NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution


Leave a comment

Preventing and Preparing for Oil Spills in the Arctic

Talking with NOAA Scientist Amy Merten about her time chairing the Arctic Council’s Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response working group.

Ice bank in the Arctic ocean. Image credit: NOAA.

View off the coast of Longyearbyen, Svalbard, Norway. Taken during a search and rescue demonstration for an Arctic Council’s Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response working group meeting. Image Credit: NOAA

As rising temperatures and thinning ice in the Arctic create openings for increased human activities, it also increases the potential for oil spills and chemical releases into the remote environment of the region.

Planning emergency response operations for the Arctic falls to the Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response working group, an Arctic Council body. The emergency working group has representatives from each of the member states with expertise in oil spill response, search and rescue, and response to radiological events.

NOAA’s Amy Merten, chief of the Spatial Data Branch, will finish her two-year stint as chair of the working group in May 2017. The chair is elected every two years from among the working group’s members including: Canada, Kingdom of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russian Federation, Sweden, the United States and permanent participants. Merten served on the working group for 5 years before becoming chair. She will leave the position on May 11, 2017. Jens Peter Holst-Andersen, from the Kingdom of Denmark will be the new chair at the next meeting in Vologda, Russia.

Merten, who holds a doctorate in marine sciences/environmental chemistry, shared her insights into the complexities of planning for emergencies in the remote regions of the Arctic and about what it’s like working with other nations to protect the Arctic environments.

What are the biggest challenges facing spill response in the Arctic? 

There are many; remote locations, short windows of open-water and daylight in which to respond, and lack of infrastructure—you can’t send a massive response community to Arctic communities there is not enough food, hotel space, or fuel to sustain larger groups.  Lack of communication is another challenge. Things that we take for granted working at moderate temperatures (cameras, GPS), don’t work at cold temperatures. For search and rescue, there is not adequate hospital space or expertise. Therefore, if a large cruise ship gets into trouble in the Arctic, the rescue, triage and sustainability of the passengers will be a major challenge.

Why is it important to have international cooperation when developing response plans?

Each country has unique experiences and may have developed a way to respond to oil spills in ice or Arctic conditions that can be shared with other countries facing potential spills in ice. Because of the remoteness of the Arctic, with little to no infrastructure, particularly in the United States and Canada, countries will have to rely on equipment and support from others.

Additionally, there are parts of the Arctic Ocean that are international waters, and should a vessel founder there, the countries would collectively respond. We share thoughts on high-risk scenarios, best practices, and identification of research needs. We also share ideas and findings on the latest technologies in communications, oil-in-ice modeling, data management and response technologies.

How does communication with other countries during an emergency work?

We have an up-to-date communication list and protocol. This is part of our agreement, the Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution, Preparedness and Response in the Arctic. We also practice our communication connectivity once a year, and conduct an international exercise every two years.

What role do satellites have in preparing for and responding to emergencies in the region?

We rely on satellite information for monitoring conditions (weather and ice) and vessel traffic. We would certainly rely on satellite data for an incident in order to plan the response, monitor the extent of the oiling, and understand the weather and ice conditions.

How do the member countries work to share plans so that emergency response is not being duplicated?

This is one of the functions of Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response working group. It ensures we communicate about domestic projects and plans that may benefit the other nations to maximize the collective effectiveness and avoid duplications.

NOAA’s online environmental mapping tool for the region, Arctic ERMA, now includes polar projections; do the other council countries use Arctic ERMA?

They use it during our joint exercises, and we use it to visualize other working group projects, like the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement-led Pan-Arctic response assets database. We also discuss sharing data across systems and are developing data sharing agreements.

What are the three biggest threats to the Arctic environment? 

Keeping it a peaceful governance, climate change, and oil spills/chemical spills.

Why is the Arctic environment important to the United States?

Arctic weather and climate affects the world’s oceans, weather, and climate, including the Lower 48. The Arctic is replete with energy, mineral, and fishing resources. The Arctic is inhabited by indigenous communities with unique lifestyles that are threatened and need protection. The Arctic is also home to unique flora and fauna that are important for biodiversity, ecological services, and overall healthy environments.  As the Arctic becomes more accessible, national security pressures increase.

 What would be the worst types of oil spills in the Arctic?

This is a hard question to answer but I’d say a spill of a persistent oil that occurs in broken ice during freeze up or thawing periods. During freeze up because it will be difficult to respond, and difficult to track the oil.

During thawing because it’s the emergence of primary production for the food web, hunting subsistence practices would be threatened and it could be unsafe to respond due to of the changing ice conditions. It all depends on how far away and difficult it is to get vessels, aircraft, people, and skimmers onsite, and in a way they can operate safely in a meaningful way.

