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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How the Modern Day Shipping Container Changed the World

Large ships with cargo containers.

As container ships continue to grow in size and ports grow more congested by the year, NOAA plays an increasingly critical role in U.S. marine transportation. NOAA services and products improve the efficiency of ports and harbors, promote safety, and help to ensure the protection of coastal marine resources. (NOAA)

For thousands of years, methods of shipping products across the seas and oceans remained essentially the same. Products came to port in wooden crates, sacks, and kegs by wagons or, later, by trucks and trains. Ships were then loaded and unloaded crate by crate, sack by sack, and keg by keg. It was a time-consuming and labor-intensive process. Theft was a perpetual problem. Often a ship spent more time in ports, loading and unloading, than it would spend at sea.

The advent of World War II brought new logistical challenges in supplying millions of U.S and allied troops overseas and innovative approaches were needed to efficiently supply the war effort. During this period, the introduction of small, standardized boxes full of war material increased the American convoys’ capacity to deliver wartime necessities.

After the war, a trucking entrepreneur named Malcom McLean bought a shipping company and, in 1956, started the practice of transporting product-filled truck trailers that were lifted directly from truck to ship. Whole containers, not just small parcels, now moved efficiently onto ships. This transportation process, called intermodalism, allowed products to be shipped around the world quickly, cheaply, and efficiently by using cargo containers that more easily fit on trucks, trains, and ships.

The arrival of containers and intermodalism revolutionized the shipping industry. Containers could be efficiently stacked, allowing more and more goods transported across the seas. Labor costs dropped dramatically and, since containers were sealed, theft declined. Over time, the marine transportation industry and the size of ships, trucks, trains, docks, and ports increased and expanded to handle the growing use of containers. The impact on global commerce was enormous, leading to a boom in international trade due to lower transportation and handling costs.

As container ships continue to grow in size and ports grow more congested by the year, NOAA plays an increasingly critical role in U.S. marine transportation. NOAA services and products improve the efficiency of ports and harbors, promote safety, and help to ensure the protection of coastal marine resources. Today, NOAA’s PORTS® system improves the safety and capability of maritime commerce through the integration of real-time environmental observations, forecasts, and other geospatial information. NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey supplies electronic navigation charts, coast pilots, and navigation response teams to meet the increasing challenges associated with marine navigation. NOAA’s National Weather Service provides up-to-date meteorological and oceanographic data. And, when there are spills, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration provides the science-based expertise and support needed to make informed decisions during emergency responses.

Read about some of our work in maritime emergency response:

On the Hunt for Shipping Containers Lost off California Coast

How Much Oil Is on That Ship?

University of Washington Helps ITOPF and NOAA Analyze Emerging Risks in Marine Transportation.

 


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Clean up spilled oil at all costs? Not always

This week, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is looking at some common myths and misconceptions surrounding oil spills, chemical releases, and marine debris.

Man holding hose spraying water on oiled rocks.

Cleanup worker spraying oiled rocks with high pressure hoses following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska. (NOAA)

The images of an oil spill—brown water, blackened beaches, wildlife slicked and sticky—can create such an emotional response that it  leads to the myth that oil is so hazardous it’s worth any and all environmental trade-offs to get it cleaned up.

The outcry to rid oil from the rocky shoreline of Prince William Sound, Alaska, after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill led to the use of high-pressure, hot-water washing. While the technique is successful at removing stranded oil, we now know it can damage plants and animals in the treated area directly and indirectly, short-term and long-term.

Activities to clean up oiled coastal salt marshes after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill, like flushing with water or raking to remove oil, delayed marsh recovery and exacerbated the loss of oysters, though it was not always possible to separate effects of oiling from effects of response actions.

Lessons learned from decades of responding to oil spills have shown that a haste to clean up a spill may cause additional damage. Part of the job of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration emergency responders is to step back and objectively evaluate the situation.

The perception of potential environmental harm that a spill may cause may be worse than reality, making it critical for responders to communicate a science-based analysis of a spill’s possible harm with affected parties and organizations, according to Jerry Galt, physical oceanographer and pioneer in oil and chemical spill response and modeling.

