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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From Board Games to Cookbooks, How the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Infiltrated Pop Culture

Big oil spills, those of the magnitude which happen only once every few decades, often leave a legacy of sorts.

In the case of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, which dumped roughly 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound, that legacy took many forms. Legislative, ecological, and even cultural—yes, that extends to pop culture too.

In short order, the Exxon Valdez oil spill prompted monumental changes in the laws governing maritime shipping and oil spill response. In 1990, Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act, empowering NOAA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to better respond to and plan for spills and setting up a trust fund (paid for by an oil tax) to help with cleanup operations.

Furthermore, this important legislation mandated that oil tankers with single hulls (like the easily punctured Exxon Valdez) would no longer be permitted to operate in U.S. waters, instead requiring double-hull vessels to carry oil. (However, the full phaseout of single-hull tankers would take decades.)

More than 25 years later, researchers are still uncovering this spill’s ecological legacy, its stamp on the natural world, and learning what happens when oil interacts with that world. The spill affected some two dozen species and habitats, some of which have not yet recovered.

Of course, the Exxon Valdez oil spill also left a complicated cultural legacy, imparting health, social, psychological, and economic impacts on the people living and working in the area, particularly those whose livelihoods are closely tied to the ocean. Commercial fishers, the recreation and tourism industry, and more than a dozen predominantly Alaskan Native communities relying on fish, waterfowl, and other natural resources for subsistence were dramatically affected by the oil spill.

Yet the cultural echoes of this environmental disaster spread beyond Alaska. It inspired a second grader to write an impassioned letter about the plight of otters threatened by the spill to the Alaska director of the Fish and Wildlife Service. After working at this spill, it inspired one NOAA marine biologist to begin collecting some of the strange pieces of memorabilia related to the incident, from a piece of the ill-fated tanker to an Exxon safety calendar featuring the ship in the very month it would run aground.

These echoes even managed to permeate the ranks of pop culture. Take a look at these five ways that the Exxon Valdez oil spill has shown up in places most oil spills just don’t go:

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

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

  1. A board game. Local bartender Richard Lynn of Valdez, Alaska, created the game “On the Rocks: The Great Alaska Oil Spill” after working part-time to clean up the spill. Each player navigates through the game using an authentic bit of rock from Prince William Sound. The goal was to be the first player to scrub all 200 miles of oily shore. The catch was that you only had about 6 months and $250 million in play money to accomplish this. You could pick up your own copy of the game for $16.69, which was the hourly rate Exxon’s contracted workers earned while cleaning up the spill.
  2. A movie. Dead Ahead: the Exxon Valdez Disaster was the 1992 made-for-TV movie that dramatized the events of the oil spill and ensuing cleanup. This film even featured some well-known actors, including John Heard as Alaska inspector Dan Lawn and Christopher Lloyd as Exxon Shipping Company President Frank Iarossi.
  3. A cookbook. Fortunately, the recipes in The Two Billion Dollar Cookbook don’t feature dishes like “oiled herring” or “otter on the rocks.” Instead, this 300 page cookbook compiled by Exxon Valdez cleanup workers and their friends and families highlights meals more along the lines of barbeque sandwich mix and steak tartare, in addition to being peppered with personal stories from its contributors. Proceeds from the sale of this cookbook benefit a homeless shelter and food bank based in Anchorage, Alaska. Why two billion dollars? That was how much Exxon had shelled out for responding to the spill when the cookbook hit the presses.
  4. A play. Two plays, in fact. Dick Reichman, resident of Valdez, Alaska, during the momentous spill, has twice written and directed plays that examined this disaster—and the high emotions that came with it—through the theatrical lens. His first play, written in 1992 and dubbed “The official Valdez oil spill melodrama,” was Tanker on the Rocks: or the Great Alaskan Bad Friday Fish-Spill of ’89. His second, The Big One: a Chronicle of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, was received with some acclaim during its 2009 run in Anchorage. You can watch a short video of the actors and director preparing for the 2009 performance (warning: some explicit language).
  5. Children’s books, novels, and poetry. From a children’s book about a young girl rescuing an oiled baby seal to a novel written by the tugboat captain who towed the Exxon Valdez out of Prince William Sound, there exists a bounty of literature exploring the many human and environmental themes of this oil spill. As you peruse them, keep in mind this NOAA scientist’s recommendations for evaluating what you’re reading about oil spills, especially when doing so with kids.

Have you seen other examples of the Exxon Valdez or perhaps, more recently, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill showing up in pop culture?

