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

Remembering the Veterans That Served America and the Historic Shipwrecks They Left Behind

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Donna Roberts.

Did you know that over 20,000 shipwrecks rest on the ocean floor off our coasts? The past century of commerce and warfare has left us with this legacy of sunken vessels dotting the seafloor around the United States.

While some of these are naval vessels, a large proportion are merchant vessels destroyed during war time. These wrecks are skewed heavily to World War II casualties such as those fallen during the “Battle of the Atlantic.” Some wrecks, such as the Civil War casualty, the USS Monitor, have been listed as National Historic Landmarks or on the National Register of Historic Places. Many of them, such as the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, are either civilian or military grave sites.

Beyond their military and historic significance, these wrecks also represent an enormous human toll. Today—on Veterans Day in the United States, Armistice Day or Remembrance Day in other nations—we honor the men and women who have served in the armed forces of all nations, as well as those serving in the Merchant Marine, and commemorate those who gave their lives in that service.

The Terrible Cost of the Battle of the Atlantic

During World War II’s Battle of the Atlantic, which lasted from September 1939 until the defeat of Germany in 1945, German U-boats and warships (and later Italian submarines) were pitted against Allied convoys transporting military equipment and supplies across the Atlantic to Great Britain and the Soviet Union. This battle to control Atlantic shipping lanes involved thousands of ships and stretched across thousands of square miles of ocean.

A Coast Guard ship's crew watches an explosion in the water ahead.

On April 17, 1943, Coast Guardsmen on the deck of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Spencer watch the explosion of a depth charge that blasted a Nazi U-boat’s hope of breaking into the center of a large convoy of ships. World War II left thousands of Allied and Axis ships — and soldiers — on the bottom of the ocean. (U.S. Coast Guard)

The losses in the battle were staggering. Between January and June 1942 alone, this battle resulted in the sinking of almost 500 ships. Historians estimate that more than 100 convoy battles took place during the war, costing Britain’s Merchant Navy more than 30,000 men and around 3,000 ships. The terrible cost for the Germans was 783 U-boats and 28,000 sailors, about 75% of the U-boat force. Although casualty statistics vary, we know that the U.S. Merchant Mariners suffered the highest rate of marine casualties of any service in World War II.

While many of these sunken vessels in U.S. waters rest in the Atlantic Ocean or Gulf of Mexico, numerous wrecks, such as the S/S Montebello, can be found in the Pacific. And of course, the wartime toll was spread across the world’s oceans, touching nearly all parts of the globe.

NOAA’s Role with Undersea Wrecks

NOAA is involved with shipwrecks in a number of ways. The agency’s role ranges from offering scientific guidance to the U.S. Coast Guard during pollution responses, to stewarding the diverse natural and cultural resources including shipwrecks in national marine sanctuaries, to creating navigational charts that show the precise locations of wrecks that could hinder maritime traffic. Most of the 20,000 wrecks resting off our coasts are old and did not carry oil as fuel or hazardous cargo; however, some of the more recent wrecks have the potential to contain—and sometimes leak—oil.

In 2002, for example, the decaying wreck of the S/S Jacob Luckenbach (carrying supplies to support the Korean War) was identified as the source of mysterious, recurring oil spills that had killed thousands of seabirds and other marine life along California’s coast. Our office joined with the U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies to remove the approximately 100,000 gallons of oil remaining in the wreck, protect the resources of the Great Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, and restore critical seabird breeding habitat in the U.S. and Canada to make up for the harm caused by the oil releases.

Two divers and a shark swim next to a large shipwreck.

Knowing how shipwreck sites formed helps explain why sunken vessels, like the Dixie Arrow which initially carried approximately 86,136 barrels of crude oil, but was demolished during World War II, no longer remain intact and are no longer potentially polluting shipwrecks. (NOAA)

Leaking wrecks like the Jacob Luckenbach are one reason NOAA maintains a large database of shipwrecks, dumpsites, navigational obstructions, underwater archaeological sites, and other underwater cultural resources, known as the Resources and Undersea Threats (RUST) database.

