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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Transportation of Crude Oil Along the West Coast

Boats on water

Oil spill cleanup demonstration at Clean Pacific 2015, Vancouver B.C. Credit Pacific States/B.C. Oil Spill Task Force.

By Sarah Brace

The Pacific States/B.C. Oil Spill Task Force has updated its West Coast crude oil transport map. The map depicts the routes of crude traveling by rail, tanker vessel, pipeline and barge across the western states and British Columbia. It also captures the locations of current and proposed facilities, refineries and terminals. The rapid growth in crude by rail transport has highlighted response and preparedness gaps along the rail line.

The task force also tracks the volumes of crude transported across the region. This data is collected on an annual basis and summarized in a report available to the public. The task force continues to track the volumes of crude movement annually to assist in oil spill prevention, preparedness and response across the West Coast.

Map drawing of crude oil routes.

Map of current rail routes, interstate
pipelines and barges transporting crude across the West Coast.

Recently, the task force partnered with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration to incorporate its oil spill data into NOAA’s Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA), an online mapping tool that integrates both static and real-time data, such as Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) maps, ship locations, weather, and ocean currents, in a centralized, easy-to-use format for environmental responders and decision makers.

Since 2002, the task force has been collecting data on oil spills in Washington, Oregon, California, and Hawaii, providing information on the size of spill, location, type of material and substrate (on land or water).

The Pacific States/British Columbia Oil Spill Task Force was formed in 1988 by the governor of Washington and premier of British Columbia, after the oil barge Nestucca collided with its tug along the Washington coast. The following year, the Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound led to Alaska, California, and Oregon joining the Task Force. Hawaii became a member in 2001, creating a broad coalition of western Pacific states and British Columbia, united in their efforts to prevent and respond to oil spills across the West Coast.

Sarah Brace is the Executive Coordinator of the Task Force. She leads the Task Force projects, studies and outreach activities focused on spill prevention, preparedness and response across the western States of AK, CA, HI, OR and WA and British Columbia.


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Mallows Bay by Kayak: A Tour of Maryland’s First National Marine Sanctuary and the First in Chesapeake Bay

Parts of wooden ships visible above the water line.

Mallows Bay fleet visible on the water in Mallows Bay. (NOAA)

On the Maryland side of the Potomac River, just east of Washington D.C. and west of Chesapeake Bay, the largest shipwreck fleet in the Western Hemisphere sits partially sunken and decomposing. Following World War I, hundreds of U.S. vessels were sent to Mallows Bay to be scrapped—and to this day, the remains of dozens can still be seen in the shallow waters.

The story of the ships at Mallows Bay begins when the U.S. entered World War I. In April 1917, the country had an adequate number of warships but a shortage of transport vessels, which led President Woodrow Wilson to approve the greatest shipbuilding program in history, with an order for a thousand 300-foot wooden steamships to be built in only 18 months!

Germany would surrender on November 11, 1918.  At this time, the government had already approved funding and paid for 731 of these wooden transport vessels. Despite the war being over, the ship building continued. By September 1919, contractors had delivered 264 steamships to the government but only 195 had crossed the Atlantic Ocean. By this time, the war had ended and the U. S. had no use for the ships.

Four old vessels in water listing.

Wooden ships owned by Western Marine & Salvage tied together in 1925, likely on the Potomac or at Mallows Bay. (Library of Congress: National Photo Company Collection)

In September of 1922, 233 vessels (representing the bulk of the fleet) were sold for $750,000 to the Western Marine and Salvage Company. This was a remarkable price, considering the cost of constructing just one ship had been $1,000,000. The company towed the fleet to an authorized mooring area near Widewater, Virginia to recover the scrap metal.

Poster showing an eagle, ships, and "send the eagle's answer--more ships."

U.S. government poster from World War I time period.