A special thanks to the Alaska Resources Library and Information Services (ARLIS) for compiling an excellent list of Exxon Valdez related information [PDF] and for helping procure an image of the rare “On the Rocks” board game.


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Five Years After Deepwater Horizon, How Is NOAA Preparing for Future Oil Spills?

The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Five Years Later

This is the ninth and final story in a series of stories over the past month 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 in a boat wake on the ocean surface.

Keeping up with emerging technologies and changing energy trends helps us become better prepared for the oil spills of tomorrow, no matter where that may take us. (NOAA)

When the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground in Alaska and spilled nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil in 1989, the world was a very different place. New laws, regulations, and technologies followed that spill, meaning future oil spills—though they undoubtedly would still occur—would do so in a fundamentally different context.

This was certainly the case by 2010 when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig suffered an explosion caused by a well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. Tankers transporting oil have become generally safer since 1989 (thanks in part to now-required double hulls), and in 2010, the new frontier in oil production—along with new risks—was located at a wellhead nearly a mile under the ocean surface.

Since that fateful April day in 2010, NOAA has responded to another 400 oil and chemical incidents. Keeping up with emerging technologies and changing energy trends helps us become better prepared for the oil spills of tomorrow, whether they stem from a derailed train carrying particularly flammable oil, a transcontinental pipeline of diluted oil sands, or a cargo ship passing through the Arctic’s icy but increasingly accessible waters.

So how is NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration preparing for future oil spills?

The Bakken Boom

Crude oil production from North Dakota’s Bakken region has more than quadrupled [PDF] since 2010, and responders must be prepared for spills involving this lighter oil (note: not all oils are the same).

Bakken crude oil is highly flammable and evaporates quickly in the open air. Knowing the chemistry of this oil can help guide decisions about how to respond to spills of Bakken oil. As a result, we’ve added Bakken as one of the oil types in ADIOS, our software program which models what happens to spilled oil over time. Now, responders can predict how much oil naturally disperses, evaporates, or remains on the water’s surface using information customized for Bakken’s unique chemistry.

We’ve also been collaborating across the spill response community to boost preparedness for these types of oil spills. Earlier this year, NOAA worked with the National Response Team to teach responders about how to deal with Bakken crude oil spills, with a special emphasis on health and safety.

The increase of Bakken crude poses another challenge to the nation: spills from oil-hauling trains. There are few ways to move Bakken crude from wells in North Dakota to refiners and consumers across the country. To keep up with the demand, producers have turned to rail transport as a quick alternative. In 2010, rail moved less than five million tons of crude petroleum. By 2013, that number had jumped to nearly 40 million.

NOAA typically responds to marine spills, but our scientific experience also proves useful when oil spills into a navigable river, as can happen when a train derails. To help answer response questions for waterways at risk, we’re adding even more data to our tools for spill responders. Ongoing updates to the Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA), our online mapping tool for environmental response data, illustrate the intersection of railroads and sensitive habitats and species, which might be affected by a spill from a train carrying oil.

Our Neighbor to the North

Oil imports from Canada, where oil sands (also known as tar sands) account for almost all of the country’s oil, have surged. Since 2010 Canadian oil imports have increased more than 40 percent.

Oil sands present another set of unique challenges. This variety is a thick, heavy crude oil (bitumen), which has to be diluted with a thinner type of oil to allow it to flow through a pipeline for transport. The resulting product is known as diluted bitumen, or dilbit.

Because oil sands are a mixture of products, it’s not completely clear how they react in the environment. When this product is released into water, the oils can separate quickly between lighter and heavier parts. As such, responders might have to worry about both lighter components vaporizing into toxic fumes in the air and heavier oil components potentially sinking down into the water column or bottom sediments, becoming more difficult to clean up. This also means that bottom-dwelling organisms may be more vulnerable to spills of oil sands than other types of oils.

As our experts work to assess the impacts from oil sands spills (including the 2010 Enbridge pipeline spill in Michigan), their studies both inform restoration for past spills and help guide response for the next spill. We’ve been working with the response and restoration community around the country to incorporate these lessons into spill response, including at recent meetings of the West Coast Joint Assessment Team and the International Spill Control Organization.

Even Further North

As shrinking summer sea ice opens shipping routes and opportunities for oil and gas production in the Arctic, the risk of an oil spill increases for that region. By 2020, up to 40 million tons per year of oil and gas are expected to travel the Northern Sea route through the Arctic Ocean.

