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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Latest NOAA Mapping Software Opens up New Possibilities for Emergency Responders

This is a guest post by emergency planner Tom Bergman.

Aerial view of destroyed houses in Vilonia, Arkansas, after EF4 tornado in April 2014.

NOAA and EPA’s MARPLOT mapping software was designed for emergency responders and planners dealing with chemical spills. However, its features lend it to a host of other uses, from search and rescue after a tornado to dealing with wildfires. (NOAA National Weather Service)

For 20 years, thousands of emergency planners and responders have used the MARPLOT mapping software to respond to hazardous chemical spills. But creative MARPLOT users have also employed the program for a wide range of other uses, including dispatching air ambulances and helping identify a serial arsonist.

MARPLOT is the mapping component of a suite of software programs called CAMEO, jointly developed by NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to help emergency planners and responders deal with chemical spills.

These agencies have just released a new version of MARPLOT (version 5.0). MARPLOT 5 offers a host of new and improved capabilities, which translate to more mapping options, greater flexibility, and even more powerful data searching capabilities.

On the Grid

To illustrate a few of the new capabilities of MARPLOT 5, let’s imagine that a category EF2/EF3 tornado is blowing through McClain County, Oklahoma. McClain County is a mostly rural area, with only three small towns. For this scenario, we will assume the tornado passes through the small town of Blanchard, Oklahoma.

Immediately following the tornado, first responders will conduct initial damage surveys of the affected area. Generally, the Incident Command, which is the multi-agency team responsible for managing the emergency response, will want to divide the area the tornado impacted into a “grid” and assign teams to survey specific areas of it. MARPLOT 5 has a new “gridding” tool, which allows those in an Incident Command to determine and display the various survey zones.

In the Ready Files

Fortunately, McClain County is well-prepared to deal with this emergency. The county already has a complete list of addresses for the affected area in the proper file format for working in maps (E911 address point shape files) and has imported them into MARPLOT 5 before the tornado hit. In addition, McClain Emergency Management has compiled information such as locations with chemicals stored on site, homes or businesses with fortified safe rooms, and any special populations such as those with impaired mobility and made that data available in MARPLOT 5. Having this information at their fingertips helps the Incident Command prioritize resources and search areas in the affected zones, as well as keep survey and search-and-rescue teams safe.

The latest version of the software allows users to upload any .png image file to serve as a map symbol. This feature provides critical information to responders in a customizable and easily interpreted way. Notice in the screen shot of the MARPLOT map below that the locations of safe rooms, E911 address points, and residences of oxygen-dependent and mobility-impaired persons are clearly identified by specific symbols. The user can select any map symbol and see an associated information box displayed for that symbol.

Screenshot showing close-up of grid zones for a hypothetical tornado. The map shows safe rooms, 911 address points, and special populations displayed in MARPLOT 5.

Close-up of grid zones for a hypothetical tornado. The map shows safe rooms, 911 address points, and special populations displayed in MARPLOT 5. (NOAA)

In MARPLOT, any square of the grid can be selected and “searched” for information associated with that area of the map, which is then displayed in the latest version of MARPLOT as a “spreadsheet.” This spreadsheet can be printed and given to the teams surveying impacted areas. Below is an example of an information spreadsheet for E911 address points in a selected one-square-mile grid zone (Grid Box 2, 4).

Screenshot of MARPLOT 5 showing addresses in a spreadsheet.

Address points in the selected Grid Box 2, 4, displayed as a spreadsheet in MARPLOT 5 which responders can print out and take on surveys of damaged areas. (NOAA)

With this feature, emergency responders have the information they need contained in both a map and a spreadsheet as they conduct their initial damage survey. In this example, responders assigned to survey Grid Box 2, 4 already know they must clear 142 address points in the area, six of which have safe rooms, two of which have mobility-impaired residents, and one with an oxygen-dependent person.

Furthermore, the emergency responders in this scenario were able to accomplish all of these operations in MARPLOT without any access to Internet or cloud servers. And the software is 100 percent free.

