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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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?”


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Detecting Change in a Changing World: 25 Years After the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

Life between high and low tide along the Alaskan coast is literally rough and tumble.

The marine animals and plants living there have to deal with both crashing sea waves at high tide and the drying heat of the sun at low tide. Such a life can be up and down, boom and bust, as favorable conditions come and go quickly and marine animals and plants are forced to react and repopulate just as quickly.

But what happens when oil from the tanker Exxon Valdez enters this dynamic picture—and 25 years later, still hasn’t completely left? What happens when bigger changes to the ocean and global climate begin arriving in these waters already in flux?

Telling the Difference

Two people wearing chest waders sift for marine life in shallow rocky waters.

In 2011 NOAA marine biologist Gary Shigenaka (right) sifts through the sediments of Alaska’s Lower Herring Bay, looking for the tiny marine life that live there. (Photo by Gerry Sanger/Sound Ecosystem Adventures)

In the 25 years since the Exxon Valdez oil spill hit Alaska’s Prince William Sound, NOAA scientists, including marine biologist Gary Shigenaka and ecologist Alan Mearns, have been studying the impacts of the spill and cleanup measures on these animals and plants in rocky tidal waters.

Their experiments and monitoring over the long term revealed a high degree of natural variability in these communities that was unrelated to the oil spill. They saw large changes in, for example, numbers of mussels, seaweeds, and barnacles from year to year even in areas known to be unaffected by the oil spill.

This translated into a major challenge. How do scientists tell the difference between shifts in marine communities due to natural variability and those changes caused by the oil spill?

Several key themes emerged from NOAA’s long-term monitoring and subsequent experimental research:

  • impact. How do we measure it?
  • recovery. How do we define it?
  • variability. How do we account for it?
  • subtle connection to large-scale oceanic influences. How do we recognize it?

What NOAA has learned from these themes informs our understanding of oil spill response and cleanup, as well as of ecosystems on a larger scale. None of this, however, would have been apparent without the long-term monitoring effort. This is an important lesson learned from the Exxon Valdez experience: that monitoring and research, often viewed as an unnecessary luxury in the context of a large oil spill response, are useful, even essential, for framing the scientific and practical lessons learned.

Remote Possibilities

As NOAA looks ahead to the future—and with the Gulf of Mexico’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in our recent past—we can incorporate and apply lessons of the Exxon Valdez long-term program into how we will support response decisions and define impact and recovery.

The Arctic is a region of intense interest and scrutiny. Climate change is opening previously inaccessible waters and dramatically shifting what scientists previously considered “normal” environmental conditions. This is allowing new oil production and increased maritime traffic through Arctic waters, increasing the risk of oil spills in remote and changing environments.

If and when something bad happens in the Arctic, how do scientists determine the impact and what recovery means, if our reference point is a rapidly moving target? What is our model habitat for restoring one area impacted by oil when the “unimpacted” reference areas are undergoing their own major changes?

Illustrated infographic showing timeline of ecological recovery after the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Tracking the progress of recovery for marine life and habitats following the Exxon Valdez oil spill is no easy task. Even today, not all of the species have recovered or we don’t have enough information to know. (NOAA) Click to enlarge.

Listening in

NOAA marine biologist Gary Shigenaka explores these questions as he reflects on the 25 years since the Exxon Valdez oil spill in the following Making Waves podcast from the National Ocean Service:

[NARRATOR] This all points back at what Gary says is the main take-away lesson after 25 years of studying the aftermath of this spill: the natural environment in Alaska and in the Arctic are rapidly changing. If we don’t understand that background change, then it’s really hard to say if an area has recovered or not after a big oil spill.

[GARY SHIGENAKA] “I think we need to really keep in mind that maybe our prior notions of recovery as returning to some pre-spill or absolute control condition may be outmoded. We need to really overlay that with the dynamic changes that are occurring for whatever reason and adjust our assessments and definitions accordingly. I don’t have the answers for the best way to do that. We’ve gotten some ideas from the work that we’ve done, but I think that as those changes begin to accelerate and become much more marked, then it’s going to be harder to do.”

 

Read a report by Gary Shigenaka summarizing information about the Exxon Valdez oil spill and response along with NOAA’s role and research on its recovery over the past 25 years.


