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

Oil Spills, Seeps, and the Early Days of Drilling Oil Along California’s Coast

Black and white photo of early oil derricks and piers at Summerland, California, 1902

Some of the earliest offshore oil wells were located at Summerland in Santa Barbara County, California. Shown here in 1902, you can see the early wharves that extended from the shore out to derricks over the wells. (U.S. Geological Survey)

One of the challenges of the 2015 pipeline oil spill near Santa Barbara, California, was distinguishing between oil released from the pipeline and oil released naturally from the many seeps in the area. This challenge could become even more complicated when you consider the history of oil drilling in southern California [PDF] that dates back to the 1860s.

Unless you are a history buff or study environmental pollution, you probably didn’t realize that the beautiful sand beaches of southern California were once home to some of the earliest offshore oil rigs.

Oil seeps both on the shore and in the ocean were clues to the underground oil reservoirs in the Santa Barbara Channel. Even today, natural seeps in Santa Barbara’s Coal Oil Point area release an estimated 6,500-7,000 gallons of oil per day (Lorenson et al., 2011).

Drilling into History

The first offshore wells in the United States were drilled in 1896 in the Summerland region just east of Santa Barbara. Initial wells were built on piers sticking several hundred feet out into the ocean. Over the years, many more wells and offshore platforms were built in the region.

However, oil exploration and drilling was virtually unregulated at the time, and spills were common. California’s first out-of-control oil gusher occurred in February 1892 near Santa Paula, but since no one had a way to store so much oil (1,500 barrels were released per day), much of it eventually flowed into the ocean via the Santa Clara River.

Black and white photo of men building a pier over the ocean to reach oil derricks drilling offshore at Summerland, California, 1900.

A view looking down the Treadwell wharf toward shore and the central portion of the Summerland oil field in Santa Barbara County, California, in 1900. These early oil fields were essentially unregulated, resulting in spills and leaks back then as well as today. (U.S. Geological Survey)

In addition, many of these first flimsy piers and oil platforms at Summerland were destroyed by storms or fires or later abandoned without much thought about preventing spills in the future. The state’s first laws governing oil well abandonment came into place in 1915, in part to protect the oil and gas wells on neighboring properties. (Fortunately, the old and leaky Summerland wells were far enough away from the 2015 pipeline spill location that they didn’t add yet another possible source of oil in the area of the spill.)

By the 1960s offshore oil production began to take off in California, particularly along Santa Barbara County. That is, until January 1969, when Union Oil’s Platform A suffered a blowout six miles off the coast. The result was more than 3.2 million gallons of crude oil were released into the Santa Barbara Channel and on surrounding shorelines.

Public outcry was so great that not only did California ban new leases for offshore drilling in state-owned waters, but it helped catalyze a broader movement to protect the environment and prevent pollution in the United States. Still, natural seeps serve as a reminder of the area’s “Wild West” days of oil exploration.

Seep vs. Spill

Today, the region is much cleaner, but, as we saw after the 2015 pipeline spill at Refugio State Beach near Santa Barbara, that doesn’t mean it’s free of oil, either naturally released or spilled during extraction. While telling the two apart can be complicated, it isn’t impossible.

One clue for distinguishing seep oil from oil coming from production platforms is looking at how “weathered” the oil is. Oil being drilled by a platform is extracted directly from a deep underground reservoir and thus appears “fresher,” that is, less weathered by environmental processes.

The seep oil, on the other hand, generally appears more weathered, having migrated up through the seafloor and ocean depths. Seep oil is more weathered because many of its less stable compounds have been dissolved into the water column, oxidized by sunlight or evaporated into the atmosphere at the surface, or broken down by microbes that naturally metabolize hydrocarbon molecules.

Another method for distinguishing among oils is a process known as “fingerprinting,” which uses analytical chemistry to compare the relative quantities of hydrocarbons unique to petroleum in the spilled oil versus another oil.

Even though seeps release a lot of oil into the ocean, oil spills such as the 2015 pipeline spill near Santa Barbara have different and more significant impacts on the nearshore environment than the slower, steadier release of natural oil seeps. Spills often release relatively large volumes of oil suddenly into an area, which can overwhelm the ability of the environment (such as its oil-eating microbes) to adapt to the influx of oil.

