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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NOAA Scientist Helps Make Mapping Vital Seagrass Habitat Easier and More Accurate

Shoal grass seagrass on a sandy ocean floor.

Seagrass beds serve as important habitat for a variety of marine life, and understanding their growth patterns better can help fisheries management and restoration efforts. (NOAA)

Amy Uhrin was sensing a challenge ahead of her. As a NOAA scientist working on her PhD, she was studying the way seagrasses grow in different patterns along the coast, and she knew that these underwater plants don’t always create lush, unbroken lawns beneath the water’s surface.

Where she was working, off the North Carolina coast near the Outer Banks, things like the churning motion of waves and the speed of tides can cause seagrass beds to grow in patchy formations. Clusters of bigger patches of seagrass here, some clusters of smaller patches over there. Round patches here, elongated patches over there.

Uhrin wanted to be able to look at aerial images showing large swaths of seagrass habitat and measure how much was actually seagrass, rather than bare sand on the bottom of the estuary. Unfortunately, traditional methods for doing this were tedious and tended to produce rather rough estimates. These involved viewing high-resolution aerial photographs, taken from fixed-wing planes, on a computer monitor and having a person digitally draw lines around the approximate edges of seagrass beds.

While that can be fairly accurate for continuous seagrass beds, it becomes more problematic for areas with lots of small patches of seagrass included inside a single boundary. For the patchy seagrass beds Uhrin was interested in, these visual methods tended to overestimate the actual area of seagrass by 70% to more than 1,500%. There had to be a better way.

Seeing the Light

Patches of seagrass beds of different sizes visible from the air.

Due to local environmental conditions, some coastal areas are more likely to produce patchy patterns in seagrass, rather than large beds with continuous cover. (NOAA)

At the time, Uhrin was taking a class on remote sensing technology, which uses airborne—or, in the case of satellites, space-borne—sensors to gather information about the Earth’s surface (including information about oil spills). She knew that the imagery gathered from satellites (i.e. Landsat) is usually not at a fine enough resolution to view the details of the seagrass beds she was studying. Each pixel on Landsat images is 30 meters by 30 meters, while the aerial photography gathered from low-flying planes often delivered resolution of less than a meter (a little over three feet).

Uhrin wondered if she could apply to the aerial photographs some of the semi-automated classification tools from imagery visualization and analysis programs which are typically used with satellite imagery. She decided to give it a try.

First, she obtained aerial photographs taken of six sites in the shallow coastal waters of North Carolina’s Albemarle-Pamlico Estuary System. Using a GIS program, she drew boundaries (called “polygons”) around groups of seagrass patches to the best of her ability but in the usual fashion, which includes a lot of unvegetated seabed interspersed among seagrass patches.

Six aerial photographs of seagrass habitat off the North Carolina coast, with yellow boundary lines drawn around general areas of seagrass habitat.

Aerial photographs show varying patterns of seagrass growth at six study sites off the North Carolina coast. The yellow line shows the digitally drawn boundaries around seagrass and how much of that area is unvegetated for patchy seagrass habitat. (North Carolina Department of Transportation)

Next, Uhrin isolated those polygons of seagrass beds and deleted everything else in each image except the polygon. This created a smaller, easier-to-scan area for the imagery visualization program to analyze. Then, she “trained” the program to recognize what was seagrass vs. sand, based on spectral information available in the aerial photographs.

Though limited compared to what is available from satellite sensors, aerial photographs contain red, blue, and green wavelengths of light in the visible spectrum. Because plants absorb red and blue light and reflect green light (giving them their characteristic green appearance), Uhrin could train the computer program to classify as seagrass the patches where green light was reflected.

Classify in the Sky

Amy Uhrin stands in shallow water documenting data about seagrass inside a square frame of PVC pipe.

NOAA scientist Amy Uhrin found a more accurate and efficient approach to measuring how much area was actually seagrass, rather than bare sand, in aerial images of coastal North Carolina. (NOAA)

To Uhrin’s excitement, the technique worked well, allowing her to accurately identify and map smaller patches of seagrass and export those maps to another computer program where she could precisely measure the distance between patches and determine the size, number, and orientation of seagrass patches in a given area.

“This now allows you to calculate how much of the polygon is actually seagrass vegetation,” said Uhrin, “which is good for fisheries management.” The young of many commercially important species, such as blue crabs, clams, and flounder, live in seagrass beds and actively use the plants. Young scallops, for example, cling to the blades of seagrass before sliding off and burrowing into the sediment as adults.