Responding to oil spills in the Arctic will not be easy. Weather can be harsh, even in August. Logistical support is limited, and so is baseline science. Yet in the last five years, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration has made leaps in Arctic preparedness. For example, since 2010, we launched Arctic ERMA, a version of our interactive response data mapping tool customized for the region, and released Arctic Ephemeral Data Guidelines, a series of guidelines for collecting high-priority, time-sensitive data in the Arctic after an oil spill. But we still have plenty of work ahead of us.

Ship breaking ice in Arctic waters.

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy breaks ice in Arctic waters. A ship like this would be the likely center of operations for an oil spill in this remote and harsh region. (NOAA)

During a spill, we predict where oil is going, but Arctic conditions change the way oil behaves compared with warmer waters. Cold temperatures make oil more viscous (thick and slow-flowing), and in a spill, oil may be trapped in, on, and under floating sea ice, further complicating predictions of its movement.

We’ve been working to overcome this challenge by improving our models of oil movement and weathering in icy waters and researching response techniques and oil behavior to close gaps in the science. This May, we also find ourselves in a new role as the United States takes chairmanship of the Arctic Council. Amy Merten of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration will chair the Arctic Council’s Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response Working Group, where we hope to continue international efforts to boost Arctic spill preparedness.

Expecting the Unexpected

After decades of dealing with oil spills, we know one thing for certain—we have to be ready for anything.

In the last five years, we’ve responded to spills from the mangroves of Bangladesh to the banks of the Ohio River. These spills have involved Bakken crude, oil sands, and hazardous chemicals. They have resulted from well blowouts, leaking pipelines, derailed trains, grounded ships, storms, and more. In fact, one of the largest spills we’ve responded to since Deepwater Horizon involved 224,000 gallons of molasses released into a Hawaiian harbor.

Whatever the situation, it’s our job to provide the best available science for decisions. NOAA has more than 25 years of experience responding to oil spills. Over that time, we have continued to fine-tune our scientific understanding to better protect our coasts from this kind of pollution, a commitment that extends to whatever the next challenge may bring.


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NOAA’s Online Mapping Tool ERMA Opens up Environmental Disaster Data to the Public

Six men looking at a map with a monitor in the background.

Members of the U.S. Coast Guard using ERMA during the response to Hurricane Isaac in 2012. (NOAA)

This is a post by the NOAA Office of Response and Restoration’s Jay Coady, Geographic Information Systems Specialist.

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March 15-21, 2015 is Sunshine Week, an “annual nationwide celebration of access to public information and what it means for you and your community.” Sunshine Week is focused on the idea that open government is good government. We’re highlighting NOAA’s Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA) as part of our efforts to provide public access to government data during oil spills and other environmental disasters.    

Providing access to data is a challenging task during natural disasters and oil spill responses—which are hectic enough situations on their own. Following one of these incidents, a vast amount of data is collected and can accumulate quickly. Without proper data management standards in place, it can take a lot of time and effort to ensure that data are correct, complete, and in a useful form that has some kind of meaning to people. Furthermore, as technology advances, responders, decision makers, and the public expect quick and easy access to data.

NOAA’s Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA®) is a web-based mapping application that pulls in and displays both static and real-time data, such as ship locations, weather, and ocean currents. Following incidents including the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill and Hurricane Sandy in 2012, this online tool has aided in the quick display of and access to data not only for responders working to protect coastal communities but also the public.

From oil spill response to restoration activities, ERMA plays an integral part in environmental data dissemination. ERMA reaches a diverse group of users and maintains a wide range of data through a number of partnerships across federal agencies, states, universities, and nations.

Because it is accessible through a web browser, ERMA can quickly communicate data between people across the country working on the same incident. At the same time, ERMA maintains a public-facing side which allows anyone to access publically available data for that incident.

ERMA in the Spotlight

During the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, ERMA was designated as the “common operational picture” for the federal spill response. That meant ERMA displayed response-related activities and provided a consistent visualization for everyone involved—which added up to thousands of people.

Screen grab of ERMA map.

ERMA map showing areas of dispersant application during the response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. (NOAA)

To date, the ERMA site dedicated solely to the Deepwater Horizon spill contains over 1,500 data layers that are available to the public. Data in ERMA are displayed in layers, each of which is a single set of data. An example of a data layer is the cumulative oil footprint of the spill. This single data layer shows, added together, the various parts of the ocean surface the oil spill affected at different times over the entire course of the spill, as measured by satellite data. Another example is the aerial dispersant application data sets that are grouped by day into a single data layer and show the locations of chemical dispersant that were applied to oil slicks in 2010.

