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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Who Is Funding Research and Restoration in the Gulf of Mexico After the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill?

This is a post by Kate Clark, Acting Chief of Staff with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, and Frank Parker, Associate Director for the NOAA RESTORE Act Science Program, with NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science.

The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Five Years Later

This is the fourth in a series of stories over the coming weeks looking at various topics related to the response, the Natural Resource Damage Assessment science, restoration efforts, and the future of the Gulf of Mexico.

When an oil spill takes place, people want to see the coasts, fish, wildlife, and recreational opportunities affected by that spill restored—so they can be as they were before, as quickly as possible. Fortunately, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 supports this. After most major oil spills, what routinely happens is the government undertakes a Natural Resource Damage Assessment, a rigorous, scientific process of assessing environmental injuries and, with public input, identifying and implementing the appropriate amount of restoration to compensate for the injuries resulting from this spill (all paid for by those responsible for the pollution).

What is not routine in the wake of an oil spill is the groundswell of support for even more research and restoration, beyond the scope of the usual damage assessment process, to bolster the resilience of the impacted ecosystem and coastal communities. Yet that is exactly what happened after the Deepwater Horizon well blowout in 2010, which renewed a national interest in the unique environment that is the Gulf of Mexico.

In the wake of this disaster, there have been various additional investments, outside of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process, in more broadly learning about and restoring the Gulf of Mexico. These distinct efforts to fund research and restoration in the Gulf have been sizable, but keeping track of them can be, frankly, a bit confusing.

The many organizations involved are working to ensure the Gulf’s new infusions of funding for restoration and research are well coordinated. However, keep in mind that each effort is independent of the others in funding mechanism, primary mandate, and process.

Tracking Dollars for Gulf Restoration

In one effort, announced while the Macondo well was still gushing oil, BP dedicated up to $500 million dollars to be spent over 10 years “to fund an independent research program designed to study the impact of the oil spill and its associated response on the environment and public health in the Gulf of Mexico.” This investment spawned the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, or GOMRI, which is governed by an independent, academic research board of 20 science, public health, and research administration experts and independent of BP’s influence.

Meanwhile, BP faced both potential criminal and civil penalties under the Clean Water Act, which regulates the discharge of pollutants into U.S. waters. When such penalties are pursued by the government for pollution events, such as an oil spill, a portion of the criminal monetary penalties are usually paid to a local environmental foundation or conservation organization to administer the funds.

Ultimately, BP agreed to a $4 billion criminal settlement in 2013, with the bulk of that money going to North American Wetlands Conservation Fund, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and National Academy of Sciences.

Chart showing various investments and their recipients for science and restoration efforts in the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Science and restoration initiatives in the Gulf of Mexico following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (NOAA)

That still leaves civil penalties to be determined. Normally, civil penalties under the Clean Water Act are directed to the General Treasury.

However, Congress passed legislation calling for 80 percent of the administrative and civil penalties related to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to be diverted directly to the Gulf of Mexico for ecological and economic restoration. This legislation, known as the RESTORE Act (Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States Act of 2012), passed on July 6, 2012.

While the full extent of BP’s civil penalties have yet to be determined, in 2013 the Department of Justice finalized a civil settlement with Transocean in the amount of $1 billion. This settlement results in more than $800 million going to the Gulf of Mexico under the RESTORE Act. As to penalties for BP, the court has currently ruled on two of the three trial phases. Based on those rulings, currently under appeal, the penalty cap for BP is $13.7 billion. A third trial phase for factors that are taken into account in establishing the penalty at or under that cap was concluded in February 2015. The court has yet to rule on the third phase of the trial, and the pending appeals have not yet been heard by the appeals court.

NOAA and Restoration in the Gulf

So where does NOAA fit into all of this? NOAA is carrying out its usual duties of working with its partners to assess injury to and restore impacted natural resources through the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process. However, NOAA also is involved in supporting broader Gulf research and resilience, which will complement the damage assessment process, in two new ways through the RESTORE Act.

First, NOAA is supporting in the RESTORE Act’s Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, which is chaired by Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker (NOAA sits in the Department of Commerce). Second, NOAA is leading the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Science, Observation, Monitoring, and Technology Program, or more simply, the NOAA RESTORE Act Science Program.

A NOAA ship at dock.

NOAA is leading a science program aimed at improving our understanding of the Gulf of Mexico and the plants and animals that live there, in order to better protect and preserve them. (NOAA)

This program exists because we simply don’t know as much as we need to know about the Gulf of Mexico and the plants and animals that live there in order to reverse the general decline of coastal ecosystems and ensure resilience in the future.

To make sure this new science program addresses the needs of the region, NOAA, in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, met with resource managers, scientists, and other Gulf of Mexico stakeholders to discuss what the focus of the program should be. We heard three key messages loud and clear:

  • Make sure the research we support is closely linked to regional resource management needs.
  • Coordinate with other science initiatives working in the region.
  • Make the results of research available quickly to those who could use them.
Woman checks for bubbles in a sample of water on board the NOAA Ship Pisces.

