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

Like a Summer Blockbuster, Oil Spills and Hurricanes Can Take the Nation by Storm

Wrecked sailboats and debris along a dock after a hurricane.

The powerful wind and waves of a hurricane can damage vessels, releasing their fuel into coastal waterways. (NOAA)

From Twister and The Perfect Storm to The Day After Tomorrow, storms and other severe weather often serve as the dramatic backdrop for popular movies. Some recent movies, such as the Sharknado series, even combine multiple fearsome events—along with a high degree of improbability—when they portray, for example, a hurricane sweeping up huge numbers of sharks into twisters descending on a major West Coast city.

But back in the world of reality, what could be worse than a hurricane?

How about a hurricane combined with a massive oil spill? It’s not just a pitch for a new movie. Oil spills actually are a pretty common outcome of powerful storms like hurricanes.

There are a couple primary scenarios involving oil spills and hurricanes. The first is a hurricane causing one or more oil spills, which is what happened during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. These kinds of oil spills typically result from a storm’s damage to coastal oil facilities, including refineries, as well as vessels being damaged or sunken and leaking their fuel.

The second, far less common scenario is a hurricane blowing in during an existing oil spill, which is what happened during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Hurricane First, Then Oil Spills

Stranded and wrecked vessels are one of the iconic images showing the aftermath of a hurricane. In most cases those vessels have oil on board. And don’t forget about all the cars that get flooded. Each of these sources may contain relatively small amounts of fuel, but hurricanes can cause big oil spills too.

Additional damage is often caused by the storm surge, as big oil and chemical storage tanks can get lifted off their foundations (or sheared off in the case of the picture below).

A damaged boat setting on a  fuel dock.

A boat, displaced and damaged in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in late summer of 2005 in the Gulf of Mexico, an area frequented by both hurricanes and oil spills. (NOAA)

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 passed through the center of the Gulf of Mexico oil industry and caused dozens of major oil spills and thousands of small spills.

One of the largest stemmed from the Murphy Oil refinery in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana. Dikes surrounding the oil tanks at the refinery were full from flood waters, so when a multi-million gallon tank failed, oil flowed easily into a nearby neighborhood, leaving oil on thousands of homes and businesses already reeling from the flood waters.

Hurricanes can also create navigation hazards that result in later spills. Hurricane Rita, hitting the Gulf in September 2005, sank several offshore oil platforms. While some were recovered, others were actually left missing. Several months later, the tank barge DBL 152 “found” one of these missing rigs, spilling nearly 2 million gallons of thick slurry oil after striking the sunken and displaced platform hiding below the ocean surface.

A large ship on its side, leaking dark oil on the ocean surface.

In November 2005, tank barge DBL 152 struck the submerged remains of a pipeline service platform that collapsed a few months earlier during Hurricane Rita. The double-hulled barge was carrying approximately 5 million gallons of slurry oil, a type of oil denser than seawater, which meant as the thick oil poured out of the barge, it sank to the seafloor. (Entrix)

Oil Spills and Then a Hurricane Hits

So what happens if a hurricane hits an existing oil spill?

This was a big concern during the summer of 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico. There was an ever-growing slick on the ocean surface, oil already on the shore, and lots of response equipment and personnel scattered across the Gulf cleaning up the Deepwater Horizon spill.

There was a lot of speculation as to what might happen as hurricane season began. Hurricane Alex, a relatively small storm, was the first test. The first impact came days before the storm, as response vessels evacuated the area. Hurricane Alex halted response efforts such as skimming and burning for several days. Hundreds of miles of oil booms protecting the shoreline were displaced by the growing surf.

As the hurricane passed through, floating oil was quickly dispersed by the powerful winds and waves, and the same wave energy buried, uncovered, and moved oil on the shore or in submerged mats of oil near the shoreline. Some oil was likely carried inland by sea spray and flood waters from the storm surge. Oil dissolved in the water column near the surface became even more dispersed, but the deep waters of the Gulf were well out of reach of the stormy commotion at the surface, and the leaking wellhead continued to gush.

