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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Post Hurricane Sandy, NOAA Aids Hazardous Spill Cleanup in New Jersey and New York

Oil sheen is visible on the waters of Arthur Kill on the border of New Jersey and New York in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

Oil sheen is visible on the waters of Arthur Kill on the border of New Jersey and New York in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. (NOAA)

[UPDATED NOVEMBER 6, 2012] Hurricane Sandy’s extreme weather conditions—80 to 90 mph winds and sea levels more than 14 feet above normal—spread oil, hazardous materials, and debris across waterways and industrial port areas along the Mid Atlantic. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is working with the U.S. Coast Guard and affected facilities to reduce the impacts of this pollution in coastal New York and New Jersey.

We have several Scientific Support Coordinators and information management specialists on scene at the incident command post on Staten Island, N.Y.

Since the pollution response began, we have been dispatching observers in helicopters with the Coast Guard to survey the resulting oil sheens on the water surface in Arthur Kill, N.J./N.Y. This is in support of the response to a significant spill at the Motiva Refinery in Sewaren, N.J., as well as for the cleanup and assessment of several small spills of diesel fuel, biodiesel, and various other petroleum products scattered throughout northern New Jersey’s refinery areas.

One of the challenges facing communities after a devastating weather event is information management. One tool we have developed for this purpose is ERMA, an online mapping tool which integrates and synthesizes various types of environmental, geographic, and operational data. This provides a central information hub for all individuals involved in an incident, improves communication and coordination among responders, and supplies resource managers with the information necessary to make faster and better informed decisions.

ERMA has now been adopted as the official common operational platform for the Hurricane Sandy pollution response, and we have sent additional GIS specialists to the command post.

Species and Habitats at Risk

The most sensitive habitats in the area are salt marshes, which are often highly productive and are important wildlife habitat and nursery areas for fish and shellfish. Though thin sheens contain little oil, wind and high water levels after the storm could push the diesel deep into the marsh, where it could persist and contaminate sediments. Because marshes are damaged easily during cleanup operations, spill response actions will have to take into account all of these considerations.

In addition, diesel spills can kill the many small invertebrates at the base of the food chain which live in tidal flats and salt marshes if they are exposed to a high enough concentration. Resident marsh fishes, which include bay anchovy, killifish, and silversides, are the fish most at risk because they are the least mobile and occupy shallow habitats. Many species of heron nest in the nearby inland marshes, some of the last remaining marshlands in Staten Island. Swimming and diving birds, such as Canada geese and cormorants, are also vulnerable to having their feathers coated by the floating oil, and all waterfowl have the potential to consume oil while feeding.

Based on the risks to species and habitats from both oil and cleanup, we weigh the science carefully before making spill response recommendations to the Coast Guard.

Tracking the Spilled Oil

Responders face an oily debris field in Sheepshead Bay, N.Y., after Hurricane Sandy. Nov. 2, 2012.

Responders face an oily debris field in Sheepshead Bay, N.Y., after Hurricane Sandy. Nov. 2, 2012. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Because no two oils are alike, we train aerial observers to evaluate the character and extent of oil spilled on the water. NOAA performs these aerial surveys, or overflights, of spilled oil like in Arthur Kill to determine the status of the oil’s source and to track where wind and waves are moving spilled oil while also weathering it. The movement of wind and waves, along with sunlight, works to break down oil into its chemical components. This changes the appearance, size, and location of oil, and in return, can change how animals and plants interact with the oil.

When spilled on water, diesel oil spreads very quickly to a thin film. However, diesel has high levels of toxic components which dissolve fairly readily into the water column, posing threats to the organisms living there. Biodiesel can coat animals that come into contact with it, but it breaks down up to four times more quickly than conventional diesel. At the same time, this biodegradation could cause potential fish kills by using up large amounts of oxygen in the water, especially in shallow areas.

Look for photos, maps, and updates on pollution-related response efforts at IncidentNews.

Check the Superstorm Sandy CrisisMap for aggregated information from NOAA, FEMA, and other sources on weather alerts and observations; storm surge and flood water data; aerial damage assessment imagery; and the locations of power outages, food and gas in New Jersey, and emergency shelters.