The NOAA RESTORE Act Science Program is already in the process of making available $2.5 million for research in the Gulf of Mexico, with more opportunities to come. (NOAA)

NOAA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have designed a science plan [PDF] for the NOAA RESTORE Act Science Program that outlines how we will make this happen.

The science plan describes the research priorities highlighted during our engagement with stakeholders and from reviewing earlier assessments of the science needed to better understand the Gulf of Mexico. These priorities will guide how the program directs its funding over the coming years.

The research priorities include improving our understanding of how much and when freshwater, sediment, and nutrients enter the coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico and what this means for the growth of wetlands and the number of shellfish and fish in the Gulf of Mexico. Another priority is developing new techniques and technologies for measuring conditions in the Gulf to help inform resource management decisions.

Apply for Research Funding

Currently, the NOAA RESTORE Act Science Program is holding its first competition for funding, with over 100 research teams already responding. It will make $2.5 million available for researchers to review and integrate what we already know about the Gulf of Mexico and work with resource managers to develop strategies directing the program toward our ultimate goal of supporting the sustainability of the Gulf and its fisheries.

The results of this work also will help inform the direction of other science initiatives and restoration activities in the Gulf region. NOAA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will announce the winners of this funding competition in the fall of 2015.

To learn more about the NOAA RESTORE Act Science Program and future funding opportunities, visit http://restoreactscienceprogram.noaa.gov/.


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In the Wake of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, Gulf Dolphins Found Sick and Dying in Larger Numbers Than Ever Before

The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Five Years Later

This is the third in a series of stories over the coming weeks looking at various topics related to the response, the Natural Resource Damage Assessment science, restoration efforts, and the future of the Gulf of Mexico.

A dolphin is observed with oil on its skin on August 5, 2010, in Barataria Bay, La.

A dolphin is observed with oil on its skin on August 5, 2010, in Barataria Bay, Louisiana. (Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries/Mandy Tumlin)

Dolphins washing up dead in the northern Gulf of Mexico are not an uncommon phenomenon. What has been uncommon, however, is how many more dead bottlenose dolphins have been observed in coastal waters affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the five years since. In addition to these alarmingly high numbers, researchers have found that bottlenose dolphins living in those areas are in poor health, plagued by chronic lung disease and failed pregnancies.

Independent and government scientists have undertaken a number of studies to understand how this oil spill may have affected dolphins, observed swimming through oil and with oil on their skin, living in waters along the Gulf Coast. These ongoing efforts have included examining and analyzing dead dolphins stranded on beaches, using photography to monitor living populations, and performing comprehensive health examinations on live dolphins in areas both affected and unaffected by Deepwater Horizon oil.

The results of these rigorous studies, which recently have been and continue to be published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, show that, in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill and in the areas hardest hit, the dolphin populations of the northern Gulf of Mexico have been in crisis.

Troubled Waters

Due south of New Orleans, Louisiana, and northwest of the Macondo oil well that gushed millions of barrels of oil for 87 days, lies Barataria Bay. Its boundaries are a complex tangle of inlets and islands, part of the marshy delta where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico and year-round home to a group of bottlenose dolphins.

During the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, this area was one of the most heavily oiled along the coast. Beginning the summer after the spill, record numbers of dolphins started stranding, or coming ashore, often dead, in Barataria Bay (Venn-Watson et al. 2015). One period of extremely high numbers of dolphin deaths in Barataria Bay, part of the ongoing, largest and longest-lasting dolphin die-off recorded in the Gulf of Mexico, persisted from August 2010 until December 2011.

In the summer of 2011, researchers also measured the health of dolphins living in Barataria Bay, comparing them with dolphins in Sarasota Bay, Florida, an area untouched by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Differences between the two populations were stark. Many Barataria Bay dolphins were in very poor health, some of them significantly underweight and five times more likely to have moderate-to-severe lung disease. Notably, the dolphins of Barataria Bay also were suffering from disturbingly low levels of key stress hormones which could prevent their bodies from responding appropriately to stressful situations. (Schwacke et al. 2014)

“The magnitude of the health effects that we saw was surprising,” said NOAA scientist Dr. Lori Schwacke, who helped lead this study. “We’ve done these health assessments in a number of locations across the southeast U.S. coast and we’ve never seen animals that were in this poor of condition.”

The types of illnesses observed in live Barataria Bay dolphins, which had sufficient opportunities to inhale or ingest oil following the 2010 spill, match those found in people and other animals also exposed to oil. In addition, the levels of other pollutants, such as DDT and PCBs, which previously have been linked to adverse health effects in marine mammals, were much lower in Barataria Bay dolphins than those from the west coast of Florida.

