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In Mapping the Fallout from the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, Developing One Tool to Bring Unity to the Response

This is a post by Katie Wagner, Amy Merten, and Michele Jacobi of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.

The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Five Years Later

This is the fifth in a series of stories over the coming weeks looking at various topics related to the response, the Natural Resource Damage Assessment science, restoration efforts, and the future of the Gulf of Mexico.

After an explosion took place on the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010, responders sprang into action.

Vessels surveyed the area around the platform, oil booms were deployed, aerial surveying operations were launched, risk assessment and shoreline cleanup teams set out, and many other response activities were underway. Field teams and technical experts from around the country were immediately called to help with the response.

Mapping Organized Chaos

People at a crowded table with computers and maps.

During the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, NOAA debuted the online mapping tool ERMA, which organized crucial response data into one common picture for everyone involved in this monumental spill.

Among our many other responsibilities during this spill, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration reported to the scene to help manage the data and information being collected to inform spill response decisions occurring across multiple states and agencies.

The process of responding to an oil spill or natural disaster can often be described as “organized chaos.” Effectively managing the many activities and influxes of information during a response is crucial. Responders need to be aware of the local environment, equipment, and associated risks at the scene of the spill, and government leaders from the closest town to Washington, DC, need to make informed decisions about how to deal with the event. Data-rich maps are one way to organize these crucial data into one common operational picture that provides consistent “situational awareness” for everyone involved.

The Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA®) was developed by NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the University of New Hampshire in 2007 as a pilot project, initially focused on the New England coast. ERMA is an online mapping tool that integrates both static and real-time data, such as ship locations, weather, and ocean currents, in a centralized, interactive map for environmental disaster response.

In late March of 2010, ERMA was tested in a special oil spill training drill known as the Spills of National Significance Exercise. The industry representatives, U.S. Coast Guard, and state partners participating in this mock oil spill response recognized ERMA’s potential for visualizing large amounts of complex data and for sharing data with the public during an oil spill.

From Test to Trial by Fire

Twenty-five days later, the Deepwater Horizon disaster began. In the first couple of days after the accident, the ERMA team recognized that the scale of the still-developing oil spill would call for exactly the type of tools and skills for which their team had prepared.

A few days into the disaster, the ERMA team created a new, regional version of their web-based mapping application, incorporating data specific to the Gulf of Mexico and the rapidly escalating Deepwater Horizon oil spill. This included geographic response plans (which guide responses to oil spills in specific areas), oil spill trajectories, and locations of designated response vessels, aerial surveys of oil, oiled shoreline assessments, critical habitats, and fishery closure areas.

Screen shot of mapping program for Gulf of Mexico with oil spill data.

A few days into the disaster, the ERMA team created a new, regional version of their web-based mapping application, incorporating data specific to the Gulf of Mexico and the rapidly escalating Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Here, ERMA shows the location of the wellhead, the days of cumulative oiling on the ocean surface, and the level of oiling observed on shorelines. (NOAA)

Due to the size of the spill, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration was able to expand the team working on ERMA to include members skilled in data management and scientists familiar with the type of data being collected during a spill response. The ERMA team trained dozens of new Geographic Information Systems (GIS) staff to help upload and maintain the new Deepwater Horizon ERMA site as hundreds of data layers were created weekly.

Within a week of the start of the oil spill, NOAA sent the first of many ERMA team members to work in the command posts in Louisiana, where they could translate the needs of the Federal On-Scene Commanders (those in charge of the spill cleanup and response) into updates and changes for ERMA software developers to make to the mapping application.

ERMA played a critical role in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill response effort. Around a month into the spill, the U.S. Coast Guard selected ERMA as the official common operational picture for all federal, state, and local spill responders to use during the incident. With this special designation, the ERMA tool provided a quick visualization of the sprawling, complicated oil spill situation, and improved communication and coordination among responders, environmental stakeholders, and decision makers. On June 15, 2010 the White House presented a publicly accessible version of the Deepwater Horizon ERMA website, which drew more than 3 million hits the first day it was live. This was an unprecedented effort to make transparent data usually only shared within the command post of an oil spill.