This is a very simple example of new ways MARPLOT 5 may be implemented by emergency planners and responders across the country. There are a host of other new operations in version 5—including real-time weather via web mapping service (WMS) access—that could be used for dealing with wildfires, search and rescue operations, floods, hazardous material releases, resource management, manhunts … In fact, MARPLOT could be used in just about any type of situation where customizable and user-operated mapping might be helpful.

Learn more about and download the latest version of MARPLOT.

Tom Bergman is the author of the CAMEO Companion and host of the www.cameotraining.org website. Tom is the EPCRA (Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act) Tier 2 Program Manager for the State of Oklahoma and has been a CAMEO trainer for many years.  He has conducted CAMEO training courses in Lithuania, Poland, England, Morocco, and 45 U.S. states.


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NOAA Partners with University of Washington to Examine How Citizen Science Can Help Support Oil Spill Response

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

Volunteers sample mussels at a Mussel Watch beach site near Edmonds, Wash.

Volunteers sample mussels at a Mussel Watch site in Washington, one of NOAA’s National Mussel Watch Program sites. This program relies on citizen scientists to gather data on water pollution levels and seafood safety by regularly sampling mussels at established locations across the nation. (Alan Mearns/NOAA)

Citizen science—characterized by public participation in the scientific process—is a growing trend in scientific research. As technology opens up new opportunities, more and more people are able to collaborate on scientific efforts where widespread geographic location or project scope previously may have been a barrier.

Citizen science can take a number of forms, ranging from small-scale environmental monitoring to massive crowdsourced classification efforts, and there is a great deal of benefit to be realized when managed properly. For example, the NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory developed the mPING smartphone app to allow anyone in the United States to file hyper-local weather reports, which in turn helps the NOAA National Weather Service fine-tune their weather forecasts.

The Citizen Science Management Project

Our team of University of Washington graduate students is working with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration to research the potential for incorporating citizen science into its oil spill response efforts.

Thanks to improvements in technology, the public is more interested in and better able to contribute help during oil spills than ever before. During recent oil spills, notably the 2010 Deepwater Horizon incident, large numbers of citizens have expressed interest in supporting monitoring and recovery efforts. As the lead science agency for oil spills, NOAA is considering how to best engage the public in order to respond to oil spills even more effectively.

The goal of the project is to provide recommendations for NOAA on effective citizen science management. To do this, we began working to find the most current and relevant information on citizen science by conducting a broad review of the published scientific literature and speaking with experts in the fields of oil spill response, citizen science, and coastal volunteer management. Our next steps are to analyze the research and come up with possible options for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration on how to best adopt and incorporate citizen science into its work.

Initial Findings

NOAA’s Role. NOAA’s role in an oil spill response is primarily that of scientific support. During a response, NOAA begins by addressing a few core questions. Phrased simply, they are:

  • What got spilled?
  • Where will it go and what will it hit?
  • What harm will it cause and how can the effects of the spill be reduced?

We believe that using citizen scientists to help answer these fundamental questions may help NOAA better engage communities in the overall response effort and produce additional usable data to strengthen the response.

Aerial view of Deepwater Horizon oil spill and response vessels.

A view of the oil source and response vessels during the Deepwater Horizon incident as seen during an overflight on May 20, 2010. This spill piqued public interest in oil spills. (NOAA)

Changing Trends and New Opportunities. Technology is changing quickly. More than half of Americans own a smartphone, mapping programs are readily available and easy-to-use, and the Internet provides an unparalleled platform for crowdsourced data collection and analysis, as well as a venue for communication and outreach. These advances in technology are adding a new dimension to citizen science by creating the ability to convey information more quickly and by increasing visibility for citizen science projects. Increased exposure to citizen science efforts spurs interest in participation and the additional data collection capacity provided by smartphones and other technology allows more people to contribute. One such trend is the digital mapping of crowdsourced information, such as the NOAA Marine Debris Program’s Marine Debris Tracker app, which enables people to map and track different types of litter and marine debris they find around the world.

Oil Spills, NOAA, and Citizen Science. In 2012 the National Response Team prepared a document on the “Use of Volunteers: Guidelines for Oil Spills,” outlining ways in which oil spill responders can move toward improved citizen involvement before, during, and after an oil spill. We will use this as a framework to assess potential citizen science programs that could be adopted or incorporated by NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.

