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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From Natural Seeps to a Historic Legacy, What Sets Apart the Latest Santa Barbara Oil Spill

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

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

The response to the oil pipeline break on May 19, 2015 near Refugio State Beach in Santa Barbara County, California, is winding down. Out of 20 area beaches closed due to the oil spill, all but one, Refugio State Beach, have reopened.

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration provided scientific support throughout the response, including aerial observations of the spill, information on fate and effects of the crude oil, oil detection and treatment, and potential environmental impacts both in the water and on the shore.

Now that the response to this oil spill is transitioning from cleanup to efforts to assess and quantify the environmental impacts, a look back shows that, while not a huge spill in terms of volume, the location and timing of the event make it stand out in several ways.

Seep or Spill: Where Did the Oil Come From?

This oil spill, which allowed an estimated 21,000 gallons of crude oil to reach the Pacific Ocean, occurred in an area known for its abundant natural oil seeps. The Coal Oil Point area is home to seeps that release an estimated 6,500-7,000 gallons of oil per day (Lorenson et al., 2011) and are among the most active in the world. Oil seeps are natural leaks of oil and gas from subterranean reservoirs through the ocean floor.

The pipeline spill released a much greater volume of oil than the daily output of the local seeps. Furthermore, because it was from a single source, the spill resulted in much heavier oiling along the coast than you would find from the seeps alone.

A primary challenge, for purposes of spill response and damage assessment, was to determine whether oil on the shoreline and nearby waters was from the seeps or the pipeline. Since the oil from the local natural seeps and the leaking pipeline both originated from the same geologic formation, their chemical makeup is similar.

However, chemists from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the University of California at Santa Barbara, Louisiana State University, and the U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety Lab were able to distinguish the difference by examining special chemical markers through a process known as “fingerprinting.”

Respecting Native American Coastal Culture

The affected shorelines include some of the most important cultural resource areas for California Native Americans. Members of the Chumash Tribe populated many coastal villages in what is now Santa Barbara County prior to 1800. Many local residents of the area trace their ancestry to these communities.

To ensure that impacts to cultural resources were minimized, Tribal Cultural Resource Monitors were actively engaged in many of the upland and shoreline cleanup activities and decisions throughout the spill response.

Bringing Researchers into the Response

The massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 highlighted the need for further research on issues surrounding oil transport and spill response. As a result, there was a great deal of interest in this spill among members of the academic community, which is not always the case for oil spills. In addition, the spill occurred not far from the University of California at Santa Barbara.

From the perspective of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, this involvement with researchers was beneficial to the overall effort and will potentially serve to broaden our scientific resources and knowledge base for future spills.

The Legacy of 1969

Another unique aspect of the oil spill at Refugio State Beach was its proximity to the site of one of the most historically significant spills in U.S. history. Just over 46 years ago, off the coast of Santa Barbara, a well blowout occurred, spilling as much as 4.2 million gallons of oil into the ocean. The well was capped after 11 days.

The 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, which was covered widely in the media, oiled miles of southern California beaches as well. It had such a devastating impact on wildlife and habitat that it is credited with being the catalyst that started the modern-day environmental movement. Naturally, the 2015 oil spill near the same location serves as a reminder of that terrible event and the damage that spilled oil can do in a short period of time.

Moving Toward Restoration

In order to assess the environmental impacts from the spill and cleanup, scientists have collected several hundred samples of sediment, oil, water, fish, mussels, sand crabs, and other living things. In addition, they have conducted surveys of the marine life before and after the oil spill.

The assessment, which is being led by the state of California, involves marine ecology experts from several California universities as well as federal and state agencies.

After a thorough assessment of the spill’s harm, the focus will shift toward restoring the injured natural and cultural resources and compensating the public for the impacts to those resources and the loss of use and enjoyment of them as a result of the spill. This process, known as a Natural Resource Damage Assessment, is undertaken by a group of trustees, made up of federal and state agencies, in cooperation with the owner of the pipeline, Plains All American Pipeline. This group of trustees will seek public input to help guide the development of a restoration plan.


