her at our office, she created a rough sketch in the first hour that we were able to comment on. With that initial feedback, she returned to her office and developed the first electronic draft. She didn’t hesitate to do several rounds of drafts back and forth, using discussion along with trial and error to get it right.

Kate recently completed another marine illustration for OR&R, “Conceptual Model of Arctic Oil Exposure and Injuries,” that shows natural resources at risk and the potential impacts of an oil spill in the Arctic.

Oil impacts on Arctic food webs

The illustration shows potential oil spill impacts to wildlife and habitats in the Arctic sea. Click for larger view. Credit: NOAA/Kate Sweeney, Illustration.

As sea ice recedes in the Arctic, shipping routes will open, increasing vessel traffic and increasing the likelihood of spills. Increasing pressure for more oil exploration in the region also highlights the need to be prepared in the event of a spill during offshore drilling. This diagram in particular is useful in discussions with the public, industry, and other trustee agencies to reach a common understanding of which resources are most at risk, and what information on those resources is needed now as baseline data we can use for comparison and for planning how to respond in case of a spill.

Kate says that her biggest challenge as a scientific illustrator is gaining enough of a fundamental understanding of the subject matter. Meeting that challenge, however, and executing the drawing successfully is what she enjoys most about her job.

Contact Kate Sweeney at kateswe@u.washington.edu.

Example illustration of repair of a herniated diaphragm

Example of the artist’s recent work for the University of Washington: Repair of Herniated Diaphragm, prepared for JD Godwin, MD, Department of Radiology. A: Front cutaway view of herniated diaphragm B: Plication sutures are placed in the diaphragm C: Top view of sutures before they are drawn tight D: Sutures are drawn tight to reduce the bulge in the diaphragm. Credit: Kate Sweeney.

“To create the images for this surgical procedure, I met with both the radiologist and the surgeon who performs this repair, and we discussed the anatomy and subsequent repair. Over a series of sketches, we developed and refined the views and details of the narrative.”–Kate Sweeney