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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Remotely Controlled Surfboards: Oil Spill Technology of the Future?

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s LTJG Rachel Pryor, Northwest Regional Response Officer.

A wave glider before being launched from the NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson.

NOAA is exploring how to use technology such as wave gliders, small autonomous robots that travel at the ocean surface via wave energy, to collect oceanographic data during oil spills. (NOAA)

What do remotely controlled surfboards have to do with oil spills? In the future, hopefully a lot more. These “remotely controlled surfboards” are actually wave gliders, small autonomous robots that travel at the ocean surface via wave energy, collecting oceanographic data. Solar panels on top of the gliders power the oceanographic sensors, which transmit the data back to us via satellites.

I recently learned how to use the software that (through the internet) remotely drives these wave gliders—and then actually started “driving” them out in the open ocean.

Gathering Waves of Information

On July 7, 2016, NOAA launched two wave gliders off the NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson to study ocean acidification through carbon analysis in the Bering Sea (which is off the southwest coast of Alaska).

A wave glider floating in the ocean.

One of the wave gliders recently deployed in the Bering Sea, with its solar panels on top powering the sensors. (NOAA)

One wave glider has “Conductivity Temperature Depth” (CTD) sensors, a fluorometer, water temperature sensors, and a meteorological sensor package that measures wind, temperature, and atmospheric pressure. The other glider has a sensor that measures the partial pressure of carbon (which basically tells us how much carbon dioxide the ocean is absorbing), an oxygen sensor, a CTD, pH instrumentation, and a meteorological package. The pair of gliders is following a long loop around the 60⁰N latitude line, with each leg of the loop about 200 nautical miles in length.

These wave gliders will be collecting data until the end of September 2016, when they will be retrieved by a research ship. The wave gliders require volunteer “pilots” to constantly (and remotely) monitor the wave gliders’ movements to ensure they stay on track and, as necessary, avoid any vessel traffic.

I’ve committed to piloting the wave gliders for multiple days during this mission. The pilot must be on call around the clock in order to adjust the gliders’ courses in case of an approaching ship or storm, as well as to keep an eye on instrument malfunctions, such as a low battery or failing Global Positioning System (GPS).

Screen view of software tracking and driving two wave gliders in the Bering Sea.

A view of the software used to track and pilot the wave gliders. The white cross is wave glider #1 and it is headed east. The orange cross marks show where it has been. The white star is wave glider #2, which is headed west, with the red stars showing where it has been. The blue lines indicate the vectors of where they will be and the direction they are headed. Wave glider #1 rounded the western portion of its path significantly faster than the other glider. As a result, the pilot rounded glider #2 to start heading east to catch up with glider #2. (NOAA)

The two wave gliders actually move through the water at different speeds, which means their pilot needs to be able to direct the vessels into U-turn maneuvers so that the pair stays within roughly 10 nautical miles of each other.

Remote Technologies, Real Applications

NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory has been using autonomous surface vessels to do oceanographic research since 2011. These autonomous vessels include wave gliders and Saildrones equipped with multiple sensors to collect oceanographic data.

During the summer of 2016, there are two missions underway in the Bering Sea using both types of vessels but with very different goals. The wave gliders are studying ocean acidification. Saildrones are wind- and solar-powered vessels that are bigger and faster. Their size allows them to carry a large suite of oceanographic instrumentation and conduct multiple research studies from the same vehicle.

For their latest mission, Saildrones are using acoustic sensors to detect habitat information about important commercial fisheries, such as pollock, and monitor the movement of endangered right whales. (Follow along with the mission.)

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is interested in the potential use of aquatic unmanned systems such as wave gliders and Saildrones as a spill response tool for measuring water quality and conditions at the site of an oil spill.

These remotely operated devices have a number of advantages, particularly for spills in dangerous or hard-to-reach locations. They would be cost-efficient to deploy, collect real-time data on oil compound concentrations during a spill, reduce people’s exposure to dangerous conditions, and are easier to decontaminate after oil exposure. Scientists have already been experimenting with wave gliders’ potential as an oil spill technology tool in the harsh and remote conditions of the Arctic.

NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory is working closely with the designers of these two vehicles, developing them as tools for ocean research by outfitting them with a wide variety of oceanographic instrumentation. The lab is interested in outfitting Saildrones and wave gliders with special hydrocarbon sensors that would be able to detect oil for spill response. I’m excited to see—and potentially pilot—these new technologies as they continue to develop.

Woman in hard hat next to a tree on a boat.

NOAA Corps Officer LTJG Rachel Pryor has been with the Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division as an Assistant Scientific Support Coordinator since the start of 2015. Her primary role is to support the West Coast Scientific Support Coordinators in responding to oil discharge and hazardous material spills.

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After Pollution Strikes, Restoring the Lost Cultural Bond Between Tribes and the Environment

This week, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is looking at the range of values and benefits that coastal areas offer people—including what we stand to lose when oil spills and chemical pollution harm nature and how we work to restore our lost uses of nature afterward. Read all the stories.

A young boy hangs humpback whitefish on a drying rack next to a river.

Restoring the deep cultural ties between native communities and the environment is an important and challenging part of restoration after oil spills and chemical releases. Here, a boy from the Alaska Native village of Shungnak learns to hang dry humpback whitefish. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

When I’ve heard residents of the Alaskan Arctic speak about the potential impacts of an oil spill, I don’t hear any lines of separation between the oil spill causing injury to the environment and injury to the community.