A “worst spill” doesn’t have to be a “large” spill if it impacts sensitive resources at key reproductive and growth cycles, or if it impacts Arctic communities’ food security, subsistence activities, and ways of life.

How has being chair added to your understanding of the emergency response in the Arctic?

I think it’s increased my concern that it’s not a matter of “if” but a matter of “when” a spill will happen. The logistics of a response will be complicated, slow, and likely, fairly ineffective. The potential for long-term impacts on stressed communities and stressed environments is high. I do have a good feeling that international cooperation will be at its best, but the challenges are daunting for all of us.

Amy Merten on boat with sea and ice behind her. Image credit: NOAA.

NOAA scientist Amy Merten in the Arctic. Merten is chief of the Spatial Data Branch of the Office of Response and Restoration and served as chair of the Arctic Council’s Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response working group. Image credit: NOAA.


Leave a comment

NOAA Adding Polar Projections to Arctic ERMA Mapping Tool

Two Steller sea lions. Image credit: NOAA.

Mapping where Steller sea lions gather out of the water is one of the layers that can be added to a map in Arctic ERMA. Image credit: NOAA

The Arctic is one of the most remote regions on the planet but that may change as the sea ice continues to shrink, allowing for more ships, tourism, fishing, and possible oil exploration in the region. More activity also brings the possibility of oil spills and other environmental disasters.

NOAA’s Arctic online environmental mapping tool, called Arctic ERMA, now has polar projection base maps. The new projection maps give a less distorted view than the standard Mercator flat-map perspective. On a flat map, distances near the pole look greater than they really are.

“The polar view/projection takes the distortion into account, and thus the measurement and view are more accurate,” according to Amy Merten, chief of the Spatial Data Branch of the Office of Response and Restoration and chair of the Arctic Council’s working group on emergency prevention, preparedness, and response.

For emergency responders trying to estimate how far an oil spill may be from landfall, the new polar projections are important for preparing response plans. Additionally, the polar projections improve the ability to look at all of the Arctic countries at once, helping with international perspectives and communications, Merten added.

Acrtic ERMA’s polar projections make it easier to look at all of the countries and their respective data in a more realistic view, and in the same frame.  For example, in a Mercator map, you can move to Norway on the map but then you cannot see Barrow, Alaska and Vardo, Norway at the same time. With the new polar projections, an emergency responder can see equipment caches in both areas and compare them, as well as plan for moving equipment from one location to another with better accuracy and understanding.

There are more than 500 data layers that can be mapped in Arctic ERMA, including:

Arctic ERMA officially launched in 2009 and is one of eight regional ERMA online mapping tools. The mapping tools integrate both static and real-time data, such as ship locations, weather, and ocean currents, in a centralized, interactive map for environmental disaster response managers. NOAA and the University of New Hampshire developed ERMA with the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Interior. Artic ERMA’s polar projection maps were funded by the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.

Arctic polar projection mao. Image credit: NOAA.

Polar projection map in Arctic ERMA. The ability to choose several polar projections will improve data and mapping accuracy and will increase communications and data sharing with other Arctic nations. Image credit: NOAA


Leave a comment

5 Ways the Coast Guard and NOAA Partner

Large ship on reef with small boat beside it.

On September 18, 2003, M/V Kent Reliant grounded at the entrance to San Juan Harbor, Puerto Rico. USCG and NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration responded to the incident. (NOAA)

How do the Coast Guard and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration work together? There are many ways the two government organizations partner to keep the nation’s coasts and waterways safe for maritime commerce, recreational activities, and wildlife. Here are five:

1. It all began with surveyors and smugglers

Actually, it was an effort to suppress smuggling and collect tariffs that prompted President George Washington to create the Coast Guard Revenue Cutter Service in 1790, launching what would become the U.S. Coast Guard known today. It was President Jefferson’s approval of the surveying of the nation’s coasts in 1807 to promote “lives of our seamen, the interest of our merchants and the benefits to revenue,” that created the nation’s first science agency, which evolved into NOAA.

2. Coast Guard responds to spills; we supply the scientific support

The Coast Guard has the primary responsibility for managing oil and chemical spill clean-up activities. NOAA Office of Response and Restoration provides the science-based expertise and support needed to make informed decisions during emergency responses. Scientific Support Coordinators provide response information for each incident that spill’s characteristics, working closely with the Coast Guard’s federal On-Scene Coordinator. The scientific coordinator can offer models that forecast the movement and behavior of spilled oil, evaluation of the risk to resources, and suggest appropriate clean-up actions.