That doesn’t mean seeps don’t have any environmental impacts themselves. Oil from seeps can be toxic to marine life, including fish, sea stars, shrimp, and seabirds, with impacts largely concentrated in the immediate area around a seep. While our job is to use science to minimize and evaluate potential environmental impacts during oil spills (and not seeps), knowing the history of an area like Santa Barbara can go a long way to helping us do just that.

NOAA environmental scientist Greg Baker also contributed to this post.


Leave a comment

Washington Sea Grant Launches New Program to Prevent Small Oil Spills that Add Up

This is a guest post by Lauren Drakopulos of Washington Sea Grant.

Marina in Seattle with small boats.

Small recreational and commercial vessels account for 75 percent of the oil spilled in waters around Washington’s Puget Sound over the last 10 years. (NOAA)

To paraphrase an old saying, “There’s no use crying over spilled oil.” But many people in Washington worry a lot about oil pollution in Puget Sound and other coastal waters around the state.

What many don’t realize is that the biggest source of oil spills to date in Puget Sound isn’t tankers and freighters but small recreational and commercial vessels. Small oil spills from these types of vessels account for 75 percent of the oil spilled in local waters over the last 10 years.

How do these small oil spills happen? A common cause is when oil, along with water, builds up in the bottommost compartment of a boat, known as the bilge, which has a pump to keep rain and seawater from building up. Oil from broken oil lines in the engine area or spilled fuel on deck can get washed down into the bilge and then pumped into surrounding waters.

Taking Charge of Discharges

Aaron Barnett holds a bilge sock next to stacks of them.

Washington Sea Grant’s Aaron Barnett preparing to distribute small oil spill kits in 2015. (MaryAnn Wagner/Washington Sea Grant)

In the future, however, Washington boaters increasingly will have access to a simple remedy known as the Small Oil Spills Prevention Kit, which consists of a small absorbent pillow, or “bilge sock,” that is placed alongside bilge pumps to prevent oily discharges from entering the water. Washington boaters will be seeing and using a lot more of the kits.

The Clean Marina Program, a partnership of the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, the Northwest Marine Trade Association, and Washington Sea Grant, has worked for 20 years to minimize small vessel spills. But the summer of 2016 marks a change: for the first time the campaigners are targeting private boaters rather than marina managers.

Washington Sea Grant, the Washington Department of Ecology, and Washington’s District 13 Coast Guard Auxiliary have launched the Small Spills Prevention Program to provide boaters with the knowledge and tools they need to stop oil pollution at the source. Last year, in a trial run, Washington Sea Grant Boating Program Specialist Aaron Barnett succeeded in distributing 1,000 oil spill prevention kits.

This year that labor is bearing fruit: according to Coast Guard Auxiliary Instructor Mike Brough, more and more boaters are requesting kits after seeing their friends and other boaters use them. As Barnett explains, the success of the program depends on first, getting the kits out to boaters, and second, word of mouth—with boaters educating each other about oil spills.

Pollution Prevention, Pollution Management

Boaters understand the importance of keeping their waterways clean. As frequent users, they serve as the first line of defense against pollution. “Boaters want to do the right thing,” says Brough, “and these [kits] make it easier.” He recently handed out spill prevention kits at a local marina on National Marina Day. “It’s like handing out candy on Halloween. Anyone with a bilge and inboard engine will take one.”

Brough also got a chance to see the kits in action. “At the marina office, one boater was getting a bilge sock to replace his old one from some extras I had given the yacht club a few months earlier,” he recounts. “The guy had gotten a crack in the lubrication oil line during a trip on the Sound. The broken line dumped a significant amount of oil into the bilge. The bilge sock he was using caught all of the oil, and none went overboard.”

Small spills can be expensive for boaters to clean up, and often cost is the first question boaters ask. In Washington the kits are funded through state oil taxes and made available to boaters at no cost, as part of the Small Spills Prevention Program. This summer, Washington Sea Grant hopes to hand out another 1,000 kits to boaters.