The value of the new tool to the response won it praise from retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the national incident commander for the spill, who described its impact, saying, “It allowed us to have a complete picture of what we were doing and what was occurring in the Gulf. The technology has been there, but it’s never been applied in a disaster that was this large scale. It is something that is going to have to incorporate this system into our disaster response doctrine.” Additionally the NOAA development team was one of the finalists for the 2011 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal for Homeland Security contributions by a member of the federal civil service.

From Response to Restoration

In addition to mapping the Deepwater Horizon response and cleanup efforts, ERMA continues to be an active resource throughout the ongoing Natural Resource Damage Assessment and related restoration planning. The Gulf of Mexico coastal resources and habitat data available in ERMA are helping researchers assess the environmental injuries caused by the oil spill.

Five years after this mapping tool’s debut on the national stage during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, developers continue to improve the platform. NOAA now has nine other ERMA sites customized for various U.S. regions, each of which is kept up-to-date with basic information available around the clock and is publicly available. All regional ERMA websites now reside in the federally approved Amazon Cloud environment for online scalability and durability, and the platform has a flexible framework for incorporating data sources from a variety of organizations.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill shifted our perspective of who needs data and when they need it. With the help of ERMA, the public, academic communities, and those outside of the typical environmental response community can access data collected during a disaster and be engaged in future incidents like never before.

Visit ERMA Deepwater Gulf Response for a first-hand look at up-to-date and historical data collected during the response, assessment, and restoration planning phases of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.


Attempting to Answer One Question Over and Over Again: Where Will the Oil Go?

The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Five Years Later

This is the first in a series of stories over the coming weeks looking at various topics related to the response, the Natural Resource Damage Assessment science, restoration efforts, and the future of the Gulf of Mexico.

Oil spills raise all sorts of scientific questions, and NOAA’s job is to help answer them.

We have a saying that each oil spill is unique, but there is one question we get after almost every spill: Where will the oil go? One of our primary scientific products during a spill is a trajectory forecast, which often takes the form of a map showing where the oil is likely to travel and which shorelines and other environmentally or culturally sensitive areas might be at risk.

Oil spill responders need to know this information to know which shorelines to protect with containment boom, or where to stage cleanup equipment, or which areas should be closed to fishing or boating during a spill.

To help predict the movement of oil, we developed the computer model GNOME to forecast the complex interactions among currents, winds, and other physical processes affecting oil’s movement in the ocean. We update this model daily with information gathered from field observations, such as those from trained observers tasked with flying over a spill to verify its often-changing location, and new forecasts for ocean currents and winds.

Modeling a Moving Target

One of the biggest challenges we’ve faced in trying to answer this question was, not surprisingly, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Because of the continual release of oil—tens of thousands of barrels of oil each day—over nearly three months, we had to prepare hundreds of forecasts as more oil entered the Gulf of Mexico each day, was moved by ocean currents and winds, and was weathered, or physically, biologically, or chemically changed, by the environment and response efforts. A typical forecast includes modeling the outlook of the oil’s spread over the next 24, 48, and 72 hours. This task began with the first trajectory our oceanographers issued early in the morning April 21, 2010 after being notified of the accident, and continued for the next 107 days in a row. (You can access all of the forecasts from this spill online.)

Once spilled into the marine environment, oil begins to move and spread surprisingly quickly but not necessarily in a straight line. In the open ocean, winds and currents can easily move oil 20 miles or more per day, and in the presence of strong ocean currents such as the Gulf Stream, oil and other drifting materials can travel more than 100 miles per day. Closer to the coast, tidal currents also can move and spread oil across coastal waters.

While the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig and wellhead were located only 50 miles offshore of Louisiana, it took several weeks for the slick to reach shore as shifting winds and meandering currents slowly moved the oil.

A Spill Playing on Loop

Over the duration of a typical spill, we’ll revise and reissue our forecast maps on a daily basis. These maps include our best prediction of where the oil might go and the regions of highest oil coverage, as well as what is known as a “confidence boundary.” This is a line encircling not just our best predictions for oil coverage but also a broader area on the map reflecting the full possible range in our forecasts [PDF].

