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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High Water and Sunken Oil on the Great Mississippi

Man in orange uniform inspecting wrecked barge.

U.S. Coast Guard conducting initial damage survey of barge from the UTV Amy Frances. Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

If you can’t see spilled oil, how do you find it and clean it up?

That’s the situation emergency responders faced in two oil spills on the Mississippi River that challenged their understanding of how to approach evaluating oil spill conditions.

The first incident was Sept. 3, 2015 when two tow barges collided on the Lower Mississippi River near Columbus, Kentucky. The second was Jan. 21, 2016 when a barge towed by the UTV Amy Frances struck the Natchez Bridge on the Lower Mississippi River. The Lower Mississippi is the most traveled and commercially important portion of the river’s system.

In both instances, the U.S. Coast Guard requested assistance from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration has scientific support coordinators stationed throughout the country to respond to spill emergencies.

The two incidents also spilled slurry oil—a byproduct of the oil refining process, which is denser than water and so, sinks instead of floating on the water’s surface. Despite understanding the scientific attributes of the oil, the responders needed to know where it was and how it would react to the river’s high water conditions.

“Just because you know the physical properties doesn’t tell you it will stay in one piece or get torn to bits and scattered all over the river bottom,” said Adam Davis, NOAA scientific support coordinator in the Gulf of Mexico who responded to both spills. “What we didn’t know was how it would interact with the river bottom and whether the best practice assessment tools would work given the river conditions at the time.”

In other words, would the oil sink and go straight to the bottom as one coherent mass or, would the currents tear it into pieces and take it downstream over a larger area? Or, would the oil be rapidly buried and evade the ability to locate and recover it?

Damaged barge.

A view of the damaged barge Apex 3508, whose tug boat collided with another on Sept. 2, 2015, causing an oil spill on the Mississippi River near Columbus, Kentucky. The rest of the oil on board the barge was removed. Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

Locating sunken oil in a large, dynamic river like the Lower Mississippi can be daunting. Fortunately, In the case of the Apex 3508 barge collision in Kentucky, the response team was able to use sophisticated side scan sonar and multibeam sonar to locate the oil and map the river bottom. Additionally, a novel dredging technique using an environmental clamshell-dredging device proved effective in recovery.

By the time of the Natchez Bridge incident, the river had moved from its low water condition typical of late summer to the extreme high water associated with seasonal spring flooding. Measurements showed the river raged from 8-13 knots (9-14 miles per hour) and was discharging about 1.8 million cubic feet of water per second. The response team again used side scan and multibeam sonar, but in this instance more to understand how the high flow conditions would affect what was going on along the river bottom. The multibeam imagery showed 30-50 foot tall sand waves were moving along the river bottom at a rate of about 30 feet in about two hours.

“Given the immense amount of sediment being transported rapidly downstream as evidenced by the multibeam imagery, we immediately knew that any oil that had found its way to the bottom near mid channel had been rapidly buried by the next massive sand wave and was unlikely to be recovered any time soon,” Davis said.

When the river is moving swiftly, the safest place for a damaged barge that can’t be transported to a fixed facility is often along the riverbank. The problem with a leaking barge pushed in along a flooded riverbank is that it is hard and often dangerous to assess the leakage. This was certainly the case in the Natchez incident.

“We knew the side scan and multibeam tools simply wouldn’t work well up close to the barge, Davis said. “There was just too much interference caused by the barge and the flooded trees along the bank to be able to see what was going on.”

The typical snare drag or probing for oil would not work in the high water conditions either. The equipment would snag on debris and vegetation below the water’s surface, and operating a vessel in a flooded tree line was unsafe.

“In order to probe we needed an object that could be easily and quickly fabricated from items on-hand,” Davis said. “The right tool didn’t exist, the solution called for a little ingenuity and quick action.”

Pole with oil dripping from the end onto a white pad.

The makeshift “cotton swab” tool created to collect oil samples from the submerged trees along the flooded riverbank during the response to the Amy Frances incident. Credit: NOAA

With the barge pushed in to the bank, securely tied off, and under the control of the tow, it offered a stable and safe enough platform for the response team to take a long pole with its ends wrapped in sorbent material and probe along the shore side. The new tool looked like a giant cotton swab and proved effective in quickly confirming the presence of sunken oil along the bank.

“Often I find that people are quite surprised that oil spill response strategies can be pretty low-tech sometimes and still be effective,” Davis said. “In the ‘NCIS’ age of ‘isn’t there a high tech gadget that can just easily fix your complex and dynamic problem’? Sometimes it is hard to convey that to people.”