Lauren Drakopulos.Lauren Drakopulos is a Science Communications Fellow with Washington Sea Grant and is pursuing her Ph.D. in geography at the University of Washington. Lauren has worked for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and her current research looks at community engagement in fisheries science. Washington Sea Grant, based at the University of Washington, provides statewide marine research, outreach, and education services. The National Sea Grant College Program is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) U.S. Department of Commerce. Visit www.wsg.washington.edu for more information or join the conversation with @WASeaGrant on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

The views expressed in this post reflect those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official views of NOAA or the U.S. federal government.


Leave a comment

Improving Currents Predictions for Washington Waters Will Help Efforts to Prevent and Respond to Oil Spills

Front of a kayak pushing through floating wood in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Kayakers and oil spill responders alike will appreciate the updated currents predictions NOAA is producing from a survey of Washington’s Puget Sound, San Juan Islands, and Strait of Juan de Fuca. (Courtesy of Amy MacFadyen)

This is a post by Amy MacFadyen, NOAA oceanographer and modeler in the Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division.

As a sea kayaking enthusiast who enjoys paddling the waters of Washington’s Puget Sound, I need to have up-to-date information about the currents I’m passing through. Accurate predictions of the strong tidal currents in the sound are critical to safe navigation, and kayak trips in particular need to be timed carefully to ensure safe passage of certain regions.

As a NOAA oceanographer and modeler, I also depend on accurate information about ocean currents to predict where spilled pollutants may travel in the marine environment.

Sound Information

These are two reasons I was excited to learn that NOAA’s Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services (CO-OPS) is performing a scientific survey of currents in the marine waters of the Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands, and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. They began in the south sound in the summer of 2015, deploying almost 50 devices known as Acoustic Doppler Current Profilers to measure ocean currents at various depths throughout the water column.

Work is getting underway this summer to continue gathering data. The observations collected during this survey will enable NOAA to provide improved tidal current predictions to commercial and recreational mariners. But these updated predictions will also help my line of work with oil spill response.

When oil spills occur at sea, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration provides scientific support to the Coast Guard, including predictions of the movement and fate of the oil. Accurate predictions of the oil trajectory may help responders protect sensitive shorelines and direct cleanup operations.

Spills Closer to Home

U.S. Coast Survey nautical chart of Washington's Puget Sound in 1867.

A U.S. Coast Survey nautical chart showing the complex channels of Puget Sound when Washington was just a territory in 1867. (NOAA)

In the last few years, I’ve modeled oil movement for numerous spills and traveled on scene to assist in the oil spill response.

Seeing oil on the water and shorelines of places ranging from Santa Barbara, California, to Matagorda Island, Texas, I can’t help but think about both the possibility of a spill closer to my home in Puget Sound and our ability to model the movement of the oil there.

When oil spills in the marine environment, it spreads quickly, forming thin slicks on the ocean surface that are transported by winds and currents.

Puget Sound is a glacially carved fjord system of interconnected marine waterways and deep basins separated by shallower regions called sills.

Tidal currents in these narrow, silled connection channels can reach fairly swift speeds of up to 5-6 mph, whereas in the deep basins the currents are much slower (typically less than 1-2 mph).

Accurate predictions of currents within the sound will be critical to forecasting oil movement. Today’s predictions for this region rely on limited amounts of data gathered from the 1930s-1960s. Thanks to both these current surveys and modern technological advances, we can expect significant progress in the accuracy of these predictions.

The information collected on the NOAA current surveys will also be used to support the creation of an Operational Forecast System for Puget Sound, a numerical model which will provide short-term forecasts of water level, currents, water temperature, and salinity—information that is critical to oil spill trajectory forecasting.

Making Safer Moves

A fuel barge in Puget Sound on a cloudy day.

With the methods for transporting oil through Washington rapidly shifting and the number of vessels carrying oil increasing, the risks for oil spills are changing as well. Here, a fuel barge passes through Puget Sound. (NOAA)

More accurate current and water level predictions are good for oil spill modeling, but they are even better for oil spill prevention by making navigating through our waterways safer.

Until fairly recently, 90% of the oil moving through Washington (mainly to and from refineries) traveled by ship. But by 2014, that number dropped to less than 60%, with rail and pipelines making up the difference.

Because the methods for transporting oil through Washington are shifting, the risks for oil spills shift as well. However, even with the recent increase in crude oil being delivered by train, the number of vessels transporting oil through state waters has gone up as well, increasing the risk of a large oil spill in Puget Sound.