Dead in the Water

Based on findings from the 2011 study, the outlook for dolphins living in one of the most heavily oiled areas of the Gulf was grim. Nearly 20 percent of the Barataria Bay dolphins examined that year were not expected to live, and in fact, the carcass of one of them was found dead less than six months later (Schwacke et al. 2014). Scientists have continued to monitor the dolphins of Barataria Bay to document their health, survival, and success giving birth.

Considering these health conditions, it should come as little surprise that record high numbers of dolphins have been dying along the coasts of Louisiana (especially Barataria Bay), Alabama, and Mississippi. This ongoing, higher-than-usual marine mammal die-off, known as an unusual mortality event, has lasted over four years and claimed more than a thousand marine mammals, mostly bottlenose dolphins. For comparison, the next longest lasting Gulf die-off (in 2005–2006) ended after roughly a year and a half (Litz et al. 2014 [PDF]).

Researchers studying this exceptionally long unusual mortality event, which began in February 2010, identified within it multiple distinct groupings of dolphin deaths. All but one of them occurred after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which released oil from April to July 2010, and corresponded with areas exposed heavily to the oil, particularly Barataria Bay (Venn-Watson et al. 2015). In early 2011, the spring following the oil spill, Mississippi and Alabama saw a marked increase in dead dolphin calves, which either died late in pregnancy or soon after birth, and which would have been exposed to oil as they were developing.

The Gulf coasts of Florida and Texas, which received comparatively little oiling from the Deepwater Horizon spill, did not see the same significant annual increases in dead dolphins as the other Gulf states (Venn-Watson et al. 2015). For example, Louisiana sees an average of 20 dead whales and dolphins wash up each year, but in 2011 alone, this state recorded 163 (Litz et al. 2014 [PDF]).

The one grouping of dolphin deaths starting before the spill, from March to May 2010, took place in Louisiana’s Lake Pontchartrain (a brackish lagoon) and western Mississippi. Researchers observed both low salinity levels in this lake and tell-tale skin lesions thought to be associated with low salinity levels on this group of dolphins. This combined evidence supports that short-term, freshwater exposure in addition to cold weather early in 2010 may have been key contributors to those dolphin deaths prior to the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Legacy of a Spill?

A bottlenose dolphin swims in the shallow waters along a sandy beach with orange oil boom.

A bottlenose dolphin swims in the shallow waters along the beach in Grand Isle, Louisiana, near oil containment boom that was deployed on May 28, 2010. Oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill began washing up on beaches here one month after the drilling unit exploded. (U.S. Coast Guard)

In the past, large dolphin die-offs in the Gulf of Mexico could usually be tied to short-lived, discrete events, such as morbillivirus and marine biotoxins (resulting from harmful algal blooms). While studies are ongoing, the current evidence does not support that these past causes are responsible for the current increases in dolphin deaths in the northern Gulf since 2010 (Litz et al. 2014).

However, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill—its timing, location, and nature—offers the strongest evidence for explaining why so many dolphins have been sick and dying in the Gulf since 2010. Ongoing studies are assessing disease among dolphins that have died and potential changes in dolphin health over the years since the spill.

As is the case for deep-sea corals, the full effects of this oil spill on the long-lived and slow-to-mature bottlenose dolphins and other dolphins and whales in the Gulf may not appear for years. Find more information related to dolphin health in the Gulf of Mexico on NOAA’s Unusual Mortality Event and Gulf Spill Restoration websites.


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At the Bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, Corals and Diversity Suffered After Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Five Years Later

This is the second in a series of stories over the coming weeks looking at various topics related to the response, the Natural Resource Damage Assessment science, restoration efforts, and the future of the Gulf of Mexico.

Very little, if any, light from the sun successfully travels to the extreme bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. At these dark depths, the water is cold and the inescapable pressure of thousands of feet of ocean bears down on everything.

Yet life in the deep ocean is incredibly diverse. Here, delicate branches of soft coral are embraced by the curling arms of brittlestars. Slender sea fans, tinged with pink, reach for tiny morsels of food drifting down like snow from above. From minute marine worms to elongated fish, the diversity of the deep ocean is also a hallmark of its health and stability.

However, this picture of health was disrupted on April 20, 2010. Beginning that day and for almost three months after, the Macondo wellhead unleashed an unprecedented amount of oil and natural gas nearly a mile beneath the ocean. In addition, the response to this oil spill released large amounts of chemical dispersant, both at the source of the leaking oil and on the ocean surface. These actions were meant to break down oil that might have threatened life at the sea surface and on Gulf shores. Nevertheless, the implications for the ocean floor were largely unknown at the time.

In the five years since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, a number of academic and independent scientists along with state and federal agencies, including NOAA and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, have been collaborating to study just how this oil spill and response affected the deep ocean and seafloor of the Gulf. What they found was the footprint of the oil spill on the seafloor, stamped on sickened deep-sea corals and out-of-balance communities of tiny marine invertebrates.