Gathering accurate information on what natural resources are in the spill area and forecasting where the oil is likely to go, based on currents and weather conditions, will give a realistic picture of the situation, Galt said.

In an effort to improve spill response methods, NOAA Office of Response and Restoration is continually improving the accuracy of its trajectory models and other response tools. In addition, hundreds of emergency responders attend Science of Oil Spills and Science of Chemical Releases classes to learn the latest in spill response planning and analysis.

Spills are always a serious matter, but the coordinated efforts of multiple federal, state and local responders work to minimize the injury during the event, and then work to mitigate the effects after the spill. While images from news footage can paint a picture of huge and permanent devastation, the reality on the ground can be less dire.


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Rescuing Oiled Birds, Leave it to the Experts

This week, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is looking at some common myths and misconceptions surrounding oil spills, chemical releases, and marine debris.

Yellow gloved hands holding bird's head with suds.

Oiled Northern Gannet is cleaned at the Theodore Oiled Wildlife Rehabilitation Center (FWS)

By Allison O’Brien, Department of the Interior

Birds, especially those that spend most of their time on the water, are vulnerable to the effects of oiling. Oil can clog feathers and cause them to mat, separate, or lose their natural waterproofing. Birds coated with oil may not be able to fly, may get sick from accidentally ingesting oil while trying to clean their feathers, or may drown from reduced buoyancy.

Many people love birds, and it’s normal to want to help during an oil spill – especially when you’re seeing photos of impacted birds on the news – but it’s a myth that just a bit of dish soap can restore an oiled bird to health. So, before you hit the beach with your scrub brush and your handy-dandy dish soap, read these answers to some frequently asked questions on how to help oiled birds.

What should I do if I see an oiled bird? 

If there is an established oiled wildlife reporting hotline available, then please, call it as soon as possible. If not, then call your local U.S. Fish and Wildlife Office.

 The bird seemed to be in distress, wouldn’t it be faster for me and my dog to chase it down and transport it in my trunk?

No – birds are wild animals. It’s important to let a trained professional with the appropriate safety gear (think safety goggles, gloves, etc.) handle bird removal. Plus, depending on the species, a permit may be needed to touch or handle it.

I’m actually less concerned with own my safety than with helping this bird. Is there a problem with the dog chase and trunk transport method?

Picture this: You reach into your fridge for a snack and, when you pull out your arm, it’s covered in a gooey, smelly substance. The next thing you know, aliens chase you, grab you, and take you away in the trunk of their spaceship. How would you feel? Confused?  Terrified? Exactly. Please, let a trained professional handle the bird rescue.

Two people hosing a bird in a sink.

An oiled gannet being cleaned at the Theodore Oiled Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. (FWS)

I saw an oiled bird, but I think it’s dead. Is it still worth calling it in?

Yes, other animals may see that bird as an easy meal and become ill from eating it, so it’s important the oiled bird to be removed by trained workers.

It seems like it would be faster for me to just grab the dead, oiled bird and bring it in – can I do that?

No, not only is a permit needed to handle the carcass, it is considered legal evidence and needs to be handled properly, and an appropriate chain of custody needs to be maintained.

Are there ever opportunities to volunteer to help clean birds?

Yes – Under some circumstances, the response officials may issue a public service announcement to request pre-trained volunteer assistance. A bird rehabilitation center is like a hospital emergency room, so please understand that it’s critical for any volunteers to have the appropriate training.

Is it true that liquid dish soap is used to clean oiled birds?

Yes it is. Specifically, Dawn dish soap (not antibacterial) has been approved for use in cleaning oiled birds.

Allison O’Brien is the Department of the Interior’s Regional Environmental Officer for the Pacific Northwest Region, covering Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. For more information, please visit https://www.doi.gov/oepc/regional-offices/portland.  


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Restoration: The Other Part of Spill Response

This week, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is looking at some common myths and misconceptions surrounding oil spills, chemical releases, and marine debris.

Grass and water at sunset with bridge in background.

