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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Five Key Questions NOAA Scientists Ask During Oil Spills

Responders in a small boat pressure-wash rocky shore at the site of an oil spill.

Responders pressure wash the Texas shoreline after the tank ship Eagle Otome oil spill in January of 2010. (NOAA)

During an emergency situation such as an oil spill or ship grounding, scientists in NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration are guided by five central questions as they develop scientifically based recommendations for the U.S. Coast Guard.

These recommendations help the Coast Guard respond to the incident while minimizing environmental impacts resulting from the spill and response.

Identified in the late 1980s by NOAA, these questions provide a sequential framework for identifying key information at each step that will then inform answers to subsequent questions raised during an oil spill. For example, in order to predict “where could it go?” (question two), you first need to know “what spilled?” (question one), and so on.

Questions guiding NOAA's oil spill response science, with a ship leaking oil, surrounded by boom, with flying birds and a benzene molecule.

Naturally, during a spill response, it may become necessary to revisit earlier questions or assumptions as conditions change and more—or better—information becomes available.

The Scene of the Spill

Establishing what happened is the first step. What is the scenario for this incident and where is it occurring? Gathering this information means figuring out facts such as:

  • the type of incident (e.g., pipeline rupture versus oil tanker collision).
  • the volume and types of oil involved.
  • the incident environment (e.g., stormy, calm).
  • the incident location (e.g., open ocean, near shore, water temperature).

Forecast: Cloudy with a Chance of Oil

Dr. Amy MacFadyen is a NOAA physical oceanographer who frequently works on the next step, which is predicting where the oil is going to go. In most of the spills we respond to, the oil is spilled at or near the water surface and is less dense than water. Initially, the oil will float and form a slick. Dr. MacFadyen looks at what is going on in the environment with wind and waves, which can break up the slick, causing some of the oil to mix into the water column in the form of small droplets.

An important point is that responders can potentially clean up what is on top of the water but recovering oil droplets from the water column is practically impossible. This is why it is so important to spill responders to receive accurate predictions of the movement of the surface slicks so they can quickly implement cleanup or prevention strategies.

In order to make predictions about oil movement, Dr. MacFadyen uses a computer model which includes ocean current and wind forecasts to generate an oil trajectory forecast map. Trajectory forecast models may be updated frequently, as conditions at the site of the spill change. Although the trajectory map shows the position of the oil, there is an element of uncertainty as the forecasts are based on other predictions, such as weather forecasts, which are not always perfect and are themselves subject to change.

To reduce uncertainty, trajectory forecasts incorporate information from trained observers flying over the slick who can confirm the actual location of the oil over the course of the spill response. MacFadyen can then incorporate that updated information as she runs the trajectory forecast model again.

A Sense of Sensitivity

In order to answer what the oil might affect, NOAA developed Environmental Sensitivity Index maps to identify what might be harmed by a spill in different habitat types. It is necessary for responders and decision makers to know what shoreline types exist in the path of the oil, as well as vulnerable species and habitats so that they can plan for the appropriate protection (such as booming) or cleanup method (such as skimming). Cleaning up oil off a sandy beach is very different than a salt marsh, mudflat, or rocky shore.

Animals, plants, and habitats at risk can include those on the water (e.g., seabirds), below the surface (e.g., fish), and on the bottom (e.g., mussels), as well as on the shoreline (e.g., marsh grasses).

Jill Petersen, manager of the Office of Response and Restoration Environmental Sensitivity Index map program, works to ensure that these maps of each U.S. coastal region are up-to-date so that this information is readily available should a spill occur.

Raise the Alarm for Harm

The next step is to look at what harm the oil could cause. When oil is released into the water, it can cause harm to marine animals and the environment. Oil contains thousands of chemical compounds. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons [PDF], or PAHs as they are commonly known, are a class of oil compounds that have been associated with toxic effects in exposed organisms. Because of this, scientists frequently study PAHs in spilled oil to gauge the oil’s potential environmental impact.

