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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Science of Oil Spills Training Now Accepting Applications for Spring 2016

Two people closely examining rocks and seaweed on a shoreline.

These classes help prepare responders to understand the environmental risks and scientific considerations when addressing oil spills, and also include a field trip to a local beach to apply newly learned skills. (NOAA)

NOAA‘s Office of Response and Restoration, a leader in providing scientific information in response to marine pollution, has scheduled Science of Oil Spills (SOS) classes in two locations in spring 2016:

  • Mobile, Alabama the week of March 28, 2016
  • Ann Arbor, Michigan the week of May 16, 2016

We will accept applications for these classes as follows:

For the Mobile class, the application period will be open until Friday, January 22. We will notify accepted participants by email no later than Friday, February 5.

For the Ann Arbor class, the application period will be open until Friday, March 11. We will notify accepted participants by email no later than Friday, March 25.

SOS classes help spill responders increase their understanding of oil spill science when analyzing spills and making risk-based decisions. They are designed for new and mid-level spill responders.

These trainings cover:

  • Fate and behavior of oil spilled in the environment.
  • An introduction to oil chemistry and toxicity.
  • A review of basic spill response options for open water and shorelines.
  • Spill case studies.
  • Principles of ecological risk assessment.
  • A field trip.
  • An introduction to damage assessment techniques.
  • Determining cleanup endpoints.

To view the topics for the next SOS class, download a sample agenda [PDF, 170 KB].

Please understand that classes are not filled on a first-come, first-served basis. We try to diversify the participant composition to ensure a variety of perspectives and experiences, to enrich the workshop for the benefit of all participants. Classes are generally limited to 40 participants.

For more information, and to learn how to apply for the class, visit the SOS Classes page.


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What Does the Sahara Desert Have to Do with Hurricanes?

This is a post by Charlie Henry, Director, NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center and Jeff Medlin, Meteorologist in Charge, National Weather Service Weather Forecast Office Mobile.

Sahara Desert dunes from space.

Sahara Desert dunes photographed from the International Space Station on July 7, 2007. This large desert has a surprising degree of influence on the frequency of hurricanes we see in the United States. (NASA)

What does the Sahara Desert in Africa have to do with hurricanes in the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and Eastern Pacific Ocean? You might think this sounds a little crazy because hurricanes are very wet and deserts are very dry, but if it weren’t for this huge, hot, dry region in North Africa, we would see far fewer hurricanes in the United States.

The Sahara Desert is massive, covering 10 percent of the continent of Africa. It would be the largest desert on Earth, but based strictly on rainfall amounts, the continent of Antarctica qualifies as a desert and is even larger. Still, rainfall in the Sahara is very infrequent; some areas may not get rain for years and the average total rainfall is less than three inches per year. While not the largest or driest of the deserts, the Sahara has a major influence on weather across the Western Hemisphere.

How a Tropical Storm Starts A-Brewin’

The role the Sahara Desert plays in hurricane development is related to the easterly winds (coming from the east) generated from the differences between the hot, dry desert in north Africa and the cooler, wetter, and forested coastal environment directly south and surrounding the Gulf of Guinea in west Africa. The result is a strong area of high altitude winds commonly called the African Easterly Jet. If these winds were constant, we would also experience fewer hurricanes.

However, the African Easterly Jet is unstable, resulting in undulations in a north-south direction, often forming a corresponding north to south trough, or wave, that moves westward off the West African Coast. When these waves of air have enough moisture, lift, and instability, they readily form clusters of thunderstorms, sometimes becoming correlated with a center of air circulation. When this happens, a tropical cyclone may form as the areas of disturbed weather move westward across the Atlantic.

Throughout most of the year, these waves typically form every two to three days in a region near Cape Verde (due west of Africa), but it is the summer to early fall when conditions can become favorable for tropical cyclone development. Not all hurricanes that form in the Atlantic originate near Cape Verde, but this has been the case for most of the major hurricanes that have impacted the continental United States.

Map of North America with historical tracks of hurricanes in North Atlantic and Northeast Pacific Oceans.

All North Atlantic and Eastern North Pacific hurricanes
(at least Category 1 on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale). Note how many originate at the edge of Africa’s West Coast, where the desert meets the green forests to the south. (NOAA)

Wave of the Future (Weather)

In fact, just such a tropical wave formed off Cape Verde in mid-August of 1992. Up to that point, there had not been any significant tropical cyclone development in the Atlantic that year. However, the wave did intensify into a hurricane, and on August 24 Andrew came ashore in south Florida as a Category 5 hurricane, becoming one of the most costly and destructive natural disasters in U.S. history … until Sandy. Hurricane Sandy, which eventually struck the U.S. east coast as a post-tropical cyclone, also began as a similar tropical wave that formed off the coast of west Africa in October of 2012.