With such a dynamic oil transportation system and last December’s repeal of a decades-long ban on exporting U.S. crude oil, the Washington Department of Ecology has decided to update its vessel traffic risk assessment for the Puget Sound. Results from the risk assessment will ultimately be used to inform spill prevention measures and help us become even better prepared to respond to a spill.

The takeaway? Both state and federal agencies are working to make Washington waters safer.

Amy MacFadyenAmy MacFadyen is a physical oceanographer at the Emergency Response Division of the Office of Response and Restoration (NOAA). The Emergency Response Division provides scientific support for oil and chemical spill response — a key part of which is trajectory forecasting to predict the movement of spills. During the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Amy helped provide daily trajectories to the incident command. Before moving to NOAA, Amy was at the University of Washington, first as a graduate student, then as a postdoctoral researcher. Her research examined transport of harmful algal blooms from offshore initiation sites to the Washington coast.


Leave a comment

How Do Oil Spills Affect Sea Turtles?

Head and upper body of Kemp's Ridley sea turtle coated in thick brown oil.

A Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle covered in oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. (NOAA)

Sea turtles: These beloved marine reptiles have been swimming the seas for millions of years. Yet, in less than a hundred years, threats from humans, such as accidentally catching turtles in fishing gear (“bycatch”), killing nesting turtles and their eggs, and destroying habitat, have caused sea turtle populations to plummet. In fact, all six species of sea turtles found in U.S. waters are listed as threatened or endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

As we’ve seen in the Gulf of Mexico in recent years, oil spills represent yet another danger for these air-breathing reptiles that rely on clean water and clean beaches. But how exactly do oil spills affect sea turtles? And what do people do during and after an oil spill to look out for the well-being of sea turtles?

Living the Ocean Life

From the oil itself to the spill response and cleanup activities, a major oil spill has the potential to have serious negative effects on sea turtles. Part of the reason for this is because sea turtles migrate long distances and inhabit so many different parts of the ocean environment at different stages of their lives.

Graphic showing the life cycle of sea turtles in the ocean: egg laying; hatchling dispersal; oceanic feeding: small juveniles in sargassum; feeding on the continental shelf: large juveniles and adults, mating and breeding migration; and internesting near beach.

The life cycle of a sea turtle spans multiple habitats across the ocean, from sandy beaches to the open ocean. (NOAA)

For starters, sea turtles hatch (and females later return as adults to lay eggs) on sandy beaches. Then, they head to the vast open ocean where the tiny young turtles drift, hide from predators, and grow among floating islands of seaweed called sargassum. Finally, as larger juveniles and adults, they swim to the shallower waters of the continental shelf and near shore, where they spend the majority of the rest of their lives.

If a large offshore spill releases oil into the open ocean, currents and winds can carry oil across all of the habitats where sea turtles are found—and into the potential path of sea turtles of every age—as it makes its way to shore.

Another reason sea turtles can be particularly vulnerable to ocean oil spills is simply because they breathe air. Even though sea turtles can hold their breath on dives for extended periods of time, they usually come to the surface to breathe several times an hour. Because most oils float, sea turtles can surface into large oil slicks over and over again.

The situation can be even worse for very young sea turtles living among floating sargassum patches, as these small turtles almost never leave the top few feet of water, increasing their exposure to a floating oil slick. Furthermore, ocean currents and winds often bring oil to the same oceanic convergence zones that bring sargassum and young sea turtles together.

Turtle Meets Oil, Inside and Out

So, we know the many places sea turtles can run into an oil spill, but how exactly do they encounter the oil during a spill?

Graphic showing how spilled oil in the ocean can affect sea turtles at all stages of life and across ocean habitats: Oil on the shoreline can contaminate nesting females, nests, and hatchlings; larger turtles can inhale oil vapors, ingest oil in prey or sediment, and become coated in oil at the surface; winds and currents create ocean fronts, bringing together oil, dispersants, and sargassum communities, causing prolonged floating oil exposure; juvenile turtles ingest oil, inhale vapors, and become fatally mired and overheated; prey items may also be killed by becoming stuck in heavy oil or by dissolved oil components; and sargassum fouled by oil and dispersants can sink, leaving sargassum-dependent animals without food and cover and vulnerable to predators. Dead sea turtles may sink.