However, the complexity of each oil’s chemistry and the changes that occur once it is in the environment make the assessment of risk a challenging task. In order to do so, response biologists consider the type of oil, the sensitivity of potentially exposed organisms, and how the oil is expected to behave in the environment.

Oil spills can involve releases of large volumes of oil that overwhelm whatever natural capacity there might be to absorb impacts, which leads to the photographs we see of heavy oil covering plants and animals. But recent research studies have shown that even minute amounts of petroleum can harm marine eggs and larvae—which means the decisions we make during a response are even more critical to the long-term health of the affected habitats.

NOAA marine biologist Dr. Alan Mearns is an expert on how pollution from oil harms the environment. Each year, he reviews and summarizes recent research in this field to ensure oil spill response recommendations and decisions are based on the most current science that exists.

Sending Help

A skimmer picks up oil off the surface of the Delaware River.

A skimmer picks up oil off the surface of the Delaware River after the tanker Athos spilled oil in 2004. (NOAA)

Answering the previous questions allows us to determining what can be done to help. Doug Helton, the Office of Response and Restoration’s Incident Operations Coordinator, describes possible solutions as usually falling under three categories: containing the source, cleaning up, and protecting the shore.

To contain the source means to limit the further release of pollution by plugging the leak in the pipeline or containing the spill, for example, by keeping the ship from sinking and losing its entire cargo of oil.

Cleanup on the water could be conducted by mechanical means, such as booming and skimming, or through alternative technologies, such as burning the oil in open water or using chemicals to disperse the oil.

Cleanup along the shoreline can be done manually or mechanically using methods such as pressure washing. When considering cleanup options, sometimes monitoring the situation is the best option when a response method could actually cause more harm to the environment. One example is in an oiled marsh because these habitats are especially vulnerable to oil but also to being damaged by people walking through them trying to remove oil.

In addition to providing scientific support to the U.S. Coast Guard, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration develops oil spill response software and mapping tools. For responders, NOAA has published a series of job aids and manuals that provide established techniques and guidelines for observing oil, assessing shoreline impact, and evaluating accepted cleanup technologies for a variety of oil spill situations.


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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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What Have We Learned About Using Dispersants During the Next Big Oil Spill?

The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Five Years Later

This is the eighth in a series of stories over the coming weeks looking at various topics related to the response, the Natural Resource Damage Assessment science, restoration efforts, and the future of the Gulf of Mexico.

A U.S. Air Force plane drops an oil-dispersing chemical onto an oil slick on the Gulf of Mexico

A U.S. Air Force plane drops an oil-dispersing chemical onto an oil slick on the Gulf of Mexico May 5, 2010, as part of the Deepwater Horizon response effort. (NOAA)

Five years ago, in the middle of the response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, I was thrown into a scientific debate about the role of chemical dispersants in response to the spill. Dispersants are one of those things that are talked about a lot in the context of oil spills, but in reality used pretty rarely. Over my more than 20 years in spill response, I’ve only been involved with a handful of oil spills that used dispersants.

But the unprecedented use of chemical dispersants on and below the ocean’s surface during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill raised all sorts of scientific, public, and political questions. Questions about both their effectiveness in minimizing impacts from oil as well as their potential consequences for marine life in the Gulf of Mexico.

Did we understand how the ingredients and components of the dispersants behave? How toxic are they? What are the potential risks of dispersants and do they outweigh the benefits?

We knew the flood of questions wouldn’t end when the gushing oil well was capped; they would only intensify the next time there was a significant oil spill in U.S. waters. NOAA, as the primary scientific adviser to the U.S. Coast Guard, would need to keep abreast of the surge of new information and be prepared to answer those questions. Five years later, we know a lot more, but many of the scientific, public, and policy questions remain open to debate.

What Are Dispersants?

Dispersants are a class of chemicals specifically designed to remove oil from the water surface. One commonly used brand name is Corexit, but there are dozens of different dispersant mixtures (see this list of all the products available for use during an oil spill).