Our oceanographers include this confidence boundary on the forecast maps to indicate that there is a chance that oil could be located anywhere inside its borders, depending on actual conditions for wind, weather, and currents. Why is there a range of possible locations in the oil forecasts? Well, the movement of oil is very sensitive to ocean currents and wind, and predictions of oil movement rely on accurate predictions of the currents and wind at the spill site.

In addition, sometimes the information we put into the model is based on an incomplete picture of a spill. Much of the time, the immense size of the Deepwater Horizon spill on the ocean surface meant that observations from specialists flying over the spill and even satellites couldn’t capture the full picture of where all the oil was each day.

Our inevitably inexact knowledge of the many factors informing the trajectory model introduces a certain level of expected variation in its predictions, which is the situation with many models. Forecasters attempt to assess all the possible outcomes for a given scenario, estimate the likelihood of the different possibilities, and ultimately communicate risks to the decision makers.

In the case of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, we had the added complexity of a spill that spanned many different regions—from the deep Gulf of Mexico, where ocean circulation is dominated by the swift Loop Current, to the continental shelf and nearshore area where ocean circulation is influenced by freshwater flowing from the Mississippi River. And let’s not forget that several tropical storms and hurricanes crossed the Gulf that summer [PDF].

A big concern was that if oil got into the main loop current, it could be transported to the Florida Keys, Cuba, the Bahamas, or up the eastern coast of the United States. Fortunately (for the Florida Keys) a giant eddy formed in the Gulf of Mexico in June 2010 (nicknamed Eddy Franklin after Benjamin Franklin, who did some of the early research on the Gulf Stream). This “Eddy Franklin” created a giant circular water current that kept the oil largely contained in the Gulf of Mexico.

Some of the NOAA forecast team likened our efforts that spring and summer to the movie Groundhog Day, in which the main character is forced to relive the same day over and over again. For our team, every day involved modeling the same oil spill again and again, but with constantly changing results.  Thinking back on that intense forecasting effort brings back memories packed with emotion—and exhaustion. But mostly, we recall with pride the important role our forecast team in Seattle played in answering the question “where will the oil go?”

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Latest NOAA Mapping Software Opens up New Possibilities for Emergency Responders

This is a guest post by emergency planner Tom Bergman.

Aerial view of destroyed houses in Vilonia, Arkansas, after EF4 tornado in April 2014.

NOAA and EPA’s MARPLOT mapping software was designed for emergency responders and planners dealing with chemical spills. However, its features lend it to a host of other uses, from search and rescue after a tornado to dealing with wildfires. (NOAA National Weather Service)

For 20 years, thousands of emergency planners and responders have used the MARPLOT mapping software to respond to hazardous chemical spills. But creative MARPLOT users have also employed the program for a wide range of other uses, including dispatching air ambulances and helping identify a serial arsonist.

MARPLOT is the mapping component of a suite of software programs called CAMEO, jointly developed by NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to help emergency planners and responders deal with chemical spills.

These agencies have just released a new version of MARPLOT (version 5.0). MARPLOT 5 offers a host of new and improved capabilities, which translate to more mapping options, greater flexibility, and even more powerful data searching capabilities.

On the Grid

To illustrate a few of the new capabilities of MARPLOT 5, let’s imagine that a category EF2/EF3 tornado is blowing through McClain County, Oklahoma. McClain County is a mostly rural area, with only three small towns. For this scenario, we will assume the tornado passes through the small town of Blanchard, Oklahoma.

Immediately following the tornado, first responders will conduct initial damage surveys of the affected area. Generally, the Incident Command, which is the multi-agency team responsible for managing the emergency response, will want to divide the area the tornado impacted into a “grid” and assign teams to survey specific areas of it. MARPLOT 5 has a new “gridding” tool, which allows those in an Incident Command to determine and display the various survey zones.

