NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

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


Leave a comment

Solving the Case of the Mystery Sheen

Ocean with sheen. Image: U.S. Coast Guard.

Can you see the sheen in the distance? That lighter blue just below the horizon caught the attention of the U.S. Coast Guard helicopter crew that led to the discovery of a natural oil seep off the coast of San Diego, California. The sheen’s narrowing on the left with broader “feathering” on the right suggested a submerged source. Image credit: U.S. Coast Guard.

By Jordan Stout, NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator

In early March 2017, a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter was returning to its home base when the aircrew spotted a silvery sheen in the water about 35 miles west of San Diego, California.

I imagine the conversation among the crew went something like this:

Hey, that looks like it might be oil…

Is that from yesterday’s spill?  No sir, too far away…

Did any vessels sink out here recently?  Nothing’s been reported…

Do you see any debris in the water?  No sir, but I think I see bubbles coming to the surface within the sheen…

We’re pretty far offshore.  How deep is the water here?  Chart says about 300 fathoms (roughly 1,800 feet)…

Any other petroleum sources out here?  Not that I’m aware of.  Let’s call it in…

Reporting that finding of a mysterious sheen of oil on the ocean’s surface triggers a forensic process that typically requires the highly skilled staff of multiple federal agencies. In this instance, it included U.S. Coast Guard, several NOAA offices, and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Most Coast Guard aircrew members have overflown an oil spill at some point in their careers and many have seen our overflight job aid or taken the NOAA on-line training to help them identify and describe oil on the water.

In this case, the aircrew took photos and reported their observations to their command center. The crew’s initial report stated the sheen spanned approximately 400 yards by 10 yards, was patchy, thin, and unrecoverable.

Initial theories about the mystery sheen included:

  • A passing ship that spilled oil (by accident or intentionally)
  • A recent vessel casualty
  • An old shipwreck
  • An offshore disposal site, or
  • A natural oil seep

Theories in place, the next step was going through the list and systematically eliminating what could be causing the sheen.

Sheen shape, size, and area traffic

The Coast Guard is well known for conducting search and rescue operations when vessels are in distress and lives are at stake. It’s also responsible for ensuring safe and lawful maritime commerce. A check showed no large vessels had been in the area recently nor had any vessels (small or large) been reported missing.

The aircrew’s report of an oil “sheen” indicated to folks on shore that they had seen a very thin layer of oil (<50 microns) on the water’s surface.  That’s pretty darned thin, if you consider that a normal sheet of paper is about 100 microns thick.  Such thin layers don’t normally persist very long in the environment, so it wasn’t expected to stick around very long.

If the sheen had been spread out and patchy, it might be consistent with a spill from a passing ship or an earlier spill that had moved some distance over time.  Instead, the photos showed the sheen as a long linear feature, very narrow at one end and spread out and dissipating at the other (downstream) end.

During subsequent overflights for the next few days, the Coast Guard continued to see a similar sheen in the same location.  Because the original sheen would have dissipated in a matter of hours, these repeated sheen observations seemed to confirm an on-going, fixed source. But, what was it?

Both sunken vessels and natural seeps can release gases, so observing bubbles was interesting but not conclusive.  It could have been a sunken vessel, but in most cases, a sunken vessel will only release bubbles over a short period of time until the pockets of trapped air are all gone.  However, natural seeps can release gas bubbles continuously or sporadically for years.

Satellites, sunken ships and chemical analysis

Satellites – We checked with NOAA’s environmental satellite office, the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service, to see if any of their environmental satellite data/imagery had picked anything odd at that location recently or in any of their archived imagery.  They looked but they didn’t see anything obvious, but that’s not conclusive either.  Even the best satellite sensors for detecting oil on water have limitations.  There may very well have been a sheen out there, but it could not be distinguished with satellite data either because the winds were not optimal, the sheen was too small, or there was too much background “noise” in the data.

Maritime history – NOAA plays an important national role in identifying and protecting our nation’s maritime history.  As part of that stewardship role, NOAA and the Coast Guard partnered to evaluate which of the 1,000’s of shipwrecks in United States water might pose a substantial pollution threat.  This effort, called Remediation of Underwater Legacy Environmental Threats, or RULET, resulted in a series of reports in 2013.  No potentially polluting shipwrecks were identified off San Diego through the RULET program.

Charting – Another data source, the Resources and Under Sea Threats, called RUST, which includes shipwrecks and other potential pollution sources, only identified an ammunition dumpsite offshore of San Diego.  That site appears on the NOAA nautical charts, but is over 13 miles away.

