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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Closing Down Damage Assessment After Deepwater Horizon

Shelves filled with jars.

The plankton archive contains over 130,000 samples from 19 different surveys conducted as part of the natural resources damage assessment. Plankton archive located at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. Image credit: NOAA

The environmental toll from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster was enormous, demanding a massive deployment of people and materials to measure the adverse effects.

Federal and state agencies worked quickly to scale up the emergency response, clean up the spill, mount a large-scale effort to assess the injuries to wildlife and other natural resources, and record how these lost resources adversely affected the public.

When the cleanup was finished, and the injuries were determined, another challenge came: NOAA and other agencies had to close down the largest damage assessment field operation in the nation’s history.

During five years of field studies assessing the injuries to natural resources, more than one hundred thousand samples were collected.

Instead of discarding the samples once the assessment was over, and the BP settlement was completed, it made more sense to find other uses for the samples, and the valuable laboratory, field, and office equipment attained during the assessment work. In many cases, the cost of finding new homes for samples and equipment was cheaper than disposal.

Repurposing samples and equipment: the work goes on

Shutting down the assessment operations involved clearing out laboratories and warehouses filled with samples, field equipment, and supplies.

In most instances, only a portion of each sample was needed for analysis and by the end of 2015, NOAA had an extensive trove of environmental samples.

Recognizing that many research scientists might put these samples to good use, NOAA made the materials available by publishing announcements in professional society newsletters. After receiving about one hundred inquiries, staff and contractors began distributing more than 5,000 samples.

Additionally, some sample collections were archived in publicly available repositories, with other historical and scientifically valuable collections. Thousands of samples of plankton, fish, and other organisms collected during post-spill trawls in Gulf waters went to a NOAA archive in Stennis, Mississippi.

The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. received rare deep-sea corals. Later this year the National Marine Mammal Tissue Bank will host thousands of samples from species of dolphins and other marine mammals found dead after the oil spill.

Universities across the United States received samples for research. Sediment samples sent to Florida State University in Tallahassee are supporting studies on the long-term fate of Deepwater Horizon oil deposited on Gulf beaches and in nearshore environments.

Researchers at Jacksonville University in Florida are using samples to compare the weathering of tar balls found submerged to tar balls those stranded on land. Additionally, researchers at Texas A&M University obtained samples of the spilled oil for studies of bacteria that biodegrade oil.

Graphic with gloved hands pouring liquid from sample jar into beaker and numbers of samples, results, and studies resulting from NOAA efforts.

Finding new homes for scientific instruments and other equipment

Field samples were not the only items distributed to advance oil spill science. NOAA shipped hundreds of large and small pieces of equipment to universities and other research partners to aid ongoing investigations about the effects of oil spills on the environment, and the ongoing monitoring of the Gulf environment.

Repurposed supplies and equipment found a second life at many institutions including the:

  • University of Miami
  • NOVA Southeastern University
  • Dauphin Island Sea Lab
  • University of Southern Mississippi
  • University of South Florida
  • Louisiana State University
  • Texas A & M
  • Smithsonian Institution

In addition to laboratory equipment, some university researchers received practical items such as anchors, battery packs, buoys, forceps, freezer packs, glassware, preservatives such as alcohol and formalin, and thermometers.

NOAA coordinated with BP to recover and repurpose thousands of items BP purchased for the assessment. While clearing out office buildings and trailers, NOAA staff identified and requested valuable pieces of laboratory and field equipment, and other supplies. Some of these items, such as microscopes, initially cost tens of thousands of dollars.

First responders from NOAA and the U.S. Coast Guard also received field safety equipment including:

  • Personal floatation devices
  • Safety goggles
  • Pallets of nitrile gloves
  • Lightning detectors
  • Sorbent boom

All of which support preparedness for future incidents.

Countless NOAA staff rose to the enormous challenges of responding to, assessing impacts from, and restoring the natural resources injured by the Deepwater Horizon incident. This work continues, assisted by the creative reuse and repurposing of materials across the country to support ongoing efforts to advance oil spill science and improve preparedness for future spills.

Read more about and the work of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration and partners in responding to the spill, documenting the environmental damage, and holding BP accountable for restoring injured resources:

 

Greg Baker, Rob Ricker, and Kathleen Goggin of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration contributed to this article.


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Assessing the Impacts from Deepwater Horizon

Beach with grass.

Beach habitat was part of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill settlement. Image Credit: NOAA

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster spread spilled oil deep into the ocean’s depths and along the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, compromising the complex ecosystem and local economies. The response and the natural resources damage assessment were the largest in the nation’s history.