As described by John H. Lienhard in The Wooden Ships of Mallows Bay (University of Houston, College of Engineering):  “By late 1919, 264 wooden steamers were in operation. Most had crossed the Atlantic, but they were slow and leaky. They’d been made obsolete by the new Diesel engines. The idea was to strip them of hardware, burn them down to the waterline, haul them off to a nearby marsh, then burn what was left. Once more it all went wrong—civic protests, problems with blocked shipping lanes, and finally the Great Depression.”

As World War II approached, the threat of war saw the price for scrap metal skyrocket. The U.S. government allocated $200,000 to Bethlehem Steel in the early 1940s to recover over 20,000 tons of iron thought to still be in the wrecks of Mallows Bay. The effort turned out to be cost ineffective. By 1943, Bethlehem Steel terminated the program with little iron recovered and over 100 ship hulks languishing in the bay. So there the vessels sat, rotting away for decades.

In March of 1993, the State of Maryland awarded a grant to a group of researchers to study the effects of these derelict vessels on the environment, and to inventory what vessels remained for historical and archaeological purposes. Over the next two years, the researchers identified 88 wooden ships left over from the original program. Researchers also discovered that the bay was used by Western Marine for more than just these wooden steamships; twelve barges were discovered, as well as a Revolutionary War-era longboat, several 18th century schooners, miscellaneous workboats, and even automobile ferries like the S.S. Accomac. The researchers also discovered that the vessels had created a unique ecosystem in the Bay that supported numerous fish and birds species.

In 2014, Mallows Bay, including the derelict vessels, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Mallows Bay-Widewater Historical and Archaeological District. A community partnership committee was formed to draft the national marine sanctuary nomination when the nomination process was revitalized. The Mallows Bay nomination included support from nearly 150 organizations, agencies, and private citizens. The nomination to have the bay designated as the first National Marine Sanctuary in 20 years was announced by President Obama in 2015.

On July 19, 2016, the U.S. Coast Guard’s Sector Maryland North Capitol Region hosted a kayak tour of Mallows Bay in anticipation of its Sanctuary designation. Dr. Susan Langley, the State of Maryland’s Historical Preservation Officer, led the tour. Prior to the start of the tour, Dr. Langley provided an overview of the history of Mallows Bay and explained its unique features and ecological importance.

The primary purpose of the event was to give the U.S. Coast Guard and NOAA staff an opportunity to see firsthand how sensitive the environment is, and the risk a potential oil spill could pose to the site. For example, how and where would booms be deployed, where is there access to this site, where could a staging area be established, what would the response priorities be, and how could wildlife be protected?

Brendan Bray and Sammy (Paul) Orlando of NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and Frank Csulak from the Office of Response and Restoration accompanied the Coast Guard and Dr. Langley on the tour. According to Csulak, “Being able to see these derelict vessels up close and actually touch them was impressive. In addition to the vessels, we enjoyed viewing the large diversity of wildlife, including adult and juvenile American Bald Eagles, herons, egrets, hawks, osprey, turtles, snakes, fish, crabs and submerged aquatic vegetation. Who would have thought such a unique ecological area was just a few river miles downstream of the hustle and bustle of Washington, D.C.? Hopefully, there will never be an oil spill that would impact Mallows Bay, but as a result of our tour, the U.S. Coast Guard and NOAA are better prepared to respond to such an event.”

ruins of aship above the surface of the water with a kayak passing by.

NOAA’s Frank Csulak and LT David Ruhlig from USCG Sector Maryland North Capitol Region (NCR) kayak near one of the Mallows Bay vessels. (NOAA)

Frank Csulak is a NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator with the Office of Response and Restoration. Based in New Jersey, he is the primary scientific adviser to the U.S. Coast Guard for oil and chemical spill planning and response in the Mid-Atlantic region, covering New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina.

 


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Abandoned Vessels of Florida’s Forgotten Coast

This is a post by NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator Adam Davis of the Office of Response and Restoration.

Derelict vessel with osprey nest on top of broken mast.