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Post Hurricane Sandy, NOAA Aids Hazardous Spill Cleanup in New Jersey and New York

Oil sheen is visible on the waters of Arthur Kill on the border of New Jersey and New York in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

Oil sheen is visible on the waters of Arthur Kill on the border of New Jersey and New York in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. (NOAA)

[UPDATED NOVEMBER 6, 2012] Hurricane Sandy’s extreme weather conditions—80 to 90 mph winds and sea levels more than 14 feet above normal—spread oil, hazardous materials, and debris across waterways and industrial port areas along the Mid Atlantic. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is working with the U.S. Coast Guard and affected facilities to reduce the impacts of this pollution in coastal New York and New Jersey.

We have several Scientific Support Coordinators and information management specialists on scene at the incident command post on Staten Island, N.Y.

Since the pollution response began, we have been dispatching observers in helicopters with the Coast Guard to survey the resulting oil sheens on the water surface in Arthur Kill, N.J./N.Y. This is in support of the response to a significant spill at the Motiva Refinery in Sewaren, N.J., as well as for the cleanup and assessment of several small spills of diesel fuel, biodiesel, and various other petroleum products scattered throughout northern New Jersey’s refinery areas.

One of the challenges facing communities after a devastating weather event is information management. One tool we have developed for this purpose is ERMA, an online mapping tool which integrates and synthesizes various types of environmental, geographic, and operational data. This provides a central information hub for all individuals involved in an incident, improves communication and coordination among responders, and supplies resource managers with the information necessary to make faster and better informed decisions.

ERMA has now been adopted as the official common operational platform for the Hurricane Sandy pollution response, and we have sent additional GIS specialists to the command post.

Species and Habitats at Risk

The most sensitive habitats in the area are salt marshes, which are often highly productive and are important wildlife habitat and nursery areas for fish and shellfish. Though thin sheens contain little oil, wind and high water levels after the storm could push the diesel deep into the marsh, where it could persist and contaminate sediments. Because marshes are damaged easily during cleanup operations, spill response actions will have to take into account all of these considerations.

In addition, diesel spills can kill the many small invertebrates at the base of the food chain which live in tidal flats and salt marshes if they are exposed to a high enough concentration. Resident marsh fishes, which include bay anchovy, killifish, and silversides, are the fish most at risk because they are the least mobile and occupy shallow habitats. Many species of heron nest in the nearby inland marshes, some of the last remaining marshlands in Staten Island. Swimming and diving birds, such as Canada geese and cormorants, are also vulnerable to having their feathers coated by the floating oil, and all waterfowl have the potential to consume oil while feeding.

Based on the risks to species and habitats from both oil and cleanup, we weigh the science carefully before making spill response recommendations to the Coast Guard.

Tracking the Spilled Oil

Responders face an oily debris field in Sheepshead Bay, N.Y., after Hurricane Sandy. Nov. 2, 2012.

Responders face an oily debris field in Sheepshead Bay, N.Y., after Hurricane Sandy. Nov. 2, 2012. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Because no two oils are alike, we train aerial observers to evaluate the character and extent of oil spilled on the water. NOAA performs these aerial surveys, or overflights, of spilled oil like in Arthur Kill to determine the status of the oil’s source and to track where wind and waves are moving spilled oil while also weathering it. The movement of wind and waves, along with sunlight, works to break down oil into its chemical components. This changes the appearance, size, and location of oil, and in return, can change how animals and plants interact with the oil.

When spilled on water, diesel oil spreads very quickly to a thin film. However, diesel has high levels of toxic components which dissolve fairly readily into the water column, posing threats to the organisms living there. Biodiesel can coat animals that come into contact with it, but it breaks down up to four times more quickly than conventional diesel. At the same time, this biodegradation could cause potential fish kills by using up large amounts of oxygen in the water, especially in shallow areas.

Look for photos, maps, and updates on pollution-related response efforts at IncidentNews.

Check the Superstorm Sandy CrisisMap for aggregated information from NOAA, FEMA, and other sources on weather alerts and observations; storm surge and flood water data; aerial damage assessment imagery; and the locations of power outages, food and gas in New Jersey, and emergency shelters.


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Photos and Reactions from a NOAA Responder Living through Hurricane Sandy

Hurricane Sandy caused flooding in the streets of this neighborhood along coastal New Jersey.

Hurricane Sandy caused flooding in the streets of this neighborhood along coastal New Jersey. (Frank Csulak)

Here in Seattle, like people all over the country, I was concerned to hear about Hurricane Sandy heading straight towards the East Coast, especially the New Jersey shore where I have enjoyed going to the beach for my entire life. My thoughts were with all the people I know in the area, including my colleague, NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator (SSC) Frank Csulak. He has worked for the NOAA Office of Response and Restoration in New Jersey for much of his career.