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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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Who Is Funding Research and Restoration in the Gulf of Mexico After the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill?

This is a post by Kate Clark, Acting Chief of Staff with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, and Frank Parker, Associate Director for the NOAA RESTORE Act Science Program, with NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science.

The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Five Years Later

This is the fourth 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.

When an oil spill takes place, people want to see the coasts, fish, wildlife, and recreational opportunities affected by that spill restored—so they can be as they were before, as quickly as possible. Fortunately, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 supports this. After most major oil spills, what routinely happens is the government undertakes a Natural Resource Damage Assessment, a rigorous, scientific process of assessing environmental injuries and, with public input, identifying and implementing the appropriate amount of restoration to compensate for the injuries resulting from this spill (all paid for by those responsible for the pollution).

What is not routine in the wake of an oil spill is the groundswell of support for even more research and restoration, beyond the scope of the usual damage assessment process, to bolster the resilience of the impacted ecosystem and coastal communities. Yet that is exactly what happened after the Deepwater Horizon well blowout in 2010, which renewed a national interest in the unique environment that is the Gulf of Mexico.

In the wake of this disaster, there have been various additional investments, outside of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process, in more broadly learning about and restoring the Gulf of Mexico. These distinct efforts to fund research and restoration in the Gulf have been sizable, but keeping track of them can be, frankly, a bit confusing.

The many organizations involved are working to ensure the Gulf’s new infusions of funding for restoration and research are well coordinated. However, keep in mind that each effort is independent of the others in funding mechanism, primary mandate, and process.

Tracking Dollars for Gulf Restoration

In one effort, announced while the Macondo well was still gushing oil, BP dedicated up to $500 million dollars to be spent over 10 years “to fund an independent research program designed to study the impact of the oil spill and its associated response on the environment and public health in the Gulf of Mexico.” This investment spawned the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, or GOMRI, which is governed by an independent, academic research board of 20 science, public health, and research administration experts and independent of BP’s influence.

Meanwhile, BP faced both potential criminal and civil penalties under the Clean Water Act, which regulates the discharge of pollutants into U.S. waters. When such penalties are pursued by the government for pollution events, such as an oil spill, a portion of the criminal monetary penalties are usually paid to a local environmental foundation or conservation organization to administer the funds.

Ultimately, BP agreed to a $4 billion criminal settlement in 2013, with the bulk of that money going to North American Wetlands Conservation Fund, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and National Academy of Sciences.

Chart showing various investments and their recipients for science and restoration efforts in the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Science and restoration initiatives in the Gulf of Mexico following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (NOAA)

That still leaves civil penalties to be determined. Normally, civil penalties under the Clean Water Act are directed to the General Treasury.

However, Congress passed legislation calling for 80 percent of the administrative and civil penalties related to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to be diverted directly to the Gulf of Mexico for ecological and economic restoration. This legislation, known as the RESTORE Act (Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States Act of 2012), passed on July 6, 2012.

While the full extent of BP’s civil penalties have yet to be determined, in 2013 the Department of Justice finalized a civil settlement with Transocean in the amount of $1 billion. This settlement results in more than $800 million going to the Gulf of Mexico under the RESTORE Act. As to penalties for BP, the court has currently ruled on two of the three trial phases. Based on those rulings, currently under appeal, the penalty cap for BP is $13.7 billion. A third trial phase for factors that are taken into account in establishing the penalty at or under that cap was concluded in February 2015. The court has yet to rule on the third phase of the trial, and the pending appeals have not yet been heard by the appeals court.

NOAA and Restoration in the Gulf

So where does NOAA fit into all of this? NOAA is carrying out its usual duties of working with its partners to assess injury to and restore impacted natural resources through the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process. However, NOAA also is involved in supporting broader Gulf research and resilience, which will complement the damage assessment process, in two new ways through the RESTORE Act.