A Sickened Seafloor

A part of the world difficult to reach—and therefore difficult to know—the depths of the Gulf of Mexico required a huge collaborative and technological effort to study its inhabitants. Beginning in the fall of 2010, teams of scientists set out on multiple research cruises to collect deep-sea data, armed with specialized equipment, including remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), cameras capable of withstanding the crushing pressure of the deep ocean, and devices that could bore into the ocean bottom and scoop up multiple samples of sediments at a time.

Through these efforts, researchers have uncovered large areas of the Gulf of Mexico seafloor that contain most of the oil spill’s notable deep-sea impacts. One area in particular surrounds the damaged wellhead and stretches to the southwest, following the path of the massive underwater plume of Deepwater Horizon oil. At times, up to 650 feet thick and over a mile wide, the oil plume drifted at depths more than 3,500 feet beneath the ocean surface, leaving traces of its presence on the bottom as it went (Camilli et al. 2010).

The Macondo wellhead sits at the center of a bull’s-eye–shaped pattern of harm on the seafloor, with oil-related impacts lessening in intensity farther from the oil’s source. Further tying this pattern of injury to the Deepwater Horizon spill, a conservative chemical tracer of petroleum turned up in surface seafloor sediments extending 15 miles from the wellhead (Valentine et al. 2014).

Diversity Takes a Nose Dive

Few people ever see the bottom of the deep ocean. So what do these impacted areas actually look like? Starting several months after the leaking well was capped, researchers used ROVs and special cameras to dive down roughly 4,500 feet. They found multiple deep-sea coral colonies showing recent signs of poor health, stress, and tissue damage. On these corals, the polyps, which normally extend frilly tentacles from the corals’ branching arms, were pulled back, and excessive mucus hung from the corals’ skeletons, which also revealed patches of dead tissue. All of these symptoms have been observed in corals experimentally exposed to crude oil (White et al. 2012 PDF).

Five photos of deep-sea coral showing the progression of impacts over several years.

A time series of coral showing the progression of typical impacts at a site of coral colonies located less than seven miles from the source of Deepwater Horizon oil. You can see the brown “floc” material present in November 2010 disappears by March 2011 and afterward, is replaced by fuzzy gray hydroids and the coral loses its brittlestar companion. (Credit: Hsing et al. 2013)

Many of these coral colonies were partly or entirely coated in a clumpy brown material, which researchers referred to as “floc.” Chemical analysis of this material revealed the presence of petroleum droplets with similar chemical markers to Deepwater Horizon oil. The brittlestars usually associated with these corals also appeared in strange colors and positions. Some entire coral colonies were dead.

Research teams noted these observations only at corals within roughly 16 miles of the wellhead (White et al. 2012 PDF, Fisher et al. 2014). However, many similar coral colonies located further from the spill site showed no poor health effects.

Even one and two years later, deep-sea corals within the footprint of the spill still had not recovered. Hydroids took the place of the brown floc material on affected corals. Relatives of jellies, hydroids are fuzzy, grayish marine invertebrates that are known to encrust unhealthy coral.

Life on and under the sediment at the bottom of the Gulf also suffered, with the diversity of a wide range of marine life dropping across an area roughly three times the size of Manhattan (Montagna et al. 2013). Notably, numbers of tiny, pollution-tolerant nematodes increased in areas of moderate impact but at the expense of the number and types of other species, particularly copepods, small crustaceans at the base of the food chain. These effects were related to the concentration of oil compounds in sediments and to the distance from the Deepwater Horizon spill but not to natural oil seeps.

Top row, from left,  two types of crustaceans and a mollusk. Bottom row shows three types of marine worms known as polychaetes.

Examples of some of the common but very small marine invertebrates found living on and under the Gulf of Mexico seafloor. The top row shows, from left, two types of crustaceans and a mollusk, which are more sensitive to pollution. The bottom row shows three types of marine worms known as polychaetes, which tended to dominate ocean sediments with higher oil contamination found near corals. (Courtesy of Paul Montagna, Texas A&M University)

More sensitive to pollution, fewer types and numbers of crustaceans and mollusks were found in sediments around coral colonies showing impacts. Instead, a few types of segmented marine worms known as polychaetes tended to dominate ocean sediments with higher oil contamination near these corals (Fisher et al. 2014).

A Long Time Coming

Life on the bottom of the ocean moves slowly. Deep-sea corals live for hundreds to thousands of years, and their deaths are rare events. Some of the corals coated in oily brown floc are about 600 years old (Prouty et al. 2014). The observed impacts to life in the deep ocean are tied closely to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, but the full extent of the harm and the eventual recovery may take years, even decades, to manifest (Fisher and Demopoulos, et al. 2014).