Beginning in 2010, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration and Office of National Marine Sanctuaries systematically analyzed a subset of those wrecks which could pose a substantial threat of leaking oil still on board. This work is part of NOAA’s Remediation of Underwater Legacy Environmental Threats (RULET) project. (Read more about the work conducted and the final report (PDF).) After the report was completed in 2013, the U.S. Coast Guard has worked to incorporate the information and recommendations into their regional contingency plans.

NOAA also has the privilege of protecting shipwrecks and naval battlefields though its National Marine Sanctuaries office. The first NOAA national marine sanctuary was designated in 1975 to protect the U.S. Navy warship USS Monitor, and other sanctuaries have followed in these footsteps of preserving historic wrecks. Today, you can explore fascinating undersea wrecks at Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in the Great Lakes, and at other sanctuaries.

Wrecks and Reefs

Sometimes these submerged shipwrecks can serve as artificial reefs. Sunken wrecks are actually the most prevalent type of artificial reef. As artificial reefs, shipwrecks can create both amazing homes for a diversity of marine life and popular attractions for commercial and recreational fishers, divers, and snorkelers.

Occasionally, vessels are even sunk intentionally for this purpose. However, it can be very costly to prepare the vessels to become artificial reefs, which requires removing paints and other hazardous materials in the hull. Another consideration is the stability of the vessel and its danger to living things around it. For example, if the vessel is in shallow water, will it flip over in a storm and crush the new coral growing there? Could people or marine life get caught inside it? These considerations are why artificial reefs are often found in deep water and why establishing an artificial reef requires special review and permitting processes.

Through the study, protection, and promotion of our diverse legacy of undersea wrecks, national marine sanctuaries help us learn more about and celebrate our merchant marine and military history.

Explore Shipwrecks While Staying Dry

You can learn more about NOAA expeditions between 2008 and 2011, which explored the World War II wrecks in the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.”

You also can watch a video of researchers first discovering the long-lost location of the USS Monitor’s wreck in 1973 off the coast of North Carolina:

See what it’s like to dive among the many wrecks at the bottom of Lake Huron in Thunder Bay’s “Shipwreck Alley”:

Take a video tour of the wreck of the USS Arizona, sunk by Japanese planes on December 7, 1941, and pay homage to the members of the U.S. armed forces who gave their lives.

Video frame of a diver exploring a shipwreck.

Donna Roberts

Donna Roberts

Donna Roberts is a writer for the Emergency Response Division of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R). Her work supports the OR&R website and the Environmental Sensitivity Index mapping program.

Leave a comment

When Boats Don’t Float: From Sunken Wrecks to Abandoned Ships

Derelict boat in a Gulf marsh.

Ships end up wrecked or abandoned for many reasons and can cause a variety of environmental and economic issues. After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, thousands of vessels like this one needed to be scrapped or salvaged in the Gulf of Mexico. (NOAA)

The waterways and coastlines of the United States are an important national resource, supporting jobs and providing views and recreation. However, the past century of maritime commerce, recreation, and even warfare has left a legacy of thousands of sunken, abandoned, and derelict vessels along our coasts, rivers, and lakes.

Some of these sunken shipwrecks are large commercial and military vessels such as the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii; the Edmund Fitzgerald in the Great Lakes; and the recent tragic loss of the 790 foot cargo ship El Faro and its crew off the Bahamas.

These large vessels may be environmental threats because of their cargoes, munitions, and fuel, but many also are designated as submerged cultural resources—part of our maritime heritage. Some even serve as memorials or national historic landmarks. Unless they are pollution hazards, or shallow enough to be threats to navigation or become dive sites, most are largely forgotten and left undisturbed in their deep, watery resting sites.

But another class of wrecks, abandoned and derelict boats, are a highly visible problem in almost every U.S. port and waterway. Some vessels are dilapidated but still afloat, while others are left stranded on shorelines, or hidden just below the surface of the water. These vessels can have significant impacts on the coastal environment and economy, including oil pollution, marine debris, and wildlife entrapment. They become hazards to navigation, illegal release points for waste oils and hazardous materials, and general threats to public health and safety.

Large rusted out ship in shallow water surrounded by corals.

Some shipwrecks, like this one stranded among coral in American Samoa, can become threats to marine life and people. (NOAA)

Most derelict and abandoned vessels are the result of chronic processes—rot and rust and deterioration from lack of maintenance or economic obsolescence—with vessels slowly worsening until they sink or become too expensive to repair, and around that point are abandoned.

Others are mothballed or are awaiting repair or dismantling. If the owners can’t afford moorage and repairs, or if the costs to dismantle the ship exceed the value of the scrap, the owners often dump the boat and disappear. Many vessels end up sinking at moorings, becoming partially submerged in intertidal areas, or stranding on shorelines after their moorings fail. These vessels typically lack insurance, have little value, and have insolvent or absentee owners, a problematic and expensive combination.

Another source of abandoned vessels comes from major natural disasters. After large hurricanes, coastal storms, and tsunamis, a large number of vessels of varying sizes, conditions, and types may be damaged or set adrift in coastal waters. For example, approximately 3,500 commercial vessels and countless recreational vessels needed to be salvaged or scrapped after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast in 2005. And remember the empty squid boat that drifted across the Pacific Ocean after the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami?

NOAA’s interests in this wide range of lost or neglected ships include our roles as scientific advisers to the U.S. Coast Guard, as stewards of marine living and cultural resources (which extends to when these resources are threatened by pollution as well), and as the nation’s chart maker to ensure that wrecks are properly marked for safe navigation.

This week we’re taking a deeper dive into the many, varied, and, at times, overlooked issues surrounding the wrecks and abandoned vessels dotting U.S. waters. As recent events have shown, such as in a recently discovered leaking wreck in Lake Erie and a rusted tugboat left to rot in Seattle, this issue isn’t going away.

First, check out our infographic below exploring the different threats from wrecked and abandoned ships and a gallery of photos highlighting some examples of these ships, both famous and ordinary. Stay tuned for more stories here and at

Illustration showing a sunken, abandonedship sticking out of the water close to shore, leaking oil, damaging habitat, posing a hazard to navigation, and creating marine debris on shore.

Sunken and abandoned ships can cause a lot of potential damage to the environment and the economy. (NOAA)

Leave a comment

How Do Oil Spills Get Cleaned up on Shore?

Beach cleanup crew members use a shovel to place gathered oil and affected sand into a bag on a beach.

Cleaning up oil from shorelines is a messy job. Beach cleanup crew members use a shovel to place gathered oil and affected sand into a bag as they clean up along a beach near Refugio State Beach, California, May 21, 2015. Cleanup teams used shovels and their hands to gather affected soil and ocean debris along oil impacted beaches north of Santa Barbara. (U.S. Coast Guard)

We often say that no two oil spills are alike, but one thing spills have in common is that cleaning oil off of shorelines is a messy business.

If a ship sinks or an oil pipeline ruptures, the primary goals of spill responders are to contain the oil source to stop any (more) oil from leaking and to prevent already spilled oil from spreading. However, weather conditions and ocean currents may overwhelm containment booms and other offshore oil spill response strategies. That means escaping oil may reach shorelines both near to and far from the initial oil spill location.

But when oil stains shorelines, what methods and equipment do responders use to remove it? And how is that different from cleaning up oil out at sea?

Here at NOAA, we have a library full of spill response manuals, technical reports, scientific journal articles, job aids, case histories, and guidance documents describing the methods used to clean up shorelines. And after every major oil spill there are advances in shoreline cleanup methods and equipment.

Here we present some commonly used shoreline cleanup options. Keep in mind that all response options, including what responders call “natural recovery” (letting oil break down naturally in the environment), have potential trade-offs. This means we have to take into consideration the impact of the cleanup methods themselves as we assess the overall environmental impacts of any action.

There are, of course, nuances in cleanup strategies at every oil spill that reflect the specific oil type, local environmental conditions, shoreline habitats, shore access, and a host of safety and logistical considerations. These variables will influence the particular cleanup strategy responders use at any one spill.

And at most oil spills, a combination of cleanup methods will be used (but not necessarily in the order shown here). Let’s take a look at each of these methods.