Even today, ERMA remains an active resource during the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process, which evaluates environmental harm from the oil spill and response, and NOAA releases data related to these efforts to the public as they become available. ERMA continues to be one of the primary ways that NOAA shares data for this spill with the public.

ERMA Across America

While the Deepwater Horizon oil spill may be one ERMA’s biggest success stories, NOAA has created 10 other ERMA sites customized for various U.S. regions. They continue to provide data related to environmental response, cleanup, and restoration activities across the nation’s coasts and Great Lakes. These 10 regional ERMA sites together contain over 5,000 publicly available data layers, ranging from data on contaminants and environmentally sensitive resources to real-time weather conditions.

For example, in 2012, NOAA used Atlantic ERMA to assist the U.S. Coast Guard, Environmental Protection Agency, and state agencies in responding to pollution in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Weather data were displayed in near real time as the storm approached the East Coast, and response activities were tracked in ERMA. The ERMA interface was able to provide publically available data, including satellite and aerial imagery, storm inundation patterns, and documented storm-related damages. You can also take a look at a gallery of before-and-after photos from the Sandy response, as viewed through Atlantic ERMA.

Screen grab of an ERMA map.

An ERMA map showing estimated storm surge heights in the Connecticut, New York and New Jersey areas during Hurricane Sandy. (NOAA)

In addition, the ERMA team partnered with NOAA’s Marine Debris Program to track Sandy-related debris, in coordination with state and local partners. All of those data are available in Atlantic ERMA.

Looking to the north, ERMA continues to be an active tool in Arctic oil spill response planning. For the past two years, members of the ERMA team have provided mapping support using Arctic ERMA during the U.S. Coast Guard’s Arctic Technology Evaluation exercises, which took place at the edge of the sea ice north of Barrow, Alaska. During these exercises, the crew and researchers aboard a Coast Guard icebreaker tested potential technologies for use in Arctic oil spill response, such as unmanned aircraft systems. You can find the distributions of sensitive Alaskan bird populations, sea ice conditions, shipping routes, and pictures related to these Arctic exercises, as well as many more data sets, in Arctic ERMA.

Screen grab of an Arctic ERMA map.

ERMA is an active tool in Arctic oil spill response planning. (NOAA)

To learn more about the online mapping tool ERMA, visit http://response.restoration.noaa.gov/erma.

Jay Coady is a GIS Specialist with the Office of Response and Restoration’s Spatial Data Branch and is based in Charleston, South Carolina. He has been working on the Deepwater Horizon incident since July 2010 and has been involved in a number of other responses, including Post Tropical Cyclone Sandy.


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For Alaska’s Remote Pribilof Islands, a Tale of Survival and Restoration for People and Seals

Set in the middle of Alaska’s Bering Sea, a string of five misty islands known as the Pribilof Islands possess a long, rich, and at times, dark history. A history of near extinction, survival, and restoration for both people and nature. A history involving Alaska Natives, Russians, the U.S. government and military, and seals.

It begins with the native people, known as the Unangan, who live there. They tell a story that, as they say, belongs to a place, not any one person. The story is of the hunter Iggadaagix, who first found these islands many years ago after being swept away in a storm and who wanted to bring the Unangan back there from the Aleutian Islands. When the Unangan finally did return for good, it was in the 18th century, and their lives would become intimately intertwined with those of the northern fur seals (Callorhinus ursinus). Each summer roughly half of all northern fur seals breed and give birth in the Pribilof Islands.

Map of fur seal distributions in Bering Sea and Pacific Ocean, with location of Pribilof Islands.

An 1899 map of the distribution (in red) and migrations of the American and Asiatic Fur Seal Herds in the Bering Sea and North Pacific Ocean. Based on data collected 1893-1897. The Pribilof Islands (St. Paul and St. George) are visible north of the main Aleutian Islands, surrounded by the center collections of red dots. Click to enlarge. (U.S. Government)

But these seals and their luxurious fur, along with the tale of Iggadaagix, would eventually bring about dark times for the seals, the Unangan, and the islands themselves. After hearing of Iggadaagix and searching for a new source of furs, Russian navigator Gavriil Loginovich Pribylov would land in 1786 on the islands which would eventually bear his name. He and others would bring the Unangan from the Aleutian Islands to the Pribilof’s St. George and St. Paul Islands, where they would be put to work harvesting and processing the many fur seals.

In these early years on the islands, Russian hunters so quickly decimated the fur seal population that the Russian-American Company, which held the charter for settling there, suspended hunting from 1805 to 1810. The annual limit for taking fur seals was then set at 8,000 to 10,000 pelts, allowing the population to rebound significantly.