Raised on the New Jersey shore, he is the primary scientific adviser to the U.S. Coast Guard for oil and chemical spill planning and response in the area. Scientific Support Coordinators are technical advisers to the U.S. Coast Guard and Federal On-Scene Coordinators. He and fellow SSC Ed Levine work in U.S. Coast Guard District 5, which includes New Jersey and New York’s Atlantic coast. While Frank’s office is in Highlands, N.J., he has a house at the shore in Beach Haven, on Long Beach Island, the second barrier island to the north of Atlantic City. Before and after Hurricane Sandy hit, Csulak and Levine were hard at work, but we received the following message from Frank the morning after the storm passed over New Jersey, on Tuesday October 30. It captures the sense of emergency and the extraordinary nature of this particular storm.

October 30, 2012

“Well, made it through the storm, power went out around 6:00 p.m. last night, remains out. The winds had to be in the 80-90 mph range. Trees down all over.  Power outages all over.  Large tree fell on neighbor’s house going right through roof, injuring owner who was then hospitalized due to possible heart attack. At the height of the storm there was an unbelievable thunder and lightning storm like I had never experienced before, something out of a sci-fi movie.

Just starting to get light out, so will go survey my property. Plan to head back to beach house as soon as evacuations lifted. That ride should be interesting. Reports were that there were several areas where ocean and bay were connected and southern portion of island, Holgate, washed away, which is mostly U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refuge area.

My bikes, cars, and trucks are all okay. Max, my dog is okay. Daughter and parents okay.  So, all is good. Now I just need a hot cup of coffee. Want to thank everyone for their thoughts and well wishes throughout this ordeal. Will let you know how the beach house made out probably tomorrow.”

Later, Frank made it down to Beach Haven and sent us these photos of the storm’s aftermath in the area surrounding his house.

Today, on November 1, he took time out again to bring us the following update.

November 1, 2012

“All the neighbors where my parents live are all helping each other out with removing trees and debris from yards, pumping out basements. Power still out. Mile-long lines of cars at gas stations. Most stores remain closed due to power outage. Although somehow Dunkin Donuts is open. What is their slogan, “America runs on Dunkin”?  Well, certainly appropriate here at the Jersey shore!”

For more photos of the storm’s impacts along the New Jersey coast, check out the first round of Hurricane Sandy damage assessment imagery now available from NOAA’s National Geodetic Survey.


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Let’s Get Chemical: What Is Oil?

This is a post by Vicki Loe with OR&R chemist Robert Jones. Technical review by Robert Jones and OR&R biologist Gary Shigenaka.

Emulsified oil from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP spill pooled on marsh vegetation.

Emulsified oil from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP spill remains on, and pooled below, vegetation in Pass a Loutre, La., following a previous week’s storm. Image shot on May 22, 2010. (NOAA)

I recently began an ongoing conversation on this blog about our relationship with oil and oil products and the large part oil plays in all of our lives. Walking through just the first hour of a typical day for me, I managed to list 20 products I use that come from oil. But for something that we all depend on every day, how much do we really understand about what it is and why it’s so useful?

As most of us know, oil comes from beneath the ground. It is made of dead animal and plant matter, buried deep under layers of sedimentary rock. Pressure and heat cause oil deposits to form over long periods of time. But what is oil at its most basic?

Diagram of the molecular structure of benzene.

A diagram of the molecular structure of benzene, an aromatic hydrocarbon and component of oil.

Oil is a complex mixture of molecular compounds.  A molecule is the smallest unit of a substance that retains the substance’s characteristics. Molecules, in turn, are composed of atoms.  There are only 90 naturally occurring types of atoms on earth; these form the basis of the innumerable types of molecules found in nature.

Crude oils, while mixtures of thousands of types of molecular compounds, are predominantly composed of only two types of atoms: hydrogen (H) and carbon (C). Molecular compounds composed exclusively of these two elements are called hydrocarbons.

Petroleum hydrocarbons are predominantly one of two types, aromatics or alkanes. Aromatics, which are based on a 6-carbon ring, tend to be the molecular compounds in oil that are the most toxic to marine life. A notable case is polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which have multiple carbon rings and can also be quite persistent in the environment. Alkanes, on the other hand, tend to be less toxic and are much more readily biodegraded naturally; most can be ingested as food by some microorganisms.

