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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Staff Participate in NOAA Science Camp in Seattle

Girl in classroom pouring liquid into fish tank. Image credit: NOAA.

A camper pours a bit of sesame oil into a fish tank to simulate a marine oil spill. NOAA Science Camp participants learned the basics of how spilled oil behaves, effects the environment, and how we forecast where it might go. Image credit: NOAA

The U.S. Coast Guard announces a ship collision in Puget Sound off Shilshole Bay. What happens now?

Trying to answer that question started the journey of participants in this year’s NOAA Science Camp. Washington Sea Grant organizes the popular camp and each year participants discover how NOAA oceanographers, biologists, chemists, physical scientists and others from the Office of Response and Restoration respond to hazardous spills.

More than 90 campers participated in 10 two-hour sessions during the two weeks of science camp, held July 10-21 at NOAA’s Western Regional Center in Seattle. Guided by staff from both the Emergency Response Division and the Assessment and Restoration Division campers explored answering the five questions our response staff ask during spill incidents:

  • Where will the oil go?
  • How will it behave in, on the water, and on different types of shorelines?
  • What biological and human resources may be at risk during a spill?
  • How might the oil adversely affect these resources?
  • What can be done to help?

Camp participants learned what scientific data is gathered to answer those questions. They also were introduced to response tools like our GNOME modeling software, and Environmental Sensitivity Index maps.

Our staff also helped campers learn about pollutants from cars, homes, agriculture, and other types of land uses and the effects on the Puget Sound.

In other lessons, campers simulated the flow of water and pollutants in the environment, using tabletop watershed models and building groundwater models. They then brainstormed methods to clean up, contain, and prevent watershed pollution.

In another session, campers rolled up their sleeves, donned lab googles and gloves and become aquatic toxicologists for a day, testing samples for toxic chemicals and water quality parameters and learned how to interpret their data.

Later in the week, campers had to solve a science mystery. They visited several NOAA offices to gather more information about various aspect of the scenario and then applied what they learned to test their hypotheses.

Campers presented their findings and conclusions on the last day of camp each week and were evaluated by a scientist representative from each office.

Staff science camp instructors included Marla Steinhoff, Mark Dix, Dalina Thrift-Viveros, Dylan Righi, Chris Barker, Matthew Bissell, Gary Shigenaka, Nicolle Rutherford, Amy MacFadyen, and Rebecca Hoff.

Marla Steinhoff and Amy MacFadyen contributed to this article.


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NOAA Corps: 100 Years of Service

NOAA Ship rainer on ocean. Image credit: NOAA.

NOAA Ship Rainier is a hydrographic survey vessel that maps the ocean to aid maritime commerce, improve coastal resilience, and understand the marine environment. Rainier’s officers, technicians, and scientists log the data that NOAA cartographers use to create and update the nation’s nautical charts with ever-increasing data richness and precision. Image credit: NOAA.

By Ensign Matthew Bissell, NOAA Corps

Can you name the seven uniformed services of the United States?

Most likely, you can name five—Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Coast Guard. You may even get to six if you know that the U.S Public Health Service has a uniformed division.

What is that seventh uniformed service?

Don’t feel bad if you can’t come up with it, you are not alone, even some members of the  military haven’t heard of the NOAA Corps, despite the service approaching its 100-year anniversary.

I experienced the Corps’ low profile first hand when I showed up for my physical screening at the military’s processing station in Los Angeles, California. I was denied entry because the security guard didn’t believe the NOAA Corps was a uniformed service. I only gained entry after proving its existence by pulling up a Wikipedia entry on my phone.

My NOAA Corps affiliation didn’t get me much further once inside.  All the other recruits received nametags that read Air Force, Coast Guard, or Marines, mine read XXX. I got more than a few questions about my Xs that day and my responses varied greatly—some more creative than others.

At that early stage in my NOAA Corps career, even I was largely unaware of the rich history and incredibly valuable service I was to become part of.

The Civil War to World War I

NOAA Corps officially began on May 22, 1917 (46 days after the nation entered World War I). To understand the origins of NOAA, and its commissioned Corps, we need to go even further back in history, to 1807 when President Thomas Jefferson signed a bill initiating the first survey of the nation’s coast. The result was the formation of the U.S. Survey of the Coast, later named the U.S. Coast Survey—the nation’s oldest scientific federal agency.

