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

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Staff Participate in NOAA Science Camp in Seattle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marla Steinhoff and Amy MacFadyen contributed to this article.

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Sign up for 2014 NOAA Science Camp in Seattle

Registration for this summer’s NOAA Science Camp at our Seattle campus is now open. Each year, this week-long, hands-on camp for 7th and 8th graders immerses kids in the wide range of scientific activities going on at NOAA. For example, campers get the chance to solve an environmental mystery with our toxicologists and observe the impacts of oil on (simulated) beaches and wildlife with our oceanographers and biologists. And that’s only the beginning:

Get the details:

  • Who: Youths entering 7th and 8th grades in the fall of 2014.
  • Where: NOAA’s Sand Point Facility on Lake Washington—7600 Sand Point Way NE, Seattle, Washington.
  • When: Two camp sessions (both weeks have the same content focus)—July 7 – 11 and July 14 – 18, 2014. The Junior Leadership Program is two weeks long, and will run July 7-18.
  • Cost: $250. Camper scholarships to cover half of the registration fee are available.
  • Too old for NOAA Science Camp? Check out the Junior Leadership Program for teens entering 9th-12th grades in the fall of 2014.

Learn more and register on the NOAA Science Camp Web page.

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Junior Scientists on Call: Saving Rubber Ducks from an Oily SpongeBob

For a group called “The Tsunamis” gathered in what’s known as the “War Room,” the 10 junior high students were a rather subdued force. Cheerfully, Mark Dix introduced the quiet group to the Emergency Response Division of the Office of Response and Restoration. Mark prodded the group with questions about coral reefs and why oil spills are bad when a distinct ring broke the air. Students sat up: The emergency phone was ringing!

Mark answered the phone, “Hello, NOAA Emergency Response Division.”

Oceanographer hands oil vial to student

NOAA oceanographer Amy MacFadyen helps Science Campers explore what happens when oil, water, and a rubber duck come together. As one camper put it, “No! Duck!” Credit: Ashley Braun, NOAA.

“There’s been a collision in Shilshole Bay,” replied a representative from the U.S. Coast Guard. “The container ship M/V SpongeBob was struck at 9 a.m. today and is losing about 250 barrels of fuel oil. We’re looking for the spilled oil’s trajectory and what natural resources are at risk from it. Can you help?”

“We’re on it.”

The scientists leapt into action, shepherding the young group of NOAA Science Campers through the five key questions of oil spill response: What happened? Where will it go? Who or what will it hit? How will it cause injury? How can we help?

Each camper took on a role in this staged oil spill: oceanography, biology, resources at risk. NOAA oceanographers Chris Barker and Amy MacFadyen explained how different types of oil won’t behave the same way on the water and how the Weather Service helps them understand the conditions the oil is in by providing the latest data on wind and currents for the affected area. A filled fish tank, rubber ducks, and the forces of nature (e.g., a spoon and a fan) illustrated the influence of water and weather on spilled oil, which smelled suspiciously like sesame oil.

Whipping out NOAA charts of the region, Chris and the campers plotted the location of the collision and, with currents and wind data, calculated how long the Coast Guard had to act until the oil would be swept ashore: around 6 hours.

Student charting oil

A student marks the site of the M/V SpongeBob’s spilled oil on a NOAA chart. Credit: Ashley Braun, NOAA.

With the clock ticking, the oceanographers entered all of this data into the special computer model they’ve developed for projecting the possible path of spilled oil and other pollutants, GNOME (General NOAA Operational Modeling Environment) [leaves this blog].

Seeing that the campers were mesmerized by the program’s moving arrows (currents) and dots (oil), Chris mentioned, “All of you can download it from our website and use it for free.” One boy responded, “That’s awesome.”

Passing off the baton to marine biologist Gary Shigenaka, the NOAA group had the campers pour different kinds of “oil” (light and heavy) onto various beach types (sand vs. gravel) and think about how that might affect cleanup strategies. The kids, showing their Pacific Northwest upbringing, were particularly concerned about geoducks [leaves this blog], a big clam that burrows deep in sandy beaches, which could help oil penetrate the surface of the sand.

Girl pours oil on sand

A Science Camper pours “oil” onto sand to see how oil moves through different kinds of beach sediments and what that means for cleaning it up. Credit: Ashley Braun, NOAA.