Their discussions about the potential harm to walrus or seals inevitably include how this will impact the community’s ability to hunt for food, which affects both their food security and traditions. The cultures of these communities are inextricably tied to the land and sea.

So I ask myself, in the wake of an oil spill in the Arctic, how would we begin to restore that bond between the environment and the communities who live there? How can we even begin to make up for the lost hunting trips between grandparents and grandkids that don’t happen because of an oil spill? Furthermore, how could we help restore the lost knowledge that gets passed down between generations during such activities?

We know nothing can truly replace those vital cultural exchanges and activities that don’t occur because of pollution, but we have to try. Thanks to our federal Natural Resource Damage Assessment laws, polluters are made accountable for these lost cultural uses of natural resources, as well as for the harm to affected lands, waters, plants, and animals.

An Alaska Native expert teaches two boys how to cut and prepare pike for drying.

Many ideas for cultural restoration after pollution center around the concept of teaching youth the traditional ways of using natural resources. Here, students from the Alaska Native village of Selawik learn to cut a pike for drying from a local expert. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Here are a few examples of our efforts to restore these cultural uses of coastal resources after they’ve been harmed by oil and chemical spills, as well as some ideas for the future.

Community Camps in Alaska

When the M/V Kuroshima ran around on Unalaska Island, Alaska, in November 1997, approximately 39,000 gallons of heavy oil spilled into Summer Bay, Unalaska’s prime recreational beach. As a result of the spill, access to the bay and its beach was closed off or restricted for several months.

In an effort to restore the lost use of their beach, the local Qawalangin Tribe received funding for an outdoor summer recreational camp, which focuses on tribal and cultural projects such as traditional subsistence harvesting techniques for shellfish and activities with Unangan elders in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. To ensure the safety of local seafoods eaten by the tribe, NOAA also arranged for further chemical analysis of shellfish tissues and educated the community about the results.

Cultural Apprenticeships in New York

Years of aluminum and hydraulic fluid manufacturing released toxic substances such as PCBs into New York’s St. Lawrence River, near the Canadian border. This history of pollution robbed the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, whose Mohawk name is Akwesasne, of the full ability to practice numerous culturally important activities, such as fishing. Legal settlements with those responsible for the pollution have provided funding for the tribe to implement cultural programs to help make up for those losses.

But first, representatives from the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe conducted oral history research, hosted community outreach meetings, and solicited restoration project ideas from the community. As a result of these efforts, they determined that two main components of restoration [PDF] were necessary: an apprenticeship program and funding for cultural institutions and programs.

The long-term, master-apprentice relationship program focuses on the four areas of traditional cultural practices that were harmed by the release of hazardous contaminants into the St. Lawrence River and surrounding area. This program also promotes and supports the regeneration of practices associated with traditions in these four areas:

  • Water, fishing, and use of the river.
  • „Horticulture and basketmaking.
  • „Medicinal plants and healing.
  • Hunting and trapping.

Hands-on experience and Mohawk language training are also integral parts of the apprenticeship program.

In addition to this program, resources have been provided to a number of existing Akwesasne-based programs that have already begun the work of responding to the cultural harm caused by this contamination. One example is providing opportunities for Akwesasne youth and surrounding communities to receive outdoor educational experience in a natural and safe location for traditional teachings, such as respect for the land and survival skills.

Planning for the Worst and Hoping for the Best in the Arctic

Whales, polar bears, and walrus carved into a bowhead whale jawbone.

We need to work closely with each tribe affected by an oil spill or chemical release to help them achieve the cultural connection with nature affected by pollution. You can see this connection in action at the Iñupiat Heritage Center in Barrow, Alaska, where local artists carve traditional icons into the jawbone of a bowhead whale. (NOAA)

Discussions with Alaskan Arctic communities have yielded similar suggestions of potential forms of cultural restoration after pollution. A 2012 multi-day workshop with communities in Kotzebue, Alaska, generated an initial list of ideas, including:

  • Teaching traditional celebrations (e.g., foot races and dances).
  • Teaching subsistence practices and survival techniques.
  • Supporting science fairs with an environmental restoration focus.
  • Maintaining and transferring hunting knowledge by educating youth on proper whale, seal, and walrus hunting methods.

This last idea is particularly intriguing and would involve preparing a “virtual hunt” curriculum on how to shoot whales so they can be recovered, how to butcher an animal, and sharing the results of the hunt with others.

After working here at NOAA since 2008, I can rattle off plenty of restoration ideas for an oiled beach, or oiled birds. But when it comes to restoring lost cultural uses of the environment, there are no off-the-shelf project ideas.

Each tribe is unique and how one tribe’s members interact with their natural environment may not be the same as another tribe’s. While there may be similar themes we can build upon, such as teaching language and harvesting skills, we need to work closely with each tribe affected by an oil or chemical spill to help them achieve once again what pollution has taken away.

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10 Photos That Tell the Story of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill and its Impacts

Exxon Valdez ship with response vessels in Prince William Sound.

The single-hull tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska, March 24, 1989, spilling 11 million gallons of crude oil. (U.S. Coast Guard)

While oil spills happen almost every day, we are fortunate that relatively few make such large or lasting impressions as the Deepwater Horizon or Exxon Valdez spills. Before 2010, when the United States was fixated on a gushing oil well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, most Americans could probably only name one spill: when the tanker Exxon Valdez released 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound on March 24, 1989.

Here we’ve gathered 10 photos that help tell the story of the Exxon Valdez oil spill and its impacts, not only on the environment but also on science, policy, spill response, school kids, and even board games. It has become a touchstone event in many ways, one to be learned from even decades after the fact.