In addition, being able to better characterize the patterns of seagrass habitat could come in handy during coastal restoration planning and assessment. Due to local environmental conditions, some areas are more likely to produce patchy patterns in seagrass. As a result, efforts to restore seagrass habitat should aim for restoring not just cover but also the original spatial arrangement of the beds.

And, as Uhrin noted, having this information can “help address seagrass resilience in future climate change scenarios and altered hurricane regimes, as patchy seagrass areas are known to be more susceptible to storms than continuous meadows.”

The results of this study, which was done in concert with a colleague at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, have been published in the journal Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science.


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10 Years after Being Hit by Hurricane Katrina, Seeing an Oiled Marsh at the Center of an Experiment in Oil Cleanup

This is a post by Vicki Loe and Amy Merten of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.

Oil tank damaged during Hurricane Katrina.

During Hurricane Katrina in 2005, one of the Chevron oil terminal’s storage tanks was severely damaged on top, possibly after being hit by something extremely large carried by the storm waters. (NOAA)

On August 29, 2005, not far from Chevron Pipe Line Company’s oil terminal in Buras, Louisiana, Hurricane Katrina made landfall. Knowing the storm was approaching, residents left the area, and Chevron shut down the crude oil terminal, evacuating all personnel.

The massive storm’s 144 mile per hour winds, 18 foot storm tide, and waves likely twice the height of the surge put the terminal under water. At some point during the storm, one of the terminal’s storage tanks was severely damaged on top, possibly after being hit by something extremely large carried by the storm waters. The tank released crude oil into an adjacent retention pond designed to catch leaking oil, which it did successfully.

However, just a few short weeks later, Hurricane Rita hit the same part of the Gulf and the same oil terminal. Much of the spilled oil was still being contained on the retention pond’s surface, and this second hurricane washed the oil into a nearby marsh.

A Double Impact

Built in 1963, Chevron’s facility in Buras is one of the largest crude oil distribution centers in the world and is located on a natural levee on the east bank of the Mississippi River. These back-to-back hurricanes destroyed infrastructure at the terminal as well as in the communities surrounding it. Helicopter was the only way to access the area in the weeks that followed.

Chevron wildlife biologist and environmental engineer Jim Myers witnessed the storms’ aftermath at the terminal. He described trees stripped of leaves, and mud and debris strewn everywhere, including power lines. Dead livestock were found lying on the terminal’s dock. And black oil was trapped in the marsh’s thick mesh of sedge and grass. This particular marsh is part of a large and valuable ecosystem where saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico and freshwater from the Mississippi River come together.

Even after using boom and skimmers to remove some oil, an estimated 4,000 gallons of oil remained in the 50 acre marsh on the back side of the terminal. Delicate and unstable, marshes are notoriously difficult places to deal with oil. The chaos of two hurricanes only complicated the situation.

Decision Time

Once the terminal’s substantial cleanup and repair activities began, an environmental team was assembled to consider options for dealing with the oiled marsh. Dr. Amy Merten and others from NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, Jim Myers and others from Chevron, and personnel from the U.S. Coast Guard, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rounded out this team.

The team considered several options for treating the marsh, but one leapt to the top of the list: burning off the oil, a procedure known as in situ burn. In situ burning was the best option for several reasons: the density and amount of remaining oil, remote location, weather conditions, absence of normal wildlife populations after the storms, and the fact that the marsh was bound on three sides by canals, creating barriers for the fire. Also, for hundreds of years, the area had seen both natural burns (due to lightning strikes) and prescribed burns, with good results.

Yet this recommendation met some initial resistance. In situ burning was a more familiar practice for removing oil from the open ocean than from marshes, though its use in marshes had been well-reviewed in scientific studies. Still, in the midst of a hectic and widespread response following two hurricanes, burning oil out of marshes seemed like a potentially risky move at the time.

Furthermore, some responders working elsewhere followed conventional wisdom that the oil had been exposed to weathering processes for too long to burn successfully. However, the oil was so thick on the water’s surface and so protected from the elements by vegetation that the month-old oil behaved like freshly spilled oil, meaning it still contained enough of the right compounds to burn. The environmental team tested the oil to demonstrate it would burn before bringing the idea to those in charge of the post-hurricane pollution cleanup, the Unified Command.

Burn Notice

Left: Burning marsh. Right: Same view of green marsh 10 years later.