The Science Campers examined Environmental Sensitivity Index maps [leaves this blog] to identify other organisms, habitats, and human resources (such as a marina) that could be at risk from the spilled oil. This led to a lively discussion about how animals and plants could be hurt from oil. “Can you breathe oil?” asked a young girl. “Think about when you go to the gas station,” replied Gary. “Oh!” she exclaimed.

“Weren’t they talking about drilling in the Arctic?” inquired another curious camper. Gary’s response about figuring out how to clean oil off of a polar bear got a big reaction from the campers, who next dipped feathers in oil and wrestled with cleaning them off.

A final exercise gave the campers the chance to act out the spill and response on huge maps. Black rice stood in for oil and students either used forks and fans to simulate the projected spread of oil or manned toy boats to skim the oil and placed boom (rolled-up tape) to protect sensitive areas. Oceanographer Amy asked, “Who is winning? The forces of nature or the forces of cleanup?” A camper, starting to realize the scope and difficulty of the task, replied, “Not cleanup. Definitely not cleanup.” Smiling, Amy pointed out how well the boom was working in this scenario.

Toy boat skimmer and boom try to contain oil (rice) being spread by currents (fork)

A skimming boat and boom (rolled-up tape) battle the forces (forks?) of nature working to spread out the oil (black rice). Credit: Ashley Braun, NOAA.

After the campers reported back to the Coast Guard with projections and recommendations, you could sense their excitement bubbling up into questions and further discovery. This oil spill scenario was meant to prepare them for some environmental sleuthing later in the week, when oceanographer Chris Barker, along with the National Weather Service, showed them how knowledge of the weather and ocean currents could help them figure out what might have happened to hypothetical fish found dead on the shore near a smelly, black substance.

This time, the students input the weather data into the GNOME computer program themselves and modeled the transport of a possible oil spill. Experimenting with the model, the students developed a map of where oil found on the beach was more or less likely to have come from. They determined that the oil probably did not come from the stream mouth where dead fish were found and could therefore conclude that the oil likely did not kill the fish.

Piecing together clues to the mystery with campers learning from other NOAA offices, the Science Campers mirrored much of the work our scientists do every day: asking questions, making calculations, weighing costs and benefits, collaborating with others, and coming up with solutions to keep people, environments, and economies safe and thriving. One difference, however, is that SpongeBob and rubber ducks aren’t usually quite so involved.

Chris Barker contributed to this post.


What Killed the Fish? Young Scientists Test the Waters

One by one, teams of campers took the stage on the morning of the first day of NOAA Science Camp to present their depictions of scientists. Some of the drawings had wild hair, lab coats, and pocket protectors, while others wore scuba gear and swam with dolphins. Throughout the rest of the week, campers would be introduced to more than a dozen real NOAA scientists, some matching those depictions and others resembling completely different images of ocean science.

Girl identifying algae

A Science Camper tries her hand at identifying algae found at the scene of the environmental “mystery,” trying to determine whether they are a harmful algal type. Credit: Ashley Braun, NOAA.

Marla Steinhoff and I usually don’t wear lab coats or scuba gear as part of our work for the Office of Response and Restoration’s Assessment and Restoration Division (ARD), but we do use environmental science–chemistry, mapping, and toxicology–to investigate the sources and effects of contaminants at hazardous waste sites and oil spills.

For the last two weeks in July, we teamed up with staff from NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Lab to host a group of 11 Science Campers to investigate the water chemistry surrounding a mysterious (hypothetical) fish kill in Puget Sound while other small groups went to different NOAA offices to explore other aspects of the fish kill. The situation: A woman walking her dog along a beach first stumbles upon dead fish at the mouth of a creek and later, a smelly, black slime on the shore. She looks out to the water and sees the bobbing heads and fins of some animals offshore.

Armed with these snippets of information, campers developed their own theories about what could have caused the fish kill. An oil spill? A “red tide” from harmful algae? Chemical runoff? They arrived at our lab with questions about dissolved oxygen, turbidity (how murky the water appears), pesticides, oil, algae, and more. With guidance from PMEL, the campers examined scanning electron microscope photographs of plankton taken from the location of the fish kill and, comparing them to identification charts, were able to rule out the possibility of red tide.

Girl comparing water sample to colorimetric reference kit

A budding scientist compares her water sample’s dissolved oxygen level to the reference kit during a colorimetric test. Credit: Ashley Braun, NOAA.