1. Time for safety

Calendar showing March 1989 and image of Exxon Valdez ship.

In an ironic twist of fate, the Exxon Shipping Company’s safety calendar featured the tanker Exxon Valdez in March 1989, the same month the ship ran aground. Image: From the collection of Gary Shigenaka.

Long before the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, a series of events were building that would enable this catastrophic marine accident to unfold as it did. These actions varied from the opening of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in the 1970s to the decision by the corporation running that pipeline to disband its oil spill response team and Exxon’s efforts to hold up both the tanker Exxon Valdez and its captain, Joseph Hazelwood, as exemplars of safety.

Captain Hazelwood received two Exxon Fleet safety awards for 1987 and 1988, the years leading up to March 1989, which was coincidentally the month the Exxon Valdez was featured on an Exxon Shipping Company calendar bearing the warning to “take time to be careful – now.”

Read more about the timeline of events leading up to the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

2. A law for the birds

Birds killed as a result of oil from the Exxon Valdez spill.

Thanks to the Oil Pollution Act, federal and state agencies can more easily evaluate the full environmental impacts of oil spills — and then enact restoration to make up for that harm. (Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council)

Photos of oil-soaked birds and other wildlife in Prince William Sound reinforced just how inadequate the patchwork of existing federal, state, and local laws were at preventing or addressing the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

While lawmakers took nearly a year and a half—and a few more oil spills—to pass the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, this landmark legislation was without a doubt inspired by that major oil spill. (After all, the law specifically “bars from Prince William Sound any tank vessels that have spilled over 1,000,000 gallons of oil into the marine environment after March 22, 1989.” In other words, the Exxon Valdez.) In the years since it passed, this law has made huge strides in improving oil spill prevention, cleanup, liability, and restoration.

3.  The end of single-hull tankers

People observe a large tanker with a huge gash in its hull in dry dock.

Evidence of the success of double-hull tankers: The Norwegian tanker SKS Satilla collided with a submerged oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2009 and despite this damage, did not spill any oil. (Texas General Land Office)

This image of a damaged ship is not showing the T/V Exxon Valdez, and that is precisely the point. The Exxon Valdez was an oil tanker with a single hull, which meant that when it hit ground, there was only one layer of metal for the rocks to tear through and release its tanks of oil.

But this 2009 photo shows the Norwegian tanker SKS Satilla after it sustained a major gash in its double-sided hull — and didn’t spill a drop of oil. Thanks to the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, all new tankers and tank-barges were required to be built with double hulls to reduce the chance of another Exxon Valdez situation. January 1, 2015 was the final deadline for phasing out single-hull tankers in U.S. waters.

 4. Oiled otters and angry kids

Policymakers weren’t the only ones to take note and take action in the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Second grader Kelli Middlestead of the Franklin School in Burlingame, California, was quite upset that the oil spill was having such devastating effects on one of her favorite animals: sea otters. So, on April 13, 1989, she wrote and illustrated a letter to Walter Stieglitz, Alaskan Regional Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to let him know she felt that the oil spill was “killing nature.”

Indeed, sea otters in Prince William Sound weren’t declared recovered from the Exxon Valdez oil spill until 2013. Other species still haven’t recovered and in some sheltered beaches below the surface, you can still find pockets of oil.

5. Oil and killer whales do mix (unfortunately)

Killer whales swimming alongside boats skimming oil from the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Killer whales swimming in Prince William Sound alongside boats skimming oil from the Exxon Valdez oil spill (State of Alaska, Dan Lawn).

One of the species that has yet to recover after the Exxon Valdez oil spill is the killer whale, or orca. Before this oil spill, scientists and oil spill experts thought that these marine mammals were able to detect and avoid oil spills. That is, until two killer whale pods were spotted swimming near or through oil from this spill. One of them, a group nicknamed the “AT1 Transients” which feed primarily on marine mammals, suffered an abrupt 40% drop in population during the 18 months following the oil spill.

The second group of affected killer whales, the fish-eating “AB Pod Residents,” lost 33% of their population, and while they have started to rebound, the transients are listed as a “depleted stock” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and may have as few as seven individuals remaining, down from a stable population of at least 22 in the 1980s.

Building on the lessons of the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon oil spills, NOAA has developed an emergency plan for keeping the endangered Southern Resident killer whale populations of Washington and British Columbia away from potential oil spills.

6. Tuna troubles

Top: A normal young yellowfin tuna. Bottom: A deformed yellowfin tuna exposed to oil during development.

A normal yellowfin tuna larva (top), and a larva exposed to Deepwater Horizon crude oil during development (bottom). The oil-exposed larva shows a suite of abnormalities including excess fluid building up around the heart due to heart failure and poor growth of fins and eyes. (NOAA)

How does crude oil affect fish populations? In the decades since the Exxon Valdez spill, teams of scientists have been studying the long-term effects of oil on fish such as herring, pink salmon, and tuna. In the first couple years after this spill, they found that oil was in fact toxic to developing fish, curving their spines, reducing the size of their eyes and jaws, and building up fluid around their hearts.

As part of this rich research tradition begun after the Exxon Valdez spill, NOAA scientists helped uncover the precise mechanisms for how this happens after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. The photo here shows both a normal yellowfin tuna larva not long after hatching (top) and a larva exposed to Deepwater Horizon crude oil as it developed in the egg (bottom).