The potential impacts of an oil spill on sea turtles are many and varied. For example, some impacts can result from sea turtles inhaling and ingesting oil, becoming covered in oil to the point of being unable to swim, or losing important habitat or food that is killed or contaminated by oil. (NOAA)

It likely starts when they raise their heads above the water’s surface to breathe. When sea turtles surface in a slick, they can inhale oil and its vapors into their lungs; gulp oil into their mouths, down their throats, and into their digestive tracts while feeding; and become coated in oil, to the point of becoming entirely mired and unable to swim. Similarly, sea turtles may swim through oil drifting in the water column or disturb it in the sediments on the ocean bottom.

Female sea turtles that ingest oil can even pass oil compounds on to their developing young, and once laid, the eggs can absorb oil components in the sand through the eggshell, potentially damaging the baby turtle developing inside. Nesting turtles and their hatchlings are also likely to crawl into oil on contaminated beaches.

Not the Picture of Health

Graphic showing how oil spill cleanup and response activities can negatively affect sea turtles: Cleaning oil from surface and subsurface shores with large machines deters nesting; booms and other barriers prevent females from nesting; response vessels can strike and kill sea turtles and relocation trawlers can inadvertently drown them; application of dispersants may have effects on sea turtles; and skimming and burning heavy oil may kill some sea turtles, while also exposing others to smoke inhalation.

Oil spill cleanup and response activities can negatively affect sea turtles as well. For example, oil containment booms along beaches can prevent nesting females from reaching the shores to lay their eggs. (NOAA)

Once sea turtles encounter oil, what are the impacts of that exposure?

Inhaling and swallowing oil generally result in negative health effects for animals, as shown in dolphins and other wildlife, hindering their overall health, growth, and survival. Lining the inside of sea turtles’ throats are pointy spines called esophageal papillae, which normally act to keep swallowed food inside while allowing water to be expelled. Unfortunately, these projections also seem to trap thick oil in sea turtles’ throats, and evidence of oil has been detected in the feces of oiled turtles taken into wildlife rehabilitation centers.

Oil can irritate sensitive mucus membranes around the eyes, mouth, lungs, and digestive tract of sea turtles, and toxic oil compounds known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) can be absorbed into vital organ tissues such as the lungs and liver. Because sea turtles can hold their breath for long periods, inhaled oil has a greater chance of being absorbed into their bodies. Oil compounds that get passed from mother turtles to their young can interfere with development and threaten the survival of sea turtles still developing in the eggs.

Once inside their systems, oil can impede breathing and heart function in sea turtles, which can make diving, feeding, migrating, mating, and escaping predators more difficult. Being heavily covered in oil likewise impedes sea turtles’ abilities to undertake these activities, which puts them at risk of exhaustion and dehydration. In addition, dark oil under a hot summer sun can heat up turtles to dangerous temperatures, further jeopardizing their health and even killing them. In fact, sea turtles heavily coated in oil are not likely to survive without medical attention from humans.

Another, less direct way oil spills can affect the health of sea turtles is by killing or contaminating what they eat, which, depending on the species, can range from fish and crabs to jellyfish to seagrass and algae. In addition, if oil kills the sargassum where young sea turtles live, they lose their shelter and source of food and are forced to find suitable habitat elsewhere, which makes them more vulnerable to predators and uses more energy.

Spill response and cleanup operations also can harm sea turtles unintentionally. Turtles can be killed after being struck by response vessels or as a result of oil burning and skimming activities. Extra lighting and activity on beaches can disrupt nesting and hatchling turtles, as well as incubating eggs.

Help Is on the Way

A person holding a small clean Kemp's Ridley sea turtle over a blue bin.

A Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle ready to be returned to the wild after being cleaned and rehabilitated during an oil spill. (NOAA)

The harm that oil spills can cause to sea turtles is significant, and estimating the full suite of impacts to these species is a long and complicated process.  There are some actions that have been taken to protect these vulnerable marine reptiles during oil spills. These include activities such as:

  • Performing rescue operations by boat, which involve scooping turtles out of oil or water using dip-nets and assessing their health.
  • Taking rescued turtles to wildlife rehabilitation centers to be cleaned and cared for.
  • Monitoring beaches and coastlines for injured (and sometimes dead) turtles.
  • Monitoring nesting beaches to safeguard incubating nests.
  • Conducting aerial surveys to assess abundance of adults and large juvenile turtles potentially in the footprint of an oil spill.