In the Ready Files

Fortunately, McClain County is well-prepared to deal with this emergency. The county already has a complete list of addresses for the affected area in the proper file format for working in maps (E911 address point shape files) and has imported them into MARPLOT 5 before the tornado hit. In addition, McClain Emergency Management has compiled information such as locations with chemicals stored on site, homes or businesses with fortified safe rooms, and any special populations such as those with impaired mobility and made that data available in MARPLOT 5. Having this information at their fingertips helps the Incident Command prioritize resources and search areas in the affected zones, as well as keep survey and search-and-rescue teams safe.

The latest version of the software allows users to upload any .png image file to serve as a map symbol. This feature provides critical information to responders in a customizable and easily interpreted way. Notice in the screen shot of the MARPLOT map below that the locations of safe rooms, E911 address points, and residences of oxygen-dependent and mobility-impaired persons are clearly identified by specific symbols. The user can select any map symbol and see an associated information box displayed for that symbol.

Screenshot showing close-up of grid zones for a hypothetical tornado. The map shows safe rooms, 911 address points, and special populations displayed in MARPLOT 5.

Close-up of grid zones for a hypothetical tornado. The map shows safe rooms, 911 address points, and special populations displayed in MARPLOT 5. (NOAA)

In MARPLOT, any square of the grid can be selected and “searched” for information associated with that area of the map, which is then displayed in the latest version of MARPLOT as a “spreadsheet.” This spreadsheet can be printed and given to the teams surveying impacted areas. Below is an example of an information spreadsheet for E911 address points in a selected one-square-mile grid zone (Grid Box 2, 4).

Screenshot of MARPLOT 5 showing addresses in a spreadsheet.

Address points in the selected Grid Box 2, 4, displayed as a spreadsheet in MARPLOT 5 which responders can print out and take on surveys of damaged areas. (NOAA)

With this feature, emergency responders have the information they need contained in both a map and a spreadsheet as they conduct their initial damage survey. In this example, responders assigned to survey Grid Box 2, 4 already know they must clear 142 address points in the area, six of which have safe rooms, two of which have mobility-impaired residents, and one with an oxygen-dependent person.

Furthermore, the emergency responders in this scenario were able to accomplish all of these operations in MARPLOT without any access to Internet or cloud servers. And the software is 100 percent free.

This is a very simple example of new ways MARPLOT 5 may be implemented by emergency planners and responders across the country. There are a host of other new operations in version 5—including real-time weather via web mapping service (WMS) access—that could be used for dealing with wildfires, search and rescue operations, floods, hazardous material releases, resource management, manhunts … In fact, MARPLOT could be used in just about any type of situation where customizable and user-operated mapping might be helpful.

Learn more about and download the latest version of MARPLOT.

Tom Bergman is the author of the CAMEO Companion and host of the website. Tom is the EPCRA (Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act) Tier 2 Program Manager for the State of Oklahoma and has been a CAMEO trainer for many years.  He has conducted CAMEO training courses in Lithuania, Poland, England, Morocco, and 45 U.S. states.

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When Planning for Disasters, an Effort to Combine Environmental and Human Health Data

Two men clean up oil on a beach.

Workers clean oil from a beach in Louisiana following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill. (NOAA)

Immediately following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010, there was a high demand for government agencies, including NOAA, to provide public data related to the spill very quickly. Because of the far-reaching effects of the spill on living things, those demands included data on human health as well as the environment and cleanup.

In mid-September of 2014, a group of scientists including social and public health experts, biologists, oceanographers, chemists, atmospheric scientists, and data management experts convened in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, to discuss ways they could better integrate their respective environmental and health data during disasters. The goal was to figure out how to bring together these usually quite separate types of data and then share them with the public during future disasters, such as oils spills, hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods.

The Deepwater Horizon spill experience has shown government agencies that there are monitoring opportunities which, if taken, could provide valuable data on both the environment and, for example, the workers that are involved in the cleanup. Looking back, it was discovered that at the same time that “vessels of opportunity” were out in the Gulf of Mexico assisting with the spill response and collecting data on environmental conditions, the workers on those vessels could have been identified and monitored for future health conditions, providing pertinent data to health agencies.

