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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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.

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.


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

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

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

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

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

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

Sound Information

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

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

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

Spills Closer to Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making Safer Moves

A fuel barge in Puget Sound on a cloudy day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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How Do Oil Spills Affect Sea Turtles?

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

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

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

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

Living the Ocean Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turtle Meets Oil, Inside and Out

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

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

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

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

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

Not the Picture of Health

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Help Is on the Way

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

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

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

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

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

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


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University of Washington Helps ITOPF and NOAA Analyze Emerging Risks in Marine Transportation

Huge container ship MSC Oscar being guided by two small ships into port.

Massive container ships, carrying unprecedented amounts of fuel and cargo, are one of many developments in marine transportation that also is bringing new risks of oil spills to the high seas. Shown here is the MSC Oscar, one of the largest container ships in the world. (Credit: kees torn, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license)

This is a guest post by University of Washington graduate students Megan Desillier, Seth Sivinski, and Nicole White.

A warming climate is opening up new shipping routes—and hence, new avenues for trade—through the Arctic Ocean as summer sea ice shrinks and thins. Developing technologies have also allowed for mega-ships (unprecedented in size) and newer cargoes to begin transiting the ocean. These developments could bring new or greater hazards, including oil spills, for the maritime shipping network worldwide.

Our group of three graduate students at the University of Washington, with the support of the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation (ITOPF) and NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, sought to understand how the world’s shipping dynamic has changed in recent years and how these emerging challenges in marine transportation will affect that dynamic. The ITOPF, NOAA, and the marine industry can consider these emerging risks in marine transportation as they plan for the future.

Here’s what we found.

A Changing Climate

Based on climate changes that have already occurred, ports are likely to experience more intense storm events and increased precipitation. In the more distant future, this greater degree of storminess will combine with sea level rise, causing both the probabilities and consequences of risk to marine transportation to increase.

Given the resources and services that ports provide, climate change could seriously impact the efficiency of the greater maritime transportation network. While infrastructure risks can be mitigated, it is important to note that according to experts in the field interviewed during this project, the majority of ports have made few preparations or plans for sea level rise related to climate change.

Although Arctic climate change is creating new shipping opportunities, these come with great challenges for the marine transportation system, especially in the second half of this century. At sea, the retreat of sea ice is accompanied by an increase in storminess, increasing risks to ships and shipping infrastructure from storm surge and waves. On land, permafrost has already begun to thaw, contributing to impacts to infrastructure, including railroads, ice roads, airstrips, and pipelines.

Taken together, the changing Arctic climate will require changes in the marine transportation system both at sea and on land. These changes include improved infrastructure along shipping routes, harbors of refuge, search and rescue capabilities, ice-breaking services, and coordination among organizations with a central role in spill response.

Changing Patterns of Trade

Rough seas pound the hull of support ship USNS Arctic as it sails alongside aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman.

A changing climate opens up greater potential for marine traffic in the Arctic, but it is accompanied by an increase in storms and other threats to maritime infrastructure. Here, rough seas pound the hull of support ship USNS Arctic as it sails alongside aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman during a mission to the Arctic. (U.S. Navy)

An increase in maritime activity surrounding both the Panama and Suez Canals could increase the risk of incidents in these areas, especially as infrastructure development around them increases. Larger canals will allow for bigger ships, which will make more concentrated port calls. This means that the vessels will spend more time in ports and unload more cargo. This is expected to be most common on the eastern seaboard of the United States as the Panama Canal expands.

In addition, the lifting of the American ban on crude oil exports could impact imports and exports of both crude and refined products. Much of the increase in oil exports from the United States would head to Europe and Asia.

The Arctic is receiving considerable emphasis as an emerging trade shortcut for maritime shipping, especially from Asian nations, but currently the majority of the activity in this region comes from tourism, mining, and fossil fuel extraction. This includes marine traffic supplying these activities as well as the transport of extracted resources.

Developing Technologies

Recently, the marine transportation system witnessed the introduction of the “mega-container ship.” A “mega-container ship” could be considered any container ship over 10,000 twenty-foot equivalent units, or TEUs. However, the largest “mega-container ship” to date can handle 18,000 TEUs. The development of these vessels has brought a safer, more fuel-efficient method of transportation for shipping containers throughout the world.

However, these massive vessels potentially increase the consequences of pollution-related incidents, as they carry larger amounts of fuel and cargo, which could result in larger oil spills. Incidents involving these vessels may also be more difficult for salvage and response organizations to mitigate as they would have to remove more fuel and cargo from larger disabled ships.

