NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

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


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Working to Help Save Sea Turtles

Leatherback sea turtle swimming. Image credit: NOAA.

The leatherback is the largest turtle–and one of the largest living reptiles–in the world. Leatherbacks are commonly known as pelagic (open ocean) animals, but they also forage in coastal waters, including the Gulf. Image credit: NOAA.

Sea turtles are among the most popular marine reptiles and have been in Earth’s ocean for more than 100 million years. Unfortunately, today sea turtles struggle to survive. Of the seven species of sea turtles, six are found in United States waters and all of those species are listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

One of the most devastating incidents to the survival of sea turtles was the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Both during the spill and in the aftermath, we worked with the Office of Protected Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and other partners, to understand the extent of harm to sea turtles from the spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

For instance, it’s estimated that between 56,000 to 166,000 sea turtles were killed because of the spill. A special issue of Endangered Species Research features 20 scientific articles summarizing the impacts of the oil spill on protected species such as sea turtles and marine mammals.

The scientific studies, conducted by NOAA and partners, document the unprecedented mortality rate and long-term environmental impacts of the oil’s exposure to sea turtles. Findings from these research studies, in addition to other studies on other parts of the ecosystem, formed the basis of the natural resources damage assessment settlement with BP for up to $8.8 billion.

Additionally, our environmental response management software allows anyone to download the data from a scientific study, and then see that data on a map.

Our studies not only documented the injuries to sea turtles and other Gulf of Mexico plant and animal species, but also helped the entire scientific community understand the effects of oil spills on nature and our coastal communities.

You can learn more about our work with sea turtles and our studies from Deepwater Horizon in the flowing articles:

How Do Oil Spills Affect Sea Turtles?

What’s It Like Saving Endangered Baby Sea Turtles in Costa Rica?

Effects of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill on Sea Turtles and Marine Mammals

Hold on to Those Balloons: They Could End Up in the Ocean

Oil and Sea Turtles: Biology, Planning, and Response

ERMA map of sea turtles in the Gulf. Image credit: NOAA.

This view of ERMA® Deepwater Gulf Response, our online mapping tool, displays sea turtle data from response efforts and the Natural Resource Damage Assessment. This site served a critical role in the response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and remains a valuable reference. Image credit: NOAA


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Incident Responses for May 2017

Gray whale rising from the ocean. Image credit: NOAA.

Gray whales are found mainly in shallow coastal waters in the North Pacific Ocean. Image credit: NOAA

Every month our Emergency Response Division provides scientific expertise and services to the U.S. Coast Guard on everything from running oil spill trajectories to model where the spill may spread, to possible effects on wildlife and fisheries, and estimates on how long the oil may stay in the environment.

In May, there were two incidents of dead gray whales in Washington state, one floating offshore near Long Beach, and another washed ashore in Bellingham Bay. In both cases, we were asked for trajectories.

In the case of a whale found floating at sea, we use our GNOME trajectory modeling software to map the possible drift route of the carcass. When a whale washes ashore, one of the things that officials need to know is how far they have to tow the carcass back out to sea to ensure it will not wash back to shore.

Our Incident News website has information on oil spills and other incidents where we provided scientific support.

Here are some of this month’s responses:

 


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Counting People on the Beach is Not as Simple as it Sounds

Aerial view of people on beach. Image credit: NOAA.

In the aftermath of an oil spill, state and federal natural resource trustees often need to assess impacts to recreational use. This new manual focuses on onsite data collection using ground personnel and aerial photography. Image credit: NOAA

Imagine the perfect day at the beach, lying in the sand, fishing from the pier, maybe taking a boat out on the water. Then an oil spill occurs, and the beach is no longer a fun place to be.

When an oil spill or other pollutant keeps people from enjoying a natural area, it’s up to agencies like NOAA, acting as public trustees of affected areas, to determine how much recreational opportunities were lost. It’s part of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process.

A new guide from the Assessment and Restoration Division, Best Practices for Collecting Onsite Data to Assess Recreational Use Impacts from an Oil Spill, is designed to help standardize the collection process.

The guide evolved from our experiences conducting the natural resource damage assessment for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

“We wanted to capitalize on the lessons learned during the Deepwater Horizon damage assessment, so we condensed our 1,119 page infield process manual into a portable guide that we could pull off the shelf and implement during any future oil spill,” said Adam Domanski, an economist who specializes in non-market valuation with the Assessment and Restoration Division.