3. Coast Guard and NOAA Marine Debris Program keep waters clear for navigation

The Coast Guard sits on the Interagency Marine Debris Coordinating Committee, of which NOAA is the chair. The committee is a multi-agency body responsible for streamlining the federal government’s efforts to address marine debris. In some circumstances, the Coast Guard helps to locate reported marine debris or address larger items that are hazardous to navigation. For instance, in certain circumstances, the Coast Guard may destroy or sink a hazard to navigation at sea, as was the case with a Japanese vessel in the Gulf of Alaska in March 2011.

4. NOAA and Coast Guard train for oil spills in the Arctic

As Arctic ice contracts, shipping within and across the Arctic, oil and gas exploration, and tourism likely will increase, as will fishing, if fisheries continue migrating north to cooler waters. With more oil-powered activity in the Arctic and potentially out-of-date nautical charts, the region has an increased risk of oil spills. Although the Arctic may have “ice-free” summers, it will remain a difficult place to respond to spills, still facing conditions such as low visibility, mobilized icebergs, and extreme cold. The Office of Response and Restoration typically participates in oil spill response exercises with the Coast Guard.

5. It’s not just spills we partner on, sometimes it’s about birds

The Coast Guard as well as state and local agencies and organizations have been working to address potential pollution threats from a number of abandoned and derelict boats in the Florida. Vessels like these often still have oils and other hazardous materials on board, which can leak into the surrounding waters, posing a threat to public and environmental health and safety. In 2016, the Coast Guard called Scientific Support Coordinator Adam Davis with an unusual complication in their efforts: A pair of osprey had taken up residence on one of these abandoned vessels. The Coast Guard needed to know what kind of impacts might result from assessing the vessel’s pollution potential and what might be involved in potentially moving the osprey nest, or the vessel, if needed. Davis was able to assist in keeping the project moving forward and the vessel was eventually removed from the Florida Panhandle.


Leave a comment

Below Zero: Partnership between the Coast Guard and NOAA

Red and white large ship on ocean with ice.

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

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

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

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

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

Man on ship deck launching mini aircraft.

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

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

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

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

 

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


Leave a comment

Response and Restoration in a Changing Arctic

ice on ocean with two people

The Beaufort Sea. (NOAA)

Last week, the Administration hosted the first White House Arctic Science Ministerial. The gathering of science ministers, chief science advisers, and additional high-level officials from countries worldwide, as well as indigenous representatives, provided an opportunity to discuss Arctic science, research, observations, monitoring, and data-sharing. Discussion topics included:

  • Identifying Arctic science challenges and their regional and global implications
  • Strengthening and integrating Arctic observations and data sharing
  • Applying expanded scientific understanding of the Arctic to build regional resilience and shape global responses
  • Empowering citizens through Science Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education leveraging Arctic science

These issues are deeply entrenched in the work of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R). Rising temperatures and thinning sea ice in the Arctic creates more opportunities for human activities that increase the threat of oil and chemical spills in a remote region that presents unique challenges.

As the lead science advisor to the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) during oil and hazardous material spills, OR&R provides both preparedness training and support during spills. In August, OR&R participated in an Alaska North Slope oil spill drill, conducting Shoreline Cleanup Assessment Technique surveys, relaying information to the Incident Command Post in Anchorage, and sharing operational and environmental information using the Arctic Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA).

OR&R also conducts assessments of natural resources damaged by spills and often participates in exercises for such activities. In 2014, OR&R released Guidelines for Collecting High Priority Ephemeral Data for Oil Spills in the Arctic in Support of Natural Resource Damage Assessments. In May, OR&R and the NOAA Restoration Center led a tabletop drill and management training for the Alaska Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration trustees.

OR&R’s Arctic work is not restricted to domestic activities. OR&R’s Spatial Data Branch Chief Dr. Amy Merten currently serves as chair of the Arctic Council’s Emergency Prevention, Preparedness, and Response Working Group, and OR&R frequently participates in international meetings and exercises. A few weeks ago, OR&R participated in an international cooperative information exchange with Canada and Norway hosted by USCG. Staff reviewed the use of Arctic ERMA and presented the Arctic Dispersant State of the Science initiative in coordination with the University of New Hampshire’s Coastal Response Research Center.

As the protection of Arctic natural resources and coastal communities gain increased attention, OR&R will continue to prepare and support partners with innovative science, tools, and services.

Graphic of cross section of oil spill.

Conceptual model of the impacts of an oil spill to various segments of the Arctic environment (NOAA)

Learn more about NOAA and oil spills, including challenges in the Arctic.

Learn more about the White House Arctic Science Ministerial.


Leave a comment

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.


1 Comment

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.