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Let’s Get Chemical: What Is Oil?

This is a post by Vicki Loe with OR&R chemist Robert Jones. Technical review by Robert Jones and OR&R biologist Gary Shigenaka.

Emulsified oil from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP spill pooled on marsh vegetation.

Emulsified oil from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP spill remains on, and pooled below, vegetation in Pass a Loutre, La., following a previous week’s storm. Image shot on May 22, 2010. (NOAA)

I recently began an ongoing conversation on this blog about our relationship with oil and oil products and the large part oil plays in all of our lives. Walking through just the first hour of a typical day for me, I managed to list 20 products I use that come from oil. But for something that we all depend on every day, how much do we really understand about what it is and why it’s so useful?

As most of us know, oil comes from beneath the ground. It is made of dead animal and plant matter, buried deep under layers of sedimentary rock. Pressure and heat cause oil deposits to form over long periods of time. But what is oil at its most basic?

Diagram of the molecular structure of benzene.

A diagram of the molecular structure of benzene, an aromatic hydrocarbon and component of oil.

Oil is a complex mixture of molecular compounds.  A molecule is the smallest unit of a substance that retains the substance’s characteristics. Molecules, in turn, are composed of atoms.  There are only 90 naturally occurring types of atoms on earth; these form the basis of the innumerable types of molecules found in nature.

Crude oils, while mixtures of thousands of types of molecular compounds, are predominantly composed of only two types of atoms: hydrogen (H) and carbon (C). Molecular compounds composed exclusively of these two elements are called hydrocarbons.

Petroleum hydrocarbons are predominantly one of two types, aromatics or alkanes. Aromatics, which are based on a 6-carbon ring, tend to be the molecular compounds in oil that are the most toxic to marine life. A notable case is polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which have multiple carbon rings and can also be quite persistent in the environment. Alkanes, on the other hand, tend to be less toxic and are much more readily biodegraded naturally; most can be ingested as food by some microorganisms.

For example, the oil spilled from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP well blow-out was relatively high in alkanes and relatively low in PAHs. But, like all crude oils, it contained benzene, toluene, and xylene, which belong to the single-ring aromatic group. Benzene is very toxic and known to cause cancer but is not as persistent as PAHs.

Oil in marsh vegetation during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill.

Oil in marsh vegetation during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill. (NOAA)

Refining crude oil to produce fuel oils like gasoline and diesel does not significantly alter the molecular structure of the oil’s components. So fuel oils usually contain the same types of molecular compounds that are found in their parent crude oils.

Different chemical compounds can be extracted from crude oil and then recombined or altered to make what are called petrochemicals. Petrochemicals are used to make a vast array of products, including acetic acid, ammonia, polyvinyl chloride, polyethylene, lubricants, adhesives, agrochemicals, fragrances, food additives, packaging, paint, and pharmaceutical products. And that’s just the start!

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is the primary science adviser to the U.S. Coast Guard during a major oil spill. Knowledge of the chemical make-up of the particular oil, whether it is a crude oil or refined fuel oil, is critical in making response decisions when there is spill. Among the scientists that work in OR&R’s Emergency Response Division are chemists that are experts in this field.

Crude oil is predominantly a mixture of hydrocarbons, but every crude oil is a unique mixture of molecular compounds. There are thousands of named crude oils in use around the world. Our chemists make recommendations by determining the source of the spill and the optimal cleanup methods and safety issues, based on the unique properties of the oil released.

The next blog post in this series will delve into the toxicity of oil and the harm it can cause when accidentally released into the marine environment.

Robert Jones

Robert Jones

Co-author Robert Jones is a chemist in OR&R’s Emergency Response Division. He is a member of the spill response team and is involved in the development of computer models used to predict the fate and transport of oil and other chemicals in the environment. Robert received his Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry from Indiana University. Prior to joining NOAA in 1990, Robert taught chemistry at Western Washington University.


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What Happens After Abandoning Ship

Twenty three years after running aground on a reef in Alaska and causing one of the largest spills in U.S. history, the tanker Exxon Valdez is back in the news—this time to keep it from being intentionally grounded on a beach in India.