From landfill to vibrant tidal marsh, the wetland restoration at Lincoln Park in Jersey City, New Jersey, was funded from multiple oil spill settlements and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. This project restored a significant area of coastal wetlands in New York-New Jersey harbor’s Arthur Kill ecosystem. (NOAA)

Typically, during an oil spill or chemical release, media images show emergency responders dressed in protective gear, skimming oil off the ocean’s surface or combing coastal beaches for oiled animals.

As dramatic as they are, those images can leave the impression that cleaning up after a spill is the end of the story. Often the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration continues working on spills years after response efforts have ended, determining how to restore the environment.

OK, it’s not really a myth we’re busting here, maybe a misconception. Let’s chat about the less visible task of long term restoration after an oil spill.

When a spill happens, there are two tasks for those who caused the spill, clean up the spilled oil or chemical released, and restore the environment.

That first responsibility, cleaning up the mess, is the subject of those media photos. It’s the immediate actions taken to scoop up the oil, clear the beaches, and rescue wildlife. It was not long after the Exxon Valdez spill that a television commercial appeared featuring a liquid dish soap used to wash birds covered in oil. That commercial has become so identified with oil spills, it’s practically the first thing that comes to mind when people start talking about oil spills.

Now, what happens when I ask you to picture long-term restoration after an oil spill? What do you see? Having a hard time picturing it? That’s because restoring the environment takes time, often years. Restoration doesn’t lend itself to immediate imagery.

It may not be the subject of a soap commercial, or be very visible to the public, but it’s the second half of the story after the emergency crews are gone.

So what does restoring the environment after a spill look like? Well it can start with scientists taking samples of an oiled fish and conclude with the construction of new wetlands. The Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program restores natural resources injured during an oil spill, release of hazardous materials, or vessel grounding to fully compensate the public for losses.

To ensure that fish, wildlife, and critical habitats like beaches, wetlands and corals impacted by a spill are restored a specific process is followed that includes:

  • Assess the Injury: Quantify injuries to the environment, including lost recreational uses, by conducting scientific and economic studies
  • Plan the Restoration: Develop a restoration plan that identifies projects and outlines the best methods to restore the impacted environment
  • Hold Polluters Accountable: Ensure that responsible parties pay the costs of assessing injuries and restoring the environment
  • Restore the Environment: Implement projects to restore habitats and resources to the condition they would have been in had the pollution not occurred

NOAA’s job is to not only to restore the environment, but to also evaluate and restore the experience the public lost during an oil spill, like fishing or swimming at the beach. For example, after spilled oil washes on shore, people often can no longer swim, picnic, or play at that beach. Or, there may be fewer or no recreational fishers on a nearby pier. In order to compensate the public for these lost days of enjoying the outdoors NOAA and partners may build restoration projects that improve recreational access to waterways, install boat launches, fishing piers, and hiking trails.

During all this work, it’s important to keep the public informed and to ask for comments and ideas on how an injured area should be restored. Several restoration projects are currently open for public review and comment, read more here.


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Zoos and Aquariums Training for Oil Spill Emergency Response

Bird covered in oil on beach.

An oiled loon on Horseneck Beach from the 2003 Bouchard Barge 120 oil spill. (NOAA)

When an oil spill occurs and photos of injured birds and other wildlife start circulating, there is often an immediate desire to want to help impacted animals.

One group that feels that desire strongly are the people who work at the nation’s accredited zoos and aquariums. For instance, during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) was one of the largest organizations to mobilize volunteers in the Gulf of Mexico. Lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon experience, both good and bad, led the association to launch a large-scale training program to certify members in hazardous response training.

“By participating in a credentialed training program, it provides that extra expertise to our zoo and aquarium professionals that will enable AZA members to become more coordinated and more involved when future environmental disasters arise in their community and throughout the nation,” said Steve Olson, AZA’s vice president of federal relations. “AZA members are uniquely qualified to assist in an oil spill animal response and recovery. They bring a wealth of animal care experience that is unmatched. Not only do they have a passion for helping animals, they bring the practical handling, husbandry and medical experience that would make them invaluable to any response agency. “

The AZA spill response training, taught by the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, Alaska and the University of California Davis Oiled Wildlife Care Network, includes certification in Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response established by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration with specific standards for worker safety. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration also recently presented information on oil spill response at one of AZA’s training sessions at the Detroit Zoo.