The oil-exposed larva exhibits a suite of abnormalities, showing how toxic chemicals in oil such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) can affect the embryonic heart. By altering the embryonic heartbeat, exposure to oil can transform the shape of the heart, with implications for how well the fish can swim and survive as an adult.

7. Caught between a rock and a hard place

Mearns Rock boulder in 2003.

The boulder nicknamed “Mearns Rock,” located in the southwest corner of Prince William Sound, Alaska, was coated in oil which was not cleaned off after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. This image was taken in 2003. (NOAA)

Not all impacts from an oil spill are as easy to see as deformed fish hearts. As NOAA scientists Alan Mearns and Gary Shigenaka have learned since 1989, picking out those impacts from the noisy background levels of variability in the natural environment become even harder when the global climate and ocean are undergoing unprecedented change as well.

Mearns, for example, has been monitoring the boom and bust cycles of marine life on a large boulder—nicknamed “Mearns Rock”—that was oiled but not cleaned after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. What he and Shigenaka have observed on that rock and elsewhere in Prince William Sound has revealed large natural swings in the numbers of mussels, seaweeds, and barnacles, changes which are unrelated to the oil spill as they were occurring even in areas untouched by the spill.

Read more about how these scientists are exploring these challenges and a report on NOAA’s involvement in the wake of this spill.

8. A game culture

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)

Just as the Exxon Valdez oil spill touched approximately 200 miles of remote and rugged Alaskan shoreline, this spill also touched the hearts and minds of people far from the spill. References to it permeated mainstream American culture in surprising ways, inspiring a cookbook, a movie, a play, music, books, poetry, and even a board game.

That’s right, a bartender from Valdez, Alaska, produced the board game “On the Rocks: The Great Alaska Oil Spill” as a result of his experience employed in spill cleanup. Players vied to be the first to wash all 200 miles of oiled shoreline without running out of time or money.

9. Carrying a piece of the ship

The rusted and nondescript piece of steel on the left was a piece of the tanker Exxon Valdez, recovered by the salvage crew in 1989 and given to NOAA marine biologist Gary Shigenaka. It was the beginning of his collection of Exxon Valdez artifacts and remains the item with the biggest personal value to him. The piece of metal on the right, inscribed with "On the rocks," is also metal from the ship but was purchased on eBay.

The rusted and nondescript piece of steel on the left was a piece of the tanker Exxon Valdez, recovered by the salvage crew in 1989 and given to NOAA marine biologist Gary Shigenaka. It was the beginning of his collection of Exxon Valdez artifacts and remains the item with the biggest personal value to him. The piece of metal on the right, inscribed with “On the rocks,” is also metal from the ship but was purchased on eBay. (NOAA)

One NOAA scientist in particular, Gary Shigenaka, who kicked off his career working on the Exxon Valdez oil spill, was personally touched by this spill as well. After receiving a small chunk of metal from the ship’s salvage, Shigenaka began amassing a collection of Exxon Valdez–related memorabilia, ranging from a highball glass commemorating the ship’s launch in 1986 (ironic considering the questions surrounding its captain being intoxicated the night of the accident) to the front page of the local paper the day of the spill.

See more photos of his collection.

10. The infamous ship’s fate

Exxon Valdez/Exxon Mediterranean/Sea River Mediterranean/S/R Mediterranean/Mediterranean/Dong Fang Ocean/Oriental Nicety being dismantled on the beach of Alang, India, 2012.

Exxon Valdez/Exxon Mediterranean/Sea River Mediterranean/S/R Mediterranean/Mediterranean/Dong Fang Ocean/Oriental Nicety being dismantled in Alang, India, 2012. Photo by ToxicsWatch Alliance.

After causing the largest-to-date oil spill in U.S. waters, what ever happened to the ill-fated Exxon Valdez ship? It limped back for repairs to San Diego Bay where it was built, but by the time it was sea-ready again, the ship had been banned from Prince William Sound by the Oil Pollution Act and would instead be reassigned to the Mediterranean and Middle East and renamed accordingly, the Exxon Mediterranean.

But a series of new names and bad luck continued to follow this ship, until it was finally sold for scrap in 2011. Under its final name, Oriental Nicety, it was intentionally grounded at the infamous shipbreaking beaches of Alang, Gujarat, India, in 2012 and dismantled in its final resting place 23 years after the Exxon Valdez ran aground half a world away.

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For the First Time in Decades, Scientists Examine How Oil Spills Might Affect Baleen Whales

A North Atlantic right whale's mouth is visible at the ocean surface.

NOAA scientists and partners recently collaborated to examine how oil and dispersants might affect the function of baleen in humpback, bowhead, and right whales (pictured). Hundreds of baleen plates hang from these whales’ top jaws and allow them to filter food from the water. (Credit: Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Permit 15488)

Several days of unseasonably warm weather in late September had Gary Shigenaka starting to wonder how much longer he and his colleagues would be welcome at Ohmsett, a national oil spill research facility in New Jersey.

They were working with whale baleen, and although the gum tissue anchoring their baleen samples had been preserved with formalin, the balmy fall weather was taking a toll. As a result, things were starting to smell a little rank.

Fortunately, cooler weather rounded out that first week of experiments, and the group, of course, was invited back again. Over the course of three week-long trials in September, December, and January, they were trying to tease out the potential impacts of oil and dispersants on whale baleen.

As a marine biologist with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, Shigenaka’s job is to consider how oil spills might threaten marine life and advise the U.S. Coast Guard on this issue during a spill response.

