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An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution

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10 Photos That Tell the Story of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill and its Impacts

Exxon Valdez ship with response vessels in Prince William Sound.

The single-hull tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska, March 24, 1989, spilling 11 million gallons of crude oil. (U.S. Coast Guard)

While oil spills happen almost every day, we are fortunate that relatively few make such large or lasting impressions as the Deepwater Horizon or Exxon Valdez spills. Before 2010, when the United States was fixated on a gushing oil well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, most Americans could probably only name one spill: when the tanker Exxon Valdez released 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound on March 24, 1989.

Here we’ve gathered 10 photos that help tell the story of the Exxon Valdez oil spill and its impacts, not only on the environment but also on science, policy, spill response, school kids, and even board games. It has become a touchstone event in many ways, one to be learned from even decades after the fact.

1. Time for safety

Calendar showing March 1989 and image of Exxon Valdez ship.

In an ironic twist of fate, the Exxon Shipping Company’s safety calendar featured the tanker Exxon Valdez in March 1989, the same month the ship ran aground. Image: From the collection of Gary Shigenaka.

Long before the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, a series of events were building that would enable this catastrophic marine accident to unfold as it did. These actions varied from the opening of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in the 1970s to the decision by the corporation running that pipeline to disband its oil spill response team and Exxon’s efforts to hold up both the tanker Exxon Valdez and its captain, Joseph Hazelwood, as exemplars of safety.

Captain Hazelwood received two Exxon Fleet safety awards for 1987 and 1988, the years leading up to March 1989, which was coincidentally the month the Exxon Valdez was featured on an Exxon Shipping Company calendar bearing the warning to “take time to be careful – now.”

Read more about the timeline of events leading up to the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

2. A law for the birds

Birds killed as a result of oil from the Exxon Valdez spill.

Thanks to the Oil Pollution Act, federal and state agencies can more easily evaluate the full environmental impacts of oil spills — and then enact restoration to make up for that harm. (Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council)

Photos of oil-soaked birds and other wildlife in Prince William Sound reinforced just how inadequate the patchwork of existing federal, state, and local laws were at preventing or addressing the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

While lawmakers took nearly a year and a half—and a few more oil spills—to pass the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, this landmark legislation was without a doubt inspired by that major oil spill. (After all, the law specifically “bars from Prince William Sound any tank vessels that have spilled over 1,000,000 gallons of oil into the marine environment after March 22, 1989.” In other words, the Exxon Valdez.) In the years since it passed, this law has made huge strides in improving oil spill prevention, cleanup, liability, and restoration.

3.  The end of single-hull tankers

People observe a large tanker with a huge gash in its hull in dry dock.

Evidence of the success of double-hull tankers: The Norwegian tanker SKS Satilla collided with a submerged oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2009 and despite this damage, did not spill any oil. (Texas General Land Office)

This image of a damaged ship is not showing the T/V Exxon Valdez, and that is precisely the point. The Exxon Valdez was an oil tanker with a single hull, which meant that when it hit ground, there was only one layer of metal for the rocks to tear through and release its tanks of oil.

But this 2009 photo shows the Norwegian tanker SKS Satilla after it sustained a major gash in its double-sided hull — and didn’t spill a drop of oil. Thanks to the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, all new tankers and tank-barges were required to be built with double hulls to reduce the chance of another Exxon Valdez situation. January 1, 2015 was the final deadline for phasing out single-hull tankers in U.S. waters.

 4. Oiled otters and angry kids

Policymakers weren’t the only ones to take note and take action in the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Second grader Kelli Middlestead of the Franklin School in Burlingame, California, was quite upset that the oil spill was having such devastating effects on one of her favorite animals: sea otters. So, on April 13, 1989, she wrote and illustrated a letter to Walter Stieglitz, Alaskan Regional Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to let him know she felt that the oil spill was “killing nature.”

Indeed, sea otters in Prince William Sound weren’t declared recovered from the Exxon Valdez oil spill until 2013. Other species still haven’t recovered and in some sheltered beaches below the surface, you can still find pockets of oil.

5. Oil and killer whales do mix (unfortunately)

Killer whales swimming alongside boats skimming oil from the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Killer whales swimming in Prince William Sound alongside boats skimming oil from the Exxon Valdez oil spill (State of Alaska, Dan Lawn).

One of the species that has yet to recover after the Exxon Valdez oil spill is the killer whale, or orca. Before this oil spill, scientists and oil spill experts thought that these marine mammals were able to detect and avoid oil spills. That is, until two killer whale pods were spotted swimming near or through oil from this spill. One of them, a group nicknamed the “AT1 Transients” which feed primarily on marine mammals, suffered an abrupt 40% drop in population during the 18 months following the oil spill.