Ecosystems are comprised of biological, physical, and chemical components, interconnected to form a community. What happens in one location has serious, cascading effects on organisms in other parts of the ecosystem. The Gulf’s coastal wetlands and estuaries support the entire Gulf ecosystem, providing food, shelter, and nursery grounds for a variety of animals. The open waters of the Gulf also provides habitat for fish, shrimp, shellfish, sea turtles, birds, and mammals.

Evaluating impacts from the spill

Considering these interdependencies during the assessment process was important. At the same time, it was impossible to test or examine every injured bird, every sickened dolphin, or every area contaminated with oil. That was cost prohibitive and scientifically impossible.

Instead, NOAA scientists evaluated representative samples of natural resources, habitats, ecological communities, ecosystem processes and linkages.

To do that, scientists made 20,000 trips to the field, to obtain 100,000 environmental samples that yielded 15 million records. This data collection and subsequent series of scientific studies formed the basis for the natural resources damage assessment that led to the largest civil settlement in federal history.

A short summary of the natural resource injuries:

Marshes injured

  • Plant cover and vegetation mass reduced along 350 to 720 miles of shoreline
  • Amphipods, periwinkles, shrimp, forage fish, red drum, fiddler crabs, insects killed

Harvestable oysters lost

  • 4 – 8.3 billion harvestable oysters lost

Birds, fish, shellfish, sea turtles, and dolphins killed

  • Between 51,000 to 84,000 birds killed
  • Between 56,000 to 166,000 small juvenile sea turtles killed
  • Up to 51% decrease in Barataria Bay dolphin population
  • An estimated 2 – 5 trillion newly hatched fish were killed

Rare corals and red crabs impacted

  • Throughout an area about 400 to 700 square miles around the wellhead

Recreational opportunities lost

  • About $527 – $859 million in lost recreation such as boating, fishing, and beach going
Top fish shows no oil bottom fish shows oil.

The top picture is a red drum control fish that was not exposed to oil, while the bottom red drum fish was exposed to Deepwater Horizon oil for 36 hours. The bottom fish developed excess fluid around the heart and other developmental deformities. This is an example of the many scientific studies conducted for the natural resources damage assessment. Image Credit: NOAA/Abt

What we shared

Those studies not only documented the injuries, but also helped the entire scientific community understand the effects of oil spills on nature and our communities. All of the scientific studies, including over 70 peer-reviewed journal articles, as well as all the data collected for the studies, are available to the public and the scientific community. Additionally, our environmental response management software allows anyone to download the data from a scientific study, and then see that data on a map.

We will be publishing new guidance documents regarding sea turtles and marine mammals by the end of 2017. These guides compile best practices and lessons learned and will expedite natural resources damage assessment procedures in the future.

Read more about Deepwater Horizon and the work of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration and partners in responding to the spill, documenting the environmental damage, and holding BP accountable for restoring injured resources:

 

Tom Brosnan, Lisa DiPinto, and Kathleen Goggin of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration contributed to this article.


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Deepwater Horizon: Response in the Midst of an Historic Crisis

Tractor with trailers on beach.

Cleanup crews in Pensacola Beach, Florida, try to remove oil from the sand in November 2010. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill that severely injured the environment also directly affected the seafood trade and tourism economies of five Gulf states. Image Credit: NOAA

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill began on April 20, 2010, with a blowout of BP’s Macondo drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico. In addition to the death of 11 men, the spill resulted in the largest mobilization of resources addressing an environmental emergency in the history of the United States.

The size of the spill required the Emergency Response Division to refine tracking subsurface oil, flowrate calculations, and long-term oil transport modeling. Data and information management became a paramount issue. NOAA’s web-based environmental management mapping tool proved invaluable in tracking and sharing data across the many teams and command posts.

With only 12 full time responders and about 120 NOAA staff nationally, the size and complexity of the incident taxed the spill team’s capacity to respond. NOAA recruited retired staff and contractors to provide additional emergency support, along with scientists from across the nation and internationally.

Other NOAA programs provided critical services in the field, on ships, aircraft, and in regional laboratories, weather forecast offices, and regional command posts. As the response grew, staffing the various missions required extraordinary interagency coordination.

Overall, several thousand NOAA staff worked on spill response and damage assessment activities. Seven NOAA ships—39 percent of the NOAA fleet—conducted cruises with missions as diverse as seafood safety monitoring, wellhead monitoring, and detecting subsurface oil. Five NOAA aircraft flew over 773 flight hours to track the oil spill and to measure air quality impacts.

