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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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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Science of Oil Spills Training: Apply for Summer 2017

Two men talking shoreline in background.

Science of Oil Spills classes help new and mid-level spill responders better understand the scientific principles underlying oil’s fate, behavior, and movement, and how that relates to various aspects of cleanup. The classes also inform responders of considerations to minimize environmental harm and promote recovery during an oil spill. (NOAA)

NOAA‘s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R), a leader in providing scientific information in response to marine pollution, has scheduled a summer Science of Oil Spills (SOS) class in Seattle, Washington, June 19-23, 2017.

OR&R will accept applications for the Seattle class until Friday, April 7, 2017. We will notify applicants regarding their application status no later than Friday, April 14, via email.

SOS classes help spill responders increase their understanding of oil spill science when analyzing spills and making risk-based decisions. They are designed for new and mid-level spill responders.

SOS training covers:

  • Fate and behavior of oil spilled in the environment.
  • An introduction to oil chemistry and toxicity.
  • A review of basic spill response options for open water and shorelines.
  • Spill case studies.
  • Principles of ecological risk assessment.
  • A field trip.
  • An introduction to damage assessment techniques.
  • Determining cleanup endpoints.

To view the topics for the next SOS class, download a sample agenda [PDF, 170 KB].

Please understand that classes are not filled on a first-come, first-served basis. We try to diversify the participant composition to ensure a variety of perspectives and experiences, to enrich the workshop for the benefit of all participants. Classes are generally limited to 40 participants.

For more information, and to learn how to apply for the class, visit the SOS Classes page.


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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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Using Big Data to Share Scientific Knowledge

Green sea turtle hatchling making tracks in the sand.

Data management tools like NOAA’s DIVER help turn lots of disparate sets of data into insight about the nature and location of the greatest threats to marine wildlife. (NOAA)

By Ben Shorr

Big data.

The term has been a buzzword in the media and data management circles for years now, but what does it mean and how does it relate to modern science?

In general, big data is defined as extremely large data sets that cannot be easily analyzed using traditional database methods. In today’s data-driven economy, business and media companies have embraced big data as a way to analyze how to better serve their customers.

Scientists look at big data from a different perspective. New tools and techniques have improved how we manage and share datasets, and also how we store, process and analyze scientific data. Having to manage and analyze large amounts of data is not new to science: Collecting and analyzing information is the foundation of scientific inquiry. What has changed is the sheer volume of digitized data available to scientists, distributed storage environments (i.e., the Cloud), and the challenge of how to integrate and broadcast those data.

In the past, scientists often distributed data by presenting at conferences or publishing in peer-reviewed scientific journals. That meant good science was collected in binders and placed on bookshelves in a physical location. In addition, scientists were not always so forthcoming in sharing data because of the real fear of getting scooped, but the culture is changing — and scientists are seeing benefits of sharing data earlier to both the science community and the public.

These are a few of the challenges encountered in trying to address the unprecedented magnitude and complexity of data collected and available for environmental spill response and restoration.

Integrating environmental data 

The real world experience with legacy data management systems and building new data management systems to work with those existing programs, has informed our entire approach to managing environmental data, and is a key part of our approach to current and future data management.

For years, NOAA and ocean advocates have been talking about a concept known as “ecosystem-based management” for marine species and habitats. Put simply, ecosystem-based management is a way to find out what happens to the larger tapestry design and function when one thread is pulled from the cloth.

We were able to leverage “big data” techniques and develop a data warehouse and information portal built with open source tools for ingesting, integrating and organizing information. This tool, called the Data Integration Visualization, Exploration and Reporting (DIVER) application, allows scientific teams from different organizations to upload their field data and other key information related to their studies, such as scanned field notes, electronic data sheets, scanned images, photographs, and to filter and download results.

For instance, the large quantity and multitude of sources for the data collected from the Deepwater Horizon (DWH) spill results in datasets of different types and structures. DIVER addresses this challenge by integrating standardized data and allowing users to query across multiple datasets simultaneously.