The intention of the new guide is help any resource manager collect recreational use data and offers detailed information on:

  • Sampling Methods and Design
  • Onsite Data Collection Using Ground Personnel
  • Onsite Data Collection Using Aerial Photography
  • Safety Considerations for Data Collection
  • Data Entry and Processing Procedures

The guide is available at NOAA’s Damage, Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program.


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Preventing and Preparing for Oil Spills in the Arctic

Talking with NOAA Scientist Amy Merten about her time chairing the Arctic Council’s Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response working group.

Ice bank in the Arctic ocean. Image credit: NOAA.

View off the coast of Longyearbyen, Svalbard, Norway. Taken during a search and rescue demonstration for an Arctic Council’s Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response working group meeting. Image Credit: NOAA

As rising temperatures and thinning ice in the Arctic create openings for increased human activities, it also increases the potential for oil spills and chemical releases into the remote environment of the region.

Planning emergency response operations for the Arctic falls to the Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response working group, an Arctic Council body. The emergency working group has representatives from each of the member states with expertise in oil spill response, search and rescue, and response to radiological events.

NOAA’s Amy Merten, chief of the Spatial Data Branch, will finish her two-year stint as chair of the working group in May 2017. The chair is elected every two years from among the working group’s members including: Canada, Kingdom of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russian Federation, Sweden, the United States and permanent participants. Merten served on the working group for 5 years before becoming chair. She will leave the position on May 11, 2017. Jens Peter Holst-Andersen, from the Kingdom of Denmark will be the new chair at the next meeting in Vologda, Russia.

Merten, who holds a doctorate in marine sciences/environmental chemistry, shared her insights into the complexities of planning for emergencies in the remote regions of the Arctic and about what it’s like working with other nations to protect the Arctic environments.

What are the biggest challenges facing spill response in the Arctic? 

There are many; remote locations, short windows of open-water and daylight in which to respond, and lack of infrastructure—you can’t send a massive response community to Arctic communities there is not enough food, hotel space, or fuel to sustain larger groups.  Lack of communication is another challenge. Things that we take for granted working at moderate temperatures (cameras, GPS), don’t work at cold temperatures. For search and rescue, there is not adequate hospital space or expertise. Therefore, if a large cruise ship gets into trouble in the Arctic, the rescue, triage and sustainability of the passengers will be a major challenge.

Why is it important to have international cooperation when developing response plans?

Each country has unique experiences and may have developed a way to respond to oil spills in ice or Arctic conditions that can be shared with other countries facing potential spills in ice. Because of the remoteness of the Arctic, with little to no infrastructure, particularly in the United States and Canada, countries will have to rely on equipment and support from others.

Additionally, there are parts of the Arctic Ocean that are international waters, and should a vessel founder there, the countries would collectively respond. We share thoughts on high-risk scenarios, best practices, and identification of research needs. We also share ideas and findings on the latest technologies in communications, oil-in-ice modeling, data management and response technologies.

How does communication with other countries during an emergency work?

We have an up-to-date communication list and protocol. This is part of our agreement, the Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution, Preparedness and Response in the Arctic. We also practice our communication connectivity once a year, and conduct an international exercise every two years.

What role do satellites have in preparing for and responding to emergencies in the region?

We rely on satellite information for monitoring conditions (weather and ice) and vessel traffic. We would certainly rely on satellite data for an incident in order to plan the response, monitor the extent of the oiling, and understand the weather and ice conditions.

How do the member countries work to share plans so that emergency response is not being duplicated?

This is one of the functions of Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response working group. It ensures we communicate about domestic projects and plans that may benefit the other nations to maximize the collective effectiveness and avoid duplications.

NOAA’s online environmental mapping tool for the region, Arctic ERMA, now includes polar projections; do the other council countries use Arctic ERMA?

They use it during our joint exercises, and we use it to visualize other working group projects, like the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement-led Pan-Arctic response assets database. We also discuss sharing data across systems and are developing data sharing agreements.

What are the three biggest threats to the Arctic environment? 

Keeping it a peaceful governance, climate change, and oil spills/chemical spills.

Why is the Arctic environment important to the United States?

Arctic weather and climate affects the world’s oceans, weather, and climate, including the Lower 48. The Arctic is replete with energy, mineral, and fishing resources. The Arctic is inhabited by indigenous communities with unique lifestyles that are threatened and need protection. The Arctic is also home to unique flora and fauna that are important for biodiversity, ecological services, and overall healthy environments.  As the Arctic becomes more accessible, national security pressures increase.

 What would be the worst types of oil spills in the Arctic?

This is a hard question to answer but I’d say a spill of a persistent oil that occurs in broken ice during freeze up or thawing periods. During freeze up because it will be difficult to respond, and difficult to track the oil.