Challenges. All citizen science programs face certain challenges, such as ensuring data reliability with increased participation from non-experts, finding and maintaining the capacity required to manage a citizen science program and incorporate new data, and working with liability concerns around public participation. The challenges become even greater when incorporating citizen science into oil spill response. The unique challenges we have identified are the compressed timeline associated with a spill situation; the unpredictability in scope, geography, and nature of a spill; and the heightened risk and liability that come from having volunteers involved with hazardous material spill scenarios. We will keep all of these concerns in mind as we develop our recommendations.

Next Steps

From here, our team will be analyzing our findings and developing some recommendations for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. We hope to identify, categorize, and assess different citizen science models that may work in a response situation, weighing the strengths and weaknesses of each model. These findings will be presented in a final report to NOAA in March 2015.

If you would like to learn more about the Citizen Science Management Project or check on our progress, please visit the project website: https://citizensciencemanagement.wordpress.com. If you have ideas about the project, feel free to reach out to us through the contact page. We would love to hear from you!

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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When Oil Spills Take You to Hawaii and the Yellowstone River in Two Days

Overview of the Yellowstone River at the site of the pipeline spill.

Overview of the Yellowstone River at the site of the pipeline spill on Jan. 19, 2015. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

We get called for scientific support between 100 and 150 times a year for oil spills, chemical releases, and other marine pollution events around the nation. That averages to two or three calls per week from the U.S. Coast Guard or U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but those calls aren’t nicely scheduled out during the week, or spread out regionally among staff in different parts of the country.

The date of an oil spill is just the starting point. Many of these pollution incidents are resolved in a day or two, but some can lead to years of work for our part of NOAA. Some oil spills make the national and regional news while others might only be a local story for the small coastal town where the spill took place.

To give you an idea, some of the incidents we worked on just last week took us from Hawaii one day to eastern Montana the next day—and we were already working on two others elsewhere. These incidents included a pipeline break and oil spill in the Yellowstone River in Montana; a mystery spill of an unknown, non-oil substance that resulted in birds stranded in San Francisco Bay, California; a tug boat sinking and releasing diesel fuel off of Oahu, Hawaii; and a fishing vessel grounded near Sitka, Alaska.

Aerial view of oil spilled along the edge of Yellowstone River.

View from an aerial survey of the spill site on the Yellowstone River, taken about six miles upstream from Glendive, Montana. (Montana Department of Environmental Quality)

The Yellowstone River spill involved a pipeline releasing oil as it ran under a frozen river. The source of the leaking oil has been secured, which means no more oil is leaking, but response operations are continuing. It is an interesting spill for several reasons. One is because the oil type, Bakken crude, is an oil that has been in the news a lot recently. More Bakken crude oil is being transported by train these days because the location of the oil fields is far from ports or existing pipelines. Several rail car accidents involving this oil have ended in explosions. Another reason the Yellowstone River spill is of particular interest is because the response has to deal with ice and snow conditions along with the usual challenges of dealing with an oil spill.

Watch footage of an aerial survey over the Yellowstone River and spilled oil:

The mystery spill in the San Francisco Bay Area is still a mystery at this point (both what it is and where it came from), but hundreds of birds are being cleaned in the meantime. The response is coordinating sampling and chemical analysis to figure out the source of the “mystery goo” coating these seabirds.

Marine diesel fuel dyed red in the ocean.

Marine diesel fuel, dyed red, is shown approximately seven miles south of Honolulu Airport on January 23, 2015. The spill came from a tugboat that sank off Barbers Point Harbor, Oahu, on January 22. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Meanwhile, the tugboat accident in Hawaii involved about 75,000 gallons of fuel oil leaking from a tugboat that sank in over 2,000 feet of water. All 11 crewmembers of the tugboat were safely rescued. We were helping forecast what was happening to the spilled oil and where it might be drifting. In addition, there was a lot of concern about endangered Hawaiian monk seals and sea turtles in the area, but no oiled wildlife have been reported.

And that brings us to the fishing vessel grounded in Alaska. At this time the vessel is still intact and hasn’t spilled any of the 700 gallons of fuel believed to be onboard. Salvors are working to refloat the vessel. Fortunately, the crew had time to cap some of the fuel tank vents before abandoning ship, which may be helping prevent oil from being released. All four crew were safely rescued.

