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An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution


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How Do We Use Satellite Data During Oil Spills?

This is a post by NOAA’s George Graettinger with Amy MacFadyen.

A view of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill from NASA's Terra Satellites.

A view of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill from NASA’s Terra Satellites on May 24, 2010. When oil slicks are visible in satellite images, it is because they have changed how the water reflects light, either by making the sun’s reflection brighter or by dampening the scattering of sunlight, which makes the oily area darker. (NASA)

Did you know satellites measure many properties of the Earth’s oceans from space? Remote sensing technology uses various types of sensors and cameras on satellites and aircraft to gather data about the natural world from a distance. These sensors provide information about winds, ocean currents and tides, sea surface height, and a lot more.

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is taking advantage of all that data collection by collaborating with NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service to put this environmental intelligence to work during disasters such as oil spills and hurricanes. Remote sensing technology adds another tool to our toolbox as we assess and respond to the environmental impacts of these types of disasters.

In these cases, which tend to be larger or longer-term oil spills, NOAA Satellites analyzes earth and ocean data from a variety of sensors and provides us with data products such as images and maps. We’re then able to take that information from NOAA Satellites and apply it to purposes ranging from detecting oil slicks to determining how an oil spill might be impacting a species or shoreline.

Slick Technology

During an oil spill, observers trained to identify oil from the air go out in helicopters and planes to report an oil slick’s exact location, shape, size, color, and orientation at a given time. Analogous to this “remote sensing” done by the human eye, satellite sensors can help us define the extent of an oil slick on the ocean surface and create a target area where our aerial observers should start looking for oil.

In the case of a large oil spill over a sizable area such as the Gulf of Mexico, this is very important because we can’t afford the time to go out in helicopters and look everywhere or sometimes weather conditions may make it unsafe to do so.

The three blue shapes represent the NOAA oil spill trajectory for May 17, 2010, showing potential levels of oiling during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The green outline represents the aerial footprint or oil extent for the same day, which comes from the NOAA satellite program. All of these shapes appear on a NASA MODIS Terra Satellite background image, as shown in our online response mapping program ERMA.

The three blue shapes represent the NOAA oil spill trajectory for May 17, 2010, showing potential levels of oiling during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The green outline represents the aerial footprint or oil extent for the same day, which comes from the NOAA satellite program. All of these shapes appear on a NASA MODIS Terra Satellite background image, as shown in our online response mapping program ERMA. (NOAA)

Satellite remote sensing typically provides the aerial footprint or outline of the surface oil (the surface oiling extent). However, oil slicks are patchy and vary in the thickness of the oil, which means having the outline of the slick is useful, but we still need our observers to give us more detailed information. That said, we’re starting to be able to use remote sensing to delineate not just the extent but also the thickest parts of the slicks.

Armed with information about where spilled oil may be thickest allows us to prioritize these areas for cleanup action. This “actionable oil” is in a condition that can be collected (via skimmers), dispersed, or burned as part of the cleanup process.

You can see how we mapped the surface oiling extent during the Deepwater Horizon spill based on data analyses from NOAA Satellites into our online response mapping program ERMA.

A Model for the Future

A common use of remotely sensed data in our work is with our oil spill models. Reports of a slick’s extent from both satellite sensors and aerial observers, who report additional information about constantly changing oil slicks, helps our oceanographers improve the forecasts of where the oil will be tomorrow.

Just as weather forecasters continually incorporate real-time observations into their models to improve accuracy, our oceanographers update oil spill trajectory models with the latest overflights and observations of the surface oiling extent (the area where oil is at a given moment). These forecasts offer critical information that the Coast Guard uses to prioritize spill response and cleanup activities.

A Sense of Impact

Oil at the water's surface in a boat wake.

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill provided us with a number of new opportunities to work with remotely sensed data. One use was detecting the outline of oil slicks on the ocean surface. (NOAA)

Over the course of an oil spill, knowing the surface oiling extent and where that oil is going is important for identifying what natural resources are potentially in harm’s way and should be protected during the spill response.

In addition, the data analyses from remote sensing technology directly support our ability to determine how natural resources, whether salt marshes or dolphins, are exposed to spilled oil. Both where an oil slick is and how often it is there will affect the degree of potential harm suffered by sensitive species and habitats over time.