But the Deepwater Horizon spill wasn’t the only time hurricanes have butted heads with a massive spill. In 1979, Mexico’s Ixtoc I well blowout in the southern Gulf of Mexico was hit by Hurricane Henri. The main impact of the hurricane’s winds was to dilute and weather the floating oil.

In some places along the Texas coast, beached oil was washed over the barrier islands into the bays behind them, while in other areas stranded oil was buried by clean sand. Many of these oiled areas were reworked a year later when Hurricane Allen battered the coast.

Preventing oil spills is a part of preparing for hurricanes. Coastal oil facilities and vessel owners do their best to batten down the hatches and get their vessels out of harm’s way, but we know that spills may still happen. Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to November 30, is a busy time for those of us in oil spill response, and we breathe a sigh of relief when hurricane season ends—just in time for winter storm season to begin.


Leave a comment

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.


Leave a comment

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.


2 Comments

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.”


Leave a comment

In Mapping the Fallout from the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, Developing One Tool to Bring Unity to the Response

This is a post by Katie Wagner, Amy Merten, and Michele Jacobi of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.

The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Five Years Later

This is the fifth 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.

After an explosion took place on the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010, responders sprang into action.

Vessels surveyed the area around the platform, oil booms were deployed, aerial surveying operations were launched, risk assessment and shoreline cleanup teams set out, and many other response activities were underway. Field teams and technical experts from around the country were immediately called to help with the response.

Mapping Organized Chaos

People at a crowded table with computers and maps.

During the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, NOAA debuted the online mapping tool ERMA, which organized crucial response data into one common picture for everyone involved in this monumental spill.

Among our many other responsibilities during this spill, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration reported to the scene to help manage the data and information being collected to inform spill response decisions occurring across multiple states and agencies.

The process of responding to an oil spill or natural disaster can often be described as “organized chaos.” Effectively managing the many activities and influxes of information during a response is crucial. Responders need to be aware of the local environment, equipment, and associated risks at the scene of the spill, and government leaders from the closest town to Washington, DC, need to make informed decisions about how to deal with the event. Data-rich maps are one way to organize these crucial data into one common operational picture that provides consistent “situational awareness” for everyone involved.

The Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA®) was developed by NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the University of New Hampshire in 2007 as a pilot project, initially focused on the New England coast. ERMA is an online mapping tool that integrates both static and real-time data, such as ship locations, weather, and ocean currents, in a centralized, interactive map for environmental disaster response.

In late March of 2010, ERMA was tested in a special oil spill training drill known as the Spills of National Significance Exercise. The industry representatives, U.S. Coast Guard, and state partners participating in this mock oil spill response recognized ERMA’s potential for visualizing large amounts of complex data and for sharing data with the public during an oil spill.

From Test to Trial by Fire

Twenty-five days later, the Deepwater Horizon disaster began. In the first couple of days after the accident, the ERMA team recognized that the scale of the still-developing oil spill would call for exactly the type of tools and skills for which their team had prepared.

A few days into the disaster, the ERMA team created a new, regional version of their web-based mapping application, incorporating data specific to the Gulf of Mexico and the rapidly escalating Deepwater Horizon oil spill. This included geographic response plans (which guide responses to oil spills in specific areas), oil spill trajectories, and locations of designated response vessels, aerial surveys of oil, oiled shoreline assessments, critical habitats, and fishery closure areas.

Screen shot of mapping program for Gulf of Mexico with oil spill data.

A few days into the disaster, the ERMA team created a new, regional version of their web-based mapping application, incorporating data specific to the Gulf of Mexico and the rapidly escalating Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Here, ERMA shows the location of the wellhead, the days of cumulative oiling on the ocean surface, and the level of oiling observed on shorelines. (NOAA)

Due to the size of the spill, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration was able to expand the team working on ERMA to include members skilled in data management and scientists familiar with the type of data being collected during a spill response. The ERMA team trained dozens of new Geographic Information Systems (GIS) staff to help upload and maintain the new Deepwater Horizon ERMA site as hundreds of data layers were created weekly.

Within a week of the start of the oil spill, NOAA sent the first of many ERMA team members to work in the command posts in Louisiana, where they could translate the needs of the Federal On-Scene Commanders (those in charge of the spill cleanup and response) into updates and changes for ERMA software developers to make to the mapping application.

ERMA played a critical role in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill response effort. Around a month into the spill, the U.S. Coast Guard selected ERMA as the official common operational picture for all federal, state, and local spill responders to use during the incident. With this special designation, the ERMA tool provided a quick visualization of the sprawling, complicated oil spill situation, and improved communication and coordination among responders, environmental stakeholders, and decision makers. On June 15, 2010 the White House presented a publicly accessible version of the Deepwater Horizon ERMA website, which drew more than 3 million hits the first day it was live. This was an unprecedented effort to make transparent data usually only shared within the command post of an oil spill.

The value of the new tool to the response won it praise from retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the national incident commander for the spill, who described its impact, saying, “It allowed us to have a complete picture of what we were doing and what was occurring in the Gulf. The technology has been there, but it’s never been applied in a disaster that was this large scale. It is something that is going to have to incorporate this system into our disaster response doctrine.” Additionally the NOAA development team was one of the finalists for the 2011 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal for Homeland Security contributions by a member of the federal civil service.

From Response to Restoration

In addition to mapping the Deepwater Horizon response and cleanup efforts, ERMA continues to be an active resource throughout the ongoing Natural Resource Damage Assessment and related restoration planning. The Gulf of Mexico coastal resources and habitat data available in ERMA are helping researchers assess the environmental injuries caused by the oil spill.

Five years after this mapping tool’s debut on the national stage during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, developers continue to improve the platform. NOAA now has nine other ERMA sites customized for various U.S. regions, each of which is kept up-to-date with basic information available around the clock and is publicly available. All regional ERMA websites now reside in the federally approved Amazon Cloud environment for online scalability and durability, and the platform has a flexible framework for incorporating data sources from a variety of organizations.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill shifted our perspective of who needs data and when they need it. With the help of ERMA, the public, academic communities, and those outside of the typical environmental response community can access data collected during a disaster and be engaged in future incidents like never before.

Visit ERMA Deepwater Gulf Response for a first-hand look at up-to-date and historical data collected during the response, assessment, and restoration planning phases of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.


3 Comments

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

The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Five Years Later

This is the first 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.

Oil spills raise all sorts of scientific questions, and NOAA’s job is to help answer them.

We have a saying that each oil spill is unique, but there is one question we get after almost every spill: Where will the oil go? One of our primary scientific products during a spill is a trajectory forecast, which often takes the form of a map showing where the oil is likely to travel and which shorelines and other environmentally or culturally sensitive areas might be at risk.

Oil spill responders need to know this information to know which shorelines to protect with containment boom, or where to stage cleanup equipment, or which areas should be closed to fishing or boating during a spill.

To help predict the movement of oil, we developed the computer model GNOME to forecast the complex interactions among currents, winds, and other physical processes affecting oil’s movement in the ocean. We update this model daily with information gathered from field observations, such as those from trained observers tasked with flying over a spill to verify its often-changing location, and new forecasts for ocean currents and winds.

Modeling a Moving Target

One of the biggest challenges we’ve faced in trying to answer this question was, not surprisingly, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Because of the continual release of oil—tens of thousands of barrels of oil each day—over nearly three months, we had to prepare hundreds of forecasts as more oil entered the Gulf of Mexico each day, was moved by ocean currents and winds, and was weathered, or physically, biologically, or chemically changed, by the environment and response efforts. A typical forecast includes modeling the outlook of the oil’s spread over the next 24, 48, and 72 hours. This task began with the first trajectory our oceanographers issued early in the morning April 21, 2010 after being notified of the accident, and continued for the next 107 days in a row. (You can access all of the forecasts from this spill online.)