Chemistry – A Coast Guard ship was sent out to obtain some sheen samples.  Chemical analysis from their Marine Safety Lab revealed the sheen contained petroleum oil with characteristics most resembling those of moderately weathered crude oil.  A vessel leaking fuel would not show a crude oil signature, but a natural seep would.

Two men on boat's deck taking water samples. Image USCG.

The helicopter crew guided a boat-based sampling team to the area. Samples were sent to the Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Lab for analysis. Image credit: U.S. Coast Guard.

And the Mystery Sheen is: a natural seep?

 The seas off Southern California are known to have hundreds of sub-sea natural oil seeps. Most of them are found off Santa Barbara, and quite a few off Los Angeles, according to Thomas Lorenson, research geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey at the Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center.

“Recent seafloor mapping south of Santa Catalina Island shows subsea features like mounds that are often associated with oil or natural gas seepage, so it is not too surprising to discover another seep,” said Lorenson. “Luckily a person can pay a visit to a famous oil seep found on land at the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles and imagine what they may look like underwater.”

So though we’ve not (yet) gotten visual confirmation of seep with a submersible or remotely operated vehicle, a natural seep on the sea floor remains the best explanation for this mystery.

 

Jordan Stout is the Scientific Support Coordinator in California, providing scientific input to the U.S. Coast Guard and Environmental Protection Agency for spills of oil and hazardous material.

 


Leave a comment

Keeping the Oil Pollution Act Updated

Cleanup worker and oiled boulders on Refugio State Beach where the oil from the pipeline entered the beach.

The pipeline release allowed an estimated 21,000 gallons of crude oil to reach the Pacific Ocean, shown here where the oil entered Refugio State Beach. (NOAA)

On August 18, 1990, President H.W. Bush signed the Oil Pollution Act.  The act gave NOAA and other agencies improved authorities for spill prevention, response, and restoration in the nation’s navigable waters and shorelines.

The act ensured those responsible for an oil spill must cleanup and restore the environment, and compensate the public for its lost uses—like beach and recreational fishery closures—from the time of the incident until those natural resources fully recover.

Now 27 years old, some parts of the law are dated. But, the Act signed by President Bush was not the final word on oil pollution.

Like many other laws, it has been subject to various amendments over time to address emerging issues or to strengthen or clarify the original law.

Often, the amendments advance through related legislation that move through Congress and reach the president. For example, a number of Oil Pollution Act amendments were added to U.S. Coast Guard authorization bills.

For instance, the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2010 added a number of provisions including:

  • Requirements for oil transfers from vessels
  • Improvements to reduce human error and near miss incidents
  • Prevention of small oil spills
  • Improved coordination with tribal governments
  • Changed the definitions of certain ports
  • Altered uses of Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund by authorizing appropriations for NOAA and changed liability provisions for single hull vessels.

Sometimes these amendments can be quite technical but can also have significant impacts on how we work.  For example, the Coast Guard authorization act included this language that affected waterways near Seattle:

Within 1 year after the date of enactment of this Act, the Commandant shall initiate a rulemaking proceeding to modify the definition of the term ‘‘higher volume port area’’ in section 155.1020 of the Coast Guard regulations (33 C.F.R. 155.1020) by striking ‘‘Port Angeles, WA’’ in paragraph (13) of that section and inserting ‘‘Cape Flattery, WA’’.

There are about 15 higher volume port areas in the United States and these areas are subject to the most stringent response planning requirements.

As you might expect, these include the biggest oil ports in the nation, including New York, Houston, New Orleans, and Prince William Sound, Alaska.  In these high volume port areas, large amounts of response equipment has to be on standby, ready to deploy on very short notice.

However, Cape Flattery is on the northwest tip of Washington State. The fishing port of Neah Bay is nearby, but it is hardly a major oil port.

Hmm, so what did that accomplish? That simple definitional change meant that all tankers approaching the Strait of Juan de Fuca and oil terminals closer to Seattle had to have approved plans and meet the most stringent response times following a spill anywhere along our inland waters.  This required adding response vessels and equipment out near the entrance of the Strait and increasing the ability to rapidly respond to any spills.

There are already several bills in Congress this year that would further amend the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. In between spills and restoration work, we keep an eye on their progress through the legislative process.

You can read these articles for more information on the Oil Pollution Act of 1990:


Leave a comment

Polar Bears and Response Drills in Alaska

Two boats in fog with man on beach. Image: NOAA.

NOAA scientists scout for polar bears prior to disembarking for fieldwork at Beaufort Sea, Alaska. Image credit: NOAA.

How do you handle a polar bear covered in oil?  That was just one aspect of the annual Mutual Aid Deployment exercise last month on Alaska’s North Slope oil field.