Initially consisting of civilian surveyors, cartographers, and engineers, as well as commissioned officers from the Army and Navy, the agency charted the nation’s waterways.

Once the Civil War erupted in 1861 the Army and Navy officers in the Coast Survey were recalled to their respective services. The survey’s remaining civilians volunteered their skills in support of the Union, serving in both the Army and Navy. In addition to providing valuable mapping and charting services to the Union forces, these civilian surveyors participated in naval blockades and other major offensive actions.

Army commands gave Coast Surveyors military rank while the Navy refused, leaving some coast surveyors in jeopardy of being hung as spies if captured.

When the war ended, the civilian surveyors and Naval officers returned to their charting mission. The scope of this work had now expanded to include a survey of the nation’s interior. In 1878 the U.S. Coast Survey was renamed the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey to reflect this new responsibility.

Naval officers were again withdrawn for the Spanish-American War, never to return to the survey. For the next two decades, civilians were in command of the survey ships.

Then in 1915, Ernest Lester Jones, referred to as the father of the NOAA Corps, became director of the organization. With the nation’s involvement in World War I looming, one of Jones’s first actions as director was to publish the coast survey’s contributions to the Civil War. A step that eventually led to establishing the organization as a commissioned service.

Historical photo of old ship. Image credit: NOAA.

Coast and Geodetic Survey Ship SURVEYOR off Norfolk, Virginia, in 1919, showing Star and Chevron on stack for having taken part in WWI combat operations in the North Atlantic. Image credit: NOAA Photo Library.

NOAA Corps is born

In May 1917, a law established the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey as a commissioned, uniformed service allowing integration into other uniformed services and removing the threat of spying accusations if captured in the line of duty.

When we entered World War I, many survey officers assumed vital roles within the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps. This integration into other services repeated during World War II.

After each wartime involvement, survey officers resumed their peacetime duties of surveying the nation’s coasts. These duties evolved to include worldwide oceanographic cruises, arctic expeditions, and national defense projects.

In 1970, a national scientific agency merger created the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the survey became NOAA Corps.

The Corps today

Throughout the last 100 years, NOAA Corps officers have continued the important work of surveying the nation’s waterways and ensuring safe and open navigation for maritime commerce.

In addition to surveying, NOAA Corp officers serve as operational specialists aboard the nation’s research ships and airplanes, as well as in land-based positions within NOAA’s other divisions. Typically, a NOAA Corp officer will rotate between two-year sea assignments and three-year land based assignments throughout their careers.

After my initial experience in Los Angeles, I started a 16-week Basic Officer Training Course at the Coast Guard academy in Connecticut, along with 15 other NOAA Corps candidates. After graduation, my first assignment was aboard NOAA’s hydrographic survey vessel, Rainier. I spent two years on Rainier surveying coastal Alaska, updating nautical charts originally created by our NOAA Corps ancestors over one hundred years ago.

Technology has advanced our ability to map the sea floor since those early efforts. Still, it’s absolutely jaw-dropping how accurate the old charts are, given the limited technology of the time.

After two years at sea, I am now serving in the Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division, continuing a proud NOAA Corps history of serving our nation through science.

 

Ensign Matt Bissell came to NOAA from the Ocean Institute in Southern California where he was a science educator and floating lab technician. Bissell has a Master of Science degree in Geographic Information Science and Technology and a Bachelor of Science degree in Earth System Science. Bissell now resides in Seattle with his wife and one-year-old daughter. Special thanks to Albert “Skip” Theberge, at the NOAA Central Library for help with this article.


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What we do to Help Endangered Species

Two killer whales (orcas) breach in front a boat. Image credit: NOAA

NOAA developed an oil spill response plan for killer whales that includes three main techniques to deploy quickly to keep these endangered animals away from a spill. Image credit: NOAA

For over 40 years, the 1973 Endangered Species Act has helped protect native plants and animals and that habitats where they live, and many government agencies play a role in that important work. That’s one reason the United States celebrates Endangered Species Day every year in May.

The Office of Response and Restoration contributes to the efforts to protect these species in our spill response and assessment and restoration work.