Once spilled into the marine environment, oil begins to move and spread surprisingly quickly but not necessarily in a straight line. In the open ocean, winds and currents can easily move oil 20 miles or more per day, and in the presence of strong ocean currents such as the Gulf Stream, oil and other drifting materials can travel more than 100 miles per day. Closer to the coast, tidal currents also can move and spread oil across coastal waters.

While the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig and wellhead were located only 50 miles offshore of Louisiana, it took several weeks for the slick to reach shore as shifting winds and meandering currents slowly moved the oil.

A Spill Playing on Loop

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. Why is there a range of possible locations in the oil forecasts? Well, the movement of oil is very sensitive to ocean currents and wind, and predictions of oil movement rely on accurate predictions of the currents and wind at the spill site.

In addition, sometimes the information we put into the model is based on an incomplete picture of a spill. Much of the time, the immense size of the Deepwater Horizon spill on the ocean surface meant that observations from specialists flying over the spill and even satellites couldn’t capture the full picture of where all the oil was each day.

Our inevitably inexact knowledge of the many factors informing the trajectory model introduces a certain level of expected variation in its predictions, which is the situation with many models. Forecasters attempt to assess all the possible outcomes for a given scenario, estimate the likelihood of the different possibilities, and ultimately communicate risks to the decision makers.

In the case of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, we had the added complexity of a spill that spanned many different regions—from the deep Gulf of Mexico, where ocean circulation is dominated by the swift Loop Current, to the continental shelf and nearshore area where ocean circulation is influenced by freshwater flowing from the Mississippi River. And let’s not forget that several tropical storms and hurricanes crossed the Gulf that summer [PDF].

A big concern was that if oil got into the main loop current, it could be transported to the Florida Keys, Cuba, the Bahamas, or up the eastern coast of the United States. Fortunately (for the Florida Keys) a giant eddy formed in the Gulf of Mexico in June 2010 (nicknamed Eddy Franklin after Benjamin Franklin, who did some of the early research on the Gulf Stream). This “Eddy Franklin” created a giant circular water current that kept the oil largely contained in the Gulf of Mexico.

Some of the NOAA forecast team likened our efforts that spring and summer to the movie Groundhog Day, in which the main character is forced to relive the same day over and over again. For our team, every day involved modeling the same oil spill again and again, but with constantly changing results.  Thinking back on that intense forecasting effort brings back memories packed with emotion—and exhaustion. But mostly, we recall with pride the important role our forecast team in Seattle played in answering the question “where will the oil go?”


Leave a comment

University of Washington Helps NOAA Examine Potential for Citizen Science During Oil Spills

Group of people with clipboards on a beach.

One area where volunteers could contribute to NOAA’s scientific efforts related to oil spills is in collecting baseline data before an oil spill happens. (Credit: Heal the Bay/Ana Luisa Ahern, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

This is a guest post by University of Washington graduate students Sam Haapaniemi, Myong Hwan Kim, and Roberto Treviño.

During an oil spill, how can NOAA maximize the benefits of citizen science while maintaining a high level of scientific integrity?

This was the central question that our team of University of Washington graduate students has been trying to answer for the past six months. Citizen science is characterized by volunteers helping participate in scientific research, usually either by gathering or analyzing huge amounts of data scientists would be unable to do on their own.

Dramatic improvements in technology—particularly the spread of smartphones—have made answering this question more real and more urgent. This, in turn, has led to huge growth in public interest in oil spill response, along with increased desire and potential ability to help, as demonstrated during the 2007 M/V Cosco Busan and 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill responses.

As the scientific experts in oil spills, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration has a unique opportunity to engage citizens during spills and enable them to contribute to the scientific process.

What’s in it for me?