Along Florida’s Forgotten Coast, a pair of osprey had built a nest on an abandoned vessel. The U.S. Coast Guard called in NOAA for assistance as they were trying to remove fuel from that boat with minimal impact to wildlife. (NOAA)

There is a stretch of the Florida Panhandle east of the more heavily developed beach destinations of Destin and Panama City that some refer to as the “Forgotten Coast.” This area has vast tracts of pine forest including large stands of longleaf pine and savanna, towering dunes and nearly undeveloped barrier islands, seemingly endless coastal marsh, and miles and miles of winding shoreline along its expansive bays and coastal rivers.

It is no coincidence that much of the area is undeveloped; reserves, wildlife refuges, and other federal and state protected lands and waters occupy a large percentage of the area.

However, this flattened landscape of wild greens and blues is occasionally punctuated by the unnatural texture of human influence of a certain type: rusting hulls, broken masts, boats half-submerged in the muddy waters. It was one of these abandoned and decaying vessels that brought me to Florida’s Forgotten Coast.

Birds-Eye View of a Problem

The U.S. Coast Guard as well as state and local agencies and organizations have been working to address potential pollution threats from a number of abandoned and derelict boats sprinkled throughout this region. Vessels like these often still have oils and other hazardous materials on board, which can leak into the surrounding waters, posing a threat to public and environmental health and safety.

Half-sunken boat surrounded by oil containment boom.

Even a small release of marine fuel in sensitive environmental areas like this can have significant negative environmental consequences. Many abandoned vessels still have fuel and other hazardous materials on board. (NOAA)

As a Scientific Support Coordinator for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, I provide assistance to the Coast Guard in their pollution response efforts. This support often involves analyzing which natural resources are vulnerable to pollution and the potential fate and effects of oil or chemicals released into the environment.

In this case, the Coast Guard called me with an unusual complication in their efforts: A pair of osprey had taken up residence on one of these abandoned vessels. Their nest of sticks was perched atop the ship’s mast, now bent at a precarious 45 degree angle. The Coast Guard needed to know what kind of impacts might result from assessing the vessel’s pollution potential and what might be involved in potentially moving the osprey nest, or the vessel, if needed.

As a federal agency, the Coast Guard must adhere to federal statutes that protect wildlife, such as the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Essentially, these statutes require the Coast Guard (or other person or organization) to consider what effect their actions might have on protected species, in this case, osprey.

This is where we Scientific Support Coordinators often can provide some assistance.  A large part of our support in this area involves coordinating with the “trustee” agencies responsible for the stewardship of the relevant natural resources.

My challenge is evaluating the scientific and technical aspects of the planned action (disturbing the chicks and their parents or possibly moving the osprey nest in order to remove the vessel), weighing possible effects of those actions against threats posed by no action, and communicating all of that in an intelligible way to trustees, stakeholders, and the agency undertaking the action in question.

Fortunately, the pollution assessment and removal in the case of the osprey-inhabited vessel proved very straightforward and the abandoned vessels project got off to a good start.

Abandoned But Not Forgotten

Aerial view of abandoned vessels with osprey nest on mast, located in Florida waterway.

NOAA’s Adam Davis helped the U.S. Coast Guard with a project spanning more than 230 miles of Florida coastline and resulted in the removal of hundreds of gallons of fuel and other hazardous materials from six abandoned vessels and one shoreline facility. (NOAA)

Over the course of eight weeks, I was fortunate to contribute in a number of ways to this project. For example, I joined several aerial overflights of the coast from Panama City to St. Marks, Florida, and participated in numerous boat rides throughout the Apalachicola Bay watershed to identify, assess, and craft strategies for pollution removal from abandoned vessels.

Ultimately, the project spanned more than 230 miles of coastline and resulted in the removal of hundreds of gallons of fuel and other hazardous materials from six abandoned vessels and one shoreline facility. Most of the fuel was removed from vessels located in highly sensitive and valuable habitats, such as those located along the Jackson and Brother’s Rivers.