In recent years, we’ve been learning how to better use the remote sensing data collected by satellite and aircraft to look at how, where, and for how long coastal and marine life and habitats are impacted by oil spills and then relate this oil exposure to actual harm to these resources.

Large amounts of oil that stay in the same place for a long time have the potential to cause a lot more harm. For example, dolphins in a certain impacted area might breathe fumes from oil and ingest oil from food and water for weeks or months at a time. Without remotely sensed data, it would be nearly impossible to accomplish this task of tying the exact location and timing of oil exposure to environmental harm.

Remote Opportunities

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill provided us with a number of new opportunities to work with remotely sensed data. For example, we used this technology to examine the large scale features of the circulation patterns in the Gulf of Mexico, such as the fast-moving Loop Current and associated eddies. The Loop Current is a warm ocean current that flows northward between Cuba and Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, moves north into the Gulf of Mexico, then loops east and south before exiting through the Florida Straits and ultimately joining the Gulf Stream.

During this oil spill, there were concerns that if the oil slick entered the Loop Current, it could be transported far beyond the Gulf to the Caribbean or up the U.S. East Coast (it did not). NOAA used information from satellite data to monitory closely the position of the slick with respect to the Loop Current throughout the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Our partnership with NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service has been a fruitful one, which we expect to grow even more in the future as technology develops further. In January, NOAA Satellites launched the Jason-3 satellite, which will continue to collect critical sea surface height data, adding to a satellite data record going back to 1992. One way these data will be used is in helping track the development of hurricanes, which in turn can cause oil spills.

We hope ongoing collaboration across NOAA will further prepare us for the future and whatever it holds.


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Helping a 7-year-old Oceanographer Study Oil Spills in Washington’s Waters

A young boy drops wooden yellow cards off the side of a boat into water.

Dropping the first round of drift cards off a boat in Washington’s San Juan Islands, a kindergartner kicked off his experiment to study oil spills. (Used with permission of Alek)

One spring day in 2014, a shy young boy sidled up to the booth I was standing at during an open house hosted at NOAA’s Seattle campus. His blond head just peaking over the table, this then-six-year-old, Alek, accompanied by his mom and younger sister, proceeded to ask how NOAA’s oil spill trajectory model, GNOME, works.

This was definitely not the question I was expecting from a child his age.

After he set an overflowing binder onto the table, Alek showed me the printed-out web pages describing our oil spill model and said he wanted to learn how to run the model himself. He was apparently planning a science project that would involve releasing “drift cards,” small biodegradable pieces of wood marked with identifying information, into Washington’s Salish Sea to simulate where spilled oil might travel along this heavily trafficked route for oil tankers.

Luckily, Chris Barker, one of our oceanographers who run this scientific model, was nearby and I introduced them.

But that wasn’t my last interaction with this precocious, young oceanographer-in-training. Alek later asked me to serve on his science advisory committee (something I wish my middle school science fair projects had the benefit of having). I was in the company of representatives from the University of Washington, Washington State Department of Ecology, and local environmental and marine organizations.

Over the next year or so, I would direct his occasional questions about oil spills, oceanography, and modeling to the scientists in NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.

Demystifying the Science of Oil Spills

A hand-drawn map of oil tankers traveling from Alaska to Washington, a thank-you note on a post-it, and a hand-written card asking for donations.

Alek did a lot of work learning about how oil tankers travel from Alaska to Washington waters and about the threat of oil spills. He even fund-raised to cover the cost of materials for his drift cards. (NOAA)

According to the Washington Department of Ecology, the waters of the Salish Sea saw more than 7,000 journeys by oil tankers traveling to and from six oil refineries along its coast in 2013. Alek’s project was focused on Rosario Strait, a narrow eastern route around Washington’s San Juan Islands in the Salish Sea. There, he would release 400 biodegradable drift cards into the marine waters, at both incoming and outgoing tides, and then track their movements over the next four months.

The scientific questions he was asking in the course of his project—such as where spilled oil would travel and how it might affect the environment—mirror the types of questions our scientists and oil spill experts ask and try to answer when we advise the U.S. Coast Guard during oil spills along the coast.

