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

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.


Leave a comment

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.


Leave a comment

NOAA Adding Polar Projections to Arctic ERMA Mapping Tool

Two Steller sea lions. Image credit: NOAA.

Mapping where Steller sea lions gather out of the water is one of the layers that can be added to a map in Arctic ERMA. Image credit: NOAA

The Arctic is one of the most remote regions on the planet but that may change as the sea ice continues to shrink, allowing for more ships, tourism, fishing, and possible oil exploration in the region. More activity also brings the possibility of oil spills and other environmental disasters.

NOAA’s Arctic online environmental mapping tool, called Arctic ERMA, now has polar projection base maps. The new projection maps give a less distorted view than the standard Mercator flat-map perspective. On a flat map, distances near the pole look greater than they really are.

“The polar view/projection takes the distortion into account, and thus the measurement and view are more accurate,” according to Amy Merten, chief of the Spatial Data Branch of the Office of Response and Restoration and chair of the Arctic Council’s working group on emergency prevention, preparedness, and response.

For emergency responders trying to estimate how far an oil spill may be from landfall, the new polar projections are important for preparing response plans. Additionally, the polar projections improve the ability to look at all of the Arctic countries at once, helping with international perspectives and communications, Merten added.

Arctic ERMA’s polar projections make it easier to look at all of the countries and their respective data in a more realistic view, and in the same frame.  For example, in a Mercator map, you can move to Norway on the map but then you cannot see Barrow, Alaska and Vardo, Norway at the same time. With the new polar projections, an emergency responder can see equipment caches in both areas and compare them, as well as plan for moving equipment from one location to another with better accuracy and understanding.

There are more than 500 data layers that can be mapped in Arctic ERMA, including:

Arctic ERMA officially launched in 2009 and is one of eight regional ERMA online mapping tools. The mapping tools integrate both static and real-time data, such as ship locations, weather, and ocean currents, in a centralized, interactive map for environmental disaster response managers. NOAA and the University of New Hampshire developed ERMA with the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Interior. Artic ERMA’s polar projection maps were funded by the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.

Arctic polar projection mao. Image credit: NOAA.

Polar projection map in Arctic ERMA. The ability to choose several polar projections will improve data and mapping accuracy and will increase communications and data sharing with other Arctic nations. Image credit: NOAA


Leave a comment

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!


Leave a comment

Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill Data: New Monitoring Updates

Man on ship with machine about to drop into ocean.

Scientists from Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium deploy a water sensor called a CTD sonde rosette to collect water samples to test for oxygen levels during the 2015 R/V Pelican’s shelf wide hypoxia cruise. (LUMCON)

By  Alexis Baldera 

The 2010 Deepwater oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico revealed a challenge with the way scientific monitoring information is shared and stored.

At the time, the scientific records of monitoring efforts in the Gulf of Mexico were dispersed across many entities from universities, natural resource management agencies, private industries to non-governmental organizations. In most cases monitoring systems were developed independently, often narrowed to specific questions, such as how many oysters should be harvested and how many should be left in the water?

Monitoring systems are rarely coordinated across states and other agencies, and the scattered nature of these information systems makes it difficult for any one group of scientists or organizations to find and access the full expanse of data available.

To help address this issue Ocean Conservancy produced the 2015 report Charting the Gulf: Analyzing the Gaps in Long-term Monitoring of the Gulf of Mexico. The report compiles an extended inventory of nearly 700 past and existing long-term monitoring efforts in the Gulf. Ocean Conservancy’s goal was to provide scientists, academics, and restoration decision-makers with a cohesive inventory that could save time and money when planning monitoring for restoration projects or programs.

Recently, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, charged with supporting science information needs during oil spills, began hosting Ocean Conservancy’s inventory of monitoring programs through NOAA’s map-based Gulf of Mexico Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA). Combining this monitoring data with ERMA is a great step towards creating sustained visibility of existing data sources in the Gulf.

“Ocean Conservancy’s gap analysis of long-term monitoring programs in the Gulf of Mexico will serve as a valuable resource for the NRDA Trustees as they plan, implement, and monitor restoration progress in the Gulf of Mexico over the next 25 years,” said Melissa Carle, NOAA Monitoring and Adaptive Management Coordinator, Deepwater Horizon Restoration Program.