Challenges faced with Deepwater Horizon

Forecasting the oil’s movement: How would the Loop Current effect the oil’s potential to spread to the Florida Keys and beyond? To answer that staff worked 24-7 modeling where the oil might spread in an effort to help defuse the public’s concern that oil would rapidly travel around Florida and oil shorelines along the Atlantic seaboard. After more than a month of daily mapping, overflights, and satellite analyses, our data showed no recoverable oil in the area, and the threat of oil spreading by the Loop Current diminished.

Calculating how much oil spilled and where it went:

Estimating the size of an oil spill is difficult, and determining the volume spilled from this leaking wellhead over a mile deep was even more challenging. Federal scientists and engineers worked with experts from universities on interagency teams to calculate the flow rate and total volume of oil spilled.

Another interagency team, led by the U. S. Geological Survey, NOAA, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology developed a tool called the Oil Budget Calculator to determine what happened to the oil. Working with these experts and agencies, NOAA was able to estimate the amount spilled, and how much oil was chemically dispersed, burned, and recovered by skimmers.

NOAA scientists also studied how much oil naturally evaporated and dispersed, sank to the sea floor, or trapped in shoreline sediments. Other studies determined how long it took the oil to degrade in those different environments.

While dispersant use reduced the amount of surface and shoreline oiling, and reduced marsh impacts, dispersants likely did increase impacts to some species during sensitive life stages that live in the water column and the deep ocean. The use of dispersants is under review.

Infographic about Deepwater Horizon.

Statistical information about Deepwater Horizon. Image Credit: NOAA

Quickly communicating the science of the situation including:

The public demanded answers fast, and social media rapidly took over as a primary tool to voice their concerns. We responded with continual updates through social media and on our website and blog. Still, keeping ahead of misconceptions and misinformation about the spill proved challenging. The lesson learned is that we can’t underestimate social media interest.

In addition to responding to the public’s need for accurate information, NOAA had to coordinate with universities and other academics to and quickly leverage existing research on an active oil spill. The size and multi-month aspect of the spill generated huge academic interest, but also meant that scientists were mobilizing and conducting field activities in the middle of an active response.

Lessons Learned

The list of lessons learned during the response continues to grow and those lessons are not limited to science. Organizational, administrative, policy, and outreach challenges were also significant considering the size, scope, and complexity of the response.

After nearly 30 years, the Exxon Valdez spill studies continue in an effort to understand the impacts and recovery in Prince William Sound. Given that timeline as a guide, NOAA expects Deepwater Horizon studies to continue for decades.

It will take that research and the perspective of time to understand the overall effects of the spill and response actions on the Gulf ecosystem and the communities that depend on a healthy coast.

 

Read more about Deepwater Horizon and the work of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration and partners in responding to the spill, documenting the environmental damage, and holding BP accountable for restoring injured resources:

Doug Helton and Kathleen Goggin of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration contributed to this article.


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Effects of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill on Sea Turtles and Marine Mammals

 

Dolphins on water surface.

Studies showed dolphins were impacted by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (NOAA)

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill resulted in significant environmental harm over a large area of the Gulf of Mexico and adjacent shorelines, and affected numerous species including endangered and threatened sea turtles and protected marine mammals. These populations will require significant restoration efforts to offset impacts from the spill.

A special issue of Endangered Species Research published Jan. 31, 2017, features 20 scientific articles summarizing the impacts of the oil spill on marine mammals and sea turtles.

The scientific studies, conducted by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration authors and partners, document the unprecedented mortality rate and long-term environmental impacts of the oil’s exposure and presents a synthesis of more than five years’ worth of data collection, analysis, and interpretation. Findings from these research studies, in addition to other studies on other parts of the ecosystem, formed the basis of the natural resources damage assessment settlement with BP for up to $8.8 billion.

All of the data associated with the settlement is available publicly in the Data Integration Visualization Exploration and Reporting database, but the Endangered Species Research special issue is the first time this information on sea turtles and marine mammals has been compiled together in peer-reviewed scientific publications. Find out more about Deepwater Horizon here.

 

 


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Coping in the Aftermath of Deepwater Horizon

New NOAA Sea Grant publication discusses mental health impacts following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill

Ocean coastline with large fisshing boats on their sides.

The Gulf of Mexico fishing industry suffered much physical damage from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (pictured), followed by economic damage from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (NOAA)

By Tara Skelton, Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium

Ever wonder about mental health issues in communities recovering from a man-made disaster? The Gulf of Mexico Sea Grant Oil Spill Science Outreach Team recently published an overview of peer-reviewed research into how individuals and communities coped in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Studies show that the spill impacted the mental health of some coastal residents, including cleanup workers and those who relied on a healthy Gulf Coast for their occupations.