The Indian Supreme Court has ruled that the Exxon Valdez (now called the Oriental Nicety) cannot be grounded and cut apart on the shores of Gujarat until it can be cleaned of residual oils and other contaminants.

Workers scrap ships for parts and metal on a beach in Bhatiari, Chittagong, Bangladesh.

Workers scrap ships for parts and metal (“ship breaking”) on a beach in Bhatiari, Chittagong, Bangladesh. Credit: Naquib Hossain, Creative Commons License: Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0).

What’s known as “ship breaking” is a dirty business, and many of the world’s tired and obsolete vessels end up being grounded on beaches in India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan and cut apart for scrap steel.

In recent years the business of ship scrapping has become a major health and environmental concern. Many ship breaking yards in these developing countries have little or no safety equipment or environmental protections, and toxic materials from these ships, including oils, heavy metals, and asbestos, escape into the environment.

A derelict vessel grounded on a coal reef in Samoa.

A rusted-out derelict vessel still sits grounded on a coal reef in Samoa. (NOAA/Doug Helton)

Obsolete vessels and ship scrapping can also be a problem here in the U.S. Last year, the 431-foot S/S Davy Crockett made the news down on the Columbia River near Vancouver, Wash.

Mysterious oil sheens on the river were traced upriver to the former Navy Liberty ship that had begun leaking oil due to improper and unpermitted salvage operations.

Next week I will be at the Clean Pacific Conference in Long Beach, Calif., and presenting information on the challenges of dealing with abandoned and derelict vessels in the U.S. I know that the Davy Crockett and the issues it raised will come up.

Vessels are abandoned for all sorts of reasons, including storms (particularly hurricanes/typhoons which may damage large numbers of boats), community-wide economic stress or change (e.g., declining commercial fishing industries), and financial or legal issues of individual owners.  The high cost of proper vessel disposal can lead some folks to just walk away.

Hopefully we can help improve how we respond to these vessels and increase prevention programs to prevent abandonment. If you are interested in this issue, there is more information on NOAA’s Abandoned Vessel Program.


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How Do You Picture Science?

Explaining the environmental ramifications of the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill [leaves this blog] in the Gulf of Mexico is no easy task. Visualizing those impacts in an easy-to-understand way? Maybe even harder.

Last year NOAA scientists Mary Baker and Debbie Payton needed to figure out how to do just that, and as a communications coordinator for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R), it was my job to make it happen. Although I had yet to work with her, I thought of Kate Sweeney, a medical and scientific illustrator for UWCreative [leaves this blog], out of the University of Washington (Seattle), whose specialty is creating accessible and understandable illustrations that depict complex scientific processes.

After the initial spill in the Gulf, oil moved through the water column in a variety of ways, and the potential for it to move into the sediments at the bottom included several possible scenarios. The challenge for this graphic was to clearly describe the different ways the oil could move into the sediment layer at the ocean floor. Using mapping data provided by OR&R and discussing the concepts with NOAA scientists and myself, Kate developed a single, striking graphic illustration that clearly encompassed all the possibilities. As a result, we were able to use the illustration extensively to inform the public about the spill.

Potential Pathways of Oil

Illustration showing the potential pathways of spilled oil following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP incident in the Gulf of Mexico. Click to view larger image. Credit: NOAA/Kate Sweeney.

Kate compares the process of creating complex scientific images to telling a story, and she has seen demand for her illustrations grow as the expectation for high-quality visuals has increased.

According to Kate, a key component to this process is working collaboratively with the scientists. When we first sat down with her at our office, she created a rough sketch in the first hour that we were able to comment on. With that initial feedback, she returned to her office and developed the first electronic draft. She didn’t hesitate to do several rounds of drafts back and forth, using discussion along with trial and error to get it right.

Kate recently completed another marine illustration for OR&R, “Conceptual Model of Arctic Oil Exposure and Injuries,” that shows natural resources at risk and the potential impacts of an oil spill in the Arctic.

Oil impacts on Arctic food webs

The illustration shows potential oil spill impacts to wildlife and habitats in the Arctic sea. Click for larger view. Credit: NOAA/Kate Sweeney, Illustration.