Despite standards for evaluating oil spills, every spill has its unique challenges that require a deep understanding of science and an ability to think creatively.


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Derelict Fishing Gear and the Death of Chesapeake Bay Blue Crabs

Infographic on the impacts of derelict crab pots in Chesapeake Bay

This infographic more plainly outlines the impacts of derelict crab pots in Chesapeake Bay from as study funded by NOAA’s Marine Debris Program. Credit NOAA

 

With the start of the Chesapeake Bay crabbing season only a few days away, a recent study funded by NOAA’s Marine Debris Program shows how lost or abandoned (derelict) crab pots can cause big problems for wildlife and have serious economic impacts.

Derelict crab pots compete with active pots and can unintentionally kill 3.3 million blue crabs each year that are never harvested. Not only is this bad for crabbers, but it can also affect more than 40 fish species that are unintentionally caught (known as bycatch) in derelict traps.

Read more about how NOAA’s Marine Debris program is helping remove derelict pots from Chesapeake Bay and around the country.

 


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Showcasing Our Partnership with Coast Guard on Instagram

Ship's upper deck with rainbow.

A NOAA research team journeyed to the icy Arctic north of Alaska in 2014 on board the USCG Cutter Healy. A rain shower through Unimak Pass in the Aleutian Islands provided a rainbow, visible from an Arctic survey boat accompanying the Healy. (Credit NOAA)

This week the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of Response and Restoration will be taking over U.S. Coast Guard’s Instagram to showcase our long partnership.

Coming up at the end of this week, March 24, is the anniversary of Exxon Valdez – one of the largest oils spills in the nation’s history. However, our history actually goes back prior to Exxon Valdez to the grounding of the tanker Argo Merchant in 1976.

During the week, we’ll post photos of our work with the Coast Guard from our beginning to the present spotlighting our  work together in the Arctic, during hurricanes, Deepwater Horizon, and other incidents.

Head on over to USCG Instagram and view how we partner to keep the nation’s coasts and waterways safe for maritime commerce, recreational activities, and wildlife.

Read these recent articles about our partnership:

5 Ways the Coast Guard and NOAA Partner

Below Zero: Partnership between the Coast Guard and NOAA


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Life At Sea or Scientist on Land: NOAA Corps Offers Both

Large white NOAA ship with mountains in background.

NOAA Ship Rainier is a hydrographic survey vessel that maps the ocean to aid maritime commerce, improve coastal resilience, and understand the marine environment. Credit: NOAA

By Cmdr. Jesse Stark, NOAA Corps

A life at sea, or a career conserving natural resources?

That was the choice I was contemplating while walking along the docks in Port Angeles, Washington, back in 1998. A chance encounter that day with the chief quartermaster of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Ship Rainer showed me I could do both.

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest I spent my time exploring the woods, beaches, and tide pools. Every summer I reread Jack London’s “The Sea Wolf”, and Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” My first job was a as a deck hand on charter fishing boats out of Port Angeles.

So, when Quartermaster Bernie Greene invited me aboard that day and told me stories with a sense of adventure, I signed onto the Rainer as an able-bodied seaman, and we headed to Alaska. That first voyage had me hooked and I joined NOAA Corps, leading to my current assignment as the Northwest scientific support coordinator.

NOAA has a long history of supplying scientific support to oil spills, starting with the Argo Merchant incident in 1976, and NOAA Corps history stretches back even farther to President Thomas Jefferson’s order for the first survey of the nation’s coast.

Today, the corps’ commissioned officers command NOAA’s fleet of research and survey vessels and aircraft, and also rotate to serve within each of NOAA’s other divisions. That combination of duties offers a breadth of experience that I draw upon in my current post in NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration‘s Emergency Response Division.

Man in uniform holding little girl inside ship.

Commander Jesse Stark holding daughter Izzie on NOAA Ship Pisces after a ceremony in Pascagoula, Mississippi at a ceremony donating an anchor to the city for its “Anchor Village,” a retail park constructed near the ship’s homeport after Hurricane Katrina. Credit: NOAA

In the event of an oil spill or chemical release, the U.S. Coast Guard has the primary responsibility for managing clean-up activities; the scientific support coordinator’s role is to provide scientific expertise and to communicate with other affected agencies or organizations to reach a common consensus on response actions.

During my 18-year career as a corps officer, I’ve had eight permanent assignments, four on ships and four on land in three different NOAA divisions. Those different assignments allowed me to develop skills in bringing resources and differing perspectives together to work toward a common goal. Often, operating units get stagnant and stove-piped, and having new blood with new perspective and outlook rotating through alleviates some of that.