When a spill occurs in coastal waters one priority for our emergency responders is identifying any threatened or endangered species living in the area near the spill.

  • At every spill or chemical release, our scientists need to take into account:
  • Is it breeding season for any protected species in the area?
  • Is any of the spill area nesting grounds for protected species?
  • Are protected species likely to come into contact with the spilled contaminant?
  • What are possible negative effects from the cleanup process on the protected species?

We assist the U.S. Coast Guard with a required Endangered Species Act consultation for spills to ensure those species are considered in any response action taken. We’ve also developed tools that can be used by all emergency responders and environmental resource managers to help protected endangered plants, animals, and their habitats.

Environmental Sensitivity Index maps identify coastal habitats and locations that may be especially vulnerable to an oil spills. ​The main components of these maps are sensitive wildlife, shoreline habitats, and the economic resources people use there, such as a fishery or recreational beach.

Threatened and​ Endangered Species Geodatabases allows oil spill planners and responders to easily access data on federal or state listed threatened and endangered species for specific regions. These data are a subset of the larger, more complex environmental sensitivity index data and are a convenient way to access some of the more critical biological information for an area.

Environmental Resources Management Application, called ERMA®, is our online mapping tool that integrates static and real-time environmental data and allows users to investigate data in their area. There are hundreds of publicly available base layers including many endangered and threatened species. Environmental Sensitivity Index maps are available in this tool.

Marine debris affects endangered and threatened species including species of sea turtles, whales, seals, and corals. These fragile populations face a variety of stressors in the ocean including people, derelict fishing gear, trash, and other debris. To learn more about the dangers of marine debris on marine life check out this blog post or visit the NOAA Marine Debris Program website.

For more information on threatened and endangered species, and local events for Endangered Species Day, visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. For information on endangered and threatened marine species visit NOAA Fisheries.


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Oil Spill Incident Responses for April 2017

Close up of skimming device on side of a boat with oil and boom. Image credit: U.S. coast Guard

The Emergency Response Division provides scientific expertise and services to the U.S. Coast Guard, including what equipment may be most efficient for containing spilled oil. Skimmers come in various designs but all basically work by removing the oil layer from the surface of the water. Image credit: U.S. Coast Guard

Oil spills come in all sizes from a pleasure boat’s small leak, to an oil platform explosion that results in environmental devastation, like the 2010 Deepwater Horizon incident.

Every month our Emergency Response Division provides scientific expertise and services to the U.S. Coast Guard on everything from running oil spill trajectories to where the spill may spread, to possible effects on wildlife and fisheries, and estimates on how long the oil may stay in the environment. Our Incident News website has information on oil spills and other incidents where we provided scientific support.

Here are this month’s responses:

Sunken Pleasure Craft, Pass a Loutre

Tug Powhatan

M/V Todd Brown

Mystery Sheen, NESDIS Report

BP Exploration Well #3, Prudhoe Bay, AK

U.S. Steel Hexavalent Chrome Release

F/V Bendora Aground

Vengeance crane barge sinking

Breton Sound Natural Gas Well Head 46D

UTV Michael Nadicksbernd

ATB Meredith Reinauer, Catskill, NY

MV Dawn

Anna Platform Pipeline Leak


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How to Test for Toxicity

Oil washes onto a beach.

Oil washes onto the beach on the day of the spill at Refugio State Beach, May 19, 2015. Image credit: NOAA

What is toxicity? Most definitions would explain it as the degree to which a substance is poisonous.

Knowing a substance’s toxic levels is particularly important to federal agencies that use the information to test potential risks posed to people’s health and to the environment.

So how do scientists know how toxic something is and whether or not that substance—be it oil, chemical treating agents or toxic metals—will be toxic when introduced into marine or coastal waters?

The basic tool for determining toxicity of substances to marine and aquatic organisms is the toxicity test.

In its simplest form, toxicity testing is taking healthy organisms from a container of clean water and placing into one containing the same water with a known concentration of a pollutant. The observer then watches to see if, and when, it appears to become lethargic, sick or dies, and comparing those results to the organisms left in the clean water.

Complexities of toxicity testing

The testing process for determining toxicity in marine environments is detailed, rigorous, and time consuming.