Finally, the government agencies acting as stewards on behalf of sea turtles, as well as other wildlife and habitats, will undertake a scientific evaluation of an oil spill’s environmental impacts and identify restoration projects that make up for any impacts.

As an example, read about the impacts to sea turtles from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, details about how they were harmed, and the proposed restoration path forward.


Leave a comment

NOAA Supporting Spill Response in the Green Canyon Oil Reserve Area of the Gulf of Mexico

Vessels skim oil from the surface of the Gulf of Mexico.

Vessels conduct skimming operations, May 14, 2016, in response to an estimated 88,200 gallons of crude oil discharged from a segment of flow line at the Glider Field approximately 90 miles south of Timbalier Island, Louisiana. As of May 15, the vessels have removed a combined total of more than 51,000 gallons of oily-water mixture since the discharge on May 12, 2016. (U.S. Coast Guard)

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is supporting the U.S. Coast Guard response to an oil spill in the Green Canyon oil reserve area in the Gulf of Mexico. We are providing oil spill trajectory analysis and information on natural resources potentially at risk from the oil. The NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator has been on-scene.

The spill occurred at approximately 11:00 a.m. on May 12, 2016 when 2,100 barrels (88,200 gallons) of oil was discharged from a Shell subsea well-head flow line at the Glider Field. Since then, the source has been secured and the pipeline is no longer leaking. The U.S. Coast Guard reports that the spill happened approximately 90 miles south of Timbalier Island, Louisiana.

We are providing scientific support, including consulting with natural resource trustees and environmental compliance requirements, identifying natural resources at risk, coordinating overflight reports, modeling the spill’s trajectory, and coordinating spatial data needs, such as displaying response data in a “common operational picture.” The reported oil trajectory is in a westerly direction with no expected shoreline impact at this time.

For more details, refer to the May 15 U.S. Coast Guard press release or the May 15 Shell Gulf of Mexico Response press release.


1 Comment

How Does NOAA Model Oil Spills?

Dark oil drifts near the populated shores of Berkeley and Emerville, California.

After the cargo ship M/V Cosco Busan struck the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in 2007, NOAA oceanographers modeled how wind, waves, tides, and weather would carry the ship’s fuel oil across San Francisco Bay. Here, dark oil drifts near the shores of Berkeley and Emerville, California, on November 9, 2007. (NOAA)

One foggy morning in 2007, a cargo ship was gliding across the gray waters of San Francisco Bay when it ran into trouble, quite literally. This ship, the M/V Cosco Busan, struck the Bay Bridge, tearing a hundred-foot-long gash in its hull and releasing 53,000 gallons of thick, sticky fuel oil into the bay.

When such an oil spill, or even the threat of a spill, happens in coastal waters, the U.S. Coast Guard asks the oceanographers at NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration for an oil spill trajectory.

Watch as NOAA’s Ocean Service breaks down what an oil spill trajectory is in a one-minute video, giving a peek at how we model the oil’s path during a spill.

Using a specialized NOAA computer model, called GNOME, our oceanographers forecast the movement of spilled oil on the water surface. With the help of data for winds, tides, weather, and ocean currents, they model where the oil is most likely to travel and how quickly it may come ashore or threaten vulnerable coastal resources, such as endangered seabirds or a busy shipping lane.

During the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, we produced dozens of oil spill trajectory maps, starting on April 21 and ending August 23, 2010, when aerial surveys and satellite analyses eventually showed no recoverable oil in the spill area. You can download the trajectory maps from that spill.

Swirls of oil on the surface of San Francisco Bay west of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Specially trained observers fly over oil spills to gather information that is fed back into NOAA’s trajectory model to improve the next forecast of where the oil is going. (NOAA)

Learn more about how we model and respond to oil spills:

Attempting to Answer One Question Over and Over Again: Where Will the Oil Go?