The second group of affected killer whales, the fish-eating “AB Pod Residents,” lost 33% of their population, and while they have started to rebound, the transients are listed as a “depleted stock” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and may have as few as seven individuals remaining, down from a stable population of at least 22 in the 1980s.

Building on the lessons of the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon oil spills, NOAA has developed an emergency plan for keeping the endangered Southern Resident killer whale populations of Washington and British Columbia away from potential oil spills.

6. Tuna troubles

Top: A normal young yellowfin tuna. Bottom: A deformed yellowfin tuna exposed to oil during development.

A normal yellowfin tuna larva (top), and a larva exposed to Deepwater Horizon crude oil during development (bottom). The oil-exposed larva shows a suite of abnormalities including excess fluid building up around the heart due to heart failure and poor growth of fins and eyes. (NOAA)

How does crude oil affect fish populations? In the decades since the Exxon Valdez spill, teams of scientists have been studying the long-term effects of oil on fish such as herring, pink salmon, and tuna. In the first couple years after this spill, they found that oil was in fact toxic to developing fish, curving their spines, reducing the size of their eyes and jaws, and building up fluid around their hearts.

As part of this rich research tradition begun after the Exxon Valdez spill, NOAA scientists helped uncover the precise mechanisms for how this happens after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. The photo here shows both a normal yellowfin tuna larva not long after hatching (top) and a larva exposed to Deepwater Horizon crude oil as it developed in the egg (bottom).

The oil-exposed larva exhibits a suite of abnormalities, showing how toxic chemicals in oil such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) can affect the embryonic heart. By altering the embryonic heartbeat, exposure to oil can transform the shape of the heart, with implications for how well the fish can swim and survive as an adult.

7. Caught between a rock and a hard place

Mearns Rock boulder in 2003.

The boulder nicknamed “Mearns Rock,” located in the southwest corner of Prince William Sound, Alaska, was coated in oil which was not cleaned off after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. This image was taken in 2003. (NOAA)

Not all impacts from an oil spill are as easy to see as deformed fish hearts. As NOAA scientists Alan Mearns and Gary Shigenaka have learned since 1989, picking out those impacts from the noisy background levels of variability in the natural environment become even harder when the global climate and ocean are undergoing unprecedented change as well.

Mearns, for example, has been monitoring the boom and bust cycles of marine life on a large boulder—nicknamed “Mearns Rock”—that was oiled but not cleaned after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. What he and Shigenaka have observed on that rock and elsewhere in Prince William Sound has revealed large natural swings in the numbers of mussels, seaweeds, and barnacles, changes which are unrelated to the oil spill as they were occurring even in areas untouched by the spill.

Read more about how these scientists are exploring these challenges and a report on NOAA’s involvement in the wake of this spill.

8. A game culture

A view of part of the board game “On the Rocks: The Great Alaska Oil Spill” with a map of Prince William Sound.

The game “On the Rocks: The Great Alaska Oil Spill” challenges players to clean all 200 miles of shoreline oiled by the Exxon Valdez — and do so with limits on time and money. (Credit: Alaska Resources Library and Information Services, ARLIS)

Just as the Exxon Valdez oil spill touched approximately 200 miles of remote and rugged Alaskan shoreline, this spill also touched the hearts and minds of people far from the spill. References to it permeated mainstream American culture in surprising ways, inspiring a cookbook, a movie, a play, music, books, poetry, and even a board game.

That’s right, a bartender from Valdez, Alaska, produced the board game “On the Rocks: The Great Alaska Oil Spill” as a result of his experience employed in spill cleanup. Players vied to be the first to wash all 200 miles of oiled shoreline without running out of time or money.

9. Carrying a piece of the ship

The rusted and nondescript piece of steel on the left was a piece of the tanker Exxon Valdez, recovered by the salvage crew in 1989 and given to NOAA marine biologist Gary Shigenaka. It was the beginning of his collection of Exxon Valdez artifacts and remains the item with the biggest personal value to him. The piece of metal on the right, inscribed with "On the rocks," is also metal from the ship but was purchased on eBay.

The rusted and nondescript piece of steel on the left was a piece of the tanker Exxon Valdez, recovered by the salvage crew in 1989 and given to NOAA marine biologist Gary Shigenaka. It was the beginning of his collection of Exxon Valdez artifacts and remains the item with the biggest personal value to him. The piece of metal on the right, inscribed with “On the rocks,” is also metal from the ship but was purchased on eBay. (NOAA)

One NOAA scientist in particular, Gary Shigenaka, who kicked off his career working on the Exxon Valdez oil spill, was personally touched by this spill as well. After receiving a small chunk of metal from the ship’s salvage, Shigenaka began amassing a collection of Exxon Valdez–related memorabilia, ranging from a highball glass commemorating the ship’s launch in 1986 (ironic considering the questions surrounding its captain being intoxicated the night of the accident) to the front page of the local paper the day of the spill.