Moody Gardens in Galveston, Texas, is one of the AZA accredited members, which has hosted oil spill response training in the past two years.  “As one of the first trainees I feel very strongly that we have the ability, and now the training, to make a difference,” said Diane Olsen, assistant curator at Moody Gardens.

To date, the AZA training program has credentialed over 90 AZA member professionals from over 50 accredited institutions. Those zoo and aquarium professionals are located throughout the country allowing for rapid local or national deployment if a spill occurs.

 


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Effects of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill on Sea Turtles and Marine Mammals

 

Dolphins on water surface.

Studies showed dolphins were impacted by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (NOAA)

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill resulted in significant environmental harm over a large area of the Gulf of Mexico and adjacent shorelines, and affected numerous species including endangered and threatened sea turtles and protected marine mammals. These populations will require significant restoration efforts to offset impacts from the spill.

A special issue of Endangered Species Research published Jan. 31, 2017, features 20 scientific articles summarizing the impacts of the oil spill on marine mammals and sea turtles.

The scientific studies, conducted by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration authors and partners, document the unprecedented mortality rate and long-term environmental impacts of the oil’s exposure and presents a synthesis of more than five years’ worth of data collection, analysis, and interpretation. Findings from these research studies, in addition to other studies on other parts of the ecosystem, formed the basis of the natural resources damage assessment settlement with BP for up to $8.8 billion.

All of the data associated with the settlement is available publicly in the Data Integration Visualization Exploration and Reporting database, but the Endangered Species Research special issue is the first time this information on sea turtles and marine mammals has been compiled together in peer-reviewed scientific publications. Find out more about Deepwater Horizon here.

 

 


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Coping in the Aftermath of Deepwater Horizon

New NOAA Sea Grant publication discusses mental health impacts following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill

Ocean coastline with large fisshing boats on their sides.

The Gulf of Mexico fishing industry suffered much physical damage from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (pictured), followed by economic damage from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (NOAA)

By Tara Skelton, Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium

Ever wonder about mental health issues in communities recovering from a man-made disaster? The Gulf of Mexico Sea Grant Oil Spill Science Outreach Team recently published an overview of peer-reviewed research into how individuals and communities coped in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Studies show that the spill impacted the mental health of some coastal residents, including cleanup workers and those who relied on a healthy Gulf Coast for their occupations.

Gulf Coast locals experienced the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in different ways. Some coastal residents witnessed oiling on the water and shoreline. Others, including cleanup workers, physically encountered oil in their daily lives. People in many industries, including fishing, tourism, and more, lost income as a result of the spill. The 2010 spill came five years after Hurricane Katrina hit much of the same area, compounding some effects.

Several studies have examined the mental health impacts of the oil spill on people living along the Gulf Coast. While short-term repercussions are well-documented, long-term outcomes have been harder to identify. As a result, scientists are developing new ways to determine the consequences of disasters, both natural and man-made, on the physical and mental health of communities.

Grawing of Gulf of Mexico states explaining mental health affects.

Residents of states surrounding the Gulf of Mexico reported various negative mental health impacts following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (Florida Sea Grant/Anna Hinkeldey)

To learn more, go to gulfseagrant.org/oilspilloutreach/publications/ and read “The Deepwater Horizon oil spill’s impact on people’s health: Increases in stress and anxiety.” It’s one of many publications the team has developed to extend our understanding of oil spills science, from dispersant use to seafood safety.

Tara Skelton is the Oil Spill Science Outreach Team Communicator for the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium. The four Gulf of Mexico Sea Grant College Programs with funding from partner Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative has assembled a team of oil spill science outreach specialists to collect and translate the latest peer-reviewed research for those who rely on a healthy marine ecosystem for work or recreation. To learn more about the team’s products and presentations, visit gulfseagrant.org/oilspillscience