As sea ice recedes in the Arctic, shipping routes will open, increasing vessel traffic and increasing the likelihood of spills. Increasing pressure for more oil exploration in the region also highlights the need to be prepared in the event of a spill during offshore drilling. This diagram in particular is useful in discussions with the public, industry, and other trustee agencies to reach a common understanding of which resources are most at risk, and what information on those resources is needed now as baseline data we can use for comparison and for planning how to respond in case of a spill.

Kate says that her biggest challenge as a scientific illustrator is gaining enough of a fundamental understanding of the subject matter. Meeting that challenge, however, and executing the drawing successfully is what she enjoys most about her job.

Contact Kate Sweeney at kateswe@u.washington.edu.

Example illustration of repair of a herniated diaphragm

Example of the artist’s recent work for the University of Washington: Repair of Herniated Diaphragm, prepared for JD Godwin, MD, Department of Radiology. A: Front cutaway view of herniated diaphragm B: Plication sutures are placed in the diaphragm C: Top view of sutures before they are drawn tight D: Sutures are drawn tight to reduce the bulge in the diaphragm. Credit: Kate Sweeney.

“To create the images for this surgical procedure, I met with both the radiologist and the surgeon who performs this repair, and we discussed the anatomy and subsequent repair. Over a series of sketches, we developed and refined the views and details of the narrative.”–Kate Sweeney


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What’s in the Oil from the Deepwater Horizon Spill? What’s in ANY Oil?

Heavy band of oil in the Gulf of Mexico

Heavy band of oil seen during an overflight in the Gulf of Mexico on May 12,2010. Credit: NOAA.

What is in oil? Well, there are literally thousands of individual compounds in oil. So what was in the oil flowing out of the Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico last summer?

Researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution took samples in order to figure this out and just published some of their findings on the chemical composition of the Deepwater Horizon oil in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [PDF]. You can read a non-scientist’s summary of these findings at Scientific American.

The Scientific American story points out that crude oil is not a single substance but is a mix of different hydrocarbons and other chemicals and trace metals. But did you know that there are also thousands of different kinds of crude and refined oils?

Oil from the Alaska North Slope is really different than oil from Alaska’s Cook Inlet, not to mention places like Angola, Nigeria, or Venezuela. The chemical components of the oil depend on the geologic formation they are extracted from, and even oil from the same geologic formation can vary over time.

Another way to think about this is to imagine separate regions of the world that make “wine.” There are many types of wine, but a merlot doesn’t taste like a chardonnay because the grapes are a different variety. But even a merlot with grapes grown in California will have a distinct flavor from a merlot grown in France, from a neighboring valley in California, and even from the same vineyard from year to year. Why? Because the ingredients in the soil, the weather conditions, and how the grapes were grown create these differences in the grapes. All of these and other factors come together to give you a different kind of “wine.” It’s a similar concept for oil.

Comparing diesel and bunker fuel oils

Diesel fuel, left, is a much lighter oil than the heavy, slow-moving bunker fuel on the right. Credit: Doug Helton, NOAA.

These differences in the ratios of certain hydrocarbons and other chemicals (the varying “recipes” for oils) make a difference in the extraction and refining process—as well as in spill cleanup. Some crude oils are heavy and viscous (sticky and slow-moving), like roofing tar, while others are light, like diesel fuel. Some oils have a lot of sulfur compounds. These are called sour crudes. Oils without a lot of sulfur are referred to as sweet crudes.

Some oils are so heavy that they sink beneath the water surface when spilled, and some are so light that a large fraction will evaporate. Some will mix with water and form stable emulsions, like an oil-based salad dressing. Some oils are amenable to specific response strategies such as burning or chemical dispersants. Because these variations in oil can make a big difference when oil is spilled, we have computer programmers who created and maintain a database of oils and their properties to help make decisions during spill responses.

Our Automated Data Inquiry for Oil Spills (ADIOS2) model has a database containing more than a thousand crude oils and refined products and provides quick estimates of the expected characteristics and behavior of spilled oil.

The database was compiled from different sources, including Environment Canada, the U.S. Department of Energy, and industry. Take a look for yourself at all of the information about oil in the database, and then create a mock spill to calculate how much of the oil would have evaporated, been naturally dispersed in the water column, and is still remaining on the water surface.