Staff members from our Emergency Response Division and the Assessment and Restoration Division as well as other NOAA offices participated in the three-day exercise. Each year government agencies, oil companies, and oil spill removal organizations in the region work together to respond to a simulated oil spill in Alaska.

The scenario for this year’s drill was the simulation of an oil pipeline leak in the Beaufort Sea and the rescue of an oiled polar bear. In the exercise, the pipeline that was leaking belonged to Hilcorp, Alaska LLC. It was the first year the oil company hosted the event.

In addition to our office, participants included:

The exercise included field equipment deployment, an Incident Command Center, and remote operations in Anchorage.

Emergency Response Division staff participated in the Incident Management Team at the command center established at Hilcorp’s Endicott Facility on the Beaufort Sea north of Prudhoe Bay.

Staff from the Assessment and Restoration Division led the Natural Resource Damage Assessment component of the drill, that included a tabletop exercise with representatives from the state and federal agencies, and staff from Hilcorp. One Damage Assessment liaison was at the Endicott facility and the rest of the team participated remotely from Anchorage. The drill provided an opportunity to practice how a natural resource damage assessment would work with response early in a spill situation.

NOAA provides scientific support to the Coast Guard during oil and chemical spills, and the tools we’ve developed are an extension of that support. During the exercise, our GNOME trajectory-forecasting tool kept participants updated on where the spilled oil could go.

Arctic ERMA, our online Environmental Response Management Application, was continuously being updated with information on where the oil was as well as the location all the responders and their equipment. Environmental Sensitivity Index maps, which identify vulnerable wildlife and habitat potentially at risk from the spill, were displayed in ERMA.

Arctic ERMA display from response drill. Image: NOAA.

Information visualized on Arctic ERMA during the Mutual Aid Deployment exercise on Alaska’s North Slope oil field. Image credit: NOAA.

So how do you handle an oiled polar bear?

Very carefully and with a close eye on a timer.

Part of the drill was to see if an oil-injured polar bear could be tranquilized, pulled from the water, cleaned and caged before waking up.

Standing in for a real polar bear was an industrial-sized drum, filled with sand, covered with white cloth, and sporting a molded-foam head. The idea was to put the bear in the ocean and have emergency responders rescue the bear.

The rescue went well although some miscommunication early in the day added an unexpected element of realism—the team setting the fake bear in the lagoon did not anchor it, and due to heavy seas and winds on drill day, the bear drifted out into open water. However, the polar bear response team performed expertly and the fake bear was successfully located and rescued within the time allotted.

Fake polar bear on beach near dock. Image: NOAA.

The fake polar bear used for the Mutual Aid Deployment exercise on Alaska’s North Slope oil field. Image credit: NOAA.

You can read more about other simulated oil (and oranges and rubber ducks) spills in these articles:

 

Zachary Winters-Staszak, Catherine Berg, and Sarah Allan of the Office of Response and Restoration contributed to this article.

 


Leave a comment

Oils Spills and Animal Rescue in Alaska and Beyond

This week, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is looking at the impacts of pollutants on wildlife and endangered species. We’ll explore tools we’ve developed to map sensitive species and habitats, how marine debris endangers marine life, how restoring toxic waste sites improves the health of wildlife, and the creation of a mobile wildlife hospital.

 

Harbor seal. Image ASLC.

This harbor seal was discovered hurt and alone on a beach South Naknek, Alaska. She was admitted to Alaska SeaLife Center’s Wildlife Response Program and after gaining her health, was release back into the wild. You can read more of her story here. All activities involving animals are authorized under ASLC’s NOAA Stranding Agreement. Image credit: Alaska SeaLife Center.

By Carrie Goertz, Alaska SeaLife Center

I love working with animals but being a bit of an organizational geek, I also enjoy the logistical side of preparation. The right tool for the job, a place for everything, and everything in its place gives me great satisfaction.

Here in Seward, Alaska, we have built a well-equipped facility with depth in space, resources, and personnel. But chances are oil spills will occur somewhere other than our home base. We have partnered with oil spill response organizations to provide support in other key areas with a large industrial and civic presence. These and other fixed facilities have the advantage of being close to population centers, providing shelter, and meeting the needs of stranded animals and our staff.

However, Alaska is a bit on the large side and has thousands of miles of remote coastlines dotted with small communities. As trans-Arctic shipping increases, so does the risk of accidents potentially affecting these shores, and we cannot count on spills happening where our equipment is conveniently available. In fact, we need to be prepared to be completely self-sufficient and independent of even the smallest communities so as not to over-tax their resources with our activities.

So how do we take our rehab center on the road? Or rather, how do we take it down the beach, since most of Alaska’s shore is not accessible by road? We need a deployable set of equipment to treat impacted animals that will also meet the needs of the staff required to care for them.