First, NOAA is supporting in the RESTORE Act’s Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, which is chaired by Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker (NOAA sits in the Department of Commerce). Second, NOAA is leading the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Science, Observation, Monitoring, and Technology Program, or more simply, the NOAA RESTORE Act Science Program.

A NOAA ship at dock.

NOAA is leading a science program aimed at improving our understanding of the Gulf of Mexico and the plants and animals that live there, in order to better protect and preserve them. (NOAA)

This program exists because we simply don’t know as much as we need to know about the Gulf of Mexico and the plants and animals that live there in order to reverse the general decline of coastal ecosystems and ensure resilience in the future.

To make sure this new science program addresses the needs of the region, NOAA, in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, met with resource managers, scientists, and other Gulf of Mexico stakeholders to discuss what the focus of the program should be. We heard three key messages loud and clear:

  • Make sure the research we support is closely linked to regional resource management needs.
  • Coordinate with other science initiatives working in the region.
  • Make the results of research available quickly to those who could use them.
Woman checks for bubbles in a sample of water on board the NOAA Ship Pisces.

The NOAA RESTORE Act Science Program is already in the process of making available $2.5 million for research in the Gulf of Mexico, with more opportunities to come. (NOAA)

NOAA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have designed a science plan [PDF] for the NOAA RESTORE Act Science Program that outlines how we will make this happen.

The science plan describes the research priorities highlighted during our engagement with stakeholders and from reviewing earlier assessments of the science needed to better understand the Gulf of Mexico. These priorities will guide how the program directs its funding over the coming years.

The research priorities include improving our understanding of how much and when freshwater, sediment, and nutrients enter the coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico and what this means for the growth of wetlands and the number of shellfish and fish in the Gulf of Mexico. Another priority is developing new techniques and technologies for measuring conditions in the Gulf to help inform resource management decisions.

Apply for Research Funding

Currently, the NOAA RESTORE Act Science Program is holding its first competition for funding, with over 100 research teams already responding. It will make $2.5 million available for researchers to review and integrate what we already know about the Gulf of Mexico and work with resource managers to develop strategies directing the program toward our ultimate goal of supporting the sustainability of the Gulf and its fisheries.

The results of this work also will help inform the direction of other science initiatives and restoration activities in the Gulf region. NOAA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will announce the winners of this funding competition in the fall of 2015.

To learn more about the NOAA RESTORE Act Science Program and future funding opportunities, visit http://restoreactscienceprogram.noaa.gov/.


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NOAA’s Online Mapping Tool ERMA Opens up Environmental Disaster Data to the Public

Six men looking at a map with a monitor in the background.

Members of the U.S. Coast Guard using ERMA during the response to Hurricane Isaac in 2012. (NOAA)

This is a post by the NOAA Office of Response and Restoration’s Jay Coady, Geographic Information Systems Specialist.

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March 15-21, 2015 is Sunshine Week, an “annual nationwide celebration of access to public information and what it means for you and your community.” Sunshine Week is focused on the idea that open government is good government. We’re highlighting NOAA’s Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA) as part of our efforts to provide public access to government data during oil spills and other environmental disasters.    

Providing access to data is a challenging task during natural disasters and oil spill responses—which are hectic enough situations on their own. Following one of these incidents, a vast amount of data is collected and can accumulate quickly. Without proper data management standards in place, it can take a lot of time and effort to ensure that data are correct, complete, and in a useful form that has some kind of meaning to people. Furthermore, as technology advances, responders, decision makers, and the public expect quick and easy access to data.

NOAA’s Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA®) is a web-based mapping application that pulls in and displays both static and real-time data, such as ship locations, weather, and ocean currents. Following incidents including the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill and Hurricane Sandy in 2012, this online tool has aided in the quick display of and access to data not only for responders working to protect coastal communities but also the public.