The new gap analysis dataset in ERMA will allow trustees to visualize the footprint of existing monitoring programs, assisting in the identification and prioritization of gaps that impact planning restoration actions and evaluate restoration progress for the habitats and resources injured by the spill.

Graphic of coastline and the Gulf Of Mexico.

Ocean Conservancy’s gap analysis dataset in ERMA. (NOAA)

Alexis Baldera is the Staff Restoration Scientist for Ocean Conservancy Gulf Restoration Program.


Leave a comment

Bay Long Oil Spill in Louisiana

Woman looking out at water with boom floating in it.

Overseeing cleanup operations on Chenier Ronquille Island. (U.S. Coast Guard)

On September 5, 2016, a marsh excavator operated by Great Lakes Dredge and Dock Company tracked over pipeline while performing restoration activities in Bay Long, a sub-estuary of Barataria Bay, discharging approximately 5,300 gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The pipeline was shut in and is no longer leaking. The incident occurred at an active restoration site for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The cause of the incident is still under investigation.

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration has been providing scientific support including trajectories and fate of oil, resources at risk, information on tides and currents, and technical guidance towards the response. Other roles provided by NOAA are guidance on Shoreline Cleanup and Assessment Technique (SCAT), a systematic method for surveying an affected shoreline after an oil spill, as well as data management and updates through Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA®). OR&R’s Emergency Response Division has a team of six on site.

For more information, read the September 11, 2016 news release from the U.S. Coast Guard.


Leave a comment

Using NOAA Tools to Help Deal with the Sinking Problem of Wrecked and Abandoned Ships

Workers direct the lifting of a rusted boat from a waterway onto a barge.

Clearing a derelict vessel from the Hylebos Waterway in Tacoma, Washington. NOAA has created several tools and resources for mapping, tracking, and dealing with shipwrecks and abandoned vessels. (Washington Department of Natural Resources/ Tammy Robbins) Used under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

Walk along a waterfront in the United States and wherever you find boats moored, you won’t be hard pressed to find one that has been neglected or abandoned to the point of rusting, leaking, or even sinking. It’s a sprawling and messy issue, one that is hard to fix. When you consider the thousands of shipwrecks strewn about U.S. waters, the problem grows even larger.

How do these vessels end up like this in the first place? Old ships, barges, and recreational vessels end up along coastal waters for a number of reasons: they were destroyed in wartime, grounded or sunk by accident or storm, or just worn out and left to decay. By many estimates shipping vessels have a (very approximate) thirty-year lifetime with normal wear and tear. Vessels, both large and small, may be too expensive for the owner to repair, salvage, or even scrap.

So, wrecked, abandoned, and derelict ships can be found, both invisible and in plain sight, in most of our marine environments, from sandy beaches and busy harbors to the deep ocean floor.

As we’ve discussed before, these vessels can be a serious problem for both the marine environment and economy. While no single comprehensive database exists for all wrecked, abandoned, and derelict vessels (and if it did, it would be very difficult to keep up-to-date), efforts are underway to consolidate existing information in various databases to get a larger view of the problem.

NOAA has created several of these databases and resources, each created for specific needs, which are used to map and track shipwrecks and abandoned vessels. These efforts won’t solve the whole issue, but they are an important step along that path.

Solution to Pollution

Black and white photo of a steam ship half sinking in the Great Lakes.

The S/S America sank after hitting rocks in Lake Superior in 1928, but the wreck was found close to the water surface in 1970. This ship has become the most visited wreck in the Great Lakes, where divers can still see a Model-T Ford on board. (Public domain)

NOAA’s Remediation of Underwater Legacy Environmental Threats (RULET) project identifies the location and nature of potential sources of oil pollution from sunken vessels. These include vessels sunk during past wars, many of which are also grave sites and now designated as national historic sites. The focus of RULET sites are wrecks with continued potential to leak pollutants.