Portions of both of these rivers are located within the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve and are designated as critical habitat for Gulf sturgeon, a federally threatened species of fish that, like salmon, migrates between rivers and the ocean.

Even a small release of marine fuel in areas like this can have significant negative environmental consequences. Impacts can be even more severe if they occur during a time when species are most vulnerable, such as when actively spawning, breeding, or nesting.  In addition, spills in these otherwise pristine, protected areas can have negative consequences for important commercial and recreational activities that rely upon the health of the ecosystem as a whole.

People on boats on a Florida coastal river.

When NOAA supports the Coast Guard with abandoned vessels work, our efforts often involve analyzing which natural resources are vulnerable to pollution and the potential fate and effects of oil or chemicals released into the environment. These Coast Guard boats are equipped to remove fuel from abandoned vessels. (NOAA)

While we’d like to be able to remove the entire vessels every time, which can be navigation hazards and create marine debris, funding options are often limited for abandoned vessels. However, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 enables us to remove the hazardous materials on board and reduce that environmental threat.

I find working in the field directly alongside my Coast Guard colleagues to be invaluable. Inevitably, I come away from these experiences having learned a bit more and increased my appreciation for the uniqueness of both the people and the place. Hopefully, that makes me even better prepared to work with them in the future—and in the beautiful and remote wilds of the Forgotten Coast.

NOAA's Adam Davis, left, on a Coast Guard boat removing oil from a derelict vessel.Adam Davis serves as NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator for U.S. Coast Guard District 8 and NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center. He graduated from the University of Alabama at Birmingham before entering the United States Army where he served as a nuclear, biological, and chemical operations specialist. Upon completing his tour in the Army, Adam returned home and completed a second degree in environmental science at the University of West Florida. He comes with a strong background in federal emergency and disaster response and has worked on a wide range of contaminant and environmental issues. He considers himself very fortunate to be a part of NOAA and a resident of the Gulf Coast, where he and his family enjoy the great food, culture, and natural beauty of the coast.


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Preparing for Anything: What to Do When a Hypothetical Ferry Disaster Overlaps with a National Presidential Convention

This is a post by NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator Frank Csulak.

A small boat on the Delaware River with Philadelphia's skyline in the background

In June 2016, team of federal and state emergency responders practiced responding to a hypothetical ferry disaster and oil spill scenario in anticipation of the Democratic National Convention, which occurred in Philadelphia at the end of July. (Credit: Kevin Harber, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

When you’re in the business of emergency response, you need to be prepared for all kinds of disasters and all kinds of scenarios. Being a NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator, the disaster scenarios I’m usually involved with have some connection to the coast or major U.S. waterways.

And being ready for a disaster means practicing pretty much exactly what you would do during an emergency response, even if it’s for a relatively unlikely scenario, such as a catastrophic ferry explosion, collision, and oil spill during a major political party convention.

What follows is the hypothetical scenario that a team of federal and state emergency responders walked through at a training workshop from June 12-14, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

U.S Coast Guard Sector Delaware Bay hosted this practice scenario in anticipation of the Democratic National Convention, which occurred (thankfully without any major security incidents) in Philadelphia at the end of July. The team involved was comprised of members from the U.S. Secret Service, Federal Bureau of Investigation, New Jersey and Pennsylvania state police, U.S. Coast Guard, and NOAA.

Ready for Anything You Can Imagine (And This Is Imagined)

Exercise scenario: It is the first day of the Democratic National Convention, which is taking place in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Tens of thousands of people, including hundreds of elected officials and the Democratic Party’s presumptive presidential candidate, are just arriving at the event.

The Secret Service reports that VIPs continue to land at Philadelphia International Airport. Security is tight. A large safety perimeter has been established around the convention center, with surrounding streets and highways closed to all traffic and thousands of law enforcement officers posted at strategic locations throughout the city.