Gulf Coast locals experienced the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in different ways. Some coastal residents witnessed oiling on the water and shoreline. Others, including cleanup workers, physically encountered oil in their daily lives. People in many industries, including fishing, tourism, and more, lost income as a result of the spill. The 2010 spill came five years after Hurricane Katrina hit much of the same area, compounding some effects.

Several studies have examined the mental health impacts of the oil spill on people living along the Gulf Coast. While short-term repercussions are well-documented, long-term outcomes have been harder to identify. As a result, scientists are developing new ways to determine the consequences of disasters, both natural and man-made, on the physical and mental health of communities.

Grawing of Gulf of Mexico states explaining mental health affects.

Residents of states surrounding the Gulf of Mexico reported various negative mental health impacts following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (Florida Sea Grant/Anna Hinkeldey)

To learn more, go to gulfseagrant.org/oilspilloutreach/publications/ and read “The Deepwater Horizon oil spill’s impact on people’s health: Increases in stress and anxiety.” It’s one of many publications the team has developed to extend our understanding of oil spills science, from dispersant use to seafood safety.

Tara Skelton is the Oil Spill Science Outreach Team Communicator for the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium. The four Gulf of Mexico Sea Grant College Programs with funding from partner Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative has assembled a team of oil spill science outreach specialists to collect and translate the latest peer-reviewed research for those who rely on a healthy marine ecosystem for work or recreation. To learn more about the team’s products and presentations, visit gulfseagrant.org/oilspillscience


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Effects of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill on Coastal Salt Marsh Habitat

Oil in marsh vegetation during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill.

Oil in marsh vegetation during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill. (NOAA)

The 2010 explosion on the DeepwaterHorizon Macondo oil well drilling platform triggered a massive oil release polluting over 1,300 miles of shoreline along the Gulf of Mexico. The harm from the spill to coastal salt marsh habitat was extensive, and in some instances, permanent. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration along with other federal and state agencies measured the spill’s effects and created a restoration plan as part of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA).

Why are coastal salt marshes important?

A large variety of open water and estuarine fish, birds and invertebrates, use the salt marsh habitats of the northern Gulf of Mexico for refuge and feeding. Marsh plants and nearshore oysters can dampen wave energy, trap and stabilize soil and adjacent sediment, and provide structure and cover for predators and prey. The salt marshes promote rapid growth of juvenile fish and invertebrates of commercial importance.

Animals affected by exposure to oil include:

  • Periwinkle snails (L. Litoraria)
  • Fiddler crabs (Uca spp.)
  • White and brown shrimp (F. aztecus, L. setiferus)
  • Flounder, drum, and forage fish (P.lethostigma, F. grandis, S. ocellatus)
  • Nearshore oysters (C. virginica)

Because birds, fish, crabs, shrimp, oysters, coastal dolphins, and other wildlife depend on the Gulf’s salt marshes, any loss or degradation of this habitat has broad implications for the ecosystem.

Harm to coastal salt marshes

Oil can affect animals and plants through chemical toxicity and physical smothering. More than 687 miles of coastal wetland shoreline were polluted with oil throughout the Gulf during the 87-day spill. The injury assessment team used field and laboratory studies to demonstrate that oil degraded the health of coastal marsh plants and animals, reduced nearshore oyster cover, and increased erosion of oiled marsh edge habitat.

The amount of oil along the shoreline (and how long it stayed there) was the most useful indicator of harm to nearshore organisms, while plant stem oiling was the best indicator of loss of vegetation. Activities to clean up oiled marshes (like flushing with water or raking to remove oil) delayed marsh recovery and exacerbated the loss of oysters, though it was not always possible to separate effects of oiling from effects of response actions.

Graphic with person raking on drawing of salt marsh layers.

Oil clean-up actions in coastal salt marsh. NOAA

Salt marshes in Louisiana were most intensively polluted by the oil spill. At least 350 miles of coastal marsh shoreline in Louisiana was injured. Even trace oiling of plant stems in Louisiana salt marshes reduced plant cover in the marsh, and affected plant growth, particularly in the marsh edge zone closest to the shoreline. The marsh edge is most productive zone because it provides migrating animals access to flooded marsh surfaces for refuge and foraging.

Oil damage to plants and oysters, as well as oil clean-up measures (see graphic), increased the erosion of marsh shorelines between 2010 and 2013. Increased erosion of oiled vegetated shorelines is estimated to have occurred over at least 108 miles of shoreline throughout the Gulf. Marsh recovery is expected to take more than 10 years for long-lived species such as periwinkle, while eroded shoreline has been permanently lost. All data collected as part of the Deepwater Horizon NRDA are available online.

 

Mary Baker is the OR&R  branch chief for the Northwest and Great Lakes.