 

Map view of DIVER software map showing where tagged dolphins swam in the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

A map view of DIVER shows where tagged dolphins traveled along the Gulf Coast, showing two populations that stayed in their home bases of Barataria Bay and Mississippi Sound. (NOAA)

 

To facilitate this process, the DIVER team developed common data models, which provides a consistent and standardized structure for managing and exchanging information. DIVER was developed to support data generated in the DWH oil spill response and assessment efforts. DIVER data models and a data warehouse approach have expanded to serve the entire coastal and Great Lakes of the United States. The common data model concept is based upon creating data schemas, which serve as blueprints to organize and standardize information.

Powerful tools for protecting marine habitats

Data integration systems like DIVER put all of that information in one place at one time, allowing users to look for causes and effects that they might not have ever known were there and then use that information to better manage species recovery. These data give us a new kind of power for protecting marine species.

Systems like DIVER are set up to take advantage of quantum leaps in computing power and tools that were not available to the field of environmental conservation 10 years ago. These advances give DIVER the ability to accept reams of diverse and seemingly unrelated pieces of information and, over time, turn them into insight about the nature and location of the greatest threats to marine wildlife.

 

Ultimately, all the advancement in data sharing benefits not only the science and academic communities but also the public.

Ben Shorr has been a physical scientist with the Office of Response and Restoration since he came to Seattle (mostly to ski and sail) in 2000. Ben works on a range of topics, from cleanup, damage assessment, and restoration to visualization and spatial analysis. In his spare time, Ben enjoys hanging out with his kids, which means riding bikes, skiing, and sailing too!


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Remediation vs. Restoration: A Tale of Two Terms

Tall grass growing in muddy marsh water.

Hazardous substances released over time from a Gulf of Mexico oil refinery required NOAA and its partners to restore intertidal marsh at the Lower Neches Water Management Area in Port Arthur, Texas. Photographed here in 2006. (NOAA)

When rivers, coastal waters or the ocean are polluted, regardless of the source, government agencies begin using terms that may be unfamiliar to the general public. Two common terms used are remediation and restoration.

Remediation and restoration describe actions that return natural areas to healthy communities for fish, wildlife, and people. So what is the difference between remediation and restoration?

What is Remediation?

Remediation is the process of stopping or reducing pollution that is threatening the health of people or wildlife. For example, cleaning up sediments – the bottoms of rivers, lakes, marshes, and the ocean – often involves having to physically remove those sediments. One successful method of removing polluted sediments is dredging. Large buckets scoop up contaminated sediment which is then transported by barge to designated areas for safe disposal.

Mechanical shovel scooping rover water.

Excavator dredging soft sediment from Menominee River near former 8th Street slip. NOAA

The Environmental Protection Agency, along with state agencies, often lead these cleanup efforts. The Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) scientists advise agencies on the most effective methods to minimize remaining contamination and how to avoid harm to plants and animals during the cleanup.

The input of these NOAA scientists helps guide cleanup decisions and promotes faster recovery of wildlife and fish using the area, ultimately benefiting not just the environment but the local economies and communities of these formerly contaminated areas.

What is Restoration?

So if remediation is removal and cleanup of pollution, what is left to do? Plenty.

Once the harmful contamination causing pollutants are removed or contained, the next step is to restore the habitat. Restoration is the enhancement, creation, or re-creation of habitats, those places where fish and wildlife live. During this phase, construction projects are often undertaken to return the environment to a healthy functioning ecosystem.

Volunteers planting grass.

Volunteers plant Switch Grass during the 2010 NOAA Restoration Day event at the NOAA Cooperative Oxford Lab in Oxford, Maryland

Remediation controls the pollution, while restoration efforts, like the construction of wetlands and the planting of trees and vegetation, complete the process of providing healthy habitat for fish and wildlife, and ensuring safe environments for people to live and work in.

Remediation and restoration are most effective when they are done together in a coordinated effort. OR&R partners with other federal and state agencies and nonprofit organizations to not only cleanup pollution and restore habitats, but to hold polluters accountable to fund restoration efforts across America.