Meanwhile, the RiverLink Ferry is making the 2:00 p.m. trip from Philadelphia to Camden, New Jersey. There are 21 passengers and two crew members on board. The ferry is crossing the federal channel of the Delaware River when an explosion of unknown cause erupts from the ferry’s engine room. The explosion causes the vessel to lose propulsion and steering. It begins listing to the starboard side and drifting down the Delaware River. Smoke can be seen billowing from vents and openings.

Simultaneously, the tug The Caribbean Sea II is pushing the barge The Resource II upriver. The barge attempted to avoid the distressed ferry but is unsuccessful, striking the ferry and causing significant structural damage to both vessels.

Damaged barge on the Mississippi River.

A damaged barge which caused an oil spill on the Mississippi River in early 2016. Responders need to prepare for all kinds of maritime disasters. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Numerous ferry passengers are thrown onto the deck or into the river; others begin jumping into the water. Responders from the U.S. Coast Guard, New Jersey State Police Marine Services Bureau, and the marine units of the Philadelphia Fire and Police Departments all rushed to the scene. Already, they encounter both seriously injured survivors and casualties as far as 200 yards down river of the vessels.

Rescue boats pick up eight survivors from the water and begin offloading them at Penn’s Landing Marina. Responders continue to evacuate people from the sinking ferry until it slips completely under water in the vicinity of the Penn’s Landing helicopter port. A total of 14 people are rescued and three bodies recovered, some found as far as a quarter mile down river. Six people remain missing.

Thankfully, no injuries are reported among the tugboat’s four person crew. However, one of the two crewmembers on the barge, a 60-year-old male, has fallen and broken his arm. He appears to be going into shock and needs to be evacuated.

As a result of the collision, the tug only has partial steering capabilities but continues to push the barge several hundred yards up river, where it drops anchor. The two damaged vessels remain in the river channel, and as responders assess the vessels’ conditions, they uncover that the barge is leaking oil. Manhole-sized bubbles of oil are burping to the water’s surface, coming from the port side damage below the water line. Oil appears to be leaking from a tank which is holding 5,000 barrels of oil. In all, the barge is carrying 50,000 barrels of heavy bunker fuel oil.

Reining in Hypothetical Chaos

Three damaged vessels. People injured, dead, and missing. A potentially large oil spill on a busy river. First responders diverted from a high-security national event to a local aquatic incident In other words, quite a hypothetical mess.

Was the explosion on the ferry due to terrorism? Was it due to human error? Or was it due to a mechanical malfunction in the engine room? We had to imagine how we would deal with these many complicated issues in the heat of the moment.

Group of responders in safety vests standing and sitting around tables.

NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator Frank Csulak, standing at right, briefing the Unified Command during another U.S. Coast Guard oil spill training exercise in Virginia in 2015. (U.S. Coast Guard)

As a member of the local Coast Guard’s response team during this exercise, I helped with many key decisions and procedures and with establishing priorities for response. I acted as a member of what’s known in the emergency response community as the “Unified Command,” or the established hierarchy of agencies and organizations responding to an emergency, such as an oil spill or hurricane.

In this scenario, I was specifically charged with commanding, coordinating, and managing the oil spill response, which is my specialty. I started by identifying and obtaining resources to support the spill response and cleanup and conducting an assessment of natural resources at risk from the oil. Meanwhile, I coordinated with my NOAA support team of scientists back in Seattle, Washington, to provide information on local weather conditions, tides, oil trajectory forecasts, and modeling of the oil’s fate and effects.

In addition, I had to coordinate a variety of notifications and consultations required under the Endangered Species Act, the Essential Fish Habitat provision of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, and the National Historic Preservation Act, which protects historical and archaeological sites.

As you can see, my role during a disaster like this hypothetical one is far-reaching. And that’s not even everything. I also helped protect nearby wetlands and other environmentally sensitive areas from the thick, spreading oil; prioritized which areas needed protective booming to prevent contact with oil; and led the response’s environmental team, which had representatives from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and the U.S. Coast Guard. Of course, all of this was an exercise and there was no ferry incident and no oil spill.