Something like a MASH unit, a mobile army surgical hospital, or perhaps a ‘Mobile Animal Stranding Hospital!’ The team at Alaska Sea Life Center had already come up with an easily shipped seal pool and a list of equipment needed to support the oiled, stranded animals at fixed facilities as part of our partnerships with oil spill response organizations.

Now we needed to focus on those additional items needed if we were required to provide our own electricity, water, shelter, and staff needs, all of which needed to be compact and deployable.

Ultimately, we settled on a tiny-house-meets-Transformers approach in which we fill specially designed shipping container units with the necessary supplies and equipment, ready to be deployed where needed. Once on site, they transform into a veterinary clinic, food storage and kitchen, animal housing—including a pool, totes, crates, and dry area—and staff area.

Drawing of a mobile vet clinic. Image: Alaska SeaLife Center.

Tiny-house-meets-Transformers in the Alaska SeaLife Center’s design for a mobile animal hospital. Each unit is filled with the necessary supplies and equipment to help wildlife, ready to be deployed where needed. Image credit: Alaska SeaLife Center.

But how will we staff our responses? Initially, we plan to draw from our own staff, as many are both Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response certified and experienced with caring for marine mammals and are based right here in Alaska. We have also partnered with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums to train additional personnel experienced with the unique challenges of caring for marine mammals. Their home institutions have agreed to allow trained staff to deploy in support of events, but their staff are also trained to assist with events in their local area.

In combination, these efforts keep us ready, keep Alaska ready, and keep zoos and aquaria across the country ready.

To read more about the Association of Zoos and Aquariums program to train members for wildlife spill response:

Zoos and Aquariums Training for Oil Spill Emergency Response

Read more stories in our series on the effects of pollutants on wildlife:

 

Carrie Goertz is the staff veterinarian at the Alaska SeaLife Center overseeing the program of veterinary care for collection, research, and stranded animals. Special interests include helping the center and other zoological facilities being prepared to respond to disasters as well as how information about animals in zoological facilities and free ranging wildlife can help provide the best care for both groups.

Opened in 1998, the Alaska SeaLife Center is a private, non-profit research institution and public aquarium. ASLC generates and shares scientific knowledge to promote understanding and stewardship of Alaska’s marine ecosystems, and is an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. To learn more, visit www.alaskasealife.org.

 


Leave a comment

Chinese Delegation Visits NOAA Office of Response and Restoration

People standing together with lake in background. Image credit: NOAA.

The Office of Response and Restoration hosted a delegate from China’s National Marine Hazard Mitigation Service in Seattle. From L: Yufei Lin, Jun Tan, Yijun Zhang, NOAA staff John Tarpley, Scott Lundgren, Glen Watabayshi, and Aijun Zhang. Image credit: NOAA

As part of our ongoing commitment to share our expertise in spill response with other nations, the Emergency Response Division recently hosted a delegation from China’s National Marine Hazard Mitigation Service.

The Chinese agency requested the meeting to learn about our strategies and tools for responding to environmental hazards and to exchange information about China’s marine emergency response programs.

The goal of the two-day meeting in Seattle was to learn about each other’s emergency response programs and to discuss the possibilities of collaborate in the future, according to Glen Watabayshi, chief of the Emergency Response Division’s Technical and Scientific Services Branch.

During the meeting, Watabayshi presented our oil spill response and planning tools including the GNOME modeling software and TAP trajectory planning software. Jill Petersen explained Environmental Sensitivity Index mapping and methodology. Mark Miller presented the CAMEO software suite and CAFE tool. Other emergency division staff participants included Scott Lundgren, Mark Dix, John Tarpley, Kristen Faiferlick, and Brianne Connolly.

The visiting contingent included executive director Yijun Zhang, senior research scientist Yufei Lin and senior research scientist Jun Tan.

“We spent a valuable two days with the staff from China’s National Marine Hazard Mitigation Service,” said Scott Lundgren, chief of the Emergency Response Division. “Staying in touch with other national counterparts on how they conduct and advance response and restoration is valuable. As large spills have declined in frequency with a strong prevention focus in oil production and transportation, it is even more important to stay current with practices and advances around the world.”

The Assessment and Restoration Division also participated in the meeting with Mary Baker presenting information on our environmental damage assessment techniques and tools and Ben Shorr explaining our online response management mapping tool, ERMA®. Jason Lehto from NOAA’s Restoration Center also presented. In addition, Aijun Zhang from NOAA’s Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services attended the meeting to help facilitate and act as an interpreter.

 

Glen Watabayshi, chief of the Emergency Response Division’s Technical and Scientific Services Branch, contributed to this article.


Leave a comment

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


Leave a comment

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: