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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How to Locate Wildlife Threatened During Oil Spills

This week, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is looking at the impacts of pollutants on wildlife and endangered species. We’ll explore tools we’ve developed to map sensitive species and habitats, how marine debris endangers marine life, how restoring toxic waste sites improves the health of wildlife, and the creation of a mobile wildlife hospital.

Harbor seal on rock. NOAA.

Harbor seals are one of the many species cataloged in our Environmental Sensitivity Index. Image credit: Marge Brigadier, NOAA Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Scenario: You’re a state natural resource manager for a coastal salt marsh and just got a call that a tanker spilled thousands of gallons of crude oil that is now heading for your shores. You have maybe two hours before the oil starts washing up on your coast.

What do you do?

How do you determine what animals may be in jeopardy?

How do you prepare a response plan to protect those species?

Anticipating the information state and federal staff need when responding to an oil spill or other environmental hazard is what we do. In addition to providing scientific support, we’ve developed guides and databases for resource and response managers to use in those early, sometimes chaotic, hours of an incident.

One of the tools we’ve developed is our Environmental Sensitivity Index maps. The maps and data show where species are found, along with information about monthly seasonality, breeding and life stages occurring, concentrations, and qualifiers that indicate why a species occurrence may have increased vulnerabilities.

In responding to hazardous materials released into the natural environment, it’s important for responders to know that some animal species are especially vulnerable to spills and cleanup activities. Animals and their habitats tend to be most at risk from oil spills when:

  • There are many individuals concentrated in a small area, such as a seal haulout area or a bay where waterfowl concentrate during migration.
  • Early life stages such as seabird rookeries, spawning beds used by anadromous fish, or turtle nesting beaches are present.
  • Oil affects areas important to specific life stages such as foraging or over-wintering sites, or migration routes
Environmental Sensitivity Index map. Image: NOAA.

Our Environmental Sensitivity Index maps categorize and display environmental hazard sensitive animals and their habitats, and habitats that are themselves sensitive to spilled oil, such as coral reefs. This map shows part of the Maine coast. Image credit: NOAA.

What information is in an Environmental Sensitivity Index?

It’s important for emergency responders to know as much as possible about what species may be adversely affected by a hazardous spill. Our Environmental Sensitivity Index, or ESI, maps include critical information on:

  • Rare, threatened, endangered, and species of special concern
  • Commercial and recreational wildlife
  • Areas of high species concentration
  • Areas where sensitive life-stages or activities occur

In addition to information on wildlife resources along the nation’s coastlines, the indexes provide detailed information on shorelines and on how people use the natural resources present.

How we gather biological information

The Environmental Sensitivity Index biology information is a compilation of existing data and regional knowledge. A list of all threatened or endangered species in the area is amended with other regional species that are of local concern, or are particularly vulnerable to oil.

Once an initial species list is created, the search for existing species distribution and seasonal information begins. This may come from state or local government, academics, non-profit organizations, or non-affiliated experts. A typical ESI atlas will have upwards of 100 contributing expert sources and documents.

The ESI challenge is how best to compile and integrate this diverse data to create a product useful to responders who need to quickly assess an area of potential oil impact. As data is processed, the contributing experts are asked to review the species distribution and attributes to assure the data is presented accurately and as intended.

Because there are often multiple sources for a single species, this is particularly important in order to assure the experts are comfortable with how their information will be presented. This is a collaborative process during which additional species may be identified and added to the species list, and additional resource experts are identified. Reviews continue through the finalization of the ESI data and tables.

How to access the data

The Environmental Sensitivity Index data is designed to work within a geographic information system. The data can also be accessed publicly through a variety of free tools including our ESI toolkit and many of our Environmental Response Management Application, or ERMA®.

ERMA map showing ESI data. Image: NOAA.

Using the query tool in ERMA you can isolate a particular area by making a polygon and then choose which ESI data to display. Image credit: NOAA.

Making decisions during an environmental crisis sometimes requires difficult trade offs. Having this valuable information ready beforehand helps spill planners and responders prioritize areas to protect from oil and identify appropriate cleanup strategies.

Read more stories in our series on the effects of pollutants on wildlife:

Jill Petersen, ESI program manager, contributed to this article.


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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!