That makes four very different spills in four very different areas … and we have to be ready to respond with oil spill models and environmental expertise for all of them at the same time. But that’s just all in a day’s work at NOAA.


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Despite Threats, Celebrating Restoration Successes for Seabirds in California

Flocking seabirds on ocean surface with humpback whale tale and NOAA ship in the distance.

Thousands of seabirds flock around a diving humpback whale off Alaska’s Unalaska Island. The NOAA Ship OSCAR DYSON is in the distance. (NOAA)

Seabirds: You may see them perched along a fishing pier poised to scavenge or swooping for fish by the thousands out in the open ocean. This diverse group of marine birds serves as a valuable indicator [PDF] of the health of the ocean and what they have been telling us lately is that they face many threats.

Often victims of oil spills and other pollution, seabirds are threatened by a changing climate, hunting, and introduced species (such as rats or feral cats). In addition, they frequently get caught in fishing nets, a serious concern for many seabirds, particularly if they dive for food.

Yet it’s not all bad news for our feathered friends. Help is on the way.

Bait and Switch

While nearly 7,000 birds were estimated killed after the container ship Cosco Busan spilled heavy oil into San Francisco Bay in 2007, restoration projects are already underway. In 2014 alone, over $15 million was spread across more than 50 projects to enhance and restore beaches and habitat, including seabird habitat, around the Bay Area.

One project in particular is aimed at undoing the damage done to the threatened Marbled Murrelet. In order for these small, chubby seabirds to recover from this oil spill, they need some help keeping jays from eating their eggs. For three years in a row, a restoration project has been working on this in the old growth forests around campgrounds in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

From the Cosco Busan Oil Spill Trustee Council [PDF]: “In order to train jays not to eat murrelet eggs, hundreds of chicken eggs were painted to look like murrelet eggs, injected with a chemical that makes the jays throw up, and placed throughout the forest. Monitoring suggests the jays learn to avoid the eggs and may teach their offspring as well.”

Cleaning up the Neighborhood

Meanwhile, down the California coast, seabirds in the Channel Islands were suffering as a result of the pesticide DDT and industrial chemicals that were dumped into the ocean by local industries years ago. The birds themselves were contaminated by the pollution and their eggshells became dangerously thin, reducing reproduction—a notorious effect of DDT. On top of all that, human activities had been altering seabird habitat on these islands for years.

NOAA’s Montrose Settlements Restoration Program has been focused on reversing this harmful trend with a number of projects to restore seabird nesting habitat, attract seabirds to the restored sites, and to remove non-native plants and animals on the Channel Islands and Baja California Pacific Islands.

On Scorpion Rock, a small islet located off the northeast coast of Santa Cruz Island, biologists have been transforming the inhospitable landscape for Cassin’s Auklets, a small open-ocean seabird. Scorpion Rock had been overrun with dense, non-native ice plant which prevented the seabirds from digging burrows to nest and provided little protection from predators.

Begun in 2008, the restoration of Scorpion Rock is nearly complete. The island now boasts a lush cover of 17 different native plant species, including shrubs that stabilize the soil and offer cover for nesting birds. That work has been paying off.

According to the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program: “Biologists have seen a 3-fold increase in the number of natural Cassin’s Auklets burrows since the project started. Over the last few years, biologists have also observed a lower number of dead adult auklets which means that the native plants are providing adequate cover from predators.”

In the final year of the project, the plan is to use sounds of breeding seabirds to attract greater numbers to the restored habitat on Scorpion Rock, and continue maintaining the native vegetation and monitoring the birds’ recovery.

Learn more about this and other seabird restoration projects in the Channel Islands and watch a video from 2010 about the restoration at Scorpion Rock during its earlier stages:


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Information about Oil Spills Is at Your Fingertips

Where and when was the biggest oil spill? How many oil spills happen each year? Is the frequency of oil spills going up or down? Where can I get information about oil spills?