Learn more about the studies supported by the federal government’s Natural Resource Damage Assessment for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which determines the environmental harm due to the oil spill and response and seeks compensation from those responsible in order to restore the affected resources.


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Attempting to Answer One Question Over and Over Again: Where Will the Oil Go?

The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Five Years Later

This is the first in a series of stories over the coming weeks looking at various topics related to the response, the Natural Resource Damage Assessment science, restoration efforts, and the future of the Gulf of Mexico.

Oil spills raise all sorts of scientific questions, and NOAA’s job is to help answer them.

We have a saying that each oil spill is unique, but there is one question we get after almost every spill: Where will the oil go? One of our primary scientific products during a spill is a trajectory forecast, which often takes the form of a map showing where the oil is likely to travel and which shorelines and other environmentally or culturally sensitive areas might be at risk.

Oil spill responders need to know this information to know which shorelines to protect with containment boom, or where to stage cleanup equipment, or which areas should be closed to fishing or boating during a spill.

To help predict the movement of oil, we developed the computer model GNOME to forecast the complex interactions among currents, winds, and other physical processes affecting oil’s movement in the ocean. We update this model daily with information gathered from field observations, such as those from trained observers tasked with flying over a spill to verify its often-changing location, and new forecasts for ocean currents and winds.

Modeling a Moving Target

One of the biggest challenges we’ve faced in trying to answer this question was, not surprisingly, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Because of the continual release of oil—tens of thousands of barrels of oil each day—over nearly three months, we had to prepare hundreds of forecasts as more oil entered the Gulf of Mexico each day, was moved by ocean currents and winds, and was weathered, or physically, biologically, or chemically changed, by the environment and response efforts. A typical forecast includes modeling the outlook of the oil’s spread over the next 24, 48, and 72 hours. This task began with the first trajectory our oceanographers issued early in the morning April 21, 2010 after being notified of the accident, and continued for the next 107 days in a row. (You can access all of the forecasts from this spill online.)

Once spilled into the marine environment, oil begins to move and spread surprisingly quickly but not necessarily in a straight line. In the open ocean, winds and currents can easily move oil 20 miles or more per day, and in the presence of strong ocean currents such as the Gulf Stream, oil and other drifting materials can travel more than 100 miles per day. Closer to the coast, tidal currents also can move and spread oil across coastal waters.

While the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig and wellhead were located only 50 miles offshore of Louisiana, it took several weeks for the slick to reach shore as shifting winds and meandering currents slowly moved the oil.

A Spill Playing on Loop

Over the duration of a typical spill, we’ll revise and reissue our forecast maps on a daily basis. These maps include our best prediction of where the oil might go and the regions of highest oil coverage, as well as what is known as a “confidence boundary.” This is a line encircling not just our best predictions for oil coverage but also a broader area on the map reflecting the full possible range in our forecasts [PDF].

Our oceanographers include this confidence boundary on the forecast maps to indicate that there is a chance that oil could be located anywhere inside its borders, depending on actual conditions for wind, weather, and currents. Why is there a range of possible locations in the oil forecasts? Well, the movement of oil is very sensitive to ocean currents and wind, and predictions of oil movement rely on accurate predictions of the currents and wind at the spill site.

In addition, sometimes the information we put into the model is based on an incomplete picture of a spill. Much of the time, the immense size of the Deepwater Horizon spill on the ocean surface meant that observations from specialists flying over the spill and even satellites couldn’t capture the full picture of where all the oil was each day.

Our inevitably inexact knowledge of the many factors informing the trajectory model introduces a certain level of expected variation in its predictions, which is the situation with many models. Forecasters attempt to assess all the possible outcomes for a given scenario, estimate the likelihood of the different possibilities, and ultimately communicate risks to the decision makers.

In the case of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, we had the added complexity of a spill that spanned many different regions—from the deep Gulf of Mexico, where ocean circulation is dominated by the swift Loop Current, to the continental shelf and nearshore area where ocean circulation is influenced by freshwater flowing from the Mississippi River. And let’s not forget that several tropical storms and hurricanes crossed the Gulf that summer [PDF].

A big concern was that if oil got into the main loop current, it could be transported to the Florida Keys, Cuba, the Bahamas, or up the eastern coast of the United States. Fortunately (for the Florida Keys) a giant eddy formed in the Gulf of Mexico in June 2010 (nicknamed Eddy Franklin after Benjamin Franklin, who did some of the early research on the Gulf Stream). This “Eddy Franklin” created a giant circular water current that kept the oil largely contained in the Gulf of Mexico.

Some of the NOAA forecast team likened our efforts that spring and summer to the movie Groundhog Day, in which the main character is forced to relive the same day over and over again. For our team, every day involved modeling the same oil spill again and again, but with constantly changing results.  Thinking back on that intense forecasting effort brings back memories packed with emotion—and exhaustion. But mostly, we recall with pride the important role our forecast team in Seattle played in answering the question “where will the oil go?”