Responding to oil spills on shore: This graphic shows an overview of people using eight methods for cleaning up oil from shorelines. 1. Shoreling flushing/washing: Water hoses can rinse oil from the shoreline into water, where it can be more easily collected. 2. Booms: Long, floating, interconnected barriers are used to minimize the spread of spilled oil. 3. Vacuums: Industrial-sized vacuum trucks can suction oil from the shoreline or on the water surface. 4. Sorbents: Specialized absorbent materials act like a sponge to pick up oil but not water. 5. Shoreline cleaners and biodegradation agents: Chemical cleaners that act like saops may be used to remove oil, but require special permission. Nutrients may be added to help microbes break down oil. 6. Burning. Also referred to as

Responding to oil spills on shore: This is an overview of the various methods for cleaning up oil from shorelines, from flushing and vacuums to sorbents and heavy machinery. (NOAA)

1) Shoreline Flushing: This method uses water to remove or refloat stranded oil, which allows it to be more easily recovered as a slick on the water. One of the lessons learned from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill was to be very careful about water pressure and temperature to avoid causing more harm to the shoreline.

2) Booms: These long, floating barriers are used to keep spilled oil off the beach, or to collect it after being flushed from the beach into the immediate waters.

3) Vacuums: Large industrial vacuums can suction oil off the beach or shoreline vegetation.

4) Sorbents: These specialized materials, which can take forms such as square pads or long booms, are engineered to absorb oil but not water.

5) Shoreline cleaners and bioremediation agents: There are a variety of chemical cleaners for oiled shorelines that usually require special approval for their use. Surface washing agents [PDF] are used to soften and lift oil off of surfaces or structures that have been oiled, such as beach rocks, docks, and riprap. Bioremediation agents, on the other hand, often take the form of fertilizers that help speed up natural microbial degradation processes. However, conventional cleanup methods (e.g., booms and sorbents) typically are used first to their fullest extent to remove the worst oiling, while these alternative measures usually play a secondary role (if any).

6) Burning: Responders sometimes will perform controlled burns, also referred to as “in situ burning,” of freshly spilled oil floating on the water’s surface or on marsh vegetation.

7) Manual recovery: This method involves using good old buckets, shovels, rakes, and other hand tools to remove oil from shorelines. It is very labor-intensive but is often a primary tool for a response when access for larger equipment is impractical, such as on remote beaches or those without road access.

8) Mechanical removal: When access is possible and won’t cause too much damage to the shoreline, responders may bring in heavy machinery, such as back hoes or front-end loaders, to scoop up and haul away oiled materials in bulk.

Two bobcat digging machines scoop oil from a beach.

Heavy machinery was brought in to remove oil from a beach in Puerto Rico in 2007. (NOAA)

Leave a comment

Who Pays for Oil Spills?

This is a post by Kate Clark, Acting Chief of Staff with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.

Oiled boom and marsh in Louisiana.

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 states that those responsible for releasing oil and other hazardous materials pay for all costs associated with the cleanup operations, as well as the assessment of environmental impacts and necessary restoration. (U.S. Coast Guard)

After every major oil spill, one question comes up again and again: Who is going to pay for this mess?

While the American public and the environment pay the ultimate price (metaphorically speaking), the polluter most often foots the bill for cleanup, response, and restoration after oil spills.

In sum: You break it, you buy it. But our unspoiled coasts are priceless, and we would rather protect—or at least minimize impacts to—them as much as possible. Which means federal dollars are invested in ensuring top-notch experts are ready to act when oil spills do strike. (Stay tuned for more on that.)

So, Who Pays to Clean up an Oil Spill?

When an oil spill occurs, there are very clear rules about who pays for the direct response activities, the cost of assessing environmental damages, and implementing the necessary restoration.

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990, one legacy of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, spells out that those responsible for the pollution pay for all costs associated with the cleanup operations. However, similar to a car accident, insurance companies aren’t going to start writing checks without first looking at the circumstances.

But time is of the essence when oil hits the water, so oil companies and transporting vessels are required to have plans in place to respond immediately. In the rare instances when insurance companies investigate the details of legal (and hence, monetary) responsibility and hesitate to pay additional costs, the U.S. Coast Guard is able to set up an immediate source of funding for federal and state agencies and tribes who support the oil spill cleanup, which pays for their contributions to the response.