Similar views of the same marsh where the 2005 oil spill and subsequent burn occurred after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The view on the right is from August of 2015. (NOAA)

Fortunately, the leader of the Unified Command approved the carefully crafted plan to burn the oiled marsh. The burns took place on October 12 and 13, 2005, a month and a half after the spill. After dividing and cutting the affected marsh into a grid of six plots, responders burned two areas each day, leaving two plots unburned since they were negligibly oiled and did not have the right conditions to burn.

Lit with propane torches, the fire on the first day was dramatic, generating dense black smoke and burning for three hours, the result of burning the part of the marsh closest to the terminal, where the oil was thickest. The second fire generated less smoke but burned longer, for about four and half hours. Afterward, you could see how the burn’s footprint matched where different levels of oil had been.

Observations after the fact assured the environmental team that most (more than 90 percent) of the oil had been burned in the four treated areas. Small pockets of unburned oil were collected with sorbent pads, and any residual oil was left to degrade naturally. Within 24 hours of burning, traces of regrowth were visible in the marsh, and in less than a month, sedge grasses had grown to a height of one to two feet, according to Myers.

A Marsh Reborn

Healthy lush marsh vegetation at water's edge.

The marsh that was oiled after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, and subsequently burned to remove the oil. This is how it looked in August of 2015, showing an abundance of diverse vegetation. (NOAA)

Ten years later, in August of 2015, I was curious to see how the marsh had come back. I had seen many photos of during and after the burn, and subsequent reports were that the endeavor had been a great success.

Knowing I would be in the New Orleans area on vacation, I was pleased to learn that Jim Myers would be willing to give me a tour of this marsh. I met him at the ferry dock to cross to the east side of the Mississippi River and the Chevron terminal.

We looked out over the marsh from an elevated platform behind the giant oil storage tanks. All you could see were lush grasses, clumps of low trees, and birds, birds, birds. Their calls were nonstop. We saw cattails uprooted next to flattened paths leading to the water’s edge, evidence of alligators creating trails from the water to areas for basking in the sun and of cows, muskrats, and feral hogs feeding on the cattails’ roots.

The water level was high, so rather than hike through the marsh, we traveled the circumference in a flat-bottomed boat. We saw many species of birds, as well as dragonflies, freely roaming cows, fish, and an alligator.

Today, the marsh is flourishing. I could see no difference between the areas that were oiled and burned 10 years ago and nearby areas that were untouched. In fact, monitoring following the burn [PDF] found that the marsh showed recovery across a number of measures within nine months.

This marsh represents one small part of a system of wetlands that has historically provided a buffer against the high waters of past storms. Since the 1840s, when it was settled, Buras, Louisiana, has survived being hit by at least five major hurricanes. But Hurricane Katrina was different.

Gradually, marshes across the northern Gulf of Mexico have been disappearing, enabling Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters to overwhelm areas that have weathered previous storms. Ensuring existing marshes remain healthy will be one part of a good defense strategy against the next big hurricane. Given the successful recovery of this marsh after both an oil spill and in situ burn, we know that this technique will help prevent the further degradation of marshes in the Gulf.

See more photos of the damaged tank, the controlled burn to remove the oil, and the recovered marsh 10 years later.

Find more information about the involvement of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Amy Merten with kids from Kivalina, Alaska.Amy Merten is the Spatial Data Branch Chief in NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. Amy developed the concept for the online mapping tool ERMA (Environmental Response Mapping Application). ERMA was developed in collaboration with the University of New Hampshire. She expanded the ERMA team at NOAA to fill response and natural resource trustee responsibilities during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Amy oversees data management of the resulting oil spill damage assessment. She received her doctorate and master’s degrees from the University of Maryland.


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Latest NOAA Study Ties Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill to Spike in Gulf Dolphin Deaths

Group of dolphin fins at ocean surface.

A study published in the journal PLOS ONE found that an unusually high number of dead Gulf dolphins had what are normally rare lesions on their lungs and hormone-producing adrenal glands, which are associated with exposure to oil compounds. (NOAA)

What has been causing the alarming increase in dead bottlenose dolphins along the northern Gulf of Mexico since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the summer of 2010? Independent and government scientists have found even more evidence connecting these deaths to the same signs of illness found in animals exposed to petroleum products, as reported in the peer-reviewed online journal PLOS ONE.

This latest study uncovered that an unusually high number of dead Gulf dolphins had what are normally rare lesions on their lungs and hormone-producing adrenal glands.