A lot of environmental response data already are contained in NOAA’s online mapping tool, the Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA®), such as the oil’s location on the water surface and on beaches throughout the Deepwater Horizon spill, chemicals found in sediment and animal tissue samples, and areas of dispersant use. ERMA also pulls together in a centralized format and displays Environmental Sensitivity Index data, which include vulnerable shoreline, biological, and human use resources present in coastal areas; ship locations; weather; and ocean currents. Study plans developed to assess the environmental impacts of the spill for the Natural Resource Damage Assessment and the resulting data collected can be found at

Screen shot of ERMA mapping program showing Gulf of Mexico with Deepwater Horizon oil spill data.

ERMA Deepwater Gulf Response contains a wide array of publicly available data related to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Here, you can see cumulative levels of oiling on the ocean surface throughout the spill, shorelines affected, and the location of the damaged wellhead. (NOAA)

Health agencies, on the other hand, are interested in data on people’s exposure to oil and dispersants, effects of in situ burning on air quality, and heat stress in regard to worker health. They need information on both long-term and short-term health risks so that they can determine if impacted areas are safe for the communities. Ideally, data such as what are found in ERMA could be imported into health agencies’ data management systems which contain human impact data, creating a more complete picture.

Putting out the combined information to the public quickly and transparently will promote a more accurate representation of a disaster’s aftermath and associated risks to both people and environment.

Funded by NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center and facilitated by the University of New Hampshire’s Coastal Response Research Center, this workshop sparked ideas for better and more efficient collaboration between agencies dealing with environmental and human health data. By setting up integrated systems now, we will be better prepared to respond to and learn from man-made and natural disasters in the future. As a result of this workshop, participants formed an ongoing working group to move some of the best practices forward. More information can be found at

Dr. Amy Merten, of OR&R’s Assessment and Restoration Division co-authored this blog.

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Adventures in Developing Tools for Oil Spill Response in the Arctic

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Zachary Winters-Staszak. This is the third in a series of posts about the Arctic Technology Evaluation supporting Arctic Shield 2014. Read the first post, “NOAA Again Joins Coast Guard for Oil Spill Exercise in the Arctic” and the second post, “Overcoming the Biggest Hurdle During an Oil Spill in the Arctic: Logistics.”

People in a boat lowering orange ball into icy waters.

The crew of the icebreaker Healy lowering an iSphere onto an ice floe to simulate tracking oil in ice. (NOAA/Jill Bodnar)

The Arctic Ocean, sea ice, climate change, polar bears—each evokes a vivid image in the mind. Now what is the most vivid image that comes to mind as you read the word “interoperability”? It might be the backs of your now-drooping eyelids, but framed in the context of oil spill response, “interoperability” couldn’t be more important.

If you’ve been following our latest posts from the field, you know Jill Bodnar and I have just finished working with the U.S. Coast Guard Research and Development Center on an Arctic Technology Evaluation during Arctic Shield 2014. We were investigating the interoperability of potential oil spill response technologies while aboard the Coast Guard icebreaker Healy on the Arctic Ocean.

Putting Square Pegs in Round Holes

As Geographic Information Systems (GIS) map specialists for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, a great deal of our time is spent transforming raw data into a visual map product that can quickly be understood. Our team achieves this in large part by developing a versatile quiver of tools tailored to meet specific needs.

For example, think of a toddler steadfastly—and vainly—trying to shove that toy blue cylinder into a yellow box through a triangular hole. This would be even more difficult if there were no circular hole on that box, but imagine if instead you could create a tool to change those cylinders to fit through any hole you needed. With computer programming languages we can create interoperability between technologies, allowing them to work together more easily. That cylinder can now go through the triangular hole.

New School, New Tools

Different technologies are demonstrated each year during Arctic Shield’s Technology Evaluations and it is common for each technology to have a different format or output, requiring them to be standardized before we can use them in a GIS program like our Environmental Response Management Application, Arctic ERMA.

Taking lessons learned from Arctic Shield 2013’s Technology Evaluation, we came prepared with tools in ERMA that would allow us to automate the process and increase our efficiency. We demonstrated these tools during the “oil spill in ice” component of the evaluation. Here, fluorescein dye simulated an oil plume drifting across the water surface and oranges bobbed along as simulated oiled targets.