See more photos of his collection.

10. The infamous ship’s fate

Exxon Valdez/Exxon Mediterranean/Sea River Mediterranean/S/R Mediterranean/Mediterranean/Dong Fang Ocean/Oriental Nicety being dismantled on the beach of Alang, India, 2012.

Exxon Valdez/Exxon Mediterranean/Sea River Mediterranean/S/R Mediterranean/Mediterranean/Dong Fang Ocean/Oriental Nicety being dismantled in Alang, India, 2012. Photo by ToxicsWatch Alliance.

After causing the largest-to-date oil spill in U.S. waters, what ever happened to the ill-fated Exxon Valdez ship? It limped back for repairs to San Diego Bay where it was built, but by the time it was sea-ready again, the ship had been banned from Prince William Sound by the Oil Pollution Act and would instead be reassigned to the Mediterranean and Middle East and renamed accordingly, the Exxon Mediterranean.

But a series of new names and bad luck continued to follow this ship, until it was finally sold for scrap in 2011. Under its final name, Oriental Nicety, it was intentionally grounded at the infamous shipbreaking beaches of Alang, Gujarat, India, in 2012 and dismantled in its final resting place 23 years after the Exxon Valdez ran aground half a world away.

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During the Chaos of Oil Spills, Seeking a System to Test Potential Solutions

This is a post by Ed Levine of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.

Response workers load oil containment boom onto a supply ship in Louisiana.

NOAA helped develop a systematic approach to vetting new and non-traditional spill response products and techniques during the fast-paced atmosphere of an oil spill. We helped implement this system during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill to evaluate the tens of thousands of ideas proposed during the spill. (U.S. Coast Guard)

In the pre-dawn hours of January 7, 1994, the tank barge Morris J Berman ran aground near San Juan, Puerto Rico, damaging coral and spilling more than 800,000 gallons of a thick, black fuel oil. Strong winds and waves battered the barge as it continued to leak and created dangerous conditions for spill responders.

During the hectic but organized spill response that followed [PDF] the barge’s grounding, a number of vendors appeared at the command post with spill cleanup products which they assured responders would fix everything. This scenario had played out at many earlier oil spills, and nearly every time, these peddled products were treated differently, at various times sidelined, ignored, tested, or put to use.

It’s not unexpected for the initial situation at any emergency response—be it medical, natural disaster, fire, or oil spill—to be chaotic. Responders are dealing with limited resources, expertise, and information at the very beginning.

As the situation progresses, additional help, information, and experts typically arrive to make things more manageable. Usually, in the middle of all this, people are trying to be helpful, or make a buck, and sometimes both.

At the spill response in Puerto Rico, the responders formed an official ad hoc group charged with cataloging and evaluating each new suggested cleanup product or technology. The group involved local government agencies, NOAA, and the U.S. Coast Guard. It began to develop a systematic approach to what had typically been a widely varying process at previous oil spills.

The methodology the group developed for this case was rough and quickly implemented for the situation at hand. Over the course of the several months required to deal with the damaged barge and oil spill, the ad hoc group tested several, though not all, of the potential cleanup products.

Approaching Order

A few years later, another group took this process a step further through the Regional Response Team III, a state-federal entity for response policy, planning, and coordination for West Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the District of Columbia.

This working group set out to develop a more organized and systematic way to deal with alternative oil spill response techniques and technologies, those which aren’t typically used during oil spill responses. After many months of working collaboratively, this multi-agency working group, which included me and other colleagues in NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, produced the approach known as the Alternative Response Tools Evaluation System (ARTES).

This system allows a special response team to rapidly evaluate a proposed response tool and provide feedback in the form of a recommendation to the on-scene coordinator, who directs spill responses for a specified area. This coordinator then can make an informed decision on the use of the proposed tool.


The Alternative Response Tools Evaluation System (ARTES) process is designed for use both before and after a spill. “OSC” stands for on-scene coordinator, the person who directs a spill response, and “RRT” stands for Regional Response Team, the multi-agency group charged with spill response policy, planning, and coordination for different regions of the United States.

The ARTES process is designed for two uses. First, it can be used to assess a product’s appropriateness for use during a specific incident, under specific circumstances, such as a diesel spill resulting from a damaged tug boat on the Mississippi River. Second, the process can serve as a pre-evaluation tool during pre-spill planning to identify conditions when a proposed product would be most effective.

One advantage of the ARTES process is that it provides a management system for addressing the numerous proposals submitted by vendors and others during a spill. Subjecting all proposals to the same degree of evaluation also ensures that vendors are considered on a “level playing field.”

Although developed for one geographic region, the ARTES process quickly became adopted by others around the country and has been included in numerous local and regional response plans.