For example, the oil spilled from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP well blow-out was relatively high in alkanes and relatively low in PAHs. But, like all crude oils, it contained benzene, toluene, and xylene, which belong to the single-ring aromatic group. Benzene is very toxic and known to cause cancer but is not as persistent as PAHs.

Oil in marsh vegetation during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill.

Oil in marsh vegetation during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill. (NOAA)

Refining crude oil to produce fuel oils like gasoline and diesel does not significantly alter the molecular structure of the oil’s components. So fuel oils usually contain the same types of molecular compounds that are found in their parent crude oils.

Different chemical compounds can be extracted from crude oil and then recombined or altered to make what are called petrochemicals. Petrochemicals are used to make a vast array of products, including acetic acid, ammonia, polyvinyl chloride, polyethylene, lubricants, adhesives, agrochemicals, fragrances, food additives, packaging, paint, and pharmaceutical products. And that’s just the start!

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is the primary science adviser to the U.S. Coast Guard during a major oil spill. Knowledge of the chemical make-up of the particular oil, whether it is a crude oil or refined fuel oil, is critical in making response decisions when there is spill. Among the scientists that work in OR&R’s Emergency Response Division are chemists that are experts in this field.

Crude oil is predominantly a mixture of hydrocarbons, but every crude oil is a unique mixture of molecular compounds. There are thousands of named crude oils in use around the world. Our chemists make recommendations by determining the source of the spill and the optimal cleanup methods and safety issues, based on the unique properties of the oil released.

The next blog post in this series will delve into the toxicity of oil and the harm it can cause when accidentally released into the marine environment.

Robert Jones

Robert Jones

Co-author Robert Jones is a chemist in OR&R’s Emergency Response Division. He is a member of the spill response team and is involved in the development of computer models used to predict the fate and transport of oil and other chemicals in the environment. Robert received his Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry from Indiana University. Prior to joining NOAA in 1990, Robert taught chemistry at Western Washington University.


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Do Bigger Oil Spills Require More Restoration?

This is a post by NOAA intern Franziska Economy.

Quick, can you name ten major oil spills?

Having a hard time? Until recently, I would have been scratching my head after:

  1. Deepwater Horizon/BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico (2010)
  2. Exxon Valdez tanker spill in Alaska (1989)
  3. … ?

Maybe some of you managed to come up with a couple of the other major spills from the last few decades, but this seems to be a tall order for the average person.

Oil spills actually happen just about every day, but most don’t make the news. I was surprised to learn that there are nearly 14,000 oil and chemical spills reported to the National Response Center every year.

Even crazier to me was the discovery that sometimes the best recovery option for small oil spills is actually taking “No Action.” This can be the case when cleaning up the oil would cause more harm to a sensitive ecosystem than just leaving it there to break down naturally. Sometimes, however, an oil spill can be relatively large and present real dangers to the plants and animals in the area without attracting much attention from the greater public.

Learning all of this prompted me to delve into the treasure trove of information on the oil spill cases NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration handles. As the lead science agency for oil spills, NOAA is asked to respond to about 100–200 of the more significant marine and coastal spills every year to provide scientific support to help with the cleanup. A much smaller subset of those spills require a legal assessment of environmental monetary damages to restore those natural resources. This is known as a Natural Resource Damage Assessment or NRDA.

When studying these NRDA spill cases, I focused on two particularly interesting factors: the size of the oil spill and the “restoration cost,” or how much money the oil spiller has to pay to restore the public’s injured natural resources. Take a look at the top ten oil spill cases in each category and see how they compare:

Graph of the top ten NOAA oil spill NRDA settlements by dollar amount needed to restore injured environmental resources.

Figure 1. The top ten NOAA oil spill NRDA settlements by dollar amount needed to restore injured environmental resources. Note: each color in this graph corresponds to a spill found on both Figure 1 and Figure 2; gray spills are only found on one graph. Source: http://www.darrp.noaa.gov/ Click to enlarge.

Graph of the top ten NOAA oil spill NRDA settlements by the volume of oil spilled in gallons.

Figure 2. The top ten NOAA oil spill NRDA settlements by the volume of oil spilled in gallons. Source: http://www.darrp.noaa.gov/ Click to enlarge.

Right off the bat, it is easy to spot that bigger oil spills don’t always result in the highest restoration costs, and even if the restoration cost of a spill is relatively high, it is not necessarily related to the size of the spill. The Cosco Busan and Athos place first and second among oil spill settlements by restoration cost (Figure 1), but they are not big enough to land in the top ten by spill size (Figure 2; they are 12 and 23, respectively).