If the polluter is ultimately deemed liable for the spill, then they reimburse all expenses to the U.S. Coast Guard. Meaning the polluter pays for the cost of the oil spilled.

What About Restoration After Oil Spills?

Well, what about the environmental impacts left behind after the cleanup ends and everyone goes home? Does the American public pay to restore the animals and plants harmed by the spill?

Scientist leans over a boat to retrieve a dead Kemp's ridley sea turtle from the water.

It takes an average of four years to reach a settlement for environmental damages and then begin restoration after an oil spill. As a result, our job is not only to enforce pollution regulations but to ensure the right type and amount of restoration is achieved. (NOAA)

Nope. Again, the Oil Pollution Act states that parties that release hazardous materials and oil into the environment are responsible not only for the cost of cleaning up the release, but also for restoring any “injuries” (harm) to natural resources that result.

As the primary federal steward (“trustee”) for coastal animals and habitat, NOAA is responsible for ensuring the restoration of coastal resources in at least two specific cases.

First, for coastal resources harmed by releases of hazardous materials (e.g., oil and chemicals) and second, for national marine sanctuary resources harmed by physical impacts (e.g., when a ship grounds on coral reefs in a marine sanctuary).

But What if Polluters Don’t Have to Pay for Everything?

It is possible, though extremely rare, that a polluter can be found not to be liable (e.g., the pollution was caused by an act of war) or the polluter can reach its limit of liability under the law.

So, does the money for cleanup and restoration then come from American taxpayers?

Nope. In these cases, the costs are then covered by the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. This fund accrues from taxes on most domestically produced and imported oil. The oil companies, often those responsible for spills, are paying into this fund.

When a spill occurs, those involved in the response, cleanup, and damage assessment can access these funds if the polluter is unknown, unwilling, unable, or not liable for paying the spill’s full costs. For response activities, the fund will cover costs associated with preventing (in the case of a grounded ship that hasn’t released oil yet), minimizing, mitigating, or cleaning up an oil spill.

For natural resource damage assessment, the fund will cover costs associated with assessing an area’s natural resource damages, restoring the natural resources, and compensating the public for the lost use of the affected resources.

Of course, polluters aren’t always eager to accept liability, and accurately assessing environmental damages can take time. In fact, it takes an average of four years to reach a settlement for these damages and then begin restoration after an oil spill. As a result, our job is not only to enforce pollution regulations but to ensure the right type and amount of restoration is achieved.

That means, once again, dollars from polluters are essentially paying for oil spills.

So, the Public Doesn’t Pay for Anything?

Well, okay. The same as with your local fire department, public tax dollars are spent developing a highly trained group of professional emergency response and restoration experts. The more prepared we are to respond when an oil spill happens, the sooner a community can recover, environmentally and economically, from these unfortunate events.

When we aren’t providing direct support to an oil spill (or other marine pollution event), NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is hard at work training ourselves (and others) and developing tools and best practices for emergency response and assessment of impacts to natural resources.

Better Safe (and Prepared) Than Sorry

Oil spills can happen at any time of day and any time of year (including holidays). We have to be ready at any time to bring our scientific understanding of how oil behaves in the environment, where it might go, what it might impact, what can be done to address it, and what restoration may be needed.

And we think being prepared before a spill happens is a worthy investment.

Kate Clark is the Acting Chief of Staff for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. For nearly 12 years she has responded to and conducted damage assessment for numerous environmental pollution events for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. She has also managed NOAA’s Arctic policy portfolio and served as a senior analyst to the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling.

Leave a comment

Podcast: What Was It Like Responding in the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina?

On today’s episode of Diving Deeper, we remember one of the most devastating natural disasters to hit U.S. shores: Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall 10 years ago this week.

What was it like working in New Orleans and the surrounding area in the wake of such a storm?

In this podcast, we talk with Charlie Henry and Dave Wesley, two pollution responders from NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration who were working in the area in the aftermath of not just one massive hurricane, but two, as Hurricane Rita swept across the Gulf Coast just a few short weeks later.