Some of these “waves” drift all the way to the Pacific Ocean by crossing Mexico and Central America. Many of the Eastern Pacific tropical cyclones originate, at least in part, from tropical waves coming off Cape Verde in Africa. Many of these waves traverse the entire Atlantic Ocean without generating storm development until after crossing Central America and entering the warm Eastern Pacific waters. Then, if the conditions are right, tropical cyclone formation is possible there. Hurricane Iselle, which hit the Big Island of Hawaii on August 8, 2014, was likely part of a wave that formed more than 8,000 miles away off of the West Coast of Africa and an example of the far-reaching influence the Sahara Desert has on our planet’s weather.

While these waves with origins in the Sahara Desert might generate numerous thunderstorms and a pattern with the potential for developing into a tropical cyclone, often the conditions are not quite right. Hurricane Cristobal formed from a classic Cape Verde wave last week and currently is churning Atlantic waters, but is not expected to be a threat to the United States. The formation of these disturbances off the West Coast of Africa will remain a potential source of tropical storms through the end of Atlantic hurricane season in late November. Each wave is investigated by the NOAA National Hurricane Center and you can view these active disturbances on their website.

The Sahara Desert and You

When it comes to hurricanes and hurricane preparedness, it’s interesting to know how a desert half a world away can influence the formation of severe weather on our coasts—and even parts of the Pacific Ocean. And no matter where you live, the old rule of planning for the worst and hoping for the best remains the surest way to stay safe.

Learn more about how we at NOAA’s National Ocean Service are staying prepared for hurricanes [PDF], and how you can create your own hurricane plan [PDF].


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Ready for Anything: Advice in Case of the Undead

This is a post by NOAA Office of Response and Restoration’s Katie Krushinski.

We’d like to wish you a happy Halloween … but it’s only appropriate we mention zombies first. In recent years, zombies have invaded popular culture, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), who have done a great job linking being prepared for a zombie attack with overall disaster preparedness. You may laugh, but you can also learn a thing or two about being ready for the return of the undead.

Zombie nurse.

If you’re not prepared for the worst, then you’re letting the zombies win. (Credit: Tuomas Kuosmanen, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic License)

Don’t Let the Zombies Win

Zombie hands going after brain.

Use your brain and be prepared for anything. (Credit: Beth Jusino, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic License)

If you watch any movies or T.V. shows about surviving zombie apocalypse, you can actually pick up some handy preparedness tips. Although pre-made zombie survival kits are amusing, most of them have in common the kind of life-saving ideas that will work in any emergency situation:

  • Water: Having three gallons per person per day is critical. Water is not only used for drinking—we use it for cooking and cleaning too. But consider including alcohol-based hand gels or wipes to ration water use and avoid getting sick.
  • Food: Keep on hand at least two weeks’ worth of nonperishable food; the type that doesn’t require cooking or refrigeration is best. And don’t forget about food and water for pets and service animals!
  • First Aid Supplies: Commercial kits are available at most drug stores. It’s a good idea to have a kit at home and one in your car. Be sure to replenish items you use and be mindful of expiration dates.
  • Gas: It’s typically a good idea to keep at least a half tank of gas in your car at all times. If you know a hurricane or other threatening event is coming, be sure to fill up early.

Be Prepared for Hazards of All Kinds

Being ready for disasters is something we take very seriously at NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center. Which is why we’ve taken this advice to heart and made sure our own facility in Mobile, Ala., is ready to withstand a hurricane, tornado, or even zombie apocalypse. Just peek into our restrooms, where we have:

  • Multiple 25-person survival kits, which include items such as safety goggles, pry bar (especially handy for zombie defense!), multifunction tools, first aid supplies, flashlights, and emergency water pouches.
  • Backup generators that will automatically switch on if the primary power fails (zombie attacks usually result in power loss).
  • Internet hookups, which are being fed into the building from two different directions in case zombies or stormy weather damage or sever one of the cables.

Of course, both your family and your employer should customize the steps you take and supplies you stock based on your particular needs and situation.