As Alek learned, multiple factors influence the path spilled oil might take on the ocean, such as the oil type, weather (especially winds), tides, currents, and the temperature and salinity of the water. He attempted to take some of these factors into account as he made his predictions about where his drift cards would end up after he released them and how they would get there.

As with other drift card studies, Alek relied on people finding and reporting his drift cards when they turned up along the coast. Each drift card was stamped with information about the study and information about how to report it.

NOAA has performed several drift card studies in areas such as Hawaii, California, and Florida. One such study took place after the December 1976 grounding of the M/V Argo Merchant near Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, and we later had some of those drift cards found as far away as Ireland and France.

A Learning Experience

A young boy in a life jacket holding a yellow wooden card and sitting on the edge of a boat.

Alek released 400 biodegradable drift cards near Washington’s San Juan Islands in the Salish Sea, at both incoming and outgoing tides, and tracked their movements to simulate an oil spill. (Used with permission of Alek)

Of course, any scientist, young or old, comes across a number of challenges and questions in the pursuit of knowledge. For Alek, that ranged from fundraising for supplies and partnering with an organization with a boat to examining tide tables to decide when and where to release the drift cards and learning how to use Google Earth to map and measure the drift cards’ paths.

Only a couple weeks after releasing them, Alek began to see reports of his drift cards turning up in the San Juan Islands and even Vancouver Island, Canada, with kayakers finding quite a few of them.

As Alek started to analyze his data, we tried to help him avoid overestimating the area of water and length of coastline potentially affected by the simulated oil spill. Once released, oil tends to spread out on the water surface and would end up in patches on the shoreline as well.

Another issue our oceanographer Amy MacFadyen pointed out to Alek was that “over time the oil is removed from the surface of the ocean (some evaporates, some is mixed into the water column, etc.). So, the sites that it took a long time for the drift cards to reach would likely see less impacts as the oil would be much more spread out and there would be less of it.”

During his project, Alek was particularly interested in examining the potential impacts of an oil spill on his favorite marine organism, the Southern Resident killer whales (orcas) that live year-round in the Salish Sea but which are endangered. He used publicly available information about their movements to estimate where the killer whales might have intersected the simulated oil (the drift cards) across the Salish Sea.

Originally, Alek had hoped to estimate how many killer whales might have died as a result of a hypothetical oil spill in this area, but determining the impacts—both deadly and otherwise—of oil on marine mammals is a complicated matter. As a result, we advised him that there is too much uncertainty and not enough data for him to venture a guess. Instead, he settled on showing the number of killer whales that might be at risk of swimming through areas of simulated oil—and hence the killer whales that could be at risk of being affected by oil.

Ocean Scientist in Training

Google Earth view of the differing paths Alek's two drift card releases traveled around Washington's San Juan Islands and Canada's Vancouver Island.

A Google Earth view of the differing paths Alek’s two drift card releases traveled around Washington’s San Juan Islands and Canada’s Vancouver Island. Red represents the paths of drift cards released on an outgoing tide and yellow, the paths of cards released on an incoming tide. (Used with permission of Alek)

“I’d like to congratulate him on a successful drift card experiment,” said MacFadyen. “His results clearly show some of the features of the ocean circulation in this region.”

In a touching note in his final report, Alek dedicated his study to several great ocean scientists and explorers who came before him, namely, Sylvia Earle, Jacques Cousteau, William Beebe, and Rachel Carson. He was also enthusiastic in his appreciation of our help: “Thank you very very much for all of your help! I love what you do at NOAA. Maybe someday I will be a NOAA scientist!”

If you’re interested in learning more about Alek’s study and his results, you can visit his website www.oilspillscience.org, where you also can view a video summary of his project.


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Who Thinks Crude Oil Is Delicious? These Ocean Microbes Do

This is a post by Dalina Thrift-Viveros, a chemist with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.

Edge of oil slick at ocean surface.

There are at least seven species of ocean bacteria that can survive by eating oil and nothing else. However, usually only a small number of oil-eating bacteria live in any given part of the ocean, and it takes a few days for their population to increase to take advantage of their abundant new food source during an oil spill. (NOAA)

Would you look at crude oil and think, “Mmm, tasty…”? Probably not.

But if you were a microbe living in the ocean you might have a different answer. There are species of marine bacteria in several families, including Marinobacter, Oceanospiralles, Pseudomonas, and Alkanivorax, that can eat compounds from petroleum as part of their diet. In fact, there are at least seven species of bacteria that can survive solely on oil [1].

These bacteria are nature’s way of removing oil that ends up in the ocean, whether the oil is there because of oil spills or natural oil seeps. Those of us in the oil spill response community call this biological process of removing oil “biodegradation.”

What Whets Their Oily Appetites?

Communities of oil-eating bacteria are naturally present throughout the world’s oceans, in places as different as the warm waters of the Persian Gulf [2] and the Arctic conditions of the Chukchi Sea north of Alaska [3].

Each community of bacteria is specially adapted for the environment where it is living, and studies have found that bacteria consume oil most quickly when they are kept in conditions similar to their natural environments [4]. So that means that if you took Arctic bacteria and brought them to an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, they would not eat the oil as quickly as the bacteria that are already living in the Gulf. You would get the same result in the reverse case, with the Arctic bacteria beating out the Gulf bacteria at an oil spill in Alaska.

Other factors that affect how quickly bacteria degrade oil include the amount of oxygen and nutrients in the water, the temperature of the water, the surface area of the oil, and the kind of oil that they are eating [4][5][6]. That means the bacteria that live in a given area will consume the oil from a spill in the summer more quickly than a spill in the winter, and will eat light petroleum products such as gasoline or diesel much more quickly than heavy petroleum products like fuel oil or heavy crude oil.

Oil-eating microbes fluorescing in a petri dish.

This bacteria, fluorescing under ultraviolet light in a petri dish, is Pseudomonas aeruginosa. It has been used during oil spills to break down the components of oil. (Credit: Wikimedia user Sun14916/Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

Asphalt, the very heaviest component of crude oil, is actually so difficult for bacteria to eat that we can use it to pave our roads without worrying about the road rotting away.

What About During Oil Spills?

People are often interested in the possibility of using bacteria to help clean up oil spills, and most oil left in the ocean long enough is consumed by bacteria.

However, most oil spills last only a few days, and during that time other natural “weathering” processes, such as evaporation and wave-induced breakup of the oil, have a much bigger effect on the appearance and location of the oil than bacteria do. This is because there are usually only a small number of oil-eating bacteria in any given part of the ocean, and it takes a few days for their population to increase to take advantage of their abundant new food source.

Because of this lag time, biodegradation was not originally included in NOAA’s oil weathering software ADIOS. ADIOS is a computer model designed to help oil spill responders by predicting how much of the oil will stay in the ocean during the first five days of a spill.

However, oil spills like the 2010 Deepwater Horizon well blowout, which released oil for about three months, demonstrate that there is a need for a model that can tell us what would happen to the oil over longer periods of time. My team in the Emergency Response Division at NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration has recognized that. As a result, version 3 of ADIOS, due to be released later in 2015, will take into account biodegradation.

My team and I used data published in scientific journals on the speed of oil biodegradation under different conditions to develop an equation that can predict how fast the components of oil will be consumed, and how the speed of this process can change based on the surface area-to-mass ratio of the oil and the climate it is in. A report describing the technical details of the model will be published in the upcoming Proceedings of the Arctic and Marine Oilspill Program Technical Seminar, which will be released after the June conference.

Including oil biodegradation in our ADIOS software will provide oil spill responders with an even better tool to help them make decisions about their options during a response. As part of the team working on this project, it has provided me with a much greater appreciation for the important role that oil-eating bacteria play in the long-term effort to keep our oceans free of oil.

I know I’m certainly glad they think oil is delicious.

Dalina Thrift-ViverosDalina Thrift-Viveros is a Seattle-based chemist who has been providing chemistry expertise for Emergency Response Division software projects and spill responders since 2011, when she first started working with NOAA and Genwest. When she is not involved in chemistry-related activities, Dalina sings with the rock band Whiskey River and plays sax with her jazz group, The Paul Engstrom Trio.

Literature cited

[1] Yakimov, M.M., K.N. Timmis, and P.N. Golyshin. “Obligate oil-degrading marine bacteria,” Current Opinion in Biotechnology, 2007, 18(3), pp. 257-266.

[2] Hassanshahian, M., G. Emtiazi, and S.Cappello. “Isolation and characterization of crude-oil-degrading bacteria from the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea,” Marine Pollution Bulletin, 2012, 64, pp. 7–12.

[3] McFarlin, K.M., R.C. Prince, R. Perkins, and M.B. Leigh. “Biodegradation of Dispersed Oil in Arctic Seawater at -1°C,” PLoS ONE, 2014, 9:e84297, pp. 1-8.

[4] Atlas, R.M. “Petroleum Biodegradation and Oil Spill Bioremediation,” Marine Pollution Bulletin, 1995, 31, pp. 178-182.

[5] Atlas, R.M. and T.C. Hazen. “Oil Biodegradation and Bioremediation: A Tale of the Two Worst Spills in U.S. History,” Environmental Science & Technology, 2011, 45, pp. 6709-6715.

[6] Head, I.M., D.M. Jones, and W.F.M. Röling, “Marine microorganisms make a meal of oil,” Nature Reviews Microbiology, 2006, 4, pp. 173-182.


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Five Years After Deepwater Horizon, How Is NOAA Preparing for Future Oil Spills?

The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Five Years Later

This is the ninth and final story in a series of stories over the past month 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 in a boat wake on the ocean surface.

Keeping up with emerging technologies and changing energy trends helps us become better prepared for the oil spills of tomorrow, no matter where that may take us. (NOAA)

When the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground in Alaska and spilled nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil in 1989, the world was a very different place. New laws, regulations, and technologies followed that spill, meaning future oil spills—though they undoubtedly would still occur—would do so in a fundamentally different context.

This was certainly the case by 2010 when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig suffered an explosion caused by a well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. Tankers transporting oil have become generally safer since 1989 (thanks in part to now-required double hulls), and in 2010, the new frontier in oil production—along with new risks—was located at a wellhead nearly a mile under the ocean surface.

Since that fateful April day in 2010, NOAA has responded to another 400 oil and chemical incidents. Keeping up with emerging technologies and changing energy trends helps us become better prepared for the oil spills of tomorrow, whether they stem from a derailed train carrying particularly flammable oil, a transcontinental pipeline of diluted oil sands, or a cargo ship passing through the Arctic’s icy but increasingly accessible waters.

So how is NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration preparing for future oil spills?

The Bakken Boom

Crude oil production from North Dakota’s Bakken region has more than quadrupled [PDF] since 2010, and responders must be prepared for spills involving this lighter oil (note: not all oils are the same).

Bakken crude oil is highly flammable and evaporates quickly in the open air. Knowing the chemistry of this oil can help guide decisions about how to respond to spills of Bakken oil. As a result, we’ve added Bakken as one of the oil types in ADIOS, our software program which models what happens to spilled oil over time. Now, responders can predict how much oil naturally disperses, evaporates, or remains on the water’s surface using information customized for Bakken’s unique chemistry.

We’ve also been collaborating across the spill response community to boost preparedness for these types of oil spills. Earlier this year, NOAA worked with the National Response Team to teach responders about how to deal with Bakken crude oil spills, with a special emphasis on health and safety.

The increase of Bakken crude poses another challenge to the nation: spills from oil-hauling trains. There are few ways to move Bakken crude from wells in North Dakota to refiners and consumers across the country. To keep up with the demand, producers have turned to rail transport as a quick alternative. In 2010, rail moved less than five million tons of crude petroleum. By 2013, that number had jumped to nearly 40 million.

NOAA typically responds to marine spills, but our scientific experience also proves useful when oil spills into a navigable river, as can happen when a train derails. To help answer response questions for waterways at risk, we’re adding even more data to our tools for spill responders. Ongoing updates to the Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA), our online mapping tool for environmental response data, illustrate the intersection of railroads and sensitive habitats and species, which might be affected by a spill from a train carrying oil.

Our Neighbor to the North

Oil imports from Canada, where oil sands (also known as tar sands) account for almost all of the country’s oil, have surged. Since 2010 Canadian oil imports have increased more than 40 percent.

Oil sands present another set of unique challenges. This variety is a thick, heavy crude oil (bitumen), which has to be diluted with a thinner type of oil to allow it to flow through a pipeline for transport. The resulting product is known as diluted bitumen, or dilbit.

Because oil sands are a mixture of products, it’s not completely clear how they react in the environment. When this product is released into water, the oils can separate quickly between lighter and heavier parts. As such, responders might have to worry about both lighter components vaporizing into toxic fumes in the air and heavier oil components potentially sinking down into the water column or bottom sediments, becoming more difficult to clean up. This also means that bottom-dwelling organisms may be more vulnerable to spills of oil sands than other types of oils.

As our experts work to assess the impacts from oil sands spills (including the 2010 Enbridge pipeline spill in Michigan), their studies both inform restoration for past spills and help guide response for the next spill. We’ve been working with the response and restoration community around the country to incorporate these lessons into spill response, including at recent meetings of the West Coast Joint Assessment Team and the International Spill Control Organization.

Even Further North

As shrinking summer sea ice opens shipping routes and opportunities for oil and gas production in the Arctic, the risk of an oil spill increases for that region. By 2020, up to 40 million tons per year of oil and gas are expected to travel the Northern Sea route through the Arctic Ocean.

Responding to oil spills in the Arctic will not be easy. Weather can be harsh, even in August. Logistical support is limited, and so is baseline science. Yet in the last five years, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration has made leaps in Arctic preparedness. For example, since 2010, we launched Arctic ERMA, a version of our interactive response data mapping tool customized for the region, and released Arctic Ephemeral Data Guidelines, a series of guidelines for collecting high-priority, time-sensitive data in the Arctic after an oil spill. But we still have plenty of work ahead of us.

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)

During a spill, we predict where oil is going, but Arctic conditions change the way oil behaves compared with warmer waters. Cold temperatures make oil more viscous (thick and slow-flowing), and in a spill, oil may be trapped in, on, and under floating sea ice, further complicating predictions of its movement.

We’ve been working to overcome this challenge by improving our models of oil movement and weathering in icy waters and researching response techniques and oil behavior to close gaps in the science. This May, we also find ourselves in a new role as the United States takes chairmanship of the Arctic Council. Amy Merten of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration will chair the Arctic Council’s Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response Working Group, where we hope to continue international efforts to boost Arctic spill preparedness.

Expecting the Unexpected

After decades of dealing with oil spills, we know one thing for certain—we have to be ready for anything.

In the last five years, we’ve responded to spills from the mangroves of Bangladesh to the banks of the Ohio River. These spills have involved Bakken crude, oil sands, and hazardous chemicals. They have resulted from well blowouts, leaking pipelines, derailed trains, grounded ships, storms, and more. In fact, one of the largest spills we’ve responded to since Deepwater Horizon involved 224,000 gallons of molasses released into a Hawaiian harbor.

Whatever the situation, it’s our job to provide the best available science for decisions. NOAA has more than 25 years of experience responding to oil spills. Over that time, we have continued to fine-tune our scientific understanding to better protect our coasts from this kind of pollution, a commitment that extends to whatever the next challenge may bring.


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April Showers Bring … Marine Debris to Pacific Northwest Beaches?

This is a post by Amy MacFadyen, oceanographer and modeler in the Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division.

Over the last few weeks, emergency managers in coastal Washington and Oregon have noted an increase in the marine debris arriving on our beaches. Of particular note, numerous skiffs potentially originating from the Japan tsunami in March 2011 have washed up. Four of these boats arrived in Washington over the Memorial Day weekend alone.

This seasonal arrival of marine debris—ranging from small boats and fishing floats to household cleaner bottles and sports balls—on West Coast shores seems to be lasting longer into the spring than last year. As a result, coastal managers dealing with the large volume of debris on their beaches are wondering if the end is in sight.

As an oceanographer at NOAA, I have been trying to answer this question by examining how patterns of wind and currents in the North Pacific Ocean change with the seasons and what that means for marine debris showing up on Pacific Northwest beaches.

What Does the Weather Have to Do with It?

Beachcombers know the best time to find treasure on the Pacific Northwest coast is often after winter storms. Winter in this region is characterized by frequent rainfall (hence, Seattle’s rainy reputation) and winds blowing up the coast from the south or southwest. These winds push water onshore and cause what oceanographers call “downwelling”—a time of lower growth and reproduction for marine life because offshore ocean waters with fewer nutrients are brought towards the coast. These conditions are also good for bringing marine debris from out in the ocean onto the beach, as was the case for this giant Japanese dock that came ashore in December 2012.