“Over the duration of a typical spill, we’ll revise and reissue our forecast maps on a daily basis. These maps include our best prediction of where the oil might go and the regions of highest oil coverage, as well as what is known as a “confidence boundary.” This is a line encircling not just our best predictions for oil coverage but also a broader area on the map reflecting the full possible range in our forecasts [PDF].

Our oceanographers include this confidence boundary on the forecast maps to indicate that there is a chance that oil could be located anywhere inside its borders, depending on actual conditions for wind, weather, and currents.”

A Bird’s Eye View: Looking for Oil Spills from the Sky

“Aerial overflights are surveys from airplanes or helicopters which help responders find oil slicks as they move and break up across a potentially wide expanse of water … Overflights give snapshots of where the oil is located and how it is behaving at a specific date and time, which we use to compare to our oceanographic models. By visually confirming an oil slick’s location, we can provide even more accurate forecasts of where the oil is expected to go, which is a key component of response operations.”

Five Key Questions NOAA Scientists Ask During Oil Spills

“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.”


Leave a comment

For the First Time in Decades, Scientists Examine How Oil Spills Might Affect Baleen Whales

A North Atlantic right whale's mouth is visible at the ocean surface.

NOAA scientists and partners recently collaborated to examine how oil and dispersants might affect the function of baleen in humpback, bowhead, and right whales (pictured). Hundreds of baleen plates hang from these whales’ top jaws and allow them to filter food from the water. (Credit: Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Permit 15488)

Several days of unseasonably warm weather in late September had Gary Shigenaka starting to wonder how much longer he and his colleagues would be welcome at Ohmsett, a national oil spill research facility in New Jersey.

They were working with whale baleen, and although the gum tissue anchoring their baleen samples had been preserved with formalin, the balmy fall weather was taking a toll. As a result, things were starting to smell a little rank.

Fortunately, cooler weather rounded out that first week of experiments, and the group, of course, was invited back again. Over the course of three week-long trials in September, December, and January, they were trying to tease out the potential impacts of oil and dispersants on whale baleen.

As a marine biologist with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, Shigenaka’s job is to consider how oil spills might threaten marine life and advise the U.S. Coast Guard on this issue during a spill response.

But the last time scientists had examined how oil might affect whale baleen was in a handful of studies back in the 1980s. This research took place before the 1989 Exxon Valdez and 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spills and predated numerous advances in scientific technique, technology, and understanding.

Thanks to a recent opportunity provided by the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which runs the Ohmsett facility, Shigenaka and a team of scientists, engineers, and oil spill experts have been able to revisit this question in the facility’s 2.6 million gallon saltwater tank.

The diverse team that made this study possible hails not just from NOAA but also Alaska’s North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management (Dr. Todd Sformo), Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (Dr. Michael Moore and Tom Lanagan), Hampden-Sydney College (Dr. Alexander Werth), and Oil Spill Response Limited (Paul Schuler). In addition, NOAA’s Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program provided substantial support for the project, including funding and regulatory expertise, and was coordinated by Dr. Teri Rowles.

Getting a Mouthful

To understand why this group is focused on baleen and how an oil spill might affect this particular part of a whale, you first need to understand what baleen is and how a whale uses it. Similar to fingernails and hooves, baleen is composed of the protein keratin, along with a few calcium salts, giving it a tough but pliable character.

A hand holds a ruler next to oiled baleen hanging from a clamp next to a man.

Made of the flexible substance keratin, baleen plates have tangles of “fringe hair” that act as nets to strain marine life from mouthfuls of ocean water. This study examined how oil and dispersants might affect the performance of baleen. (NOAA)

Twelve species of whales, including humpback and bowhead, have hundreds of long plates of baleen hanging from the top jaw, lined up like the teeth on a comb, which they use to filter feed. A whale’s tongue rubs against its baleen plates, fraying their inner edges and creating tangles of “fringe hair” that act like nets to catch tiny sea creatures as the whale strains massive gulps of ocean water back out through the baleen plates.

Baleen does vary somewhat between species of whales. Some might have longer or shorter baleen plates, for example, depending on what the whale eats. Bowhead whales, which are Arctic plankton-eaters, can have plates up to 13 feet long.