Once the ARTES process was codified, several products including an oil solidifier and a bioremediation agent underwent regional pre-spill evaluations. Personally, I was involved in several of those evaluations as well as one during an actual spill.

A Flood of Oil … and Ideas

A super tanker ship with a large slit in the bow anchored in the Gulf of Mexico.

The super tanker “A Whale” after testing during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The skimming slits on its bow are being sealed because it was not able to perform as designed. This vessel design was one of more than 80,000 proposals for surface oil spill response submitted during the spill. (NOAA)

Another defining moment for the ARTES process came in 2010 during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Within the first week of the spill, the unified command, the multi-agency organization which coordinates the response and includes those responsible for the spill, was inundated with suggestions to cap the leaking well and clean up the oil released into the Gulf of Mexico.

At one of the morning coordination meetings, the BP incident commander shared his frustration in keeping up with the deluge of offers. He asked if anyone had a suggestion for dealing with all of them. My hand shot up immediately.

After the meeting I spoke with leaders from both BP and the U.S. Coast Guard and described the ARTES process to them. They gave me the go-ahead to implement it. Boy, did I not know what we were in for!

As the days went by, the number of submissions kept growing, and growing, and growing. What started out as a one-person responsibility—recording submissions by phone and email—was soon taken over by a larger group staffed by the Coast Guard and California Office of Spill Prevention and Response and which eventually grew into a special unit of the response.

A dedicated website was created to receive product proposals and ideas, separate them into either a spill response or well capping method, track their progress through the evaluation system, and report the final decision to archive the idea, test it, or put it to use during the spill.

People who submitted ideas were able to track submissions and remain apprised of each one’s progress. Eventually, 123,000 individual ideas were submitted and tracked, 470 made the initial cut, 100 were formally evaluated, and about 30 were implemented during response field operations. Of the original 123,000 submissions, there were 80,000 subsurface and 43,000 surface oil spill response ideas.

One of the many proposals for cleaning up the oil took the form of the ship A Whale. It was a super tanker with a large slit in the bow at the waterline that was meant to serve as a huge skimmer, pulling oil off the ocean surface. Unfortunately, testing revealed that it didn’t work.

Some other examples of submissions included sand-cleaning machines and a barge designed to be an oil skimming and storage device (nicknamed the “Bubba Barge”) that actually did work. On the other hand, popular proposals such as human hair, feathers, and pool “noodles” didn’t perform very well.

Even under the weight of this incredible outpouring of proposals, the ARTES process held up, offering a great example of how far pre-planning can go.

Ed Levine.

Ed Levine is the Response Operations Supervisor – East for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, managing Scientific Support Coordinators from Maine to Texas.


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How Much Oil Is on That Ship?

The massive container ship Benjamin Franklin pulls into the Port of Seattle.

The container ship Benjamin Franklin, the largest cargo ship to visit the United States, arrives in Elliott Bay at the Port of Seattle on February 29, 2016. Credit: Don Wilson/Port of Seattle

Like many people with an interest in the maritime industry, I’ve been following the story of the huge container ship Benjamin Franklin that recently visited Seattle’s port.

The news stories about it were full of superlatives. It was the largest cargo vessel to visit the United States, measuring 1,310 feet in length, or longer than the height of two Space Needles.

This massive ship can carry 18,000 shipping containers, known in the business as 20-foot equivalent units or TEUs. That is more than double the cargo of most container ships calling on the Port of Seattle. Loaded on a train (and most of them will be) those containers would stretch more than 68 miles, or the distance from Tacoma, Washington, to Everett.

Considering this ship’s massive size made me wonder how much fuel is on board. After some research, I found out: about 4.5 million gallons. That makes it just a bit bigger than my sailboat which holds only 20 gallons of fuel.

Understanding the potential volumes of oil (either as fuel or cargo) carried on ships is a major consideration in spill response planning.

All tank vessels (tankers and barges) and all non-tank vessels (freighters, cruise ships, etc.) larger than 400 gross tons have to have vessel response plans. Key metrics in those plans include listing the maximum amount of oil that could be spilled (known as the worst case discharge) and the maximum most probable discharge, which, for non-tank vessels, is generally defined as 10% of the vessel’s total fuel capacity.

What about other types of vessels? How much oil in the form of fuel or cargo do they typically carry?