But the last time scientists had examined how oil might affect whale baleen was in a handful of studies back in the 1980s. This research took place before the 1989 Exxon Valdez and 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spills and predated numerous advances in scientific technique, technology, and understanding.

Thanks to a recent opportunity provided by the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which runs the Ohmsett facility, Shigenaka and a team of scientists, engineers, and oil spill experts have been able to revisit this question in the facility’s 2.6 million gallon saltwater tank.

The diverse team that made this study possible hails not just from NOAA but also Alaska’s North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management (Dr. Todd Sformo), Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (Dr. Michael Moore and Tom Lanagan), Hampden-Sydney College (Dr. Alexander Werth), and Oil Spill Response Limited (Paul Schuler). In addition, NOAA’s Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program provided substantial support for the project, including funding and regulatory expertise, and was coordinated by Dr. Teri Rowles.

Getting a Mouthful

To understand why this group is focused on baleen and how an oil spill might affect this particular part of a whale, you first need to understand what baleen is and how a whale uses it. Similar to fingernails and hooves, baleen is composed of the protein keratin, along with a few calcium salts, giving it a tough but pliable character.

A hand holds a ruler next to oiled baleen hanging from a clamp next to a man.

Made of the flexible substance keratin, baleen plates have tangles of “fringe hair” that act as nets to strain marine life from mouthfuls of ocean water. This study examined how oil and dispersants might affect the performance of baleen. (NOAA)

Twelve species of whales, including humpback and bowhead, have hundreds of long plates of baleen hanging from the top jaw, lined up like the teeth on a comb, which they use to filter feed. A whale’s tongue rubs against its baleen plates, fraying their inner edges and creating tangles of “fringe hair” that act like nets to catch tiny sea creatures as the whale strains massive gulps of ocean water back out through the baleen plates.

Baleen does vary somewhat between species of whales. Some might have longer or shorter baleen plates, for example, depending on what the whale eats. Bowhead whales, which are Arctic plankton-eaters, can have plates up to 13 feet long.

This study was, at least in part, inspired by scientists wondering what would happen to a bowhead whale if a mouthful of water brought not just lunch but also crude oil from an ill-fated tanker traversing its Arctic waters.

Would oil pass through a whale’s hundreds of baleen plates and coat their mats of fringe hairs? Would that oil make it more difficult for the whale to push huge volumes of water through the oily baleen, causing the whale to use more energy as it tried? Does that result change whether the oil is freshly spilled, or weathered with age, or dispersed with chemicals? Would dispersant make it easier for oil to reach a whale’s gut?

Using more energy to get food would mean the whales then would need to eat even more food to make up for the energy difference, creating a tiring cycle that could tax these gargantuan marine mammals.

Testing this hypothesis has been the objective of Shigenaka’s team. While it might sound simple, almost nothing about the project has been straightforward.

Challenges as Big as a Whale

One of the first challenges was tackled by the engineers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. They were tasked with turning the mechanical features of Ohmsett’s giant saltwater tank into, essentially, a baleen whale’s mouth.

Woods Hole fabricated a special clamp and then worked with the Ohmsett engineering staff to attach it to a corresponding mount on the mechanical bridges that move back and forth over the giant tank. The clamp gripped the sections of baleen and allowed them to be held at different angles as they moved through the water. In addition, this custom clamp had a load cell, which was connected to a computer on the bridge. As the bridge moved the clamp and baleen at different speeds and angles through the water, the team could measure change in drag on the baleen via the load cell.

With the mechanical portion set up, the Ohmsett staff released oil into the test tank on the surface of the water, and the team watched expectantly how the bridges moved the baleen through the thin oil slick. It turned out to be a pretty inefficient way to get oil on baleen. “How might a whale deal with oil on the surface of the water?” asked Shigenaka. “If it’s feeding, it might scoop up a mouthful of water and oil and run it through the baleen.” But how could they simulate that experience?

They tried using paintbrushes to apply crude oil to the baleen, but that seemed to alter the character of the baleen too much, matting down the fringe hairs. After discussions with the Ohmsett engineering staff, the research team finally settled on dipping the baleen into a pool of floating oil that was contained by a floating ring. This set-up allowed a relatively heavy amount of oil to contact baleen in the water and would help the scientists calibrate their expectations about potential impacts.

Testing the Waters

Four black plumes of dispersed oil are released underwater onto long plates of baleen moving behind the applicator.

After mixing chemical dispersant with oil, the research team released plumes of it underwater in Ohmsett’s test tank as baleen samples moved through the water behind the applicator. Researchers also tested the effects of dispersant alone on baleen function. (NOAA)

In all, Shigenaka and his teammates ran 127 different trials across this experiment. They measured the drag values for baleen in a variety of combinations: through saltwater alone, with fresh oil, with weathered oil, with dispersed oil (pre-mixed and released underwater through a custom array designed and built by Ohmsett staff), and with chemical dispersant alone. They tested during temperate weather as well as lower temperature conditions, which clearly thickened the consistency of the oil. They conducted the tests using baleen from three different species of whales: bowhead, humpback, and right whale.

Following all the required regulations and with the proper permits, the bowhead baleen was donated by subsistence whalers from Barrow, Alaska. The baleen from other species came from whales that had stranded on beaches from locations outside of Alaska.

In addition to testing the potential changes in drag on the baleen, the team of researchers used an electric razor to shave off baleen fringe hairs as samples for chemical analysis to determine whether the oil or dispersant had any effects on baleen at the molecular level. They also determined how much oil, dispersed oil, and dispersant were retained on the baleen fringe hairs after the trials.