Another vessel to watch is the LNG carrier. These vessels transport liquefied natural gas (LNG), which requires special attention to temperature and pressure for it to remain in liquid form. U.S. imports and exports of LNG are expected to increase. This will require monitoring during transit, as well as safe handling practices while being loaded and unloaded in port.

Increased vessel automation potentially introduces new risks via reduced crew size and increasing bridge automation, even though enhanced bridge automation ostensibly represents a safety improvement. For example, if a vessel is being operating by a “minimally manned crew,” crew members may find it harder to meet required rest hours, becoming fatigued. In a situation where a fatigued crewmember is operating automated equipment on the bridge, the chances for human error increase. Additionally, if that equipment fails, fatigued crewmembers might find themselves relying largely on their own technical skills to mitigate the risks—all while fatigued.

Finally, we’ve noted concern over the introduction of new ship propulsion fuels, such as LNG. The emergency response community lacks experience with LNG propulsion fuel incidents, leaving some uncertainty surrounding the probability and consequences of such an accident. As LNG is further adopted as a propulsion fuel, the supporting infrastructure to transport it will have to be updated as well. Training for safe handling and transport of the fuel will also need to be further introduced to crews and ports in order to mitigate the associated risks of managing this fuel.

Conclusions

Response organizations will need to emphasize new contingency planning and condition monitoring and assessment in response to these changes in the marine transportation system. For example, there is a fairly high certainty regarding how sea-level rise and other climate change–associated impacts will affect ports in coming years, and ports will need to take the changing environment into account in their planning and preparedness to reduce the likelihood of future incidents associated with these changes.

This contrasts with the Arctic where there are higher uncertainties associated with the emerging risks outlined here. In the Arctic, response organizations will need to focus on monitoring the evolution of climate change impacts and shipping activities as well as participate in the development of mitigation actions. All parties will need to identify the steps that will lead to safe Arctic shipping, salvage, and pollution response.

While there is no one complete solution to address all risks, our analysis offers information relevant to multiple sectors of the maritime transportation network. By forging relationships among these sectors, response organizations will be able to better develop the most comprehensive responses to address pressures and gaps emerging as a result of the changing environment, changing patterns of trade, and developing technologies. And hopefully these organizations will be even better prepared for the oil spills of the future, no matter the scenario.

Megan Desillier, Seth Sivinski, and Nicole White are Master’s candidates at the University of Washington (UW) in the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs working with faculty advisors Robert Pavia and Thomas M. Leschine. The team completed the research of emerging risks in marine transportation for the International Tanker Owner Pollution Federation (ITOPF) and was provided additional assistance in their research from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The students completed this research over the course of an academic year as part of the thesis/capstone requirement for the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs at the UW. Our team would like to thank our sponsor, ITOPF, as well as NOAA for providing additional assistance. To contact the authors, please email Robert Pavia at bobpavia@uw.edu.

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

Photo of MSC Oscar: kees torn,  Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license


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Preparing for What Can Go Wrong Because of Hurricanes

A view of the houses and highways along the New Jersey coast which were damaged by Hurricane Sandy.

A view of the houses and highways along the New Jersey coast which were damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Sandy. Katrina. Andrew. These and many other names stand out in our memories for the power of wind and wave—and the accompanying devastation—which these storms have brought to U.S. shores. Atlantic hurricane season officially begins June 1 and ends November 30, but disasters can and do strike unexpectedly.

Being involved in disaster response, we at NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration know what can go wrong when a hurricane hits the coast—after all, we’ve seen it firsthand:

Clearly, a lot is at stake when a hurricane sweeps through an area, which is why preparing for hurricanes and other disasters is so important. We can’t stop these powerful storms, but we can prepare ourselves, our homes, and our coastal communities to lessen the impacts and bounce back more quickly after storms hit.

Hurricane Preparedness Week comes as a reminder each May before the Atlantic hurricane season begins. NOAA’s National Weather Service has plenty of tips and guidelines for preparing to weather these storms:

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration also takes care to prepare for hurricanes and other disasters.

Sometimes that means building internet and phone access into the stormproof bathrooms of our facilities so that we can continue providing sound science and support to deal with pollution from a storm. Other times that means working with coastal regions to create response plans for disaster debris, training other emergency responders to address oil and chemical spills, and developing software tools that pull together and display key information necessary for making critical response decisions during disasters.

Learn more about how to protect yourself and your belongings from a hurricane.

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