We at NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration hear these questions often, frequently from high school students looking for help writing their research papers …

We have a lot of information on our website about oil spills in general, as well as those cases in which we have provided scientific expertise during the response. In addition, we maintain IncidentNews.noaa.gov, which has information on thousands of selected historical incidents spanning 30 years of our experience responding to spills.

But NOAA only becomes involved with larger, more complex incidents in which scientific expertise is required to track or clean up spilled oil or cases with a significant threat to marine and coastal resources. Sometimes we get involved before any oil has actually spilled, such as when a ship runs aground on a coral reef and the fuel tanks have not been breached—yet. We typically respond to more than a hundred oil and chemical incidents annually, but there are thousands of smaller spills happening as well, many in marinas and urban and industrial waterways.

So what are some good sources of information on oil spills? For general statistics on oil spills in U.S. waters, I recommend that researchers go to the National Response Center website at http://www.nrc.uscg.mil.

The National Response Center (NRC) receives all reports of releases involving hazardous substances, including oil spills. Reports to the NRC activate the National Contingency Plan and the federal government’s response capabilities. The NRC maintains reports of all releases and spills in a national database going back to 1990 that you can download and search.

If you are interested in a specific pollution incident in the United States, the U.S. Coast Guard has a lot of information in their Marine Casualty and Pollution Data files. This database goes back to 1973 and captures details about marine casualty and pollution incidents that were investigated by the Coast Guard.

On the international level, the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation (ITOPF) does a good job of providing data on oil spills from tankers and barges transporting oil. The ITOPF database goes back to 1970, and includes data from a variety of sources including maritime insurers and shipping publications.

One of the interesting trends that ITOPF data shows is that while tanker traffic has increased over the past 30 years, there has been a downward trend in oil spills originating from tankers.  In their list of the top 20 tanker accidents, 19 occurred before 1990, or pre-Exxon Valdez. Since then, many oil pollution prevention rules have been put in place and ship navigation tools have been improved. One notable example being the phase out of single-hull tankers.

Another good source of international data is CEDRE, the Centre of Documentation, Research and Experimentation on Accidental Water Pollution, based in Brittany, France. The CEDRE website has a good map and database featuring major oil spills around the world, dating back to 1917.

Speaking of oil spill data, we crunched the numbers on the locations of all of our oil spill-related responses from 2014 and came up with the following infographic:

Map of United States with numbers of oil spill responses in various coastal regions.

NOAA oil spill responses in 2014, by region. Includes actual and potential oil spills. The Gulf of Mexico, a region which produces and refines a lot of oil, also experiences the most oil spill responses NOAA is involved with of any other region. The U.S. Coast Guard in different regions takes advantage of NOAA support services in different ways, which may account for some of the very low or very high numbers of NOAA responses in various regions. (NOAA)


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Science of Oil Spills Training Now Accepting Applications for Spring 2015

A group of people gathered on a deck, with a ferry in the background.

These classes help prepare responders to understand the environmental risks and scientific considerations when addressing oil spills, and also include a field trip to a beach to apply newly learned skills. (NOAA)

NOAA‘s Office of Response and Restoration, a leader in providing scientific information in response to marine pollution, has scheduled a Science of Oil Spills (SOS) class for the week of April 27-May 1, 2015 in Houston, Texas.

We will accept applications for this class through Friday, February 27, 2015, and we will notify applicants regarding their participation status by Friday, March 13, 2015, 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.

These trainings cover:

  • 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 be advised that classes are not filled on a first-come, first-served basis. The Office of Response and Restoration tries 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.

One additional SOS course will be held in 2015 in Seattle, Washington (date to be determined).

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


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Why Are Seabirds so Vulnerable to Oil Spills?

Out of the squawking thousands of black and white birds crowding the cliff, a single male sidled up to the rocky edge. After arranging a few out-of-place feathers with his sleek beak, the bird plunged like a bullet into the ocean below. These penguin look-alikes (no relation) are Common Murres. Found along the U.S. coast from Alaska to California, this abundant species of seabird dives underwater, using its wings to pursue a seafood dinner, namely small fish.

During an oil spill, however, these classic characteristics of murres and other seabirds work to their disadvantage, upping the chance they will encounter oil—and in more ways than one. To understand why seabirds are so vulnerable to oil spills, let’s return to our lone male murre and a hypothetical oil spill near his colony in the Gulf of Alaska.