Some of the many contaminated sites where OR&R’s remediation and restoration work is ongoing include:


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Argo Merchant: A Woods Hole Scientist’s Personal Perspective

Large ship on the ocean.

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

By John W. Farrington

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Typed letter authroizing research vessel to the Argo Merchant spill.

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 


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Argo Merchant: The Growth of Scientific Support

Black and white photo of ship with waves crashing on it.

Heavy seas cover the decks of the Argo Merchant while the tanker lies aground near Nantucket Island. Credit: Coast Guard Historian

Disasters often spark major changes. The sinking of the Titanic led to increased international requirements for lifesaving equipment, and the Exxon Valdez led to double-hull tankers and a host of other safety improvements. The 1976 grounding of the Argo Merchant led to the creation of the Scientific Support Coordinator (SSC) program that today is the backbone of the marine spill response.

The road to SSC program started with the nation’s first National Contingency Plan (NCP) in 1968, a result of the massive oil 1967 spill from the tanker Torrey Canyon off the coast of the United Kingdom. There was no plan in place to cope with the more than 37 million gallons of crude oil spilled into the water, causing governmental confusion and massive environmental damage.

To avoid the problems England faced by response officials involved in the Torrey Canyon incident, the United States developed a coordinated approach to cope with potential spills in the nation’s waters. The 1968 plan provided the first comprehensive system of accident reporting, spill containment and cleanup. The plan also established a response headquarters, a national reaction team and regional reaction teams (precursors to the current National Response Team and Regional Response Teams).

Filling a gap in science coordination

But that 1968 NCP had some gaps. One was science coordination. The 1976 Argo Merchant spill threatened one of the most productive fishing grounds in the nation, and raised the immediate attention of the high concentration of federal, state and academic science institutions in the region.  And those scientists had no shortage of ideas, predictions, and samples they wanted collected as well as studies they wanted to conduct. However, the United States Coast Guard (USCG), the federal agency tasked with responding to spills, had its hands full with the stricken tanker, growing slicks, and mounting public concerns.

Earlier that year, NOAA and USCG had established the Spilled Oil Research (SOR) team to study the effects of oil and gas exploration in Alaska. This team was a network of coastal geologists, marine biologists, chemists, and oceanographers that could go on-scene at “spills of opportunity” with the goal of investigating oil spill impacts and improve oil spill forecasting models.

The Argo Merchant spill was the first major deployment of the SOR Team. After arriving on scene, the Coast Guard quickly asked the SOR Team to act as its scientific adviser and be an informal liaison with the scientific community concerned with the spill.

The coordination was rocky at first, but within a few months of the spill, the NOAA team compiled and published “The Argo Merchant Oil Spill; a Preliminary Scientific Report.”  The 200+ page initial report represented the work of over 100 scientists from numerous agencies and institutions:

  • NOAA
  • USCG
  • NASA
  • The U.S. Navy
  • Department of the Interior
  • The Commonwealth of Massachusetts
  • University of Rhode Island
  • Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • University of Southern California
  • Manomet Bird Observatory
  • Marine Biological Laboratory

Several other synthesis reports were published in the following year.

From HAZMAT to the Emergency Response Division

After the Argo Merchant spill, NOAA created the Hazardous Material Response Division (HAZMAT team) to provide scientific expertise during a response incident. Now called the Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division, it has grown from a handful of oceanographers, mathematicians, and computer modelers in 1976, into a highly diverse team of chemists, biologists, geologists, information management specialists, and technical and administrative support staff.

The once-informal role of scientific coordination is now formally recognized in the National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan. NOAA has a dozen Scientific Support Coordinators (SSCs) attached to USCG offices around the country. During spills, training, and exercises, the SSC is a direct science advisor to the Federal On-scene Coordinator.

In 2016, the SSC team responded to 178 spills around the country. The SSCs still serve USCG to help protect the public, the environment, and economic interests — in the nation’s ports and waterways, along the coast, on international waters, or in any maritime region as required to support national security and help maintain the health and vibrancy of our nation’s oceans and coasts.

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