These winter storms are associated with the weather phenomenon known as the “Aleutian Low,” a low pressure system of air rotating counter-clockwise, which is usually located near Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. In winter, the Aleutian Low intensifies and moves southward from Alaska, bringing wind and rain to the Pacific Northwest. During late spring, the Aleutian Low retreats to the northwest and becomes less intense. Around the same time, a high pressure system located off California known as the “North Pacific High” advances north up the West Coast, generating drier summer weather and winds from the northwest.

Graphic showing the typical summer and winter locations of pressure systems in the North Pacific Ocean.

The typical location of the pressure systems in the North Pacific Ocean in winter and summer. “AL” refers to the low-pressure “Aleutian Low” and “NPH” refers to the high-pressure “North Pacific High” system. Used with permission of Jennifer Galloway, Marine Micropaleontology (2010). *See full credit below.

This summer change to winds coming from the northwest also brings a transition from “downwelling” to “upwelling” conditions in the ocean. Upwelling occurs when surface water near the shore is moved offshore and replaced by nutrient-rich water moving to the surface from the ocean depths, which fuels an increase in growth and reproduction of marine life.

The switch from a winter downwelling state to a summer upwelling state is known as the “spring transition” and can occur anytime between March and June. Oceanographers and fisheries managers are often particularly interested in the timing of this spring transition because, in general, the earlier the transition occurs, the greater the ecosystem productivity will be that year—see what this means for Pacific Northwest salmon. As we have seen this spring, the timing may also affect the volume of marine debris reaching Pacific Northwest beaches.

Why Is More Marine Debris Washing up This Year?

NOAA has been involved in modeling the movement of marine debris generated by the March 2011 Japan tsunami for several years. We began this modeling to answer questions about when the tsunami debris would first reach the West Coast of the United States and which regions might be impacted. The various types of debris are modeled as “particles” originating in the coastal waters of Japan, which are moved under the influence of winds and ocean currents. For more details on the modeling, visit the NOAA Marine Debris website.

The estimated arrival of modeled "particles" (representing Japanese tsunami marine debris) on the West Coast of the United States between May 2011 and May 2014.

The estimated arrival of modeled “particles” (representing Japanese tsunami marine debris) on Washington and Oregon shores between May 2011 and May 2014. (NOAA)

The figure here shows the percentage of particles representing Japan tsunami debris reaching the shores of Washington and Oregon over the last two years. The first of the model’s particles reached this region’s shores in late fall and early winter of 2011–2012. This is consistent with the first observations of tsunami debris reaching the coast, which were primarily light, buoyant objects such as large plastic floats, which “feel” the winds more than objects that float lower in the water, and hence move faster. The largest increases in model particles reaching the Pacific Northwest occur in late winter and spring (the big jumps in vertical height on the graph). After the spring transition and the switch to predominantly northwesterly winds and upwelling conditions, very few particles come ashore (where the graph flattens off).

Interestingly, the model shows many fewer particles came ashore in the spring of 2013 than in the other two years. This may be related to the timing of the spring transition. According to researchers at Oregon State University, the transition to summer’s upwelling conditions occurred approximately one month earlier in 2013 (early April). Their timing of the spring transition for the past three years, estimated using a time series of wind measured offshore of Newport, Oregon, is shown by the black vertical lines in the figure.

The good news for coastal managers—and those of us who enjoy clean beaches—is that according to this indicator, we are finally transitioning from one of the soggiest springs on record into the upwelling season. This should soon bring a drop in the volume of marine debris on our beaches, hopefully along with some sunny skies to get out there and enjoy our beautiful Pacific Northwest coast.

*Pressure system graphic originally found in: Favorite, F.A., et al., 1976. Oceanography of the subarctic Pacific region, 1960–1971. International North Pacific Fisheries Commission Bulletin 33, 1–187. Referenced in and with permission of: Galloway, J.M., et al., 2010. A high-resolution marine palynological record from the central mainland coast of British Columbia, Canada: Evidence for a mid-late Holocene dry climate interval. Marine Micropaleontology 75, 62–78.