From oil spill response to restoration activities, ERMA plays an integral part in environmental data dissemination. ERMA reaches a diverse group of users and maintains a wide range of data through a number of partnerships across federal agencies, states, universities, and nations.

Because it is accessible through a web browser, ERMA can quickly communicate data between people across the country working on the same incident. At the same time, ERMA maintains a public-facing side which allows anyone to access publically available data for that incident.

ERMA in the Spotlight

During the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, ERMA was designated as the “common operational picture” for the federal spill response. That meant ERMA displayed response-related activities and provided a consistent visualization for everyone involved—which added up to thousands of people.

Screen grab of ERMA map.

ERMA map showing areas of dispersant application during the response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. (NOAA)

To date, the ERMA site dedicated solely to the Deepwater Horizon spill contains over 1,500 data layers that are available to the public. Data in ERMA are displayed in layers, each of which is a single set of data. An example of a data layer is the cumulative oil footprint of the spill. This single data layer shows, added together, the various parts of the ocean surface the oil spill affected at different times over the entire course of the spill, as measured by satellite data. Another example is the aerial dispersant application data sets that are grouped by day into a single data layer and show the locations of chemical dispersant that were applied to oil slicks in 2010.

Even today, ERMA remains an active resource during the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process, which evaluates environmental harm from the oil spill and response, and NOAA releases data related to these efforts to the public as they become available. ERMA continues to be one of the primary ways that NOAA shares data for this spill with the public.

ERMA Across America

While the Deepwater Horizon oil spill may be one ERMA’s biggest success stories, NOAA has created 10 other ERMA sites customized for various U.S. regions. They continue to provide data related to environmental response, cleanup, and restoration activities across the nation’s coasts and Great Lakes. These 10 regional ERMA sites together contain over 5,000 publicly available data layers, ranging from data on contaminants and environmentally sensitive resources to real-time weather conditions.

For example, in 2012, NOAA used Atlantic ERMA to assist the U.S. Coast Guard, Environmental Protection Agency, and state agencies in responding to pollution in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Weather data were displayed in near real time as the storm approached the East Coast, and response activities were tracked in ERMA. The ERMA interface was able to provide publically available data, including satellite and aerial imagery, storm inundation patterns, and documented storm-related damages. You can also take a look at a gallery of before-and-after photos from the Sandy response, as viewed through Atlantic ERMA.

Screen grab of an ERMA map.

An ERMA map showing estimated storm surge heights in the Connecticut, New York and New Jersey areas during Hurricane Sandy. (NOAA)

In addition, the ERMA team partnered with NOAA’s Marine Debris Program to track Sandy-related debris, in coordination with state and local partners. All of those data are available in Atlantic ERMA.

Looking to the north, ERMA continues to be an active tool in Arctic oil spill response planning. For the past two years, members of the ERMA team have provided mapping support using Arctic ERMA during the U.S. Coast Guard’s Arctic Technology Evaluation exercises, which took place at the edge of the sea ice north of Barrow, Alaska. During these exercises, the crew and researchers aboard a Coast Guard icebreaker tested potential technologies for use in Arctic oil spill response, such as unmanned aircraft systems. You can find the distributions of sensitive Alaskan bird populations, sea ice conditions, shipping routes, and pictures related to these Arctic exercises, as well as many more data sets, in Arctic ERMA.

Screen grab of an Arctic ERMA map.

ERMA is an active tool in Arctic oil spill response planning. (NOAA)

To learn more about the online mapping tool ERMA, visit http://response.restoration.noaa.gov/erma.

Jay Coady is a GIS Specialist with the Office of Response and Restoration’s Spatial Data Branch and is based in Charleston, South Carolina. He has been working on the Deepwater Horizon incident since July 2010 and has been involved in a number of other responses, including Post Tropical Cyclone Sandy.


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Adventures in Developing Tools for Oil Spill Response in the Arctic

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Zachary Winters-Staszak. This is the third in a series of posts about the Arctic Technology Evaluation supporting Arctic Shield 2014. Read the first post, “NOAA Again Joins Coast Guard for Oil Spill Exercise in the Arctic” and the second post, “Overcoming the Biggest Hurdle During an Oil Spill in the Arctic: Logistics.”