During the actual Democratic National Convention, which took place July 25–29, 2016, I was ready and waiting for any call for help from Coast Guard Sector Delaware Bay. I’m pleased to report that it never came, but if it did, I’d know what to do.

Editor’s note: NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration also supported the U.S. Coast Guard’s maritime security activities surrounding the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, July 18–21, 2016. Two NOAA staff members worked as part of the Coast Guard’s Incident Management Team in Cleveland, managing the event’s data in our online mapping tool known as ERMA® (Environmental Response Management Application), and coordinating with the several other agencies involved with the convention’s security.

The Coast Guard provided maritime security and monitored potential situations along the Lake Erie shoreline and the Cuyahoga River during the convention. ERMA allowed Coast Guard leadership and others in the command post to access near real-time data, such as locations of field teams and tracked vessels, as well as other agency data such as Department of Homeland Security safety zones, infrastructure status, and protest locations. This gave them a comprehensive picture of the Coast Guard’s efforts and the ability to assess potential issues from any location.

Photo of Philadelphia waterfront courtesy of Kevin Harber and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator Frank Csulak.

Frank Csulak is a NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator with the Office of Response and Restoration. Based in New Jersey, he is the primary scientific adviser to the U.S. Coast Guard for oil and chemical spill planning and response in the Mid-Atlantic region, covering New York, Delaware Bay, Baltimore, Hampton Roads, and North Carolina.


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Remotely Controlled Surfboards: Oil Spill Technology of the Future?

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s LTJG Rachel Pryor, Northwest Regional Response Officer.

A wave glider before being launched from the NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson.

NOAA is exploring how to use technology such as wave gliders, small autonomous robots that travel at the ocean surface via wave energy, to collect oceanographic data during oil spills. (NOAA)

What do remotely controlled surfboards have to do with oil spills? In the future, hopefully a lot more. These “remotely controlled surfboards” are actually wave gliders, small autonomous robots that travel at the ocean surface via wave energy, collecting oceanographic data. Solar panels on top of the gliders power the oceanographic sensors, which transmit the data back to us via satellites.

I recently learned how to use the software that (through the internet) remotely drives these wave gliders—and then actually started “driving” them out in the open ocean.

Gathering Waves of Information

On July 7, 2016, NOAA launched two wave gliders off the NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson to study ocean acidification through carbon analysis in the Bering Sea (which is off the southwest coast of Alaska).

A wave glider floating in the ocean.

One of the wave gliders recently deployed in the Bering Sea, with its solar panels on top powering the sensors. (NOAA)

One wave glider has “Conductivity Temperature Depth” (CTD) sensors, a fluorometer, water temperature sensors, and a meteorological sensor package that measures wind, temperature, and atmospheric pressure. The other glider has a sensor that measures the partial pressure of carbon (which basically tells us how much carbon dioxide the ocean is absorbing), an oxygen sensor, a CTD, pH instrumentation, and a meteorological package. The pair of gliders is following a long loop around the 60⁰N latitude line, with each leg of the loop about 200 nautical miles in length.

These wave gliders will be collecting data until the end of September 2016, when they will be retrieved by a research ship. The wave gliders require volunteer “pilots” to constantly (and remotely) monitor the wave gliders’ movements to ensure they stay on track and, as necessary, avoid any vessel traffic.

I’ve committed to piloting the wave gliders for multiple days during this mission. The pilot must be on call around the clock in order to adjust the gliders’ courses in case of an approaching ship or storm, as well as to keep an eye on instrument malfunctions, such as a low battery or failing Global Positioning System (GPS).

Screen view of software tracking and driving two wave gliders in the Bering Sea.