They work by breaking up oil slicks into lots of small droplets, similar to how dish detergent breaks up the greasy mess on a lasagna pan. These tiny droplets have a high surface area-to-volume ratio, making them easier for oil-eating microbes to break them down (through the process of biodegradation). Their small size also makes the oil droplets less buoyant, allowing them to scatter throughout the water column more easily.

Why Does Getting Oil off the Ocean Surface Matter?

Oil slicks on the water surface are particularly dangerous to seabirds, sea turtles, marine mammals, sensitive early life stages of fish (e.g., fish eggs and embryos), and intertidal resources (such as marshes and beaches and all of the plants and animals that live in those habitats). Oil, in addition to being toxic when inhaled or ingested, interferes with birds’ and mammals’ ability to stay waterproof and maintain a normal body temperature, often resulting in death from hypothermia. Floating oil can drift long distances and then strand on shorelines, creating a bigger cleanup challenge.

However, applying dispersants to an oil slick instead shifts the possibility of oil exposure to animals living in the water column beneath the ocean surface and on the sea floor. We talk about making a choice between either protecting shorelines and surface-dwelling animals or protecting organisms in the water column.

But during a large spill like the Deepwater Horizon, this is a false choice. No response technology is 100 percent effective, so it’s not either this or that; it’s how much of each? If responders do use dispersants, some oil will still remain on the surface (or reach the surface in the case of subsurface dispersants), and if they don’t use dispersants, some oil will still naturally mix into or remain in the water column.

Why Don’t We Just Clean up Oil with Booms and Skimmers?

Cleaning up oil with mechanical response methods like skimmers is preferable because these vessels actually remove the mess from the environment by skimming and collecting oil off the water surface. And in most spills, that is all we use. There are thousands of small and medium-sized spills annually, and mechanical cleanup is the norm for these incidents.

But these methods, known as “mechanical recovery,” can only remove some of the oil. Under ideal (rather than normal) circumstances, skimmers can recover—at best—only around 40 percent of an oil spill. During the Deepwater Horizon oil spill response, skimmers only managed to recover approximately 3 percent of the oil released.

Dispersants generally are only considered when mechanical cleanup would be swamped or is considered infeasible. During a big spill, mechanical recovery may only account for a small percentage of the oil. Booms (long floating barriers used to contain or soak up oil) and skimmers don’t work well in rough seas and take more time to deploy. Booms also require constant maintenance or they can become moved around by wind and waves away from their targeted areas. If they get washed onto shore, booms can cause significant damage, particularly in sensitive areas such as marshes and wetlands.

Aircraft spraying dispersant are able to treat huge areas of water quickly while a skimmer moves very slowly, only one to two miles per hour. In the open ocean spilled oil can spread as fast, or faster, than the equipment trying to corral it.

Isn’t There Something Better?

Chemical product label for Corexit dispersant.

Dispersants, such as Corexit, are a class of chemicals specifically designed to remove oil from the water surface by breaking up oil slicks into lots of small droplets. (NOAA)

Well, researchers are trying to develop more effective response tools, including safer dispersants. And the questions surrounding the potential benefits and risks of using dispersants in the Gulf of Mexico have led to substantial research in the Gulf and other waters at risk from spills, including the Arctic. That research is ongoing, and answering one question usually leads to several more.

Unfortunately, however, once an oil spill occurs, we don’t have the luxury of waiting for more research to address lingering scientific and technical concerns. A decision will have to be made quickly and with incomplete information, applied to the situation at the moment. And if, during a large spill, mechanical methods become overwhelmed, the question may be: Is doing nothing else better than using dispersants?

That summer of 2010, in between trips to the Gulf and to hearings in DC, we began to evaluate the observations and science conducted during the spill to build a foundation for planning and decision making in future spills. In 2011, NOAA and our partners held a national workshop of federal, state, industry, and academic scientists to discuss what was known about dispersants and considerations for their use in future spills. You can read the reports and background materials from that workshop.

That was not the only symposium focused on dispersant science and knowledge. Almost every major marine science conference over the past five years has devoted time to the issue. I’ve been involved in workshops and conferences from Florida to Alaska, all wrestling with this issue.

What Have We Learned?