People in a boat lowering orange ball into icy waters.

The crew of the icebreaker Healy lowering an iSphere onto an ice floe to simulate tracking oil in ice. (NOAA/Jill Bodnar)

The Arctic Ocean, sea ice, climate change, polar bears—each evokes a vivid image in the mind. Now what is the most vivid image that comes to mind as you read the word “interoperability”? It might be the backs of your now-drooping eyelids, but framed in the context of oil spill response, “interoperability” couldn’t be more important.

If you’ve been following our latest posts from the field, you know Jill Bodnar and I have just finished working with the U.S. Coast Guard Research and Development Center on an Arctic Technology Evaluation during Arctic Shield 2014. We were investigating the interoperability of potential oil spill response technologies while aboard the Coast Guard icebreaker Healy on the Arctic Ocean.

Putting Square Pegs in Round Holes

As Geographic Information Systems (GIS) map specialists for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, a great deal of our time is spent transforming raw data into a visual map product that can quickly be understood. Our team achieves this in large part by developing a versatile quiver of tools tailored to meet specific needs.

For example, think of a toddler steadfastly—and vainly—trying to shove that toy blue cylinder into a yellow box through a triangular hole. This would be even more difficult if there were no circular hole on that box, but imagine if instead you could create a tool to change those cylinders to fit through any hole you needed. With computer programming languages we can create interoperability between technologies, allowing them to work together more easily. That cylinder can now go through the triangular hole.

New School, New Tools

Different technologies are demonstrated each year during Arctic Shield’s Technology Evaluations and it is common for each technology to have a different format or output, requiring them to be standardized before we can use them in a GIS program like our Environmental Response Management Application, Arctic ERMA.

Taking lessons learned from Arctic Shield 2013’s Technology Evaluation, we came prepared with tools in ERMA that would allow us to automate the process and increase our efficiency. We demonstrated these tools during the “oil spill in ice” component of the evaluation. Here, fluorescein dye simulated an oil plume drifting across the water surface and oranges bobbed along as simulated oiled targets.

The first new tool allowed us to convert data recorded by the Puma, a remote-controlled aircraft run by NOAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Program. This allowed us to associate the Puma’s location with the images it was taking precisely at those coordinates and display them together in ERMA. The Puma proved useful in capturing high resolution imagery during the demonstration.

A similar tool was created for the Aerostat, a helium-filled balloon connected to a tether on the ship, which can create images and real-time video with that can track targets up to three miles away. This technology also was able to delineate the green dye plume in the ocean below—a function that could be used to support oil spill trajectory modeling. We could then make these images appear on a map in ERMA.

The third tool received email notifications from floating buoys provided by the Oil Spill Recovery Institute and updated their location in ERMA every half hour. These buoys are incredibly rugged and produced useful data that could be used to track oiled ice floes or local surface currents over time. Each of the tools we brought with us is adaptable to changes on the fly, making them highly valuable in the event of an actual oil spill response.

Internet: Working With or Without You

Having the appropriate tools in place for the situation at hand is vital to any response, let alone a response in the challenging conditions of the Arctic. One major challenge is a lack of high-speed Internet connectivity. While efficient satellite connectivity does exist for simple communication such as text-based email, a robust pipeline to transmit and receive megabytes of data is costly to maintain. Similar to last year’s expedition, we overcame this hurdle by using Stand-alone ERMA, our Internet-independent version of the site that was available to Healy researchers through the ship’s internal network.

NOAA's online mapping tool Arctic ERMA displays ice conditions, bathymetry (ocean depths), and the ship track of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy during  the Arctic Technology Evaluation of Arctic Shield 2014.