A view of the software used to track and pilot the wave gliders. The white cross is wave glider #1 and it is headed east. The orange cross marks show where it has been. The white star is wave glider #2, which is headed west, with the red stars showing where it has been. The blue lines indicate the vectors of where they will be and the direction they are headed. Wave glider #1 rounded the western portion of its path significantly faster than the other glider. As a result, the pilot rounded glider #2 to start heading east to catch up with glider #2. (NOAA)

The two wave gliders actually move through the water at different speeds, which means their pilot needs to be able to direct the vessels into U-turn maneuvers so that the pair stays within roughly 10 nautical miles of each other.

Remote Technologies, Real Applications

NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory has been using autonomous surface vessels to do oceanographic research since 2011. These autonomous vessels include wave gliders and Saildrones equipped with multiple sensors to collect oceanographic data.

During the summer of 2016, there are two missions underway in the Bering Sea using both types of vessels but with very different goals. The wave gliders are studying ocean acidification. Saildrones are wind- and solar-powered vessels that are bigger and faster. Their size allows them to carry a large suite of oceanographic instrumentation and conduct multiple research studies from the same vehicle.

For their latest mission, Saildrones are using acoustic sensors to detect habitat information about important commercial fisheries, such as pollock, and monitor the movement of endangered right whales. (Follow along with the mission.)

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is interested in the potential use of aquatic unmanned systems such as wave gliders and Saildrones as a spill response tool for measuring water quality and conditions at the site of an oil spill.

These remotely operated devices have a number of advantages, particularly for spills in dangerous or hard-to-reach locations. They would be cost-efficient to deploy, collect real-time data on oil compound concentrations during a spill, reduce people’s exposure to dangerous conditions, and are easier to decontaminate after oil exposure. Scientists have already been experimenting with wave gliders’ potential as an oil spill technology tool in the harsh and remote conditions of the Arctic.

NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory is working closely with the designers of these two vehicles, developing them as tools for ocean research by outfitting them with a wide variety of oceanographic instrumentation. The lab is interested in outfitting Saildrones and wave gliders with special hydrocarbon sensors that would be able to detect oil for spill response. I’m excited to see—and potentially pilot—these new technologies as they continue to develop.

Woman in hard hat next to a tree on a boat.

NOAA Corps Officer LTJG Rachel Pryor has been with the Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division as an Assistant Scientific Support Coordinator since the start of 2015. Her primary role is to support the West Coast Scientific Support Coordinators in responding to oil discharge and hazardous material spills.


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

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

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

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

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

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

Drilling into History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seep vs. Spill

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOAA environmental scientist Greg Baker also contributed to this post.


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Science of Oil Spills Training: Apply for Fall 2016

Two men speaking on a beach with a ferry in the background.

Science of Oil Spills classes help new and mid-level spill responders better understand the scientific principles underlying oil’s fate, behavior, and movement, and how that relates to various aspects of cleanup. The classes also inform responders of considerations to minimize environmental harm and promote recovery during an oil spill. (NOAA)

Science of Oil Spills (SOS) classes help spill responders increase their understanding of oil spill science when analyzing spills and making risk-based decisions.

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, a leader in providing scientific information in response to marine pollution, has scheduled an autumn Science of Oil Spills (SOS) class in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, October 3-7, 2016.

OR&R will accept applications for this class through Monday, August 15, and will notify accepted participants by email no later than Monday, August 22.

SOS classes help spill responders increase their understanding of oil spill science when analyzing spills and making risk-based decisions. They are designed for new and mid-level spill responders.

The trainings cover:

  • Fate and behavior of oil spilled in the environment.
  • An introduction to oil chemistry and toxicity.
  • A review of basic spill response options for open water and shorelines.
  • Spill case studies.
  • Principles of ecological risk assessment.
  • A field trip.
  • An introduction to damage assessment techniques.
  • Determining cleanup endpoints.

To view the topics for the next SOS class, download a sample agenda [PDF, 170 KB].

Please understand that classes are not filled on a first-come, first-served basis. We try to diversify the participant composition to ensure a variety of perspectives and experiences, to enrich the workshop for the benefit of all participants. Classes are generally limited to 40 participants.

For more information, and to learn how to apply for the class, visit the SOS Classes page.