The first new tool allowed us to convert data recorded by the Puma, a remote-controlled aircraft run by NOAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Program. This allowed us to associate the Puma’s location with the images it was taking precisely at those coordinates and display them together in ERMA. The Puma proved useful in capturing high resolution imagery during the demonstration.

A similar tool was created for the Aerostat, a helium-filled balloon connected to a tether on the ship, which can create images and real-time video with that can track targets up to three miles away. This technology also was able to delineate the green dye plume in the ocean below—a function that could be used to support oil spill trajectory modeling. We could then make these images appear on a map in ERMA.

The third tool received email notifications from floating buoys provided by the Oil Spill Recovery Institute and updated their location in ERMA every half hour. These buoys are incredibly rugged and produced useful data that could be used to track oiled ice floes or local surface currents over time. Each of the tools we brought with us is adaptable to changes on the fly, making them highly valuable in the event of an actual oil spill response.

Internet: Working With or Without You

Having the appropriate tools in place for the situation at hand is vital to any response, let alone a response in the challenging conditions of the Arctic. One major challenge is a lack of high-speed Internet connectivity. While efficient satellite connectivity does exist for simple communication such as text-based email, a robust pipeline to transmit and receive megabytes of data is costly to maintain. Similar to last year’s expedition, we overcame this hurdle by using Stand-alone ERMA, our Internet-independent version of the site that was available to Healy researchers through the ship’s internal network.

NOAA's online mapping tool Arctic ERMA displays ice conditions, bathymetry (ocean depths), and the ship track of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy during  the Arctic Technology Evaluation of Arctic Shield 2014.

NOAA’s online mapping tool Arctic ERMA displays ice conditions, bathymetry (ocean depths), and the ship track of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy during the Arctic Technology Evaluation of Arctic Shield 2014. (NOAA)

This year we took a large step forward and successfully tested a new tool in ERMA that uses the limited Internet connectivity to upload small packages (less than 5 megabytes) of new data on the Stand-alone ERMA site to the live Arctic ERMA site. This provided updates of the day’s Arctic field activities to NOAA staff back home. During an actual oil spill, this tool would provide important information to decision-makers and stakeholders at a command post back on land and at agency headquarters around the country.

Every Experience Is a Learning Experience

I’ve painted a pretty picture, but this is not to say everything went as planned during our ventures through the Arctic Ocean. Arctic weather conditions lived up to their reputation this year, with fog, winds, and white-cap seas delaying and preventing a large portion of the demonstration. (This was even during the region’s relatively calm, balmy summer months.)

Subsequently, limited data and observations were produced—a sobering exercise for some researchers. I’ve described only a few of the technologies demonstrated during this exercise, but there were unexpected issues with almost every technology; one was even rendered inoperable after being crushed between two ice floes. In addition, troubleshooting data and human errors added to an already full day of work.

Yet every hardship allowed those of us aboard the Healy to learn, reassess, adapt, and move forward with our work. The capacity of human ingenuity and the tools we can create will be tested to their limits as we continue to prepare for an oil spill response in the harsh and unpredictable environs of the Arctic. The ability to operate in these conditions will be essential to protecting the local communities, wildlife, and coastal habitats of the region. The data we generate will help inform crucial and rapid decisions by resource managers, making interoperability along with efficient data management and dissemination fundamental to effective environmental response.

Editor’s note: Use Twitter to chat directly with NOAA GIS specialists Zachary Winters-Staszak and Jill Bodnar about their experience during this Arctic oil spill simulation aboard an icebreaker on Thursday, September 18 at 2:00 p.m. Eastern. Follow the conversation at #ArcticShield14 and get the details:

Bowhead whale bones and a sign announcing Barrow as the northernmost city in America welcomed me to the Arctic.

Bowhead whale bones and a sign announcing Barrow as the northernmost city in America welcomed Zachary Winters-Staszak to the Arctic in 2013. (NOAA)

Zachary Winters-Staszak is a GIS Specialist with the Office of Response and Restoration’s Spatial Data Branch. His main focus is to visualize environmental data from various sources for oil spill planning, preparedness, and response. In his free time, Zach can often be found backpacking and fly fishing in the mountains.