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University of Washington Helps NOAA Examine Potential for Citizen Science During Oil Spills

Group of people with clipboards on a beach.

One area where volunteers could contribute to NOAA’s scientific efforts related to oil spills is in collecting baseline data before an oil spill happens. (Credit: Heal the Bay/Ana Luisa Ahern, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

This is a guest post by University of Washington graduate students Sam Haapaniemi, Myong Hwan Kim, and Roberto Treviño.

During an oil spill, how can NOAA maximize the benefits of citizen science while maintaining a high level of scientific integrity?

This was the central question that our team of University of Washington graduate students has been trying to answer for the past six months. Citizen science is characterized by volunteers helping participate in scientific research, usually either by gathering or analyzing huge amounts of data scientists would be unable to do on their own.

Dramatic improvements in technology—particularly the spread of smartphones—have made answering this question more real and more urgent. This, in turn, has led to huge growth in public interest in oil spill response, along with increased desire and potential ability to help, as demonstrated during the 2007 M/V Cosco Busan and 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill responses.

As the scientific experts in oil spills, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration has a unique opportunity to engage citizens during spills and enable them to contribute to the scientific process.

What’s in it for me?

Our research team found that the potential benefits of citizen science during oil spills extend to three groups of people outside of responders.

  • First, professional researchers can benefit from the help of having so many more people involved in research. Having more citizen scientists available to help gather data can strengthen the accuracy of observations by drawing from a potentially greater geographic area and by bringing in more fine-grain data. In some cases, citizen scientists also are able to provide local knowledge of a related topic that professional researchers may not possess.
  • The second group that benefits is composed of the citizen scientists themselves. Citizen science programs provide a constructive way for the average person to help solve problems they care about, and, as part of a collective effort, their contributions become more likely to make a real impact. Through this process, the public also gets to learn about their world and connect with others who share this interest.
  • The final group that derives value from citizen science programs is society at large. When thoughtfully designed and managed, citizen science can be an important stakeholder engagement tool for advancing scientific literacy and reducing risk perception. Citizen science programs can provide opportunities to correct risk misconceptions, address stakeholder concerns, share technical information, and establish constructive relationships and dialogue about the science that informs oil spills and response options.

How Should This Work?

Volunteer scrapes mussels off rocks at Hat Island.

A volunteer samples mussels off of Everett, Washington, as part of the citizen science-fueled NOAA Mussel Watch Program. (Credit: Lincoln Loehr, Snohomish County Marine Resources Committee)

Recognizing these benefits, we identified three core requirements that NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration should consider when designing a citizen science program for oil spills.

  1. Develop a program that provides meaningful work for the public and beneficial scientific information for NOAA.
  2. Create a strong communication loop or network that can be maintained between participating citizens and NOAA.
  3. Develop the program in a collaborative way.

Building on these core requirements, we identified a list of activities NOAA could consider for citizen science efforts both before and during oil spill responses.

Before a response, NOAA could establish data collection protocols for citizen scientists, partner with volunteer organizations that could help coordinate them, and manage baseline studies with the affiliated volunteers. For example, NOAA would benefit from knowing the actual numbers of shorebirds found at different times per year in areas at high risk of oil spills. This information would help NOAA better distinguish impacts to those populations in the event of an oil spill in those areas.

During a response, NOAA could benefit from citizen science volunteers’ observations and field surveys (whether open-ended type or structured-questionnaire type), and volunteers could help process data collected during the response. In addition, NOAA could manage volunteer registration and coordination during a spill response.

How Could This Work?

Evaluating different options for implementing these activities, we found clear trade-offs depending on NOAA’s priorities, such as resource intensity, data value, liability, and participation value. As a result, we created a decision framework, or “decision tool,” for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration to use when thinking about how to create a citizen science program. From there, we came up with the following recommendations:

  1. Acknowledge the potential benefits of citizen science. The first step is to recognize that citizen science has benefits for both NOAA and the public.
  2. Define goals clearly and recognize trade-offs. Having clear goals and intended uses for citizen scientist contributions will help NOAA prioritize and frame the program.
  3. Use the decision tool to move from concept to operation. The decision tool we designed will help identify potential paths best suited to various situations.
  4. Build a program that meets the baseline requirements. For any type of citizen science program, NOAA should ensure it is mutually beneficial, maintains two-way communication, and takes a collaborative approach.
  5. Start now: Early actions pays off. Before the next big spill happens, NOAA can prepare for potentially working with citizen scientists by building relationships with volunteer organizations, designing and refining data collection methods, and integrating citizen science into response plans.

While there is not one path to incorporating citizen science into oil spill responses, we found that there is great potential via many different avenues. Citizen science is a growing trend and, if done well, could greatly benefit NOAA during future oil spills.

You can read our final report in full at https://citizensciencemanagement.wordpress.com.