Sweat the Small Stuff

We all know it’s important to make an emergency plan and keep an up-to-date list of important phone numbers. But sometimes we are so focused on gathering the big things that we forget about the small stuff.
If you're ready for a zombie apocalypse, then you're ready for any emergency. emergency.cdc.gov
For instance, it is suggested that you stock canned food, but don’t forget to grab the “all-mighty” can opener. It’s also recommended to wear sturdy, close-toed shoes if you need to go outside. But it isn’t mentioned very often to keep a pair of spare socks in a tightly sealed bag. This will allow you to have at least one dry pair as a backup. Another tip is to keep a flashlight, radio, and other battery-powered items on hand—but make sure they all use the same size battery to avoid stocking multiple sizes.

Today, zombies provide a fun and creative way to teach about the importance of being prepared for anything. For a spooky story that kids and adults alike might enjoy, check out the CDC’s “Preparedness 101: Zombie Pandemic” short graphic novel, which is an entertaining and informative way to learn about preparing for an emergency, whether it’s a natural disaster or a very unnatural attack by zombies.

Happy Halloween (and watch out for the undead)!

Katie Krushinski

Katie Krushinski

Katie Krushinski works at NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center in Mobile, Ala., where she is responsible for coordinating training events, producing external communications, and writing and editing. Katie has a background in emergency response and management. NOAA’s Disaster Response Center serves as a one-stop shop, streamlining the delivery of NOAA services that help the Gulf region prepare for and deal with disasters.


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Podcast: Visit the NOAA Disaster Response Center with Director Charlie Henry

A Coast Guard responder oversees the loading of boom onto a response airboat in Louisiana following Hurricane Isaac, Sept. 2, 2012.

A Coast Guard responder oversees the loading of boom onto a response airboat in Louisiana following Hurricane Isaac, Sept. 2, 2012. A team of responders was dispatched to place the boom around a reported oil leak to protect environmentally sensitive marshlands. The NOAA Disaster Response Center provides NOAA support during disasters in the Gulf such as this. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Join the National Ocean Service in a recent podcast as they visit the NOAA Disaster Response Center in Mobile, Ala., to learn how this facility is equipped to serve as the central hub for environmental disaster coordination and response in the region.

Director Charlie Henry guides listeners on a virtual tour of the NOAA Disaster Response Center and its value to the Gulf of Mexico and to the people working to prepare for and respond to natural and manmade disasters there.

“I think the unique thing about the Disaster Response Center is that it’s a concept of pulling people together from different groups with the common goal in trying to build a better response community and a better response posture,” Henry says, “so that the end result is that we have more resiliency and less impact from storms, and that’s our ultimate goal: to build a resilient community that when there’s a threat from hurricanes or other disasters, that we’re prepared for and that we weather those storms and that we recover with the least amount of threat to the public and to property and the environment.”

Listen to the full interview with Henry here:

For more:


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Why Are Tropical Storms and Hurricanes Named?

This is a post by NOAA Office of Response and Restoration’s Katie Krushinski.

The 2013 Atlantic hurricane season's first named storm was Tropical Storm Andrea, pictured here on June 8 crossing over Florida and up the East Coast. (NASA)

The 2013 Atlantic hurricane season’s first named storm was Tropical Storm Andrea, pictured here on June 8 crossing over Florida and heading up the East Coast. (NASA)

Have you ever wondered why storms are named? Up until the early 1950s, tropical storms and hurricanes were tracked by year and the order in which each one occurred during that year.

In time, it was recognized that people remembered shorter names more easily. In 1953, a new approach was taken and storms were named in alphabetical order by female name. The process of naming storms helps differentiate between multiple storms that may be active at the same time.

By 1978, both male and female names were being used to identify Northern Pacific storms. This was adopted in 1979 for the Atlantic storms and is what we use today.

The World Meteorological Organization came up with the lists of names, male and female, which are used on a six-year rotation. In the event a hurricane causes a large amount of damage or numerous deaths, that name will be retired. Since the 1950s, when it became normal to name storms, there have been 77 names retired, including Fran (1996), Katrina (2005), Rita (2005), and Sandy (2012).

To find out this year’s storm names and for a complete list of retired names, visit the National Weather Service’s website. And if you haven’t started your own severe-weather preparations, don’t delay; the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season (predicted to be more active than usual) has already begun.

The Gulf of Mexico region, in particular, experiences frequent natural and human-caused disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and oil spills.

NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center aims to reduce the resulting impacts by helping to prepare federal, state, and local decision makers for a variety of threats, creating more adaptive and resilient coastal communities. Learn more about this valuable resource and center of NOAA expertise on the Gulf Coast.

Katie Krushinski

Katie Krushinski

Katie Krushinski works at NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center in Mobile, Ala., where she is responsible for coordinating training events, producing external communications, and writing and editing. Katie has a background in emergency response and management. NOAA’s Disaster Response Center serves as a one-stop shop, streamlining the delivery of NOAA services that help the Gulf region prepare for and deal with disasters.


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Are You Ready for this Summer’s Hurricane Season?

On August 28, 2005, Hurricane Katrina was in the Gulf of Mexico, where it powered up to a Category 5 storm on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale, packing winds estimated at 175 mph. (NOAA)

On August 28, 2005, Hurricane Katrina was in the Gulf of Mexico, where it powered up to a Category 5 storm on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale, packing winds estimated at 175 mph. (NOAA)

June is here, and with it comes the start of the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season.

Last week I was at a regional emergency response meeting in Addison, Texas, and sat next to Greg Pollock, Deputy Commissioner for the Texas General Land Office. During the meeting, Greg nudged my shoulder, showing me an email alerting him of the potential for Hurricane Barbara to cross from the Pacific Ocean into the Bay of Campeche—making it a potential threat to the Gulf of Mexico.

We were in the last week of May and threats to the Gulf of Mexico are rare this early. I hadn’t even started my hurricane season routine of checking the NOAA National Hurricane Center’s website every morning before even driving to my office at NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center.

Following Greg’s prompt, I went online and read the updated forecast from NOAA. Hurricane Barbara would impact southern Mexico but likely dissipate crossing it (which is exactly what happened to this tropical storm). At the time, the threat to the Gulf of Mexico was low, but still something to keep an eye on.

Ready to Help Before, During, and After a Disaster

On the front line is NOAA’s National Weather Service, the trusted, round-the-clock source of information about severe weather threats. Emergency managers and the public alike depend on them to provide accurate and timely storm predictions and forecasts. I use their online information daily to stay up-to-speed on what storms may be developing for the Gulf of Mexico.  The Disaster Response Center provides NOAA with additional support and coordination during natural and manmade disasters. We put our effort into being prepared to respond.

This year, NOAA predicts a worse-than-normal year for tropical storms. “Worse” is my personal way of stating the official forecast of a more-active-than-average or extremely active season, as predicted by NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center. Yet, it only takes one storm to bring significant destruction to the coast. For example, in 1992, Hurricane Andrew, a category 5 hurricane, blew in during a less active tropical storm season and struck Florida and Louisiana. The result was 65 people killed (both directly and indirectly) and some $26 billion in damage, mostly in Florida. Only three other hurricanes in U.S. history have cost more in damages: Katrina (2005), Ike (2008), and Sandy (2012).

Living in or on the edge of the coastal zone in Louisiana and Alabama most of my life, I do not take hurricane season lightly. This weekend, I’ll spend time checking on the status of my hurricane supplies (find out what you should have in your disaster supply kit) and ensuring my daughter, who attends college in New Orleans, has thought through her plans of when and where to evacuate should a storm threaten southeast Louisiana. Coming home to be with her dad in Mobile, Ala., may not be her best option. The many other NOAA emergency response staff and I likely would not be evacuating, but rather positioning ourselves and our resources to help with the consequences of a severe tropical storm or hurricane. Every year, we hope for the best and plan for the worst. We can’t control nature, but we can control how prepared we are for what it throws at us.

Are You Prepared?

If you haven’t made your hurricane preparedness plans yet, you shouldn’t wait any longer now that the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season has officially started.

The National Hurricane Center recently hosted National Hurricane Preparedness Week, and their website has a wealth of resources to help you get ready for this summer’s hurricane season. You can also watch a NOAA video on how to increase your chances of surviving a hurricane and learn more about how to prepare for all types of hazards on the NOAAWatch website.


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Internet in the Restroom and Other Survival Tips from NOAA’s Disaster Response Center

Phone and internet ports in the restroom.

Phone and internet network ports located in the nearly tornado- and hurricane-proof restrooms allow responders to continue working in the NOAA Disaster Response Center even during severe weather. (NOAA)

Occasionally, newcomers at the NOAA Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center will ask me, “Why are there internet and phone hook ups in the restrooms?”