Here are some approximate numbers, many of which are pulled from this Washington State Department of Ecology report [PDF]:

  • Small speedboat (12–20 feet): 6–20 gallons
  • Sailing yacht (33–45 feet) : 30–120 gallons
  • Motor yacht (40–60 feet) : 200–1,200 gallons
  • Large tanker truck: 5,000–10,000 gallons
  • Small tugboat (30–60 feet): 1,500–25,000 gallons
  • Petroleum rail car: 30,000 gallons
  • Boeing 747 airplane: 50,000–60,000 gallons
  • Ocean-going tugboat (90–150 feet): 90,000–190,000 gallons
  • Puget Sound jumbo ferry (440 feet): 130,000 gallons
  • Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s yacht M/V Octopus (416 feet): 224,000 gallons
  • Bulk carrier of commodities such as grain or coal (500–700 feet): 400,000–800,000 gallons
  • Large cruise ship (900–1,100 feet): 1–2 million gallons
  • Inland tank barge (200–300 feet): 400,000–1.2 million gallons
  • Panamax container ship that passes through the Panama Canal (960 feet): 1.5–2 million gallons
  • Container ship Benjamin Franklin (1,310 feet): 4.5 million gallons
  • Ocean-going tank barge (550–750 feet): 7 million–14 million gallons
  • T/V Exxon Valdez and similar large oil tankers (987 feet): 55 million gallons

Thanks to developing technologies, such “mega-vessels” as the Benjamin Franklin appear to be on the rise, a trend we’re watching along with the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation and University of Washington.

How will these larger ships carrying more oil affect the risk of oil spills and how should NOAA prepare for these changes? Stay tuned.

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

Contsruction equipment moves sand to rebuild a New Jersey beach in front of houses damaged during Hurricane Sandy.

In Brick, New Jersey, construction crews rebuild the beaches in front of homes damaged by Hurricane Sandy. This huge storm actually changed the shape of shorelines up and down the East Coast. (Federal Emergency Management Agency/FEMA)

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Jill Petersen.

In 2012 Hurricane Sandy brought devastating winds and flooding to the Atlantic coast. In some parts of New Jersey, flood waters reached nearly 9 feet. Up and down the East Coast, this massive storm actually reshaped the shoreline.

As a result, we’ve been working to update our Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) maps to reflect the new state of Atlantic shorelines. These maps and data give oil spill planners and responders a quick snapshot of a shoreline’s vulnerability to spilled oil.

This week, we released the digital data, for use within a Geographic Information System (GIS), for the first regions updated after Hurricane Sandy. Passed the January following Sandy, the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013 provided funds to update ESI maps for eleven Atlantic coast states, ranging from Maine to South Carolina. For this project, we grouped the states into seven regions.

The GIS data for the regions released this week cover South Carolina and portions of New York and New Jersey, including the Hudson River, south Long Island, and the New York–New Jersey metropolitan area. For these two regions, we mapped more than 300 oil-sensitive species and classified over 17,000 miles of shoreline according to their sensitivity to spilled oil.

Updated GIS data and PDF maps for the remaining regions affected by Sandy will be available in the coming months.

Time for a Change

The magnitude of the overall effort has been unprecedented, and provided us with the opportunity to revisit what was mapped and how, and to update the technology used, particularly as it relates to the map production.

Our first Environmental Sensitivity Index maps were produced in the early 1980s and, since that time, the entire U.S. coast has been mapped at least once. To be most useful, these data should be updated every 5–7 years to reflect changes in shoreline and species distributions that may occur due to a variety of things, including human intervention, climate change, or, as in this case, major coastal storms.

In addition to ranking the sensitivity of different shorelines (including wetlands and tidal flats), these data and maps also show the locations of oil-sensitive animals, plants, and habitats, along with various human features that could either be impacted by oil, such as a marina, or be useful in a spill response scenario, such as access points along a beach.

New Shores, New Features

A street sign is buried under huge piles of sand in front of a beach community.

In the wake of Sandy, we’ve been updating our Environmental Sensitivity Index maps and data and adding new features, such as storm surge inundation data. Hurricane Sandy’s flooding left significant impacts on coastal communities in eleven Atlantic states. (Federal Emergency Management Agency/FEMA)

To gather suggestions for improving our ESI maps and data, we sent out user surveys, conducted interviews, and pored over historical documentation. We evaluated all suggestions while keeping the primary users—spill planners and responders—at the forefront. In the end, several major changes were adopted, and these improvements will be included in all future ESI maps and data.

Extended coverage was one of the most requested enhancements. Previous data coverage was focused primarily on the shoreline and nearshore—perhaps 2–3 miles offshore and generally less than 1 mile inland. The post-Sandy maps and data extend 12 nautical miles offshore and 5 miles inland.

This extension enables us to include data such as deep water species and migratory routes, as well as species occurring in wetlands and human-focused features found further inland. With these extra features, we were able to incorporate additional hazards to the coastal environment. One example was the addition of storm surge inundation data, provided by NOAA’s National Hurricane Center, which provide flood levels for storms classified from Category 1 to Category 5.