Freshly spilled crude oil in the Ohmsett saltwater test tank starts turning brown after dispersants applied.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill spawned a larger interest in researching dispersants. Here, you can see freshly spilled crude oil in the Ohmsett saltwater test tank in New Jersey, where the oil starts changing a few minutes after dispersants were applied. Note that some of the oil is still black, but some is turning brown. (NOAA)

Now, five years later, many questions remain and more research is coming out almost daily, including possible impacts from these chemicals on humans—both those active in the response as well as residents near the sites of oiling. Keeping up with this research is a major challenge, but we are working closely with our state and federal partners, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Coast Guard, as well as those in the academic community to digest the flow of information.

The biggest lesson learned is one we already knew. Once oil is spilled there are no good outcomes and every response technology involves trade-offs.

Dispersants don’t remove oil from the environment, but they do help reduce the concentration of the oil by spreading it out in the water (which ocean currents and other processes do naturally), while also increasing degradation rates of oil. They reduce the amount of floating oil, which reduces the risk for some organisms and environments, but increases the risk for others. We also know that some marine species are even more sensitive to oil than we previously thought, especially for some developmental stages of offshore fish including tuna and mahi mahi.

But we also know, from the Exxon Valdez and other spills, that oil on the shore can persist for decades and create a chronic source of oil exposure for birds, mammals, fish, and shellfish that live near shore. We don’t want oil in the water column, and we don’t want oil in our bays and shorelines. Basically, we don’t want oil spills at all. That sounds like something everyone can agree with.

But until we stop using, storing and transporting oil, we have the risk of spills. The decision to use dispersants or not use dispersants will never be clear cut. Nor will it be done without a lot of discussion of the trade-offs. The many real and heart-felt concerns about potential consequences aren’t dismissed lightly by the responders who have to make tough choices during a spill.

I am reminded of President Harry Truman who reportedly said he wanted a one-handed economist, since his economic advisers would always say, “on the one hand…on the other.”


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After an Oil Spill, How—and Why—Do We Survey Affected Shorelines?

Four people walking along a beach.

A team of responders surveying the shoreline of Raccoon Island, Louisiana, on May 12, 2010. They use a systematic method for surveying and describing shorelines affected by oil spills, which was developed during the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. (U.S. Navy)

This is part of the National Ocean Service’s efforts to celebrate our role in the surveys that inform our lives and protect our coasts.

In March of 1989, oil spill responders in Valdez, Alaska, had a problem. They had a very large oil spill on their hands after the tanker Exxon Valdez had run aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound.

At the time, many aspects of the situation were unprecedented—including the amount of oil spilled and the level of response and cleanup required. Further complicating their efforts were the miles and miles of remote shoreline along Prince William Sound. How could responders know which shorelines were hardest hit by the oil and where they should focus their cleanup efforts? Plus, with so many people involved in the response, what one person might consider “light oiling” on a particular beach, another might consider “heavy oiling.” They needed a systematic way to document the oil spill’s impacts on the extensive shorelines of the sound.

Out of these needs ultimately came the Shoreline Cleanup and Assessment Technique, or SCAT. NOAA was a key player involved in developing this formal process for surveying coastal shorelines affected by oil spills. Today, we maintain the only SCAT program in the federal government although we have been working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to help develop similar methods for oil spills on inland lakes and rivers.

Survey Says …

SCAT aims to describe both the oil and the environment along discrete stretches of shoreline potentially affected by an oil spill. Based on that information, responders then can determine the appropriate cleanup methods that will do the most good and the least harm for each section of shoreline.

The teams of trained responders performing SCAT surveys normally are composed of representatives from the state and federal government and the organization responsible for the spill. They head out into the field, armed with SCAT’s clear methodology for categorizing the level and kind of oiling on the shoreline. This includes standardized definitions for describing how thick the oil is, its level of weathering (physical or chemical change), and the type of shoreline impacted, which may be as different as a rocky shoreline, a saltwater marsh, or flooded low-lying tundra.