NOAA’s online mapping tool Arctic ERMA displays ice conditions, bathymetry (ocean depths), and the ship track of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy during the Arctic Technology Evaluation of Arctic Shield 2014. (NOAA)

This year we took a large step forward and successfully tested a new tool in ERMA that uses the limited Internet connectivity to upload small packages (less than 5 megabytes) of new data on the Stand-alone ERMA site to the live Arctic ERMA site. This provided updates of the day’s Arctic field activities to NOAA staff back home. During an actual oil spill, this tool would provide important information to decision-makers and stakeholders at a command post back on land and at agency headquarters around the country.

Every Experience Is a Learning Experience

I’ve painted a pretty picture, but this is not to say everything went as planned during our ventures through the Arctic Ocean. Arctic weather conditions lived up to their reputation this year, with fog, winds, and white-cap seas delaying and preventing a large portion of the demonstration. (This was even during the region’s relatively calm, balmy summer months.)

Subsequently, limited data and observations were produced—a sobering exercise for some researchers. I’ve described only a few of the technologies demonstrated during this exercise, but there were unexpected issues with almost every technology; one was even rendered inoperable after being crushed between two ice floes. In addition, troubleshooting data and human errors added to an already full day of work.

Yet every hardship allowed those of us aboard the Healy to learn, reassess, adapt, and move forward with our work. The capacity of human ingenuity and the tools we can create will be tested to their limits as we continue to prepare for an oil spill response in the harsh and unpredictable environs of the Arctic. The ability to operate in these conditions will be essential to protecting the local communities, wildlife, and coastal habitats of the region. The data we generate will help inform crucial and rapid decisions by resource managers, making interoperability along with efficient data management and dissemination fundamental to effective environmental response.

Editor’s note: Use Twitter to chat directly with NOAA GIS specialists Zachary Winters-Staszak and Jill Bodnar about their experience during this Arctic oil spill simulation aboard an icebreaker on Thursday, September 18 at 2:00 p.m. Eastern. Follow the conversation at #ArcticShield14 and get the details: http://1.usa.gov/1qpdzXO.

Bowhead whale bones and a sign announcing Barrow as the northernmost city in America welcomed me to the Arctic.

Bowhead whale bones and a sign announcing Barrow as the northernmost city in America welcomed Zachary Winters-Staszak to the Arctic in 2013. (NOAA)

Zachary Winters-Staszak is a GIS Specialist with the Office of Response and Restoration’s Spatial Data Branch. His main focus is to visualize environmental data from various sources for oil spill planning, preparedness, and response. In his free time, Zach can often be found backpacking and fly fishing in the mountains.


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Join NOAA for a Tweetchat on Preparing for Arctic Oil Spills

 

Coast Guard icebreaker in sea ice.

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, a state-of-the-art icebreaker and the August 2014 home of a team of researchers evaluating oil spill technologies in the Arctic. (U.S. Coast Guard)

As Arctic waters continue to lose sea ice each summer, shipping, oil and gas exploration, tourism, and fishing will increase in the region. With more oil-powered activity in the Arctic comes an increased risk of oil spills.

In August of 2014, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration sent two GIS specialists aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy for an exercise in the Arctic Ocean demonstrating oil spill tools and technologies. This scientific expedition provided multiple agencies and institutions with the invaluable opportunity to untangle some of the region’s knotty logistical challenges on a state-of-the-art Coast Guard icebreaker in the actual Arctic environment. It is one piece of the Coast Guard’s broader effort known as Arctic Shield 2014.

Part of NOAA’s focus in the exercise was to test the Arctic Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA®), our interactive mapping tool for environmental response data, during a simulated oil spill.

Join us as we learn about NOAA’s role in the mission and what life was like aboard an icebreaker. Use Twitter to ask questions directly to NOAA GIS specialists Jill Bodnar and Zachary Winters-Staszak.

Get answers to questions such as:

  • What type of technologies did the Coast Guard Research and Development Center (RDC) and NOAA test while aboard the Healy and what did we learn?
  • What was a typical day like on a ship that can break through ice eight feet thick?
  • Why can’t we just simulate an Arctic oil spill at home? What are the benefits of first-hand experience?