There must be containers of both the uncontaminated (clean) water (called a control) and the pollutant-treated water; a bare minimum is five containers of each. The reason for the replications is the concept of variability. Given five test organisms, such as a fish species, there will be a range of sensitivity among them.

Having multiple testing samples allows scientists to determine the level toxic to the average organism and the level toxic to the most sensitive organism. Having more than one of the same organism in each test container is required; ten is standard.

It’s easy to see how a toxicity test grows in complexity: 50 specimens for the controls (10 in each of five replicate containers) and 50 more in the five treated containers (10 in each of five replicate treatment containers). That’s 100 organisms.

But then, to find out what concentrations of the toxicant are safe and which are not, there needs to be at least five different treatment concentrations, each with five containers and each container with 10 test organisms. Now we’re dealing with 600 test organisms and 60 test containers.

Observations over time

The next step in a toxicity test is recording the changes in the organisms over time. A standard observation period is daily, every 24 hours for at least 4 days (96 hours). For each interval of time, observations must be recorded for:

  • Each of the treatment and control containers
  • The numbers of organisms that are alive and normal
  • The number not doing well
  • The number dead

Then apply a statistical procedure to estimate the median concentration of the toxin that maimed or killed half the organisms and write up the results. The key is to write it up with enough information so that someone else can exactly duplicate the test.

Quality control against bias

Added to all this, the design of a toxicity test must include a number of features to insure there is no bias in the results.

  • The containers must be lined up randomly and given codes so that the researcher doesn’t know until the experiment is over which containers had which concentrations.
  • Water quality must be monitored to ensure that temperatures and oxygen remain the same in all containers.
  • Once the data is collected, the researcher must calculate the median lethal concentration, meaning the concentration of toxin that would kill half the test population.
  • Further, it is important not to rely only on one experiment. The whole thing should be repeated once or twice more to be convinced that the first effort was not a fluke.

Finally, the researcher must write a report that not only describes the experiment and results, but also puts them in context with similar data from other studies reported in the scientific literature.

Using toxicity data

These are the steps scientists go through to determine if a substance is toxic and at what concentration levels.

In reality, today, toxicity testing is even more complicated and detailed. There are now many measures of toxicity other than death or sickness: for example, many tests done today look at “endpoints” such as effects on enzyme systems, or changes in animal behavior or decreases in egg production.

The final use of toxicity data is comparison with concentrations measured or expected in the field. If the concentrations of a pollutant in the field are below any of the concentrations deemed “toxic” in the laboratory, it may well be that the pollutant is not a problem. If concentrations in the field are higher, then there is cause for concern.

 

By Alan Mearns, Ph.D. Mearns is an ecologist and senior staff scientist with the Emergency Response Division.


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Life at Sea or Scientist on Land: NOAA Corps Offers Both

Large white NOAA ship with mountains in background.

NOAA Ship Rainier is a hydrographic survey vessel that maps the ocean to aid maritime commerce, improve coastal resilience, and understand the marine environment. Credit: NOAA

By Cmdr. Jesse Stark, NOAA Corps

A life at sea, or a career conserving natural resources?

That was the choice I was contemplating while walking along the docks in Port Angeles, Washington, back in 1998. A chance encounter that day with the chief quartermaster of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Ship Rainer showed me I could do both.

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest I spent my time exploring the woods, beaches, and tide pools. Every summer I reread Jack London’s “The Sea Wolf”, and Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” My first job was a as a deck hand on charter fishing boats out of Port Angeles.

So, when Quartermaster Bernie Greene invited me aboard that day and told me stories with a sense of adventure, I signed onto the Rainer as an able-bodied seaman, and we headed to Alaska. That first voyage had me hooked and I joined NOAA Corps, leading to my current assignment as the Northwest scientific support coordinator.

NOAA has a long history of supplying scientific support to oil spills, starting with the Argo Merchant incident in 1976, and NOAA Corps history stretches back even farther to President Thomas Jefferson’s order for the first survey of the nation’s coast.

Today, the corps’ commissioned officers command NOAA’s fleet of research and survey vessels and aircraft, and also rotate to serve within each of NOAA’s other divisions. That combination of duties offers a breadth of experience that I draw upon in my current post in NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration‘s Emergency Response Division.

Man in uniform holding little girl inside ship.