Many of these wrecks begin to leak years, even decades, after they have sunk. An example of such a wreck is Barge Argo, recently rediscovered and found to be leaking as it lay 40 feet under the surface of Lake Erie. The barge was carrying over 4,500 barrels of crude oil and the chemical benzol when it sank in 1937. It had been listed in the NOAA RULET database since 2013. U.S. Coast Guard crews, with support from NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, are currently working on a way to safely remove the leaking fuel and cargo.

As in the Barge Argo case, the RULET database is especially useful for identifying the sources of “mystery sheens” —slicks of oil or chemicals that are spotted on the surface of the water and don’t have a clear origin. NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and Office of Response and Restoration jointly manage the RULET database.

Information in RULET is culled from a larger, internal NOAA Sanctuaries database called Resources and Undersea Threats (RUST). RUST lists about 30,000 sites of sunken objects, of which about 20,000 are shipwrecks. Other sites represent munitions dumpsites, navigational obstructions, underwater archaeological sites, and other underwater resources.

Avoiding Future Wrecks

The NOAA Office of Coast Survey’s Wrecks and Obstructions Database contains information on submerged wrecks and obstructions identified within U.S. maritime boundaries, with a focus on hazards to navigation. Information for the database is sourced from the NOAA Electronic Navigational Charts (ENC®) and Automated Wrecks and Obstructions Information System (AWOIS).

The database contains information on identified submerged wrecks and obstructions within the U.S. maritime boundaries, including position (latitude and longitude), and, where available, a brief description and attribution.

Head to the Hub

Recently, the NOAA Marine Debris Program developed and launched the Abandoned and Derelict Vessels (ADV) InfoHub to provide a centralized source of information on cast-off vessels that contribute to the national problem of marine debris. Hosted on the NOAA Marine Debris Program website, the ADV InfoHub will allow users to find abandoned and derelict vessel publications, information on funding to remove them, case studies, current projects, related stories, and FAQs.

Each coastal state (including states bordering the Great Lakes) will have a dedicated page where users can find information on state-specific abandoned and derelict vessel programs, legislation, and funding as well as links to case studies from that particular state and relevant publications and legal reviews. Each state page will also provide the name of the department within that state government that handles abandoned and derelict vessel issues along with contact information.

Power Display

In select parts of the country, the Office of Response and Restoration is now using its Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA®) to map the locations of and key information for abandoned and derelict vessels. ERMA is our online mapping tool that integrates data, such as ship locations, shoreline types, and environmental sensitivity, in a centralized format. Here, we use it to show abandoned and derelict vessels within the context of related environmental information displayed on a Geographic Information System (GIS) map. In Washington’s Puget Sound, for example, the U.S. Coast Guard and Washington Department of Natural Resources can use this information in ERMA to help prioritize removing the worst offenders and raise awareness about the issue.

A view of Pacific Northwest ERMA, a NOAA online mapping tool which can bring together a variety of environmental and response data. Here, you can see the black dots where ports are located around Washington's Puget Sound as well as the colors indicating the shoreline's characteristics and vulnerability to oil.

A view of Pacific Northwest ERMA, a NOAA online mapping tool which can bring together a variety of environmental and response data. Here, you can see the black dots where ports are located around Washington’s Puget Sound as well as the colors indicating the shoreline’s characteristics and vulnerability to oil. (NOAA)

Now part of both Pacific Northwest ERMA and Southwest ERMA (coastal California), our office highlighted ERMA at a May 2015 NOAA Marine Debris Program workshop for data managers. This meeting of representatives from 15 states, four federal agencies, and Canada showcased ERMA as an efficient digital platform for displaying abandoned vessel information in a more comprehensive picture at a regional level.

Once again, removing abandoned vessels or reducing their impacts can be very difficult and costly. But we have been seeing more and more signs of progress in recent years, which requires an increasing amount of collaboration among local, state, and federal agencies and education among the public. By providing more detailed and comprehensive information, NOAA is hoping to help resource managers prioritize and make more informed decisions on how to address the various threats these vessels pose to our coasts.

The Office of Response and Restoration’s Doug Helton also contributed to this post.

Photo of derelict vessel used under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.