Our research team found that the potential benefits of citizen science during oil spills extend to three groups of people outside of responders.

  • First, professional researchers can benefit from the help of having so many more people involved in research. Having more citizen scientists available to help gather data can strengthen the accuracy of observations by drawing from a potentially greater geographic area and by bringing in more fine-grain data. In some cases, citizen scientists also are able to provide local knowledge of a related topic that professional researchers may not possess.
  • The second group that benefits is composed of the citizen scientists themselves. Citizen science programs provide a constructive way for the average person to help solve problems they care about, and, as part of a collective effort, their contributions become more likely to make a real impact. Through this process, the public also gets to learn about their world and connect with others who share this interest.
  • The final group that derives value from citizen science programs is society at large. When thoughtfully designed and managed, citizen science can be an important stakeholder engagement tool for advancing scientific literacy and reducing risk perception. Citizen science programs can provide opportunities to correct risk misconceptions, address stakeholder concerns, share technical information, and establish constructive relationships and dialogue about the science that informs oil spills and response options.

How Should This Work?

Volunteer scrapes mussels off rocks at Hat Island.

A volunteer samples mussels off of Everett, Washington, as part of the citizen science-fueled NOAA Mussel Watch Program. (Credit: Lincoln Loehr, Snohomish County Marine Resources Committee)

Recognizing these benefits, we identified three core requirements that NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration should consider when designing a citizen science program for oil spills.

  1. Develop a program that provides meaningful work for the public and beneficial scientific information for NOAA.
  2. Create a strong communication loop or network that can be maintained between participating citizens and NOAA.
  3. Develop the program in a collaborative way.

Building on these core requirements, we identified a list of activities NOAA could consider for citizen science efforts both before and during oil spill responses.

Before a response, NOAA could establish data collection protocols for citizen scientists, partner with volunteer organizations that could help coordinate them, and manage baseline studies with the affiliated volunteers. For example, NOAA would benefit from knowing the actual numbers of shorebirds found at different times per year in areas at high risk of oil spills. This information would help NOAA better distinguish impacts to those populations in the event of an oil spill in those areas.

During a response, NOAA could benefit from citizen science volunteers’ observations and field surveys (whether open-ended type or structured-questionnaire type), and volunteers could help process data collected during the response. In addition, NOAA could manage volunteer registration and coordination during a spill response.

How Could This Work?

Evaluating different options for implementing these activities, we found clear trade-offs depending on NOAA’s priorities, such as resource intensity, data value, liability, and participation value. As a result, we created a decision framework, or “decision tool,” for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration to use when thinking about how to create a citizen science program. From there, we came up with the following recommendations:

  1. Acknowledge the potential benefits of citizen science. The first step is to recognize that citizen science has benefits for both NOAA and the public.
  2. Define goals clearly and recognize trade-offs. Having clear goals and intended uses for citizen scientist contributions will help NOAA prioritize and frame the program.
  3. Use the decision tool to move from concept to operation. The decision tool we designed will help identify potential paths best suited to various situations.
  4. Build a program that meets the baseline requirements. For any type of citizen science program, NOAA should ensure it is mutually beneficial, maintains two-way communication, and takes a collaborative approach.
  5. Start now: Early actions pays off. Before the next big spill happens, NOAA can prepare for potentially working with citizen scientists by building relationships with volunteer organizations, designing and refining data collection methods, and integrating citizen science into response plans.

While there is not one path to incorporating citizen science into oil spill responses, we found that there is great potential via many different avenues. Citizen science is a growing trend and, if done well, could greatly benefit NOAA during future oil spills.

You can read our final report in full at https://citizensciencemanagement.wordpress.com.

Sam Haapaniemi, Myong Hwan Kim, and Roberto Treviño are graduate students at the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington. The Citizen Science Management Project is being facilitated through the University of Washington’s Program on the Environment. It is the most recent project in an ongoing relationship between NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration and the University of Washington’s Program on the Environment.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 566 other followers