Commander Jesse Stark holding daughter Izzie on NOAA Ship Pisces after a ceremony in Pascagoula, Mississippi at a ceremony donating an anchor to the city for its “Anchor Village,” a retail park constructed near the ship’s homeport after Hurricane Katrina. Credit: NOAA

In the event of an oil spill or chemical release, the U.S. Coast Guard has the primary responsibility for managing clean-up activities; the scientific support coordinator’s role is to provide scientific expertise and to communicate with other affected agencies or organizations to reach a common consensus on response actions.

During my 18-year career as a corps officer, I’ve had eight permanent assignments, four on ships and four on land in three different NOAA divisions. Those different assignments allowed me to develop skills in bringing resources and differing perspectives together to work toward a common goal. Often, operating units get stagnant and stove-piped, and having new blood with new perspective and outlook rotating through alleviates some of that.

It’s also enabled me to build relationships across different divisions and tie together processes and practices among the different operating units, and sometimes, competing ideologies.

As an example, my first land assignment was with NOAA Fisheries’ Protected Resources Division in Portland, Oregon. While there, I produced a GIS-based distribution map of each recorded ocean catch of salmon and steelhead by watershed origin. While this project involved mainly technical aptitude and data mining, I was also involved with writing biological opinions on research authorizations of endangered salmon species.

This required coordination of many competing and differing viewpoints on management of these species. Consensus had to be reached and often an impasse had to be broken among people with deep passions on these issues.

One of my most challenging assignments was in 2010 when I was executive officer of NOAA Ship Pisces that responded to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

During the Deepwater Horizon response, the normal collecting of living marine resource data was replaced with a new process of collecting water and sediment samples better suited to the situation. The incident also showed how industry and government can, and must, work side by side for the good of the public and natural resources.

All of these skills together are proving to come in handy as a science coordinator, where in any given situation there can be as many as five different federal agencies, three state agencies, and several private companies with differing opinions. I’m happy to put my skills and experiences to good use in teamwork building and consensus for the greater good.

 

Commander Stark joined NOAA’s Emergency Response Division in August 2016. Stark’s last assignment was commanding officer of the NOAA ship Oscar Dyson in Alaska. Stark started in NOAA as a seaman on the NOAA Ship Rainier in 1998 and was commissioned into the NOAA Corps in 1999. 


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Clean up spilled oil at all costs? Not always

This week, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is looking at some common myths and misconceptions surrounding oil spills, chemical releases, and marine debris.

Man holding hose spraying water on oiled rocks.

Cleanup worker spraying oiled rocks with high pressure hoses following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska. (NOAA)

The images of an oil spill—brown water, blackened beaches, wildlife slicked and sticky—can create such an emotional response that it  leads to the myth that oil is so hazardous it’s worth any and all environmental trade-offs to get it cleaned up.

The outcry to rid oil from the rocky shoreline of Prince William Sound, Alaska, after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill led to the use of high-pressure, hot-water washing. While the technique is successful at removing stranded oil, we now know it can damage plants and animals in the treated area directly and indirectly, short-term and long-term.

Activities to clean up oiled coastal salt marshes after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill, 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.

Lessons learned from decades of responding to oil spills have shown that a haste to clean up a spill may cause additional damage. Part of the job of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration emergency responders is to step back and objectively evaluate the situation.

The perception of potential environmental harm that a spill may cause may be worse than reality, making it critical for responders to communicate a science-based analysis of a spill’s possible harm with affected parties and organizations, according to Jerry Galt, physical oceanographer and pioneer in oil and chemical spill response and modeling.

Gathering accurate information on what natural resources are in the spill area and forecasting where the oil is likely to go, based on currents and weather conditions, will give a realistic picture of the situation, Galt said.

In an effort to improve spill response methods, NOAA Office of Response and Restoration is continually improving the accuracy of its trajectory models and other response tools. In addition, hundreds of emergency responders attend Science of Oil Spills and Science of Chemical Releases classes to learn the latest in spill response planning and analysis.

Spills are always a serious matter, but the coordinated efforts of multiple federal, state and local responders work to minimize the injury during the event, and then work to mitigate the effects after the spill. While images from news footage can paint a picture of huge and permanent devastation, the reality on the ground can be less dire.