We also added more jurisdictional boundaries, EPA Risk Management Facilities (the EPA-regulated facilities that pose the most significant risk to life or human health), repeated measurement sites (water quality, tide gauges, Mussel Watch sites, etc.), historic wrecks, and locations of coastal invasive species. These supplement the already comprehensive human-use features that were traditionally mapped, such as access points, fishing areas, historical sites, and managed areas.

The biological data in our maps continue to represent where species occur, along with supporting information such as concentration, seasonal variability, life stage and breeding information, and the data source. During an oil spill, knowing the data source (e.g., the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) is especially important so that responders can reach out for any new information that could impact their approach to the spill response.

A new feature added to the biological data tables alerts users as to why a particular species’ occurrence may warrant more attention than another, providing context such as whether the animals are roosting or migrating. As always, we make note of state and federal threatened, endangered, or listed species.

Next up

Stay tuned for the digital data and PDF maps for additional Sandy-affected regions. While the updated PDF maps will have a slightly different look and feel than prior ones, the symbology and map links will be very familiar to long-time users.

In the meantime, we had already been working on updating ESI maps for two regions outside those funded by the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act. These regions, the outer coast of Washington and Oregon and the state of Georgia, have benefited from the general improvements brought about by this process. As of this week, you can now access the latest GIS data for these regions as well.

Jill PetersenJill Petersen began working with the NOAA spill response group in 1988. Originally a programmer and on-scene responder, in 1991 her focus switched to mapping support, a major component of which is the ESI program. Throughout the years, Jill has worked to broaden the ESI audience by providing ESIs in a variety of formats and developing appropriate mapping tools. Jill has been the ESI program manager since 2001.


How Do You Keep Killer Whales Away From an Oil Spill?

This is a guest post by Lynne Barre of NOAA Fisheries.

Two killer whales (orcas) breach in front a boat.

NOAA developed an oil spill response plan for killer whales that includes three main techniques to deploy quickly to keep these endangered animals away from a spill. (NOAA)

I sleep better at night knowing that we have a plan in place to keep endangered Southern Resident killer whales away from an oil spill. Preventing oil spills is key, but since killer whales, also known as orcas, spend much of their time in the busy waters around Seattle, the San Juan Islands, and Vancouver, British Columbia, there is always a chance a spill could happen.

The Southern Residents are a small and social population of killer whales, so an oil spill could have major impacts on the entire population if they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

We’ve learned from past experience with the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill that killer whales and other marine mammals don’t avoid oiled areas on their own and exposure to oil likely can affect their populations. New information on impacts from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill on bottlenose dolphins (a close relative of killer whales) gives us a better idea of how oil exposure can affect the health and reproduction of marine mammals.

Oil spills are a significant threat to the Southern Resident population, which totals less than 90 animals, and the 2008 recovery plan [PDF] calls for a response plan to protect them. We brought experts together in 2007 to help us identify tools and techniques to deter killer whales from oil and develop a response plan so that we’d be prepared in case a major oil spill does happen.

The Sound of Readiness

Killer whales are acoustic animals. They use sound to communicate with each other and find food through echolocation, a type of biosonar. Because sound is so important, using loud or annoying sounds is one way that we can try to keep the whales away from an area contaminated with oil. We brainstormed a variety of ideas based on experience with killer whales and other animals and evaluated a long list of ideas, including sounds, as well as more experimental approaches, such as underwater lights, air bubble curtains, and hoses.

After receiving lots of input and carefully evaluating each option, we developed an oil spill response plan for killer whales that includes three main techniques to deploy quickly if the whales are headed straight toward a spill. Helicopter hazing, banging pipes (oikomi pipes), and underwater firecrackers are on the short list of options. Here’s a little more about each approach:

  • Helicopters are often available to do surveillance of oil and look for animals when a spill occurs. By moving at certain altitudes toward the whales, a helicopter creates sound and disturbs the water’s surface, which can motivate or “haze” whales to move away from oiled areas.
  • Banging pipes, called oikomi pipes, are metal pipes about eight feet long which are lowered into the water and struck with a hammer to make a loud noise. These pipes have been used to drive or herd marine mammals. For killer whales, pipes were successfully used to help move several whales that were trapped in a freshwater lake in Alaska.
  • Underwater firecrackers can also be used to deter whales. These small explosives are called “seal bombs” because they were developed and can be used to keep seals and sea lions away [PDF] from fishing gear. These small charges were used in the 1960s and 1970s to help capture killer whales for public display in aquaria. Now we are using historical knowledge of the whales’ behavior during those captures to support conservation of the whales.

In addition, our plan includes strict safety instructions about how close to get and how to implement these deterrents in order to prevent injury of oil spill responders and the whales. In the case of an actual spill, the wildlife branch within the Incident Command (the official response team dealing with the spill, usually led by the Coast Guard) would direct qualified responders to implement the different techniques based on specific information about the oil and whales.