At this point, the team is analyzing the data from the experimental trials and plans to submit the results for publication in a scientific journal. NOAA is also beginning to create a guidance document on oil and cetaceans (whales and dolphins), which will incorporate the conclusions of this research.

While the scientific community has learned a lot about the apparent effects of oil on dolphins in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, there is very little information on large whales. The body of research on oil’s effects on baleen from the 1980s concluded that there were few and transient effects, but whether that conclusion holds up today remains to be seen.

“This is another piece of the puzzle,” said Shigenaka. “If we can distill response-relevant guidance that helps to mediate spill impacts to whales, then we will have been successful.”

Work was conducted under NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service Permits 17350 and 18786.

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Alaska Updates Plan for Using Dispersants During Oil Spills

Humpback whale and seabirds at surface of Bering Sea with NOAA ship beyond.

By breaking crude oils into smaller droplets, chemical dispersants reduce the surface area of an oil slick as well as the threats to marine life at the ocean surface, such as whales and seabirds. (NOAA)

While the best way to deal with oil spills in the ocean is to prevent them in the first place, when they do happen, we need to be ready. Cleanup is difficult, and there are no magic remedies to remove all the oil. Most big oil spills require a combination of cleanup tools.

This week the Alaska Regional Response Team, an advisory council for oil spill responses in Alaska, has adopted a revised plan for one of the most controversial tools in the toolbox: Chemical dispersants.

How Dispersants Are Used in Oil Spills

Dispersants are chemical compounds which, when applied correctly under the right conditions, break crude oils into smaller droplets that mix down into the water column. This reduces not only the surface area of an oil slick but also the threats to marine life at the ocean surface. By making the oil droplets smaller, they become much more available to natural degradation by oil-eating microbes.

Dispersants are controversial for many reasons, notably because they don’t remove oil from the marine environment. Mechanical removal methods are always preferred, but we also know that during large oil spills, containment booms and skimmers can get overwhelmed and other pollution response tools may be necessary. This is a big concern especially in Alaska, where weather and remote locations increase the logistical challenges inherent in a large scale oil spill response.

Although dispersants get a lot of attention because of their extensive use after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, they actually are used rarely during oil spills. In fact, dispersants have only been applied to about two dozen spills in the United States in the last 40 years. The only time they were tested during an actual spill in Alaska was during the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.

Some oils like light and medium crude are often dispersible and others, like heavy fuel oils, often are not. In some cases dispersants have worked and in others they haven’t. The results of the Exxon Valdez testing were unclear and still subject to debate. So, why have a plan for something that is rarely used and may not be successful?

Probably the biggest reason is pragmatic. Dispersants work best on fresh, unweathered oil. Ideally, they should be applied to oil within hours or days of a spill. Because time is such a critical factor to their effectiveness, dispersants need to be stockpiled in key locations, along with the associated aircraft spraying and testing equipment. People properly trained to use that equipment need to be ready to go too.

A New Plan for Alaska

Airplane sprays dispersants over an oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico.

Although only used once in an Alaskan oil spill, dispersants have already been an approved oil spill response tool in the state for a number of years. This new plan improves the decision procedures and designates areas where dispersant use may be initiated rapidly. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

Now, dispersants have already been an approved oil spill response tool in Alaska [PDF] for a number of years. This new plan improves the decision procedures and designates areas where dispersant use may be initiated rapidly while still requiring notification of the natural resource trustees, local and tribal governments, and other stakeholders before actual use.

Alaska’s new plan specifies all the requirements for applying dispersants on an oil spill in Alaskan waters and includes detailed checklists to ensure that if dispersants are used, they have a high probability of success.

The new plan sets up a limited preauthorization zone in central and western Alaska, and case-by-case procedures for dispersant use elsewhere in Alaska. The plan also recognizes that there are highly sensitive habitats where dispersant use should be avoided.

In addition, preauthorization for using dispersants exists only for oil spills that happen far offshore. Most states have similar preauthorization plans that allow dispersant use starting three nautical miles offshore. The new Alaska plan starts at 24 miles offshore.

We realize that even far offshore, there may be areas to avoid, which is why all of the spill response plans in central and western Alaska will be revised over the next two years. This will occur through a public process to identify sensitive habitats where dispersant use would be subject to additional restrictions.

Planning for the Worst, Hoping for the Best

As the NOAA representative to the Alaska Regional Response Team, I appreciate all of the effort that has gone into this plan. I am grateful we developed the many procedures through a long and inclusive planning process, rather than in a rush on a dark and stormy night on the way to an oil spill.

But I hope this plan will never be needed, because that will mean that a big oil spill has happened. Nobody wants that, especially in pristine Alaskan waters.

Any decision to use dispersants will need to be made cautiously, combining the best available science with the particular circumstances of an oil spill. In some cases, dispersants may not be the best option, but in other scenarios, there may be a net environmental benefit from using dispersants. Having the dispersants, equipment, plans, and training in place will allow us to be better prepared to make that critical decision should the time come.

At the same time, NOAA and our partners are continuing to research and better understand the potential harm and trades-offs of dispersant use following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. We are participating in an ongoing effort to understand the state of the science on dispersants and their potential use in Arctic waters. (The University of New Hampshire is now accepting comments on the topic of dispersant efficacy and effectiveness.)

You can find Alaska’s new dispersant policy and additional information at the Alaska Regional Response Team website at

For more information on our work on dispersants, read the April 2015 article, “What Have We Learned About Using Dispersants During the Next Big Oil Spill?” and July 2013 article, “Watching Chemical Dispersants at Work in an Oil Spill Research Facility.”