Furthermore, before the Deepwater Horizon/BP incident, the spill Barge Morris J. Berman was the largest spill that OR&R had responded to; yet it ranked only the fifth highest among restoration settlements, not even one-third the amount of the highest settlement, the Cosco Busan. In general, only half of the spills on each graph appear on the other, showing a lower correlation between these two variables than I originally thought.

So, why do you think that is? I’ve been brainstorming what factors could influence why gallons of oil spilled do not necessarily result in the most money required to restore natural resources. A single variable—such as the amount or type of oil spilled—isn’t by itself an accurate indicator of how much money it takes to respond to, clean up, and restore the environment after an oil spill. We have to examine a variety of factors to understand the bigger picture.

Other factors which might affect the restoration cost of an oil spill include:

  • the properties of the oil spilled (was it thick like tar that would sink to the bottom? Or was it light and likely to evaporate quickly from the water’s surface?)
  • the type and effectiveness of cleanup methods (was very little oil able to be recovered?)
  • the type of ecosystem affected (was it an estuary full of sensitive marsh grass and bird nesting sites or in an lower quality industrial area with a bulkheaded shoreline?)
  • the cultural and economic values of nearby cities and towns (was the spill close to a population with strong ties to the outdoor environment?)

What other issues do you think might play a role in how much restoration is required to offset the impacts of an oil spill on the environment?

Franziska Economy is an American University graduate with a Bachelors of Arts in Economics and Environmental Science. She is working as a Constituent and Legislative Affairs intern for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration and enjoys sharing the interesting facts she has learned and statistics she has uncovered. She hopes to help break down the acronym-filled, complicated world of responding to oil spills, assessing damages, and restoring broken ecosystems.


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From Research to Response, the Evolving Role of Science in Oil Spills

Argo Merchant aground

The tanker Argo Merchant run aground Nantucket Shoals, southeast of Nantucket Island, Mass., in December 1976. Credit: NOAA.

It’s now been 35 years since NOAA began its first major coordinated response to an oil spill, jumping to the aid of the wrecked tanker Argo Merchant near Nantucket Island, Mass., and launching what would eventually become the NOAA emergency response team I’m now part of.

Before this, NOAA scientists had been working on oil pollution issues for many years, but the focus was on research rather than emergency support during spills. That focus changed, however, when the storm-struck Argo Merchant ran aground on the Nantucket Shoals December 15, 1976, and six days later broke in half, spilling its entire cargo of 7.7 million gallons of oil near the famous Massachusetts fisheries.

The Spilled Oil Research Team

Earlier that year, NOAA had established the Spilled Oil Research (SOR) Team to study the effects of oil and gas exploration in Alaska. This team was a network of coastal geologists, marine biologists, chemists, and oceanographers that could go on-scene at “spills of opportunity” with the goal of investigating oil spill impacts.

Argo Merchant sinking.

On December 21, 1976, the Argo Merchant broke apart and spilled its entire cargo of 7.7 million gallons of No. 6 fuel oil. Credit: NOAA.

The Argo Merchant spill was the first major deployment of the SOR Team. The U.S Coast Guard, charged with directing the spill response and cleanup effort, was inundated with competing and often conflicting scientific recommendations. To sort this out, the Coast Guard asked the SOR Team to act as its scientific adviser and be an informal liaison with the scientific community concerned with the spill.

This informal relationship quickly became invaluable. The Coast Guard began to rely on the SOR Team to coordinate the complex scientific issues that arose at spills after the Argo Merchant, including: the Metula, a crude ship grounding off of Tierra del Fuego, Chile; the Amoco Cadiz, a 1.6 million barrel oil spill off the Breton coast of France; and the IXTOC I well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in June 1979.

Evolution of the Emergency Response Division

The Spilled Oil Research Team — now the Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division — has grown from a handful of oceanographers, mathematicians, and computer modelers into a highly diverse team of chemists, biologists, geologists, information management specialists, and technical and administrative support staff. The informal role of scientific support coordinators is now formally recognized in the National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan.

It’s been a busy 35 years (on top of events like the Deepwater Horizon/BP spill), and some of that old history has been forgotten. A couple years ago when I was cleaning out an equipment store room, I discovered this artifact of the earlier days on some old coveralls:

Spilled Oil Research Team badge.

A badge from the original NOAA Spilled Oil Research Team. Credit: Doug Helton, NOAA.

You can find out more about the evolving history of NOAA’s involvement in oil spill response and OR&R’s Emergency Response Division.