After carefully documenting these data along all possibly affected portions of shoreline, the teams make their recommendations for cleanup methods. In the process, they have to take a number of other factors into account, such as whether threatened or endangered species are present or if the shoreline is in a high public access area.

It is actually very easy to do more damage than good when cleaning up oiled shorelines. The cleanup itself—with lots of people, heavy equipment, and activity—can be just as or even more harmful to the environment than spilled oil. For sensitive areas, such as a marsh, taking no cleanup action is often the best option for protecting the stability of the fragile shoreline, even if some oil remains.

Data, Data Everywhere

Having a common language for describing shoreline oiling is a critical piece of the conversation during a spill response. Without this standard protocol, spill responders would be reinventing the wheel for each spill. Along that same vein, responders at NOAA are working with the U.S. EPA and State of California to establish a common data standard for the mounds of data collected during these shoreline surveys.

Managing all of that data and turning it into useful products for the response is a lot of work. During bigger spills, multiple data specialists work around the clock to process the data collected during SCAT surveys, perform quality assurance and control, and create informational products, such as maps showing where oil is located and its level of coverage on various types of shorelines.

Data management tools such as GPS trackers and georeferenced photographs help speed up that process, but the next step is moving from paper forms used by SCAT field teams to electronic tools that enable these teams to directly enter their data into the central database for that spill.

Our goal is to create a data framework that can be translated into any tool for any handheld electronic device. These guidelines would provide consistency across digital platforms, specifying exactly what data are being collected and in which structure and format. Furthermore, they would standardize which data are being shared into a spill’s central database, whether they come from a state government agency or the company that caused the spill. This effort feeds into the larger picture for managing data during oil spills and allows everyone working on that spill to understand, access, and work with the data collected, for a long time after the spill.

Currently, we are drafting these data standards for SCAT surveys and incorporating feedback from NOAA, EPA, and California. In the next year or two, we hope to offer these standards as official NOAA guidelines for gathering digital data during oiled shoreline surveys.

To learn more about how teams perform SCAT surveys, check out NOAA’s Shoreline Assessment Manual and Job Aid.


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Three and a Half Things You Didn’t Know About the History of Oil Spills

Lakeview oil gusher surrounded by sandbags.

The largest oil spill in the United States actually took place in 1910 in Kern county, California. The Lakeview #1 gusher is seen here, bordered by sandbags and derrick removed, after the well’s release had started to subside. (U.S. Geological Survey)

Like human-caused climate change and garbage in the ocean, oil spills seem to be another environmental plague of modern times. Or are they?

The human relationship with oil may be older than you think. In California’s San Joaquin Valley, that relationship may date back more than 13,000 years. Archaeologists have discovered a long history of Native Americans using oil from the area’s natural seeps, including the Yokut Indians creating dice-like game pieces out of walnut shells, asphalt, and abalone shells. At an archaeological site in Syria, the timeline extends back even further: bitumen oil was used to affix handles onto Middle Paleolithic flint tools dating to around 40,000 BC.

As history has a tendency to repeat itself, we can benefit from occasional glimpses back in time to place what is happening today into a context beyond our own fast-moving lives. When it comes to oil spills, you may be surprised to learn that this history goes far beyond—and is much more complicated than—simply the 2010 Deepwater Horizon and 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spills.

Based on the research of NOAA oil spill biologist Gary Shigenaka, here we present three and a half things you probably didn’t know about the history of oil spills.

1. Oil spills have been happening for more than 150 years, but society has only recently started considering them “disasters.”

If you look back in time for historical accounts of oil spills, you may have a hard time finding early reports. When the first oil prospectors in Pennsylvania would hit oil and it almost inevitably gushed into the nearby soil and streams, people at the time saw this not as “environmental degradation” but as a natural consequence of the good fortune of finding oil. In an 1866 account of Pennsylvania’s oil-producing Venango County, this attitude of acceptance becomes apparent:

When the first wells were opened…there was little or no tankage ready to receive it, and the oil ran into the creek and flooded the land around the wells until it lay in small ponds.  Pits were dug in the ground to receive it, and dams constructed to secure it, yet withal the loss was very great…the river was flooded with oil, and hundreds of barrels were gathered from the surface as low down as Franklin, and prepared as lubricating oil.  Even below this point oil could be gathered in the eddies and still water along the shore, and was distinctly perceptible as far down as Pittsburgh, one hundred and forty miles below.