This study was, at least in part, inspired by scientists wondering what would happen to a bowhead whale if a mouthful of water brought not just lunch but also crude oil from an ill-fated tanker traversing its Arctic waters.

Would oil pass through a whale’s hundreds of baleen plates and coat their mats of fringe hairs? Would that oil make it more difficult for the whale to push huge volumes of water through the oily baleen, causing the whale to use more energy as it tried? Does that result change whether the oil is freshly spilled, or weathered with age, or dispersed with chemicals? Would dispersant make it easier for oil to reach a whale’s gut?

Using more energy to get food would mean the whales then would need to eat even more food to make up for the energy difference, creating a tiring cycle that could tax these gargantuan marine mammals.

Testing this hypothesis has been the objective of Shigenaka’s team. While it might sound simple, almost nothing about the project has been straightforward.

Challenges as Big as a Whale

One of the first challenges was tackled by the engineers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. They were tasked with turning the mechanical features of Ohmsett’s giant saltwater tank into, essentially, a baleen whale’s mouth.

Woods Hole fabricated a special clamp and then worked with the Ohmsett engineering staff to attach it to a corresponding mount on the mechanical bridges that move back and forth over the giant tank. The clamp gripped the sections of baleen and allowed them to be held at different angles as they moved through the water. In addition, this custom clamp had a load cell, which was connected to a computer on the bridge. As the bridge moved the clamp and baleen at different speeds and angles through the water, the team could measure change in drag on the baleen via the load cell.

With the mechanical portion set up, the Ohmsett staff released oil into the test tank on the surface of the water, and the team watched expectantly how the bridges moved the baleen through the thin oil slick. It turned out to be a pretty inefficient way to get oil on baleen. “How might a whale deal with oil on the surface of the water?” asked Shigenaka. “If it’s feeding, it might scoop up a mouthful of water and oil and run it through the baleen.” But how could they simulate that experience?

They tried using paintbrushes to apply crude oil to the baleen, but that seemed to alter the character of the baleen too much, matting down the fringe hairs. After discussions with the Ohmsett engineering staff, the research team finally settled on dipping the baleen into a pool of floating oil that was contained by a floating ring. This set-up allowed a relatively heavy amount of oil to contact baleen in the water and would help the scientists calibrate their expectations about potential impacts.

Testing the Waters

Four black plumes of dispersed oil are released underwater onto long plates of baleen moving behind the applicator.

After mixing chemical dispersant with oil, the research team released plumes of it underwater in Ohmsett’s test tank as baleen samples moved through the water behind the applicator. Researchers also tested the effects of dispersant alone on baleen function. (NOAA)

In all, Shigenaka and his teammates ran 127 different trials across this experiment. They measured the drag values for baleen in a variety of combinations: through saltwater alone, with fresh oil, with weathered oil, with dispersed oil (pre-mixed and released underwater through a custom array designed and built by Ohmsett staff), and with chemical dispersant alone. They tested during temperate weather as well as lower temperature conditions, which clearly thickened the consistency of the oil. They conducted the tests using baleen from three different species of whales: bowhead, humpback, and right whale.

Following all the required regulations and with the proper permits, the bowhead baleen was donated by subsistence whalers from Barrow, Alaska. The baleen from other species came from whales that had stranded on beaches from locations outside of Alaska.

In addition to testing the potential changes in drag on the baleen, the team of researchers used an electric razor to shave off baleen fringe hairs as samples for chemical analysis to determine whether the oil or dispersant had any effects on baleen at the molecular level. They also determined how much oil, dispersed oil, and dispersant were retained on the baleen fringe hairs after the trials.

At this point, the team is analyzing the data from the experimental trials and plans to submit the results for publication in a scientific journal. NOAA is also beginning to create a guidance document on oil and cetaceans (whales and dolphins), which will incorporate the conclusions of this research.

While the scientific community has learned a lot about the apparent effects of oil on dolphins in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, there is very little information on large whales. The body of research on oil’s effects on baleen from the 1980s concluded that there were few and transient effects, but whether that conclusion holds up today remains to be seen.

“This is another piece of the puzzle,” said Shigenaka. “If we can distill response-relevant guidance that helps to mediate spill impacts to whales, then we will have been successful.”

Work was conducted under NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service Permits 17350 and 18786.