Amy MacFadyenAmy MacFadyen is a physical oceanographer at the Emergency Response Division of the Office of Response and Restoration (NOAA). The Emergency Response Division provides scientific support for oil and chemical spill response — a key part of which is trajectory forecasting to predict the movement of spills. During the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Amy helped provide daily trajectories to the incident command. Before moving to NOAA, Amy was at the University of Washington, first as a graduate student then as a postdoctoral researcher. Her research examined transport of harmful algal blooms from offshore initiation sites to the Washington coast.


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Happy Valentine’s Day from NOAA

Man holding a trash bag on a beach and pointing to a heart-shaped piece of wood enscribed with "Love."

NOAA’s Nir Barnea, Marine Debris West Coast Regional Coordinator, finds a bit of marine debris “love” at the 2007 International Coastal Cleanup held in Seattle, Wash. (NOAA)

At NOAA, we put our heart into our work every day of the year—whether we’re cleaning up marine debris from beaches or modeling the (at times) curiously shaped paths of spilled oil.

But on some days, we take this a little more literally than others. As you can see in this video, our oceanographers have used the NOAA oil spill forecast model GNOME to show what it looks like when they put their heart into their work for Valentine’s Day.

Perhaps this hypothetical scenario might be what we should expect if a shipment of candy hearts were to spill off the coast of Washington?

Happy Valentine’s Day from NOAA!


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From Rubber Ducks to Dog Food, Spilling Everything But Oil

Rubber ducks floating.

Sometimes when responders can’t spill oil, they spill rubber ducks. (Credit: Jason Ahrns. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.)

What do rubber duckies, dog food, oranges, wood chips, green dye, hula hoops, peat moss, popcorn, and rice hulls have in common?  All have been used to mimic the behavior of spilled oil.  These materials are used because in the U.S. dumping oil in the ocean is prohibited, even if it is done intentionally for training, experimental, or testing purposes.

Tank testing has been an alternative, and we use real oil in test tanks such as the one at Ohmsett (an oil spill response and research testing facility in New Jersey), but there are questions about how well these tanks simulate real world conditions, including rough seas, currents, and waves.

That means there is a real need for materials that both realistically mimic oil behavior and are safe for use in the environment. They allow us to test computer models, such as NOAA’s GNOME oil forecasting model, and to improve how containment booms and other response tactics work.

During the "Safe Seas 2006" emergency response drill off San Francisco, Calif., on Aug. 9, 2006, Oil Spill Response Corporation's Pacific Responder could be seen deploying nontoxic green dye to simulate an oil spill. The NOAA National Marine Sanctuary Program's Research Vessel Shearwater (foreground) also participated in the drill. (NOAA)

During the “Safe Seas 2006” emergency response drill off San Francisco, Calif., responders deployed nontoxic green dye to simulate an oil spill. (NOAA)

On March 21, 2013, experts from around the country gathered at NOAA offices in Seattle, Wash., to discuss the need and best options for oil spill simulants. What alternatives are best? What are the environmental effects of those simulants? What permits are needed? And most importantly, how similar is the behavior compared with real oil?

One of the preliminary conclusions from this meeting is that oil behavior is difficult to emulate, and all of the existing simulants have drawbacks.

We’ll post a future story about progress in this area, and in the meantime, if you notice a bunch of oranges (or grapefruits or lemons) floating in the water, you may be seeing a test of oil spill preparedness like this one in Florida:

Coast Guard, partnering agencies conduct Tidal Inlet Protection Strategy exercise.

In August of 2012, the U.S. Coast Guard and partnering agencies conducted an exercise aimed at testing the ability to protect Biscayne Bay (Florida) from offshore oil and involved deploying approximately 7,500 feet of boom and 240 pieces of surrogate oil or fruit, including grapefruits, oranges, and lemons across the channel. (U.S. Coast Guard)

In August of 2012, the U.S. Coast Guard and partnering agencies conducted an exercise aimed at testing the ability to protect Biscayne Bay (Florida) from offshore oil and involved deploying approximately 7,500 feet of boom and 240 pieces of surrogate oil or fruit, including grapefruits, oranges, and lemons across the channel. (U.S. Coast Guard)