2. The largest oil spill in the United States didn’t take place in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 but in the California desert a hundred years earlier.

But similar to the Deepwater Horizon, this oil spill also stemmed from a runaway oil well. In Maricopa, California, the people drilling Lakeview Well No. 1 lost control of the well, which would eventually spew approximately 378 million gallons of oil into the sandy soil around it. The spill lasted more than a year, from March 14, 1910 until September 10, 1911, and only ceased after the well collapsed on itself, leaving a crater in the desert surrounded by layers of oil the consistency of asphalt.

3. The Alaskan Arctic is not untouched by oil spills; the first one happened in 1944.

The Naval ship S.S. Jonathan Harrington surrounded by Arctic sea ice.

The Naval ship S.S. Jonathan Harrington surrounded by Arctic sea ice. This ship likely caused the first major oil spill in Alaskan Arctic waters in August 1944. (U.S. Navy)

NOAA and many others are doing a lot of planning in case of an oil spill in the Alaskan Arctic. But whatever may happen in the future, in August of 1944, Alaska Native Thomas P. Brower, Sr. witnessed what was likely the first oil spill in the Alaskan Arctic. The U.S. Navy cargo ship S.S. Jonathan Harrington grounded on a sandbar near Barrow, Alaska. To lighten the ship enough to get off the sandbar, the crew apparently chose to release some of the oil it was carrying. In a 1978 interview, Brower describes the scene and its impacts on Arctic wildlife:

About 25,000 gallons of oil were deliberately spilled into the Beaufort Sea…the oil formed a mass several inches thick on top of the water. Both sides of the barrier islands in that area…became covered with oil.  That first year, I saw a solid mass of oil six to ten inches thick surrounding the islands.

…I observed how seals and birds who swam in the water would be blinded and suffocated by contact with the oil.  It took approximately four years for the oil to finally disappear. I have observed that the bowhead whale normally migrates close to these islands in the fall migration … But I observed that for four years after that oil spill, the whales made a wide detour out to sea from these islands.

And because the last point refers more to oil than oil spills, we’re counting it as item three and a half:

3½. The oil industry probably saved the whales.

Cartoon of whales throwing a ball with banners.

On April 20, 1861, this cartoon appeared in an issue of Vanity Fair in the United Kingdom. It hails the “Grand ball given by the whales in honor of the discovery of the oil wells in Pennsylvania.” (Public Domain)

The drilling of the first oil well in Pennsylvania in 1859 touched off the modern oil industry in the United States and beyond—and likely saved the populations of whales, particularly sperm whales, being hunted to near-extinction for their own oil, which was used for lighting and lubrication. The resulting boom in producing kerosene from petroleum delivered what would eventually be a lethal blow to the whaling industry, much to the whales’ delight.


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NOAA Assists with Response to Bakken Oil Train Derailment and Fire in West Virginia

Smoldering train cars derailed from the railroad tracks in snowy West Virginia.

On Feb. 18, 2015, response crews for the West Virginia train derailment were continuing to monitor the burning of the derailed rail cars near Mount Carbon next to the Kanawha River. The West Virginia Train Derailment Unified Command continues to work with federal, state and local agencies on the response efforts for the train derailment that occurred near Mount Carbon on February 15, 2015. (U.S. Coast Guard)

On February 16, 2015, a CSX oil train derailed and caught fire in West Virginia near the confluence of Armstrong Creek and the Kanawha River. The train was hauling 3.1 million gallons of Bakken crude oil from North Dakota to a facility in Virginia. Oil coming from the Bakken Shale oil fields in North Dakota and Montana is highly volatile, and according to an industry report [PDF] prepared for the U.S. Department of Transportation, it contains “higher amounts of dissolved flammable gases compared to some heavy crude oils.”