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It Took More Than the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill to Pass the Historic Oil Pollution Act of 1990

Aerial view of Exxon Valdez tanker with boom and oil on water.

While the tanker Exxon Valdez spilled nearly 11 million gallons of oil into Alaskan waters, a trifecta of other sizable oil spills followed on its heels. These spills helped pave the way for passage of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which would vastly improve oil spill prevention, response, and restoration. (NOAA)

If you, like many, believe oil shouldn’t just be spilled without consequence into the ocean, then you, like us, should be grateful for a very important U.S. law known as the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.

Congress passed this legislation and President George H.W. Bush signed it into law 25 years ago on August 18, 1990, which was the summer after the tanker Exxon Valdez hit ground in Prince William Sound, Alaska. On March 24, 1989, this tanker unleashed almost 11 million gallons of oil into relatively pristine Alaskan waters.

The powerful images from this huge oil spill—streams of dark oil spreading over the water, birds and sea otters coated in oil, workers in shiny plastic suits trying to clean the rocky coastline—both shocked and galvanized the nation. They ultimately motivated the 101st Congress to investigate the causes of recent oil spills, develop guidelines to prevent and clean up pollution, and pass this valuable legislation.

Yet that monumental spill didn’t fully drive home just how inadequate the patchwork of existing federal, state, and local laws were at addressing oil spill prevention, cleanup, liability, and restoration. Nearly a year and a half passed between the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the enactment of the Oil Pollution Act. What happened in the mean time?

The summer of 1989 experienced a trifecta of oil spills that drained any resources left from the ongoing spill response in Alaska. In rapid succession and over the course of less than 24 hours, three other oil tankers poured their cargo into U.S. coastal waters. Between June 23 and 24, the T/V World Prodigy spilled 290,000 gallons of oil in Newport, Rhode Island; the T/V Presidente Rivera emptied 307,000 gallons of oil into the Delaware River; and the T/V Rachel B hit Tank Barge 2514, releasing 239,000 gallons of oil into Texas’s Houston Ship Channel.

But these were far from the only oil spills plaguing U.S. waters during that time. Between the summers of 1989 and 1990, a series of ship collisions, groundings, and pipeline leaks spilled an additional 8 million gallons along the United States coastline. And that doesn’t even include another million gallons of thick fuel oil released from a shore-side facility in the U.S. Virgin Islands after it was damaged by Hurricane Hugo.

Birds killed as a result of oil from the Exxon Valdez spill.

Thanks to the Oil Pollution Act, federal and state agencies can more easily evaluate the full environmental impacts of oil spills — and then enact restoration to make up for that harm. (Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council)

Can you imagine—or perhaps remember—sitting at home watching the news and hearing again and again about yet another oil spill? And wondering what the government was going to do about it? Fortunately, in August of 1990, Congress voted unanimously to pass the Oil Pollution Act, which promised—and has largely delivered—significantly improved measures to prevent, prepare for, and respond to oil spills in U.S. waters.

Now, 25 years later, the shipping industry has undergone a makeover in oil spill prevention, preparedness, and response. A couple examples include the phasing out of tankers with easily punctured single hulls and new regulations for driving tankers that require the use of knowledgeable pilots, maneuverable tug escorts, and an appropriate number of people on the ship’s bridge during transit.

Oil spill response research also received a boost thanks to the Oil Pollution Act, which reopened a national research facility dedicated to this topic and shuttered just before the Exxon Valdez spill.

But perhaps one of the most important elements of this law required those responsible for oil spills to foot the bill for both cleaning up the oil and for economic and natural resource damages resulting from it.

This provision also requires oil companies to pay into the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, a fund theoretically created by Congress in 1986 but not given the necessary authorization until the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. This fund helps the U.S. Coast Guard—and indirectly, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration—pay for the upfront costs of responding to marine and coastal accidents that threaten to release hazardous materials such as oil and also of assessing the potential environmental and cultural impacts (and implementing restoration to make up for them).

This week we’re saying thank you to the Oil Pollution Act by highlighting some of its successes in restoring the environment after oil spills. You can join us on social media using the hashtag #Thanks2OilPollutionAct.

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

 Muskoxen near the scientists' field camp on Alaska's Espenberg River.

Muskoxen near the scientists’ field camp on Alaska’s Espenberg River. (NOAA)

This is a post by Dr. Sarah Allan, Alaska Regional Coordinator for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, Assessment and Restoration Division.

Alaska’s high Arctic coastline is anything but a monotonous stretch of beach. Over the course of more than 6,500 miles, this shoreline at the top of the world shows dramatic transformations, featuring everything from peat and permafrost to rocky shores, sandy beaches, and wetlands. It starts at the Canadian border in the east, wraps around the northernmost point in the United States, and follows the numerous inlets, bays, and peninsulas of northwest Alaska before coming to the Bering Strait.

Planning for potential oil spills along such a lengthy and varied coastline leaves a lot for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration to consider. We have to take into account a wide variety of shorelines, habitats, and other dynamics specific to the Arctic region.

This is why fellow NOAA Office of Response and Restoration scientist Catherine Berg and I, normally based in Anchorage, jumped at the opportunity to join a National Park Service–led effort supporting oil spill response planning in the state’s Northwest Arctic region.