The United States Arrives at the Islands

Fast forward to 1867, when the United States purchased Alaska, including the Pribilof Islands, from Russia for $7.2 million.

Some people considered the lucrative Pribilof Islands fur seal industry to have played a role in this purchase. In fact, this industry more than repaid the U.S. government for Alaska’s purchase price, hauling in $9,473,996 between 1870 and 1909.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw various U.S. military branches establish stations on the Pribilof Islands, as well as several (at times unsuccessful) attempts to control the reckless slaughter of fur seals. From 1867 until 1983, the U.S. government managed the fur seal industry on the Pribilof Islands.

In 1984, the Unangan finally were granted control of these islands, but the government had left behind a toxic legacy from commercial fur sealing and former defense sites: hazardous waste sites, dumps, contaminants, and debris.

Making Amends with the Land

This is where NOAA comes into the picture. In 1996, the Pribilof Islands Environmental Restoration Act called on NOAA to restore the environmental degradation on the Pribilof Islands. In particular, a general lack of historical accountability on the islands had led to numerous diesel fuel spills and leaks and improperly stored and disposed waste oils and antifreeze. By 1997 NOAA had removed thousands of tons of old cars, trucks, tractors, barrels, storage tanks, batteries, scrap metal, and tires from St. Paul and St. George Islands. Beginning in 2002, NOAA’s efforts transitioned to cleaning up soil contamination and assessing potential pollution in groundwater.

However, the Department of Defense has also been responsible for environmental cleanup at the Pribilof Islands. The U.S. Army occupied the islands during World War II and left behind debris and thousands of 55-gallon drums, which were empty by 1985 but had previously contained petroleum, oils, and lubricants, which could have leaked into the soil.

By 2008, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration had fulfilled its responsibilities for cleaning up the contamination on the Pribilof Islands, closing a dark chapter for this remote and diverse area of the world and hopefully continuing the healing process for the Unangan and fur seals who still call these islands their home.

Learn More about the Pribilof Islands

Man posing with schoolchildren.

Dr. G. Dallas Hanna with a class of Aleut schoolchildren on St. George Island, Alaska, circa 1914. (National Archives)

You can dig even deeper into the wealth of historical information about the Pribilof Islands at pribilof.noaa.gov.

There you can find histories, photos, videos, and documents detailing the islands’ various occupations, the fur seal industry, the relocation of the Unangan during World War II, the environmental contamination and restoration, and more.

You can also watch:


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

Last summer NOAA’s Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program (DARRP) traveled to the remote Adak Island in Alaska to help salmon return to their historical home by removing barriers from Helmet Creek. We headed back out this September to see how things were going. As you can see from our photos, the salmon seem to be big fans of our 2013 restoration work.

Our mission this September was to monitor the success of these habitat restoration efforts and make sure no new problems have occurred since then. A survey of the creek quickly showed that salmon are now pushing as far upstream as naturally possibly, allowing them to enter formerly impassable areas with ease. Now the only thing preventing salmon from continuing further upstream is a natural waterfall.

During this visit, Helmet Creek was teaming with Pink and Chum salmon. One walk of the roughly two kilometer (one and a quarter mile) portion of stream resulted in our counting more than 600 adult salmon, over half of which were beyond the areas where we had removed fish passage barriers.

Salmon swimming underwater in a creek.

Salmon make their way upstream in Helmet Creek, further than they have been able to access in years thanks to our restoration work. (NOAA)

Before we stepped in to restore Helmet Creek, salmon were hitting a number of man-made obstacles preventing them from getting to the natural areas where they reproduce, known as their spawning grounds. In 2013 we removed these fish barriers, pulling out a number of 55-gallon drums and grates, all of which were impeding the salmon’s ability to swim upstream and covering their spawning grounds.

While seeing all these active fish is exciting, we are also looking forward to the ways these fish will continue helping the environment after they die. As salmon are now able to travel further upstream, they will take valuable nutrients with them too. After spawning, these pink and chum salmon will die and their decaying carcasses will return extremely valuable nutrients to the stream habitat and surrounding area. These nutrients will provide benefits to resident trout, vegetation, and birds nearby.

Restoration of Helmet Creek resulted from our work to restore the environment after a 2010 oil spill on the remote Adak Island, part of Alaska’s Aleutian Island chain. Through DARRP, we worked with our partners to determine how the environment was injured and how best to restore habitat. You can read more about our efforts in—and the unusual challenges of—assessing these environmental impacts to salmon and Helmet Creek.

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