Of the 109 train cars, 27 of them derailed on the banks of the Kanawha River, but none of them entered the river. Much of the oil they were carrying was consumed in the fire, which affected 19 train cars, and an unknown amount of oil has reached the icy creek and river. Initially, the derailed train cars caused a huge fire, which burned down a nearby house, and resulted in the evacuation of several nearby towns. The evacuation order, which affected at least 100 residents, has now been lifted for all but five homes immediately next to the accident site.

The fires have been contained, and now the focus is on cleaning up the accident site, removing any remaining oil from the damaged train cars, and protecting drinking water intakes downstream. So far, responders have collected approximately 6,800 gallons of oily water from containment trenches dug along the river embankment.

Heavy equipment and oily boom on the edge of a frozen river.

Some oil from the derailed train cars has been observed frozen into the river ice, but no signs of oil appear downstream. (NOAA)

The area, near Mount Carbon, West Virginia, has been experiencing heavy snow and extremely cold temperatures, and the river is largely frozen. Some oil has been observed frozen into the river ice, but testing downstream water intakes for the presence of oil has so far shown negative results. NOAA has been assisting the response by providing custom weather and river forecasting, which includes modeling the potential fate of any oil that has reached the river.

The rapid growth of oil shipments by rail in the past few years has led to a number of high-profile train accidents. A similar incident in Lynchburg, Virginia, last year involved a train also headed to Yorktown, Virginia. In July 2013, 47 people were killed in the Canadian town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, after a train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed and exploded. NOAA continues to prepare for the emerging risks associated with this shift in oil transport in the United States.

Look for more updates on this incident from the U.S. Coast Guard News Room and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.


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NOAA Experts Help Students Study up on Oil Spills and Ocean Science

Person on boat looking oiled sargassum in the ocean.

Mark Dodd, wildlife biologist from Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources, surveying oiled sargassum in the Gulf of Mexico. (Credit: Georgia Department of Natural Resources)

Every year high school students across the country compete in the National Ocean Sciences Bowl to test their knowledge of the marine sciences, ranging from biology and oceanography to policy and technology. This year’s competition will quiz students on “The Science of Oil in the Ocean.” As NOAA’s center for expertise on oil spills, the Office of Response and Restoration has been a natural study buddy for these aspiring ocean scientists.

In addition to providing some of our reports as study resources, three of our experts recently answered students’ questions about the science of oil spills in a live video Q&A. In an online event hosted by the National Ocean Sciences Bowl, NOAA environmental scientist Ken Finkelstein, oceanographer Amy MacFadyen, and policy analyst Meg Imholt fielded questions on oil-eating microbes, oil’s movement in the ocean, and much more.

Here is a sampling of the more than a dozen questions asked and answered, plus a bit of extra research to help you learn more. (You also can view the full hour-long video of the Q&A.)

What are the most important policies that relate to the oil industry?

There are lots of policies related to the oil industry. Here are a few that impact our work:

  • The Clean Water Act establishes rules about water pollution.
  • The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 establishes the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund to support oil spill response and holds companies responsible for damages to natural resources caused by a spill.
  • The National Contingency Plan guides preparedness and response for oil and hazardous material spills. It also regulates the use of some response tools such as dispersants.
  • The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act gives the Department of Interior authority to lease areas in federal waters for oil and gas development and to regulate offshore drilling.
  • The Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act establish rules for protected species that companies must consider in their operations.

How do waves help transport oil?

Waves move oil in a few ways. First is surface transport. Waves move suspended particles in circles. If oil is floating on the surface, waves can move it toward the shore. However, ocean currents and winds blowing over the surface of the ocean are generally much more important in transporting surface oil. For example, tidal currents associated with rising and falling water levels can be very fast — these currents can move oil in the coastal zone at speeds of several miles per hour. Over time, all these processes act to spread oil out.

Waves are also important for a mixing process called dispersion. Most oils float on the surface because they are less dense than water. However, breaking waves can drive oil into the water column as droplets. Larger, buoyant droplets rise to the surface. Smaller droplets stay in the water column and move around in the subsurface until they are dissolved and degraded.