Our goal was to gain on-the-ground familiarity with its diverse shorelines, nearshore habitats, and the basics of working out there. That way, we would be better prepared to support an emergency pollution response and carry out the ensuing environmental impact assessments.

Arctic Endeavors

Man inflating boat next to ATV and woman kneeling on beach.

At right, NOAA Regional Resource Coordinator Dr. Sarah Allan collects sediment samples while National Park Service scientist Paul Burger inflates the boat near the mouth of the Kitluk River in northwest Alaska. (National Park Service)

Many oil spill planning efforts have focused on oil drilling sites on Alaska’s North Slope, especially in Prudhoe Bay and the offshore drilling areas in the Chukchi Sea. However, with increased oil exploration and a longer ice-free season in the Arctic, more ship traffic—and a heightened risk of oil spills—extends to the transit routes throughout Arctic waters.

This risk is especially apparent in the Northwest Arctic around the Bering Strait, where vessel traffic is squeezed between Alaska’s mainland and two small islands. On top of the growing risk, the Northwest Arctic coast, like much of Alaska, presents daunting logistical challenges for spill response due to its remoteness and limited infrastructure and support services.

To help get a handle on the challenges along this region’s coast, Catherine Berg and I traveled to northwest Alaska in July 2015 and, in tag-team fashion, visited the shorelines of the Chukchi Sea in coordination with the National Park Service. Berg is the NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator for emergency response and I’m the Regional Resource Coordinator for environmental assessment and restoration.

The National Park Service is collecting data to improve Geographic Response Strategies in the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve and the Cape Krusenstern National Monument, both flanking Kotzebue Sound in northwest Alaska. These strategies, a series of which have been developed for the Northwest Arctic, are plans meant to protect specific sensitive coastal environments from an oil spill, outlining recommendations for containment boom and other response tools.

Because our office is interested in understanding the potential effects of oil on Arctic shorelines, we worked with the Park Service on this trip to collect information related to oil spill response and environmental assessment planning in northwest Alaska’s Bering Land Bridge National Preserve.

The Wild Life

From the village of Kotzebue, two National Park Service scientists and I—along with our all-terrain vehicle (ATV), trailer, and all of our personal, camping, and scientific gear—were taken by boat to a field camp on the Espenberg River. After arriving, we could see signs of bear, wolf, and wolverine activity near where this meandering river empties into the Bering Sea. Herds of muskoxen passed near camp.

Considering most of the Northwest Arctic’s shorelines are just as wild and hard-to-reach, we should expect to be set up in a similar field camp, with similarly complex planning and logistics, in order to collect environmental impact data after an oil spill. As I saw firsthand, things only got more complicated as weather, mechanics, shallow water, and low visibility forced us to constantly adapt our plans.

Heading west, we used ATVs to get to the mouth of the Kitluk River, where the Park Service collected data for the Geographic Response Strategies, while I collected sediment samples from the intertidal area for chemical analysis. These samples would serve as set of baseline comparisons should there be an oil spill in a similar area.

Traveling there, we saw dramatic signs of coastal erosion, a reminder of the many changes the Arctic is experiencing.

The next day, the boat took us around Espendberg Point into Kotzebue Sound to the Goodhope River estuary. There, we used a small inflatable boat with a motor to check out the different sites identified for special protection in the Geographic Response Strategy. I also took the opportunity to field test the “Vegetated Habitats” sampling guideline I helped develop for collecting time-sensitive data in the Arctic. Unfortunately, the very shallow coastal water presented a challenge for both our vessels; the water was only a few feet deep even three miles offshore.

After an unplanned overnight in Kotzebue (more improvising!), I returned to the field camp via float plane and got an amazing aerial view of the coastline. The Arctic’s permafrost and tundra shorelines are unique among U.S. coastlines and will require special oil spill response, cleanup, and impact assessment considerations.

Sound Lessons

After I returned to the metropolitan comforts of Anchorage, my colleague Catherine Berg swapped places, joining the Northwest Arctic field team.

As the lead NOAA scientific adviser to the U.S. Coast Guard during oil spill response in Alaska, her objective was to evaluate Arctic shoreline types not previously encountered during oil spills. Using our Shoreline Cleanup and Assessment Technique method, she targeted shorelines within Kupik Lagoon on the Chukchi Sea coast and in the Nugnugaluktuk River in Kotzebue Sound. She surveyed the profile of these shorelines and recorded other information that will inform and improve Arctic-specific protocols and considerations for surveying oiled shorelines.

Though we only saw a small part of the Northwest Arctic coastline, it was an excellent opportunity to gauge how its coastal characteristics would influence the transport and fate of spilled oil, to improve how we would survey oiled Arctic shorelines, to gather critical baseline data for this environment, and to field test our guidelines for collecting time-sensitive data after an oil spill.

One of the greatest challenges for responding to and evaluating the impacts of an Arctic oil spill is dealing with the logistics of safety, access, transportation, and personnel support. Collaborating with the Park Service and local community in Kotzebue and gaining experience in the field camp gave us invaluable insight into what we would need to do to work effectively in the event of a spill in this remote area.

First, be prepared. Then, be flexible.

Thank you to the National Park Service, especially Tahzay Jones and Paul Burger, for the opportunity to join their field team in the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve.

Dr. Sarah Allan.

Dr. Sarah Allan has been working with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration Emergency Response Division and as the Alaska Regional Coordinator for the Assessment and Restoration Division, based in Anchorage, Alaska, since February of 2012. Her work focuses on planning for natural resource damage assessment and restoration in the event of an oil spill in the Arctic.