Hear about their experiences responding to these storms, find out which memories stand out the most for them, and reflect on the toll of working in a disaster zone:

Learn more about our work after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, explore the progress made in the 10 years since, and see photos of the destruction these storms left across the heavily industrialized coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

Leave a comment

Surveying What Hurricane Katrina Swept out to Sea

This is a post by Nir Barnea of NOAA’s Marine Debris Program.

Sunken boat next to a house in Louisiana.

Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge, over 25 feet high in places, destroyed houses, boats, and infrastructure along the Gulf Coast, and when it receded, it washed out to sea massive amounts of what became marine debris. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Hurricane Katrina was a powerful storm, one which brings a variety of powerful images to people’s minds: The satellite image of the huge storm moving toward the Gulf Coast, the flooded neighborhoods of New Orleans, damaged boats strewn all over like discarded toys.

But for me, the image I remember most vividly is one of stairways leading to homes no longer there. Driving along Mississippi’s Route 90 from Biloxi to Pass Christian on a hot August day in 2006, I saw dozens of them. They were the only remnants left of the beautiful beachfront houses that once lined that road, an area devastated by Hurricane Katrina’s overwhelming storm surge.

Swept Away

The same massive storm surge that demolished these houses was the reason I was in the region a year after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. The storm surge, over 25 feet high in places, destroyed houses and infrastructure, and when it receded, it washed out to sea massive amounts of what became marine debris.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina and less than a month later, Hurricane Rita, the marine debris in ports and navigation channels was cleared quickly. However, the remaining debris, outside of navigation channels and in fishing and boating areas, posed a safety hazard to people, damaged boats and fishing gear, and hampered recreation and commercial activities.

To help deal with this debris, Congress appropriated funding in 2006 and again in 2007 to NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey and Office of Response and Restoration to survey traditional fishing grounds, map items found, disseminate survey information to assist with removal, and inform the public.

The project took three years. During the first phase, areas off the coast of Alabama, Mississippi, and eastern Louisiana were surveyed with side scan sonar. The survey teams generated maps of suspected underwater debris items (called “targets”) and placed them on the Gulf of Mexico Marine Debris Project website. We also shared with the public the locations of debris items determined to be a danger to navigation.

In the second phase of the project, our survey covered nearshore areas along the central and western Louisiana coastline. In addition to side scan sonar, survey teams used multi-beam survey technology for major targets, which is a powerful tool that provided us with vivid images of the objects detected.

NOAA, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), U.S. Coast Guard, and the State of Louisiana collaborated closely to determine which targets were the result of Hurricanes Katrina or Rita and therefore eligible for removal. Many of the targets we detected were actually not the result of these two major storms.

Dealing with Disaster Debris

Overturned boat in water awaiting salvage with another boat salvaged in background.

To help deal with the debris not yet cleared after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Congress appropriated funding to NOAA to survey traditional fishing grounds, map items found, and share that information to assist with removal and public notification. (NOAA)

On September 2, 2009, the project partners met in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for a workshop summarizing the project. Participants provided insights and suggestions for improving the process, which were later gathered into the workshop proceedings [PDF]. We learned many lessons from this project, which should be put to good use in the future.

One of the things I liked most about the project was its collaborative nature. Project partners included two NOAA offices and eight contractors, Coast Guard, FEMA, a host of state agencies from the three impacted states, NOAA Sea Grant, and of course, the general public in the Gulf of Mexico. This collaborative effort did not go unnoticed, and the project received the Gulf Guardian Award for Partnership.

Hurricane Katrina was the first severe marine debris event for the young NOAA Marine Debris Program, established in 2005. It was not the last.

Over the last 10 years, our program, along with other parts of NOAA, have dealt with marine debris from Hurricane Sandy, a tsunami in American Samoa, and most recently, the influx of debris from the Japan tsunami of 2011.

Sadly, this trend suggests more such events in the future. NOAA and other agencies have learned a lot over the past 10 years, and we are better prepared for the next disaster which might sweep debris out to sea or bring large amounts of it onto shore (what we call “severe marine debris events”). Learn more at and

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.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 631 other followers