How widespread is the use of bacteria to remediate oil spills?

Some bacteria have evolved over millions of years to eat oil around natural oil seeps. In places without much of this bacteria, responders may boost existing populations by adding nutrients, rather than adding new bacteria.

This works best as a polishing tool. After an initial response, particles of oil are left behind.  Combined with wave movement, nutrient-boosted bacteria help clean up those particles.

Are oil dispersants such as Corexit proven to be poisonous, and if so, what are potential adverse effects as a result of its use?

Both oil and dispersants can have toxicological effects, and responders must weigh the trade-offs. Dispersants can help mitigate oil’s impacts to the shoreline. When oil reaches shore, it is difficult to remove and can create a domino effect in the ecosystem. Still, dispersants break oil into tiny droplets that enter the water column. This protects the shoreline, but has potential consequences for organisms that swim and live at the bottom of the sea.

To help answer questions like these, we partnered with the Coastal Response Research Center at the University of New Hampshire to fund research on dispersants and dispersed oil. Already, this research is being used to improve scientific support during spills.

What are the sources of oil in the ocean? How much comes from natural sources and how much comes from man-made sources?

Oil can come from natural seeps, oil spills, and also runoff from land, but total volumes are difficult to estimate. Natural seeps of oil account for approximately 60 percent of the estimated total load in North American waters and 40 percent worldwide, according to the National Academy of Sciences in a 2003 report. In 2014, NOAA provided scientific support to over 100 incidents involving oil, totaling more than 8 million gallons of oil potentially spilled. Scientists can identify the source of oil through a chemical technique known as oil fingerprinting. This provides evidence of where oil found in the ocean is from.

An important factor is not only how much oil is in the environment, but also the type of oil and how quickly it is released. Natural oil seeps release oil slowly over time, allowing ecosystems to adapt. In a spill, the amount of oil released in a short time can overwhelm the ecosystem.

What is the most effective order of oil spill procedure? What is currently the best method?

It depends on what happened, where it’s going, what’s at risk, and the chemistry of the oil.  Sometimes responders might skim oil off the surface, burn it, or use pads to absorb oil. The best response is determined by the experts at the incident.

Bag of oiled waste on a beach.

Oiled waste on the beach in Port Fourchon, Louisiana. On average, oil spill cleanups generate waste 10 times the amount of oil spilled. (NOAA)

What do you do with the oil once it is collected? Is there any way to use recovered oil for a later use?

Oil weathers in the environment, mixing with water and making it unusable in that state. Typically, collected oil has to be either processed before being recycled or sent to the landfill, along with some oiled equipment. Oil spill cleanups create a large amount of waste that is a separate issue from the oil spill itself.

Are the effects of oil spills as bad on plants as they are on animals?

Oil can have significant effects on plants, especially in coastal habitat. For example, mangroves and marshes are particularly sensitive to oil. Oil can be challenging to remove in these areas, and deploying responders and equipment can sometimes trample sensitive habitat, so responders need to consider how to minimize the potential unintended adverse impact of cleanup actions.

Does some of the crude oil settle on the seafloor? What effect does it have?

Oil usually floats, but can sometimes reach the seafloor. Oil can mix with sediment, separate into lighter and heavier components, or be ingested and excreted by plankton, all causing it to sink, with potential impacts for benthic (bottom-dwelling) creatures and other organisms.

When oil does reach the seafloor, removing it has trade-offs. In some cases, removing oil could require removing sediment, which is home to many important benthic (bottom-dwelling) organisms. Responders work with scientists to decide this on a case-by-case basis.

To what extent is the oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill still affecting the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem?

NOAA and our co-trustees have released a number of studies as part of the ongoing Natural Resource Damage Assessment for this spill and continue to release new research. Some public research has shown impacts on dolphins, deep sea ecosystems, and tuna. Other groups, like the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, are conducting research outside of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment.

How effective are materials such as saw dust and hair when soaking up oil from the ocean surface?

Oil spill responders use specialized products, such as sorbent materials, which are much more effective.

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