Tweetchat Details: What You Need to Know

What: Use Twitter to chat directly with NOAA GIS specialists Jill Bodnar and Zachary Winters-Staszak.

When: Thursday, September 18, 2014 from 11:00 a.m. Pacific to 12:00 p.m. Pacific (2:00 p.m. Eastern to 3:00 p.m. Eastern).

How: Tweet questions to @NOAAcleancoasts using hashtag #ArcticShield14. You can also submit questions in advance via orr.rsvp.requests@noaa.gov, at www.facebook.com/noaaresponserestoration, or in the comments here.

About NOAA’s Spatial Data Branch

Jill Bodnar is a GIS specialist in the Assessment and Restoration Division of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. She is an experienced oil spill responder and has been mapping data during oil spills for more than a decade. This is her first trip to the Arctic.

Zachary Winters-Staszak is a GIS specialist in the Assessment and Restoration Division of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. While not aboard the Healy, he co-leads an effort to manage data and foster partnerships for Arctic ERMA. This is his second time participating in the annual Arctic Technology Evaluation in support of Arctic Shield. You can listen to him discuss this exercise and NOAA’s participation in a NOAA’s Ocean Service audio podcast from August 2014.

About Oil Spills and NOAA

Every year NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) responds to more than a hundred oil and chemical spills in U.S. waters. OR&R is a center of expertise in preparing for, evaluating, and responding to threats to coastal environments, including oil and chemical spills, releases from hazardous waste sites, and marine debris. This work also includes determining damage to coastal lands and waters after oil spills and other releases and rotecting and restoring marine and coastal areas, including coral reefs.

Learn more about how NOAA responds to oil spills and the full range of OR&R’s activities in the Arctic.


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National Research Council Releases NOAA-Sponsored Report on Arctic Oil Spills

Healy escorts the tanker Renda through the icy Bering Sea.

The Coast Guard Cutter Healy broke ice for the Russian-flagged tanker Renda on their way to Nome, Alaska, in January of 2012 to deliver more than 1.3 million gallons of petroleum products to the city of Nome. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Responding to a potential oil spill in the U.S. Arctic presents unique logistical, environmental, and cultural challenges unparalleled in any other U.S. water body. In our effort to seek solutions to these challenges and enhance our Arctic preparedness and response capabilities, NOAA co-sponsored a report, Responding to Oil Spills in the U.S. Arctic Marine Environment, directed and released by the National Research Council today.

Several recommendations in the report are of interest to NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R), including the need for:

  • Up-to-date high-resolution nautical charts and shoreline maps.
  • A real-time Arctic ocean-ice meteorological forecasting system.
  • A comprehensive, collaborative, long-term Arctic oil spill research program.
  • Regularly scheduled oil spill exercises to test and evaluate the flexible and scalable organizational structures needed for a highly reliable Arctic oil spill response.
  • A decision process such as the Net Environmental Benefit Analysis for selecting appropriate response options.

In addition, the report mentions NOAA’s ongoing Arctic efforts including our Arctic Environmental Response Mapping Application (ERMA), our oil spill trajectory modeling, and our innovative data sharing efforts. Find out more about OR&R’s efforts related to the Arctic region at response.restoration.noaa.gov/arctic.

Download the full National Research Council report.

This report dovetails with NOAA’s 2014 Arctic Action Plan, released on April 21, which provides an integrated overview of NOAA’s diverse Arctic programs and how these missions, products, and services support the goals set forth in the President’s National Strategy for the Arctic Region [PDF].

In addition, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report [PDF] in March of 2014, which examined U.S. actions related to developing and investing in Arctic maritime infrastructure. The report outlines key issues related to commercial activity in the U.S. Arctic over the next decade.

Get a snapshot of the National Research Council report in this four minute video, featuring some of our office’s scientific models and mapping tools:

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