During thawing because it’s the emergence of primary production for the food web, hunting subsistence practices would be threatened and it could be unsafe to respond due to of the changing ice conditions. It all depends on how far away and difficult it is to get vessels, aircraft, people, and skimmers onsite, and in a way they can operate safely in a meaningful way.

A “worst spill” doesn’t have to be a “large” spill if it impacts sensitive resources at key reproductive and growth cycles, or if it impacts Arctic communities’ food security, subsistence activities, and ways of life.

How has being chair added to your understanding of the emergency response in the Arctic?

I think it’s increased my concern that it’s not a matter of “if” but a matter of “when” a spill will happen. The logistics of a response will be complicated, slow, and likely, fairly ineffective. The potential for long-term impacts on stressed communities and stressed environments is high. I do have a good feeling that international cooperation will be at its best, but the challenges are daunting for all of us.

Amy Merten on boat with sea and ice behind her. Image credit: NOAA.

NOAA scientist Amy Merten in the Arctic. Merten is chief of the Spatial Data Branch of the Office of Response and Restoration and served as chair of the Arctic Council’s Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response working group. Image credit: NOAA.


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Using Dogs to Find Oil During Spill Response

Man and woman with black dog. IMage credit: NOAA.

Catherine Berg, Pepper, and Gary Shigenaka. Image credit: NOAA.

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division returned to Prince William Sound to use some of the old buried oil from the Exxon Valdez oil spill to improve how we can find oil on the shoreline in the future.

This time, the key player was an enthusiastic black Labrador retriever named Pepper. This project is to validate and better understand the capabilities of trained oil detection canines to locate and delineate subsurface stranded oil. The results of the study have a high probability of immediate, short-term applications and long-term real benefits in the design and implementation of shoreline cleanup and assessment technique surveys for stranded oil.

Usually, teams of people trained in the shoreline assessment techniques, called SCAT, comb for oil buried along shorelines and other areas affected by oil spills. The technique has been an integral part of oil spill response since the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989.  It is a systematic approach to describing the “where” and “how much” for spilled oil, and directs cleanup activities during moderate and larger spill incidents.

The process is labor-intensive and time-consuming, and requires trained personnel to survey areas possibly impacted by an oil spill. In certain habitats—like gravel or sand beaches—oil either penetrates deeply below the surface or becomes buried by material deposited on top, making oil assessment even more difficult. In these cases, SCAT teams must dig pits to determine the existence and extent of buried oil that would require excavation and other more complicated cleanup approaches.

The limitations of human-centric SCAT surveys led one of the originators of the first SCAT programs during Exxon Valdez, Ed Owens of Owens Coastal Consultants, to begin discussions with Paul Bunker’s K2 Solutions to determine if the high sensitivity, accuracy and precision of canine noses could be adapted and applied to the task of oil spill shoreline assessment.

Three people on rocky shore with black dog. Image credit: NOAA>

Paul Bunker and Haiden Montgomery assessing the odor of residual Exxon Valdez oil, while Pepper closely supervises the collection of an oil sample by Scott Pegau of the Oil Spill Recovery Institute. Image credit: NOAA.

This is what led Ed, Paul, Pepper the black lab, her handler Haiden Montgomery, and a host of interested observers from NOAA, the Coast Guard, Exxon-Mobil, Chevron, Polaris Environmental, and the Oil Spill Recovery Institute to make the trip to Prince William Sound, the Alaskan region impacted by Exxon Valdez. The Oil Spill Recovery Institute sponsored the project.

Dog teams are already being productively employed for oil assessment in actual spills (Pepper will be traveling to Canada to join her canine colleagues for a river spill assessment).

Scientists from the Office of Response and Restoration observed the trials, assisted in the verification of oil presence, and provided feedback on the use of oil detection dogs in real-time spill situations.

Canine detection of buried oil holds real promise for improving the effectiveness and efficiency of oil spill assessment surveys. The methodology will continue to be refined and improved as it is used in real oil spill situations, and as we increase our understanding of how and what the dogs are actually detecting.

 

Gary Shigenaka and Catherine Berg with the Office of Response and Restoration contributed to this article.


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Oil Spill Incident Responses for April 2017

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

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

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

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

Here are this month’s responses:

Sunken Pleasure Craft, Pass a Loutre

Tug Powhatan

M/V Todd Brown

Mystery Sheen, NESDIS Report

BP Exploration Well #3, Prudhoe Bay, AK

U.S. Steel Hexavalent Chrome Release

F/V Bendora Aground

Vengeance crane barge sinking

Breton Sound Natural Gas Well Head 46D

UTV Michael Nadicksbernd

ATB Meredith Reinauer, Catskill, NY

MV Dawn

Anna Platform Pipeline Leak


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Closing Down Damage Assessment After Deepwater Horizon

Shelves filled with jars.

The plankton archive contains over 130,000 samples from 19 different surveys conducted as part of the natural resources damage assessment. Plankton archive located at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. Image credit: NOAA

The environmental toll from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster was enormous, demanding a massive deployment of people and materials to measure the adverse effects.

Federal and state agencies worked quickly to scale up the emergency response, clean up the spill, mount a large-scale effort to assess the injuries to wildlife and other natural resources, and record how these lost resources adversely affected the public.

When the cleanup was finished, and the injuries were determined, another challenge came: NOAA and other agencies had to close down the largest damage assessment field operation in the nation’s history.

During five years of field studies assessing the injuries to natural resources, more than one hundred thousand samples were collected.

Instead of discarding the samples once the assessment was over, and the BP settlement was completed, it made more sense to find other uses for the samples, and the valuable laboratory, field, and office equipment attained during the assessment work. In many cases, the cost of finding new homes for samples and equipment was cheaper than disposal.

Repurposing samples and equipment: the work goes on

Shutting down the assessment operations involved clearing out laboratories and warehouses filled with samples, field equipment, and supplies.

In most instances, only a portion of each sample was needed for analysis and by the end of 2015, NOAA had an extensive trove of environmental samples.

Recognizing that many research scientists might put these samples to good use, NOAA made the materials available by publishing announcements in professional society newsletters. After receiving about one hundred inquiries, staff and contractors began distributing more than 5,000 samples.

Additionally, some sample collections were archived in publicly available repositories, with other historical and scientifically valuable collections. Thousands of samples of plankton, fish, and other organisms collected during post-spill trawls in Gulf waters went to a NOAA archive in Stennis, Mississippi.

The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. received rare deep-sea corals. Later this year the National Marine Mammal Tissue Bank will host thousands of samples from species of dolphins and other marine mammals found dead after the oil spill.

Universities across the United States received samples for research. Sediment samples sent to Florida State University in Tallahassee are supporting studies on the long-term fate of Deepwater Horizon oil deposited on Gulf beaches and in nearshore environments.

Researchers at Jacksonville University in Florida are using samples to compare the weathering of tar balls found submerged to tar balls those stranded on land. Additionally, researchers at Texas A&M University obtained samples of the spilled oil for studies of bacteria that biodegrade oil.

Graphic with gloved hands pouring liquid from sample jar into beaker and numbers of samples, results, and studies resulting from NOAA efforts.

Finding new homes for scientific instruments and other equipment

Field samples were not the only items distributed to advance oil spill science. NOAA shipped hundreds of large and small pieces of equipment to universities and other research partners to aid ongoing investigations about the effects of oil spills on the environment, and the ongoing monitoring of the Gulf environment.

Repurposed supplies and equipment found a second life at many institutions including the:

  • University of Miami
  • NOVA Southeastern University
  • Dauphin Island Sea Lab
  • University of Southern Mississippi
  • University of South Florida
  • Louisiana State University
  • Texas A & M
  • Smithsonian Institution

In addition to laboratory equipment, some university researchers received practical items such as anchors, battery packs, buoys, forceps, freezer packs, glassware, preservatives such as alcohol and formalin, and thermometers.

NOAA coordinated with BP to recover and repurpose thousands of items BP purchased for the assessment. While clearing out office buildings and trailers, NOAA staff identified and requested valuable pieces of laboratory and field equipment, and other supplies. Some of these items, such as microscopes, initially cost tens of thousands of dollars.

First responders from NOAA and the U.S. Coast Guard also received field safety equipment including:

  • Personal floatation devices
  • Safety goggles
  • Pallets of nitrile gloves
  • Lightning detectors
  • Sorbent boom

All of which support preparedness for future incidents.

Countless NOAA staff rose to the enormous challenges of responding to, assessing impacts from, and restoring the natural resources injured by the Deepwater Horizon incident. This work continues, assisted by the creative reuse and repurposing of materials across the country to support ongoing efforts to advance oil spill science and improve preparedness for future spills.

Read more about and the work of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration and partners in responding to the spill, documenting the environmental damage, and holding BP accountable for restoring injured resources:

 

Greg Baker, Rob Ricker, and Kathleen Goggin of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration contributed to this article.