Preening in an Oil Sheen

After diving hundreds of feet beneath the cold waters of the North Pacific Ocean, the male murre pops back to the surface with a belly full of fish—and feathers laminated in oil. This bird has surfaced from his dinner dive into an oil slick, a common problem for diving birds during oil spills. His coat of feathers, once warm and waterproof, is now matted. The oil is breaking up his interlocking layer of feathers, usually maintained by the bird’s constant arranging and rearranging, known as preening.

With his sensitive skin suddenly exposed not just to the irritating influence of oil but also to the cold, the male murre becomes chilled. If he does not repair the alignment of his feathers soon, hypothermia could set in. This same insulating structure also traps air and helps the bird float on the water’s surface, but without it, the bird would struggle to stay afloat.

Quickly, the freshly oiled seabird begins preening. But with each peck of his pointed beak into the plumage, he gulps down small amounts of oil. If the murre ingests enough oil, it could have serious effects on his internal organs. Impacts range from disrupted digestion and diarrhea to liver and kidney damage and destruction of red blood cells (anemia).

But oil can find yet another way of entering the bird: via the lungs. When oil is spilled, it begins interacting with the wind, water, and waves and changing its physical and chemical properties through the process of weathering. Some components of the oil may evaporate, and the murre, bobbing on the water’s surface, could breathe in the resulting toxic fumes, leading to potential lung problems.

Birds’-Eye View

Colony of murres on a rocky outcropping on the California coast.

Murres are very social birds, living in large colonies on rocky cliffs and shores along the U.S. West Coast. If disturbed by an oil spill, many of these birds may set off temporarily to find a more suitable home. (Creative Commons: Donna Pomeroy, Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License)

This single male murre is likely not the only one in his colony to experience a run-in with the oil spill. Even those seabirds not encountering the oil directly can be affected. With oil spread across areas where the birds normally search for food and with some of their prey potentially contaminated or killed by the oil, the colony may have to travel farther away to find enough to eat. On the other hand, large numbers of these seabirds may decide to up and move to another home for the time being.

At the same time that good food is becoming scarcer, these birds will need even more food to keep up their energy levels to stay warm, find food, and ward off disease. One source of stress—the oil spill—can exacerbate many other stresses that the birds often can handle under usual circumstances.

If the oil spill happens during mating and nesting time, the impacts can be even more severe. Reproducing requires a lot of energy, and on top of that, exposure to oil can hinder birds’ ability to reproduce. Eggs and very young birds are particularly sensitive to the toxic and potentially deadly properties of oil. Murres lay only one egg at a time, meaning they are slower to replace themselves.

The glossy-eyed male murre we are following, even if he manages to escape most of the immediate impacts of being oiled, would soon face the daunting responsibility of taking care of his fledgling chick. As young as three weeks old, his one, still-developing chick plops off the steep cliff face where the colony resides and tumbles into the ocean, perhaps a thousand feet to its waiting father below. There, the father murre is the chick’s constant caregiver as they travel out to sea, an energy-intensive role even without having to deal with the potential fallout from an oil spill.

Birds of a Feather Get Oiled Together

Like a bathtub filled with rubber ducks, murres form giant floating congregations on the water, known as “rafts,” which can include up to 250,000 birds. In fact, murres spend all but three or four months of the year out at sea. Depending on where the oil travels after a spill, a raft of murres could float right into it, a scenario which may be especially likely considering murre habitat often overlaps with major shipping channels.

After the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, responders collected some 30,000 dead, oil-covered birds. Nearly three-quarters of them were murres, but the total included other birds which dive or feed on the ocean surface as well. Because most bird carcasses never make it to shore intact where researchers can count them, they have to make estimations of the total number of birds killed. The best approximation from the Exxon Valdez spill is that 250,000 birds died, with 185,000 of them murres.

While this population of seabirds certainly suffered from this oil spill (perhaps losing up to 40 percent of the population), murres began recovering within a few years of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Surprisingly resilient, this species is nonetheless one of the most studied seabirds [PDF] precisely because it is so often the victim of oil spills.

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