When I hear this, I reply with another question, “Have you noticed how even the smallest sounds seem to echo in those restrooms?” Some will nod in agreement, comparing the restroom to a cave or an underground tunnel, and they’re not far off.

The main restroom complex at the Disaster Response Center in Mobile, Ala., may not be underground, but it was built as a steel-reinforced concrete bunker, intended to function as a Force-5 tornado shelter. The amount of steel and concrete is so thick that you immediately lose cell phone reception upon entering. It is like being in a cave.

But why do we need to connect to a phone or the internet from the restrooms? Not because we love to multi-task, but this way, even if a tornado threatened the area, the staff and any visitors can take shelter in the restrooms while still being able to monitor the response situation outside. In fact, the entire facility is hardened to survive the kind of severe weather generated by a strong hurricane, though only the restrooms are built to withstand the damaging 200 mph winds of a Force-5 tornado. If you’re lucky (unlucky?) enough to be in the Disaster Response Center during a deadly tornado, head to the restrooms, where you’ll even enjoy the relative luxuries of the survival gear and emergency supplies stored there.

Rising from Rubble

U.S. Senator Richard B. Shelby joins NOAA leaders at Disaster Response Center ribbon cutting ceremony.

U.S. Senator Richard B. Shelby joins NOAA Fisheries Assistant Administrator Eric Schwaab (left) and NOAA National Ocean Service Assistant Administrator David Kennedy (right) in cutting the ribbon formally opening the new $11 million LEED silver standard Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center. (NOAA)

The vision for the NOAA Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center was borne out of the devastating 2005 hurricane season that included Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Congress recognized the need for and later funded a central NOAA facility and program in the Gulf of Mexico dedicated to preparing for, responding to, and recovering from all types of disasters in the area.

The new center, based in Mobile, Ala., was designed to expand NOAA’s regional presence and expand federal capacity to plan for and respond to all types of emergencies, both natural and man-made.

It is a testament to the need for this center that its construction began in 2010 shortly before the Deepwater Horizon/BP well blowout off the Louisiana coast and the formal dedication of the building took place on October 15, 2012, a little over a month after Hurricane Isaac swept through Louisiana and Mississippi.

The new center itself is an environmentally friendly, 15,200-square-foot, hardened structure built away from storm surge threats, designed to withstand the wind assault of a major hurricane, and providing a physical location to pre-stage and coordinate post-disaster response activities. The NOAA Disaster Response Center aims to streamline coordination and communication of disaster planning and preparedness information. In between actual emergencies, the center serves as a coordination and training hub for federal, state, and local response preparedness activities.

To better support federal and regional emergency planners and managers, the facility will improve the accessibility, redundancy, and distribution of NOAA data, information, and tools to the people who most need them during disasters. Here, we can share with the Gulf of Mexico response community the broad range of products and services NOAA provides before, during, and after emergencies, whether it’s a grounded ship or a tropical storm.

A Melting Pot of NOAA Knowledge

Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center.

In addition to office space, the NOAA Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center, located in Mobile, Ala., includes a training room, conference rooms, and a large multifunction space that can be used for emergency response operations and drills. (NOAA)

The mission of the new center may be very large in scope, but those of us who work full-time here are small in number—only eight at present, but that number is expected to double. However, hundreds of NOAA staff are spread across the five states that boarder the Gulf of Mexico, working hard each day to protect the public and our natural resources. These men and women are the NOAA front line.

Prior to accepting the director position for the Disaster Response Center, I was one of them, coordinating scientific support for oil and chemical spills and several hurricanes in the western Gulf of Mexico for 13 years. During that time, one of the first things I learned is that you learn something new from each disaster, and you have to put that hard-earned knowledge back into planning for the next one—no matter how many oil spills you’ve worked on.

We are setting up the Disaster Response Center to be the gathering place for that information and expertise gleaned from each experience. The goal is to make NOAA better prepared to deal with whatever crisis may strike the Gulf of Mexico next.

I hope to never have to take shelter in the center’s restroom during severe weather—or resort to plugging my laptop into one of the network ports there—but I take comfort knowing there is a secure place for my staff just in case. Tornadoes, droughts, harmful algal blooms, oil spills, chemical accidents, wildfires: These events are part of life for those living along the Gulf of Mexico coast. The Gulf isn’t unique in this way; every part of our nation faces some sort of risk. No matter where you live, you are wise to plan for the worst and hope for the best (the NOAAWatch website is a great resource for that). We’re no different; that is our plan as well.