Planning in Practice

Several killer whales break the surface of Washington's Puget Sound.

Killer whales use sound to communicate with each other and find food through echolocation. That’s why NOAA’s plan for keeping these acoustic animals away from oil spills involves using sound as a deterrent. (NOAA)

After incorporating the killer whale response plan into our overall Northwest Area Contingency Plan for oil spills, I felt better but knew we still had some work to do.

Since finalizing the plan in 2009, we’ve been focused on securing equipment, learning more about the techniques, and practicing them during oil spill drills. Working with the U.S. Coast Guard and local hydrophone networks (which record underwater sound), we’ve flown helicopters over underwater microphones to record sound levels at different distances and altitudes.

With our partners at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Island Oil Spill Association, we built several sets of banging pipes and have them strategically staged around Puget Sound. In 2013 we conducted a drill with our partners and several researchers to test banging pipes in the San Juan Islands. It takes practice to line up several small boats, coordinate the movement of the boats, and synchronize banging a set of the pipes to create a continuous wall of sound that will discourage whales from getting close to oil. We learned a few critical lessons to update our implementation plans and to incorporate into plans for future drills.

A large oil spill in Southern Resident killer whale habitat would be a nightmare. I’m so glad we have partners focused on preventing and preparing for oil spills, and it is good to know we have a plan to keep an oil spill from becoming a catastrophe for endangered killer whales. That knowledge helps me rest easier and focus on good news like the boom in killer whale calves born to mothers in Washington’s Puget Sound.

You can find more information on our killer whale response plan and our recovery program for Southern Resident killer whales.

Lynne Barre in front of icy waters and snowy cliffs.Lynne Barre is a Branch Chief for the Protected Resources Division of NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region. She is the Recovery Coordinator for Southern Resident killer whales and works on marine mammal and endangered species conservation and recovery.

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Alaska Updates Plan for Using Dispersants During Oil Spills

Humpback whale and seabirds at surface of Bering Sea with NOAA ship beyond.

By breaking crude oils into smaller droplets, chemical dispersants reduce the surface area of an oil slick as well as the threats to marine life at the ocean surface, such as whales and seabirds. (NOAA)

While the best way to deal with oil spills in the ocean is to prevent them in the first place, when they do happen, we need to be ready. Cleanup is difficult, and there are no magic remedies to remove all the oil. Most big oil spills require a combination of cleanup tools.

This week the Alaska Regional Response Team, an advisory council for oil spill responses in Alaska, has adopted a revised plan for one of the most controversial tools in the toolbox: Chemical dispersants.

How Dispersants Are Used in Oil Spills

Dispersants are chemical compounds which, when applied correctly under the right conditions, break crude oils into smaller droplets that mix down into the water column. This reduces not only the surface area of an oil slick but also the threats to marine life at the ocean surface. By making the oil droplets smaller, they become much more available to natural degradation by oil-eating microbes.

Dispersants are controversial for many reasons, notably because they don’t remove oil from the marine environment. Mechanical removal methods are always preferred, but we also know that during large oil spills, containment booms and skimmers can get overwhelmed and other pollution response tools may be necessary. This is a big concern especially in Alaska, where weather and remote locations increase the logistical challenges inherent in a large scale oil spill response.

Although dispersants get a lot of attention because of their extensive use after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, they actually are used rarely during oil spills. In fact, dispersants have only been applied to about two dozen spills in the United States in the last 40 years. The only time they were tested during an actual spill in Alaska was during the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.

Some oils like light and medium crude are often dispersible and others, like heavy fuel oils, often are not. In some cases dispersants have worked and in others they haven’t. The results of the Exxon Valdez testing were unclear and still subject to debate. So, why have a plan for something that is rarely used and may not be successful?

Probably the biggest reason is pragmatic. Dispersants work best on fresh, unweathered oil. Ideally, they should be applied to oil within hours or days of a spill. Because time is such a critical factor to their effectiveness, dispersants need to be stockpiled in key locations, along with the associated aircraft spraying and testing equipment. People properly trained to use that equipment need to be ready to go too.

A New Plan for Alaska

Airplane sprays dispersants over an oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico.

Although only used once in an Alaskan oil spill, dispersants have already been an approved oil spill response tool in the state for a number of years. This new plan improves the decision procedures and designates areas where dispersant use may be initiated rapidly. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

Now, dispersants have already been an approved oil spill response tool in Alaska [PDF] for a number of years. This new plan improves the decision procedures and designates areas where dispersant use may be initiated rapidly while still requiring notification of the natural resource trustees, local and tribal governments, and other stakeholders before actual use.

Alaska’s new plan specifies all the requirements for applying dispersants on an oil spill in Alaskan waters and includes detailed checklists to ensure that if dispersants are used, they have a high probability of success.