Overcoming the Biggest Hurdle During an Oil Spill in the Arctic: Logistics

Ship breaking ice in Arctic waters.

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy breaks ice in Arctic waters. A ship like this would be the likely center of operations for an oil spill in this remote and harsh region. (NOAA)

August in the Arctic can mean balmy weather and sunny skies or, fifteen minutes later, relentless freezing rain and wind blowing off ice floes, chilling you to the core. If you were headed to an oil spill there, your suitcase might be carrying a dry suit, down parka, wool sweaters and socks, your heaviest winter hat and gloves, and even ice traction spikes for your boots. Transit could mean days of travel by planes, car, and helicopter to a ship overseeing operations at the edge of the oil spill. Meanwhile, the oil is being whipped by the wind and waves into the nooks and crannies on the underside of sea ice, where it could be frozen into place.

Even for an experienced oil spill responder like Jill Bodnar, the complexity of working in such conditions goes far beyond the usual response challenges of cleaning up the oil, gathering data about the spill, and minimizing the impacts to marine life and their sensitive habitats. Rather, in the Arctic, everything comes down to logistics.

The unique logistics of this extreme and remote environment drive to the heart of why Bodnar, a NOAA Geographic Information Systems (GIS) specialist, and her colleague Zachary Winters-Staszak are currently on board the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, at the edge of the sea ice north of Alaska. They are participating in an Arctic Technology Evaluation, an exercise conducted by the U.S. Coast Guard Research and Development Center (RDC) in support of the Coast Guard’s broader effort known as Arctic Shield 2014.

Building on what was learned during the previous year’s exercise, the advanced technologies being demonstrated in this evaluation could potentially supplement those tools and techniques responders normally would rely on during oil spills in more temperate and accessible locations. This Arctic Technology Evaluation provides multiple agencies and institutions, in addition to NOAA, the invaluable opportunity to untangle some of the region’s knotty logistical challenges on a state-of-the-art Coast Guard icebreaker in the actual Arctic environment.

Getting from A to B: Not as Easy as 1-2-3

Bodnar has been mapping data during oil spills for more than a decade, but this exercise is her first trip to the Arctic. While preparing for it, she found it sobering to learn just how many basic elements of a spill response can’t be taken for granted north of the Arctic Circle. In addition to the scarcity of roads, airports, and hotels, other critical functions such as communications are subject to the harsh Arctic conditions and limited radio towers and satellite coverage. Out at sea ships depend on satellites for phone calls and some Internet connectivity, but above the 77th parallel those satellites often drop calls and can only support basic text email.

The remoteness of the Arctic questions how hundreds of responders would get there, along with all the necessary equipment—such as boom, skimmers, and vessels—not already in the area. Once deployed to the spill, response equipment has the potential to ice-over, encounter high winds, or be grounded from dense fog. Communicating with responders and decision makers on other ships, on shore at a command post, or even farther away in the lower 48 states would be an enormous challenge.

For example, if an oil spill occurs in the Beaufort Sea, north of Alaska, the nearest and “largest” community is Barrow, population 4,429. However, Barrow has very limited accommodations. For comparison, 40,000 people, including Bodnar, responded to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. This was possible because of the spill’s proximity to large cities with hotel space and access to food and communications infrastructure.

This is not the case for small Arctic villages, where most of their food, fuel, and other resources have to be shipped in when the surrounding waters are relatively free of ice. But to respond to a spill in the Arctic, the likely center of operations would be on board a ship, yet another reason working with the Coast Guard during Arctic Shield is so important for NOAA.

NOAA’s Role in Arctic Shield 2014

During this August’s Arctic Technology Evaluation, the Coast Guard is leading tests of four key areas of Arctic preparedness. NOAA’s area focuses on how oil disperses at the edge of the sea ice and collects under the older, thicker ice packs. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is working with NOAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) program to develop techniques for quickly identifying and delineating a simulated oil spill in the Arctic waters near the ice edge. The Coast Guard will be using both an unreactive, green fluorescein dye and hundreds of oranges as “simulated oil” for the various tools and technologies to detect.