The campers’ next steps were colorimetric tests for dissolved oxygen, pH, and (Word of the Day) chlorpyrifos, a chemical insecticide. In these tests, campers added to the water samples a reactive chemical which changes color in the presence of, for example, oxygen or a pesticide, and they compared the results to a reference range of hues. Just as we do for our real-life hazardous waste sites and oil spills, we looked at data from the scientific literature to determine the safe and unsafe levels of oxygen, pH, chlorpyrifos, and oil for fish and compared our measurements to those levels. We mapped the results: See if you can identify the source of the chlorpyrifos.

Map of insecticide levels hypothetically found in Puget Sound during a Science Camp exercise

Map of insecticide levels hypothetically found during a Science Camp exercise. Click image for larger view.

Once reunited with their larger groups, the campers pieced together information from multiple NOAA offices to deduce an explanation for the fish kill. They created posters describing their hypotheses, their investigation methods, and their conclusions, and on the last day of camp, proudly presented the posters to their parents, NOAA scientists, and camp staff. When I showed up at the poster session as a judge, I met excited crowds of campers eager to talk about their work.

ARD also got involved with other parts of camp. Along with physical scientist Ian Zelo, I planned and taught a session in which campers used watershed models to simulate groundwater flow and surface runoff.

Campers identified sources and effects of nonpoint source pollution in the environment and came up with creative solutions for pollution prevention and cleanup. The groundwater model is always a hit with the campers. It is a clear, rectangular plastic tank of sand and gravel that looks something like an ant farm. We can pump water through the tank to see the water table rise and fall, and we can add food coloring to represent groundwater pollutants. Although it’s usually out of sight, groundwater becomes visible with this model, and campers can see how pollutants can be transported with the groundwater into wells, lakes, or rivers.

Science Campers with one of the watershed models

Campers explore how pollution can travel through a watershed and affect marine life with one of the watershed models. Credit: NOAA Science Camp.

Additionally, this year’s camp introduced a career and leadership program for high school-age campers, which included interviews with NOAA staff about education and career paths. I met with two of the high school students for an interview about OR&R’s work and about NOAA scholarships and fellowships. The students were full of questions about work, internships, school, and science.

Camper presenting his group's scientific conclusions

A camper presents his group’s scientific conclusions at the end of Science Camp. Credit: NOAA Science Camp.

It felt great to share my excitement about OR&R’s work with a brainy and enthusiastic group of students (and camp staff). Wherever their interests take them, I hope they keep thinking critically to solve problems and protect the environment, just as they did as junior scientists at NOAA Science Camp.

(Stay tuned for an upcoming post about a mock oil spill scenario my co-workers in OR&R’s Emergency Response Division staged with students during Science Camp!)


Large Amount of 7th and 8th Graders Spilled onto NOAA during 2011 Science Camp

Dozens of barrels of laughs and curiosity spill onto NOAA’s Seattle campus at Sand Point for a couple weeks each July. Spills of this size are usually a cause for concern among those of us who work for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R). However, for these two weeks, we allow this overflow of youthful enthusiasm to spill into our world for NOAA Science Camp [leaves this blog]. Take a look at what’s in store for these 7th and 8th graders from Seattle, Wash., each summer:

We believe in getting today’s students excited about becoming tomorrow’s scientists. Likewise, President Obama is also working to “improve the participation and performance of America’s students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)” through his Educate to Innovate campaign [leaves this blog]. Since 2003, NOAA’s Western Regional Center in Seattle and Washington Sea Grant have been immersing Seattle middle school students in true-to-life scientific activities such as donning dive gear, identifying whales, testing water quality, and, of course, thinking critically and asking questions.

Stay posted for more in-depth looks at the type of Science Camp fun OR&R pulls together, from responding to the M/V SpongeBob’s mock oil spill to sleuthing an environmental mystery. For now, enjoy a few snapshots from the past two weeks:

Kids examining what oil does on different types of beaches

Kids gather around to see how "oil" moves through different kinds of beach sediments, such as gravel or sand. Credit: Ashley Braun, NOAA.

Oceanographer Amy MacFadyen and Science Camp kids around fish tank of oil and water.

NOAA oceanographer Amy MacFadyen helps this year's Science Camp students explore what oil does on water, the effects of winds and currents, and the (here, miniature) organisms that might encounter spilled oil. Credit: Ashley Braun, NOAA.

Student testing water sample

A young NOAA Science Camper tests a water sample for its level of dissolved oxygen, hoping to solve part of an ecological mystery. Credit: Ashley Braun, NOAA.