Sam Haapaniemi, Myong Hwan Kim, and Roberto Treviño are graduate students at the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington. The Citizen Science Management Project is being facilitated through the University of Washington’s Program on the Environment. It is the most recent project in an ongoing relationship between NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration and the University of Washington’s Program on the Environment.


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After an Oil Spill, How—and Why—Do We Survey Affected Shorelines?

Four people walking along a beach.

A team of responders surveying the shoreline of Raccoon Island, Louisiana, on May 12, 2010. They use a systematic method for surveying and describing shorelines affected by oil spills, which was developed during the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. (U.S. Navy)

This is part of the National Ocean Service’s efforts to celebrate our role in the surveys that inform our lives and protect our coasts.

In March of 1989, oil spill responders in Valdez, Alaska, had a problem. They had a very large oil spill on their hands after the tanker Exxon Valdez had run aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound.

At the time, many aspects of the situation were unprecedented—including the amount of oil spilled and the level of response and cleanup required. Further complicating their efforts were the miles and miles of remote shoreline along Prince William Sound. How could responders know which shorelines were hardest hit by the oil and where they should focus their cleanup efforts? Plus, with so many people involved in the response, what one person might consider “light oiling” on a particular beach, another might consider “heavy oiling.” They needed a systematic way to document the oil spill’s impacts on the extensive shorelines of the sound.

Out of these needs ultimately came the Shoreline Cleanup and Assessment Technique, or SCAT. NOAA was a key player involved in developing this formal process for surveying coastal shorelines affected by oil spills. Today, we maintain the only SCAT program in the federal government although we have been working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to help develop similar methods for oil spills on inland lakes and rivers.

Survey Says …

SCAT aims to describe both the oil and the environment along discrete stretches of shoreline potentially affected by an oil spill. Based on that information, responders then can determine the appropriate cleanup methods that will do the most good and the least harm for each section of shoreline.

The teams of trained responders performing SCAT surveys normally are composed of representatives from the state and federal government and the organization responsible for the spill. They head out into the field, armed with SCAT’s clear methodology for categorizing the level and kind of oiling on the shoreline. This includes standardized definitions for describing how thick the oil is, its level of weathering (physical or chemical change), and the type of shoreline impacted, which may be as different as a rocky shoreline, a saltwater marsh, or flooded low-lying tundra.

After carefully documenting these data along all possibly affected portions of shoreline, the teams make their recommendations for cleanup methods. In the process, they have to take a number of other factors into account, such as whether threatened or endangered species are present or if the shoreline is in a high public access area.

It is actually very easy to do more damage than good when cleaning up oiled shorelines. The cleanup itself—with lots of people, heavy equipment, and activity—can be just as or even more harmful to the environment than spilled oil. For sensitive areas, such as a marsh, taking no cleanup action is often the best option for protecting the stability of the fragile shoreline, even if some oil remains.

Data, Data Everywhere

Having a common language for describing shoreline oiling is a critical piece of the conversation during a spill response. Without this standard protocol, spill responders would be reinventing the wheel for each spill. Along that same vein, responders at NOAA are working with the U.S. EPA and State of California to establish a common data standard for the mounds of data collected during these shoreline surveys.

Managing all of that data and turning it into useful products for the response is a lot of work. During bigger spills, multiple data specialists work around the clock to process the data collected during SCAT surveys, perform quality assurance and control, and create informational products, such as maps showing where oil is located and its level of coverage on various types of shorelines.

Data management tools such as GPS trackers and georeferenced photographs help speed up that process, but the next step is moving from paper forms used by SCAT field teams to electronic tools that enable these teams to directly enter their data into the central database for that spill.

Our goal is to create a data framework that can be translated into any tool for any handheld electronic device. These guidelines would provide consistency across digital platforms, specifying exactly what data are being collected and in which structure and format. Furthermore, they would standardize which data are being shared into a spill’s central database, whether they come from a state government agency or the company that caused the spill. This effort feeds into the larger picture for managing data during oil spills and allows everyone working on that spill to understand, access, and work with the data collected, for a long time after the spill.

Currently, we are drafting these data standards for SCAT surveys and incorporating feedback from NOAA, EPA, and California. In the next year or two, we hope to offer these standards as official NOAA guidelines for gathering digital data during oiled shoreline surveys.

To learn more about how teams perform SCAT surveys, check out NOAA’s Shoreline Assessment Manual and Job Aid.


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NOAA Helps Reverse Pollution Woes for Two Florida Wetland Areas

marsh with vegetation around the edge.

Oligohaline or brackish tidal wetland, created at the Mosaic fertilizer site in Riverview, FL. (NOAA)

What do fertilizer wastewater, an illegal dump tucked into sinkholes, and Florida wetlands have in common? Until recently, a little too much. The first two resulted in serious pollution in wetlands and other habitat in the area of Tampa Bay, Florida.