Normally during an oil spill, NOAA or the Coast Guard would send people up in a plane or helicopter to survey the ocean for the oil’s precise location, which NOAA also uses to improve its models of the oil’s expected behavior. However, responders can’t count on getting these aircraft to a spill in the Arctic in the first place—much less assume safe conditions for flying once there.

Instead, the UAS group is testing the feasibility of using unmanned, remote-controlled aircraft such as the Puma to collect this information and report back to responders on the ship. Bodnar and Winters-Staszak will be pulling these data streams from the Puma into Arctic ERMA®, NOAA’s mapping tool for environmental response data. They’ll be creating a data-rich picture of where the oil spill dye and oranges are moving in the water and how they are behaving, particularly among the various types of sea ice.

Once the oil spill simulation is complete, Bodnar and Winters-Staszak will be reporting back on how it went and what they have learned. Stay tuned for the expedition’s progress in overcoming the many logistical hurdles of a setting as severe as the Arctic here and at

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With NOAA as a Model, India Maps Coastal Sensitivity to Oil Spills

This is a post by Vicki Loe and Jill Petersen of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.

Boy running on beach.

Scientists in India have used NOAA’s Environmental Sensitivity Index maps as a model for preparing for oil spills on the west coast of India. (Credit: Samuel Kimlicka/Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License)

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, which is why we were thrilled to hear about recent efforts in India to mirror one of NOAA’s key oil spill planning tools, Environmental Sensitivity Index maps. A recent Times of India article alerted us to a pilot study led by scientists at the National Institute of Oceanography in India, which used our Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) shoreline classifications to map seven talukas, or coastal administrative divisions in India. Amid the estuaries mapped along India’s west coast, one of the dominant shoreline types is mangroves, which are a preferred habitat for many migratory birds as well as other species sensitive to oil.

Traditional ESI data categorize both the marine and coastal environments as well as their wildlife based on sensitivity to spilled oil. There are three main components: shoreline habitats (as was mapped in the Indian project), sensitive animals and plants, and human-use resources. The shoreline and intertidal zones are ranked based on their vulnerability to oil, which is determined by:

  • Shoreline type (such as fine-grained sandy beach or tidal flats).
  • Exposure to wave and tidal energy (protected vs. exposed to waves).
  • Biological productivity and sensitivity (How many plants and animals live there? Which ones?).
  • Ease of cleanup after a spill (For example, are there roads to access the area?).

The biology data available in ESI maps focus on threatened and endangered species, areas of high concentration, and areas where sensitive life stages (such as when nesting) may occur. Human use resources mapped include managed areas (parks, refuges, critical habitats, etc.) and resources that may be impacted by oiling or clean-up, such as beaches, archaeological sites, or marinas.

Many countries have adapted the ESI data standards developed and published by NOAA. India developed their ESI product independently, based on these standards. In other cases, researchers from around the world have come across ESI products and contacted NOAA for advice in developing their own ESI maps and data. In the recent past, Jill Petersen, the NOAA ESI Program Manager, has worked with scientists who have visited from Spain, Portugal, and Italy.

By publishing our data standards, we share information which enables states and countries to develop ESI maps and data independently while adhering to formats that have evolved and stood the test of time over many years. In addition to mapping the entire U.S. coast and territories, NOAA has conducted some of our own international mapping of ESIs. In the wake of Hurricane Mitch in 1998, we mapped the coastal natural resources in the affected areas of Nicaragua, Honduras, and Ecuador.

Currently, we are developing new ESI products for the north and mid-Atlantic coasts of the United States, many areas of which were altered by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The new maps will provide a comprehensive and up-to-date picture of vulnerable shorelines, wildlife habitats, and key resources humans use. Having this information readily available will enable responders and planners to quickly make informed decisions in the event of a future oil spill or natural disaster.

For further information on NOAA’s ESI shoreline classification, see our past blog posts: Mapping How Sensitive the Coasts Are to Oil Spills and After Sandy, Adapting NOAA’s Tools for a Changing Shoreline.


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