It’s also enabled me to build relationships across different divisions and tie together processes and practices among the different operating units, and sometimes, competing ideologies.

As an example, my first land assignment was with NOAA Fisheries’ Protected Resources Division in Portland, Oregon. While there, I produced a GIS-based distribution map of each recorded ocean catch of salmon and steelhead by watershed origin. While this project involved mainly technical aptitude and data mining, I was also involved with writing biological opinions on research authorizations of endangered salmon species.

This required coordination of many competing and differing viewpoints on management of these species. Consensus had to be reached and often an impasse had to be broken among people with deep passions on these issues.

One of my most challenging assignments was in 2010 when I was executive officer of NOAA Ship Pisces that responded to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

During the Deepwater Horizon response, the normal collecting of living marine resource data was replaced with a new process of collecting water and sediment samples better suited to the situation. The incident also showed how industry and government can, and must, work side by side for the good of the public and natural resources.

All of these skills together are proving to come in handy as a science coordinator, where in any given situation there can be as many as five different federal agencies, three state agencies, and several private companies with differing opinions. I’m happy to put my skills and experiences to good use in teamwork building and consensus for the greater good.

 

Commander Stark joined NOAA’s Emergency Response Division in August 2016. Stark’s last assignment was commanding officer of the NOAA ship Oscar Dyson in Alaska. Stark started in NOAA as a seaman on the NOAA Ship Rainier in 1998 and was commissioned into the NOAA Corps in 1999. 


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NOAA Scientist Supports Alaska Pipeline Leak Response

Beluga whale dorsal in ocean.

An endangered Cook Inlet beluga whale dorsal. National Marine Fisheries has more information on the whales. (Credit NOAA)

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is assisting the U.S. Coast Guard in responding to a leaking natural gas pipeline in Cook Inlet, Alaska.

The leak was first reported to federal regulatory agencies on Feb. 7, by Hilcorp Alaska, LLC, which owns the pipeline located about 3.5 miles northeast of Nikiski, Alaska.

The 8-inch pipeline runs 4.6 miles from the shoreline to Hilcorp’s Platform A and then branches off to three other platforms in the inlet. The natural gas is used for fuel to support ongoing operations, as well as heating, and other life support functions.

The pipeline continues to leak between 200,000 and 300,000 cubic feet of processed natural gas a day into the inlet. This processed natural gas is 99% methane. The company said the presence of ice is preventing divers from conducting repairs, and the sea ice is not expected to melt until April.

Once notified of the leak, the U.S. Coast Guard contacted the scientific support coordinator in Alaska, Catherine Berg. She was asked for information on the expected area presenting flammability concerns in support of cautionary notices being broadcast to mariners. As scientific support coordinator, Berg routinely provides scientific and technical support during response for oil spills and hazardous materials releases in the coastal zone, helping to assess the risks to people and the environment.

Because of the nature of the release, in this case, Berg is providing technical support to the Coast Guard and the state as requested, drawing upon similar networks and expertise.

You can read more about NOAA’s work in response and restoration in Alaska in the following articles:

An Oiled River Restored: Salmon Return to Alaskan Stream to Spawn

At the Trans Alaska Pipeline’s Start, Where 200 Million Barrels of Oil Begin their Journey Each Year

Alaska ShoreZone: Mapping over 46,000 Miles of Coastal Habitat

See What Restoration Looks Like for an Oiled Stream on an Isolated Alaskan Island

Melting Permafrost and Camping with Muskoxen: Planning for Oil Spills on Arctic Coasts

National Marine Fisheries has more information on the endangered Cook Inlet beluga whales.

 


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Is Marine Debris Spreading Invasive Species?

Plant growing on cement wall.

A close-up of marine life found on a derelict dock from Japan that washed up on Agate Beach in Newport, Oregon. Credit: Oregon State University, Hatfield Marine Science Center

If you ask a gardener what a weed is, the answer is likely to be any plant growing where they don’t want it. Invasive species, be they plant, animal, or insect, are much more harmful than an unwanted plant in a well-tended garden.

Invasive species are interlopers that muscle out natives by outcompeting them for resources, like food and shelter. Left unchecked, the invaders can lead to the extinction of native plants and animals. In the marine environment, this can result in damaging local economies and fundamental disruptions of coastal and Great Lakes wildlife habits.

Invasive species can colonize a new area via the ballast water of oceangoing ships, intentional and accidental releases of aquaculture species, aquarium specimens or bait, and marine debris.

Growing concern about increasing amounts of marine debris in our oceans has led scientists to research the potential for invasive species to hitch rides on debris and carry them to new areas across the globe.