Fortunately, however, NOAA and our co-trustees have helped pave the way for restoration at two important hazardous waste sites in the Tampa area. The Mosaic Fertilizer Riverview facility is located southeast of Tampa, bordering on Tampa Bay and the Alafia River.  Restoration sites are located both north and south of the Alafia River.  The Raleigh Street Dump Site is located in an industrial area of Tampa, east of McKay Bay.

The Tampa Bay estuary is home to diverse habitats including seagrasses, mangroves, salt marshes, mud flats, and oyster reefs. These habitats stabilize the shore and provide a buffer against damaging coastal storms.  They also provide shelter for marine life and nesting areas for birds. The growing Tampa Bay area is also home to more than 2.3 million people. Because the open-water estuary is so important to the development of fish, shellfish, and crustaceans, and the coastal communities that depend on vibrant fisheries, maintaining its health is a high priority in the region.

Big Worries from Fertilizer Slurries

On September 5, 2004, Hurricane Frances made landfall on the east coast of Florida and swept across the state, passing near Tampa Bay as a tropical storm. High winds and heavy rainfall associated with the storm damaged an outdoor storage system at the Mosaic Fertilizer plant in Riverview, releasing 65 million gallons of acidic, nutrient-rich process water into Archie Creek Canal, Hillsborough Bay, and surrounding wetlands.

Mosaic Fertilizer, LLC is the world’s largest producer of concentrated phosphate and potash, which are used to manufacture plant fertilizer. Phosphorus is an essential nutrient for plants. Yet its original form, calcium phosphate derived from phosphate rock, is not water-soluble and therefore cannot be absorbed by plants. Getting it into a water-soluble form is accomplished by treating it with sulfuric acid to create phosphoric acid. The by-product from that conversion is mostly calcium sulfate but goes by the name “phosphogypsum.”

Phosphogypsum starts out as slurry when it is first stored in outdoor containment units. Over time, as the slurry is piled higher and higher, immense stacks are created with sloped sides of phosphogypsum and open-air ponds at the top.  Acidic process water is stored and recycled from the top of the stack through the phosphate production facility. If the berms that contain the acidic, nutrient rich ponds at the top of the stack fail, as they did in the wake of Hurricane Frances, they pose a threat to human health and the environment.

The pollution released from the Mosaic Fertilizer plant in 2004 harmed nearly 10 acres of seagrass beds and more than 135 acres of wetland habitats, including nearly 80 acres of mangroves. The acidic water dramatically lowered pH, directly killing thousands of fish, crabs and bottom-dwelling organisms. The influx of nitrogen and phosphorous also disrupted the local ecosystem, potentially injuring fish and other aquatic wildlife.

NOAA and State trustees worked with Mosaic Fertilizer, LLC to assess these environmental injuries and restore the site. In 2013 and 2014, Mosaic implemented restoration projects to compensate for the environmental injuries that the process water spill caused.  Restoration included the removal of invasive exotic plants, widening and improving tidal creeks and increasing through 85 acres of mangrove forest, constructing a 3500‘ oyster reef, and creating an oligohaline or brackish  tidal wetland. Mosaic is now monitoring the health of the restored natural areas, with NOAA and our partners providing oversight.

From Illegal Dump to Wetland Bonus

Not far from the Mosaic Fertilizer plant, a five acre parcel of low-lying land pocked with sinkholes had produced its own pollution woes for wetlands. Located on Raleigh Street, battery casings, furnace slag, trash, and construction debris were dumped at this site from 1977 to 1991.

Pond with vegetation in the foreground.

Restored Raleigh Street Dump site. (NOAA)

By 2009, the level of pollution was deemed dire enough to land it on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Priorities List, slating it for cleanup under the Superfund law. Years of illegal dumping had left the area filled with contaminated soil, sediment, and groundwater.

EPA investigations at the site found a number of chemical contaminants posing an unacceptable risk to human health and the environment, including oil-related compounds and heavy metals such as antimony, arsenic, and lead.

Cleanup and restoration activities at the Raleigh Street Dump Site were comprehensive and involved replacing contaminated soils with clean soils, removing contaminated sediments, planting grass, restoring wetland areas, and reducing the concentration of contaminants in the groundwater. NOAA has worked closely with EPA over the years to ensure the cleanup at Raleigh Street Dump Site was protective of the environment. By the end, restoration actually resulted in an increase of wetland area at the site, more than doubling it to 2.6 acres.

The restoration work done at the Mosaic Fertilizer and Raleigh Street sites is just part of a larger overall conservation effort in a region that for decades had been experiencing environmental decline.  According to the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, a regional alliance of local, state, and federal government partners dedicated to the area’s health, the Tampa Bay area has made “a remarkable comeback in recent years, with impressive gains in water quality, seagrass recovery, and fish and wildlife populations.” NOAA is happy to have a part in making this a reality.

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