The new plan sets up a limited preauthorization zone in central and western Alaska, and case-by-case procedures for dispersant use elsewhere in Alaska. The plan also recognizes that there are highly sensitive habitats where dispersant use should be avoided.

In addition, preauthorization for using dispersants exists only for oil spills that happen far offshore. Most states have similar preauthorization plans that allow dispersant use starting three nautical miles offshore. The new Alaska plan starts at 24 miles offshore.

We realize that even far offshore, there may be areas to avoid, which is why all of the spill response plans in central and western Alaska will be revised over the next two years. This will occur through a public process to identify sensitive habitats where dispersant use would be subject to additional restrictions.

Planning for the Worst, Hoping for the Best

As the NOAA representative to the Alaska Regional Response Team, I appreciate all of the effort that has gone into this plan. I am grateful we developed the many procedures through a long and inclusive planning process, rather than in a rush on a dark and stormy night on the way to an oil spill.

But I hope this plan will never be needed, because that will mean that a big oil spill has happened. Nobody wants that, especially in pristine Alaskan waters.

Any decision to use dispersants will need to be made cautiously, combining the best available science with the particular circumstances of an oil spill. In some cases, dispersants may not be the best option, but in other scenarios, there may be a net environmental benefit from using dispersants. Having the dispersants, equipment, plans, and training in place will allow us to be better prepared to make that critical decision should the time come.

At the same time, NOAA and our partners are continuing to research and better understand the potential harm and trades-offs of dispersant use following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. We are participating in an ongoing effort to understand the state of the science on dispersants and their potential use in Arctic waters. (The University of New Hampshire is now accepting comments on the topic of dispersant efficacy and effectiveness.)

You can find Alaska’s new dispersant policy and additional information at the Alaska Regional Response Team website at

For more information on our work on dispersants, read the April 2015 article, “What Have We Learned About Using Dispersants During the Next Big Oil Spill?” and July 2013 article, “Watching Chemical Dispersants at Work in an Oil Spill Research Facility.”

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Our Top 10 New Year’s Resolutions for 2016

2015 written on a sandy beach with an approaching wave.

So long, 2015. Hello, 2016!

Another year has gone by, and we’ve stayed plenty busy: responding to a leaking California pipeline, examining the issue of wrecked and abandoned ships, preparing a natural resource damage assessment and restoration plan for the Gulf of Mexico, and removing 32,201 pounds of marine debris from Hawaii’s Midway Atoll.

You can read more about what we accomplished in the last year, but keep in mind we have big goals for 2016 too. We’re aiming to:

  1. Be better models. This spring, we are planning to release an overhaul of our signature oil spill trajectory forecasting (GNOME) and oil weathering (ADIOS) models, which will be combined into one tool and available via an online interface for the first time.
  2. Tidy up. Our coasts, that is. In the next year, we will oversee marine debris removal projects in 17 states and territories, empowering groups to clean up coastal areas of everything from plastics to abandoned fishing gear.
  3. Use or lose. Nature and wildlife offer a lot of benefits to people, and we make use of them in a number of ways, ranging from recreational fishing to birdwatching to deep-seated cultural beliefs. In 2016 we’ll examine what we lose when nature and wildlife get harmed from pollution and how we calculate and make up for those losses.
  4. Get real. About plastic in the ocean, that is. We’ll be turning our eye toward the issue of plastic in the ocean, how it gets there, what its effects are, and what we can do to keep it out of the ocean.
  5. Explore more. We’ll be releasing an expanded, national version of our DIVER data management tool, which currently holds only Deepwater Horizon data for the Gulf of Mexico, allowing us and our partners to better explore and analyze ocean and coastal data from around the country.
  6. Get artistic. Through our NOAA Marine Debris Program, we are funding projects to create art from ocean trash to raise awareness of the issue and keep marine debris off our coasts and out of our ocean.
  7. Break ground on restoration. Finalizing the draft comprehensive restoration plan for the Gulf of Mexico, following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, will bring us one step closer to breaking ground on many restoration projects over the next several years.
  8. App to it. We are working on turning CAMEO Chemicals, our popular database of hazardous chemicals, into an application (app) for mobile devices, making access to critical information about thousands of potentially dangerous chemicals easier than ever.
  9. Train up. We pride ourselves on providing top-notch training opportunities, and in 2016, we already have Science of Oil Spill classes planned in Mobile, Alabama, and Ann Arbor, Michigan (with more to come). Plus, we’ve introduced a brand-new Science of Chemical Releases class, designed to provide information and tools to better manage and plan for responses to chemical incidents.
  10. Get strategic. We are updating our five year strategic plan, aligning it with NOAA’s Ocean Service strategic priorities [PDF], which are coastal resilience (preparedness, response, and recovery), coastal intelligence, and place-based conservation.