NOAA’s Marine Debris Program has a new report exploring the subject. Read “Marine Debris as a Potential Pathway for Invasive Species” for detailed information.


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Below Zero: Partnership between the Coast Guard and NOAA

Red and white large ship on ocean with ice.

Coast Guard icebreaker Cutter Healy perches next to a shallow melt pond on the ice in the Chukchi Sea, north, of the Arctic Circle July 20, 2016. During Cutter Healy’s first of three missions during their West Arctic Summer Deployment, a team of 46 researchers from the University of Alaska-Anchorage and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) studied the Chukchi Sea ecosystem. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Ensign Brian P. Hagerty/CGC Healy

By Lt. Cmdr. Morgan Roper, U.S. Coast Guard

For more than 200 years, the U.S. Coast Guard and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have partnered together in maritime resiliency, environmental sustainability and scientific research. In fact, a variety of NOAA projects encompassed over 50 percent of Coast Guard Cutter Healy operations for 2016, including a Coast Guard and NOAA collaborative effort to chart the extended continental shelf and survey marine habitats and biodiversity. Today, more than ever in the past, the Coast Guard and NOAA are working together on numerous levels of profession in the U.S. Arctic Region, which happens to be Coast Guard Alaska‘s northern area of responsibility, or AOR. From daily sector operations and district-led full scale exercises to partnering on the national level in workgroups under the Arctic Council, Coast Guard and NOAA have a strong working relationship supporting and representing the U.S. in cold weather operations and Arctic initiatives.

In a recent search and rescue case off the coast of the Pribilof Islands, where the fishing vessel Destination sank suddenly in the frigid seas, NOAA’s National Weather Service (NWS) Regional Operations Center was the Coast Guard’s ‘first call’ to get current weather information in support of search plan development. NOAA and NWS also played a role in setting the stage for the potential cause of the incident by providing sea state information and the dangerous effects of sea spray icing on vessels. For SAR planning and other mission support, NOAA’s NWS Ice Program also works with the Port of Anchorage on a daily basis with regards to ice conditions all along the coastline of Alaska, and provides bi-weekly regional weather briefs for the district and sector command centers; they are part of the ‘team’ when it comes to response planning and preparation. NOAA and the Coast Guard continue to work diligently together to ensure all possible capabilities from the U.S. Government enterprise are available to support homeland security and Arctic domain awareness on a broader, high level position.

On a national level, personnel from Coast Guard and NOAA headquarters partner together as members of the Arctic Council’s Emergency Prevention Preparedness and Response  working group. This group addresses various aspects of prevention, preparedness and response to environmental emergencies in the Arctic. The Coast Guard and NOAA jointly play a large role in ensuring operational support and training mechanisms are in place for vital response capacities and capabilities.

Man on ship deck launching mini aircraft.

National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration scientist Kevin Vollbrecht launches a Puma unmanned aerial vehicle from the bow of the Coast Guard Cutter Healy July 11, 2015. The Puma is being tested for flight and search and rescue capabilities. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

The Coast Guard also fully employs the use of NOAA’s Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA) in the Arctic. ERMA is NOAA’s online mapping tool that integrates both static and real-time data, such as ship locations, weather, and ocean currents, in a common operational picture for environmental responders and decision makers to use during incidents. Also used for full scale exercises, in 2016, the Healy employed ERMA onboard to help provide a centralized display of response assets, weather data and other environmental conditions for the incident response coordinators. In the same exercise, NOAA tested unmanned aerial systems for use with Coast Guard operations in the Arctic. Furthermore, NOAA and the Coast Guard are working together with indigenous communities to learn how ERMA can best be used to protect the natural resources and unique lifestyle of the region. ERMA has been in use by the Coast Guard in other major response events, such as Deepwater Horizon; where it was the primary tool providing Coast Guard and other support agency leadership a real-time picture of on-scene environmental information.

Among a number of future projects, the Coast Guard and NOAA are developing a focused approach on how to best handle the damage of wildlife in the areas of subsistence living in the northern Arctic region of Alaska during and following a spill event. The Coast Guard and NOAA are also collaborating on how to better integrate environmental information and intelligence to proactively support Arctic marine traffic safety as a whole.

The partnership between Coast Guard and NOAA continues to thrive and grow stronger as maritime and environmental conditions, caused by both natural and man-made effects, shift and change over time.

 

This story was first posted Feb. 17, 2017, on Coast Guard Compass, official blog of the U.S. Coast Guard as part of  a series about all things cold weather – USCG missions, operations, and safety guidance. Follow the Coast Guard on FacebookTwitter and Instagram, and look for more #belowzero stories, images, and tips!