The timing, location, and nature of the lesions support that oil compounds from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill caused these lesions and contributed to the high numbers of dolphin deaths within this oil spill’s footprint.

“This is the latest in a series of peer-reviewed scientific studies, conducted over the five years since the spill, looking at possible reasons for the historically high number of dolphin deaths that have occurred within the footprint of the Deepwater Horizon spill,” said Dr. Teri Rowles, one of 22 contributing authors on the paper, and head of NOAA’s Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program, which is charged with determining the causes of unusual mortality events.

“These studies have increasingly pointed to the presence of petroleum hydrocarbons as being the most significant cause of the illnesses and deaths plaguing the Gulf’s dolphin population,” said Dr. Rowles.

A System out of Balance

In this study, one in every three dead dolphins examined across Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama had lesions affecting their adrenal glands, resulting in a serious condition known as “adrenal insufficiency.” The adrenal gland produces hormones—such as cortisol and aldosterone—that regulate metabolism, blood pressure and other bodily functions.

“Animals with adrenal insufficiency are less able to cope with additional stressors in their everyday lives,” said Dr. Stephanie Venn-Watson, the study’s lead author and veterinary epidemiologist at the National Marine Mammal Foundation, “and when those stressors occur, they are more likely to die.”

Earlier studies of Gulf dolphins in areas heavily affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill found initial signs of this illness in a 2011 health assessment of dolphins living in Barataria Bay, Louisiana. NOAA scientists Dr. Rowles and Dr. Lori Schwacke spoke about the results of this health assessment in a 2013 interview:

“One rather unusual condition that we noted in many of the Barataria Bay dolphins was that they had very low levels of some hormones (specifically, cortisol) that are produced by the adrenal gland and are important for a normal stress response.

Under a stressful condition, such as being chased by a predator, the adrenal gland produces cortisol, which then triggers a number of physiological responses including an increased heart rate and increased blood sugar. This gives an animal the energy burst that it needs to respond appropriately.

In the Barataria Bay dolphins, cortisol levels were unusually low. The concern is that their adrenal glands were incapable of producing appropriate levels of cortisol, and this could ultimately lead to a number of complications and in some situations even death.”

Swimming with Pneumonia

Ultrasounds showing a normal dolphin lung, compared to lungs with mild, moderate, and severe lung disease.

Ultrasounds showing a normal dolphin lung, compared to lungs with mild, moderate, and severe lung disease. These conditions are consistent with exposure to oil compounds and were found in bottlenose dolphins living in Barataria Bay, Louisiana, one of the most heavily oiled areas during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (NOAA)

In addition to the lesions on adrenal glands, the scientific team discovered that more than one in five dolphins that died within the Deepwater Horizon oil spill footprint had a primary bacterial pneumonia. Many of these cases were unusual in severity, and caused or contributed to death.

Drs. Rowles and Schwacke previously had observed significant problems in the lungs of dolphins living in Barataria Bay. Again, in 2013, they had noted, “In some of the animals, the lung disease was so severe that we considered it life-threatening for that individual.”

In other mammals, exposure to petroleum-based polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, known as PAHs, through inhalation or aspiration of oil products can lead to injured lungs and altered immune function, both of which can increase an animal’s susceptibility to primary bacterial pneumonia. Dolphins are particularly susceptible to inhalation effects due to their large lungs, deep breaths, and extended breath hold times.

Learn more about NOAA research documenting the impacts from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and find more stories reflecting on the five years since this oil spill.


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In the Wake of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, Gulf Dolphins Found Sick and Dying in Larger Numbers Than Ever Before

The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Five Years Later

This is the third in a series of stories over the coming weeks looking at various topics related to the response, the Natural Resource Damage Assessment science, restoration efforts, and the future of the Gulf of Mexico.

A dolphin is observed with oil on its skin on August 5, 2010, in Barataria Bay, La.

A dolphin is observed with oil on its skin on August 5, 2010, in Barataria Bay, Louisiana. (Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries/Mandy Tumlin)

Dolphins washing up dead in the northern Gulf of Mexico are not an uncommon phenomenon. What has been uncommon, however, is how many more dead bottlenose dolphins have been observed in coastal waters affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the five years since. In addition to these alarmingly high numbers, researchers have found that bottlenose dolphins living in those areas are in poor health, plagued by chronic lung disease and failed pregnancies.

Independent and government scientists have undertaken a number of studies to understand how this oil spill may have affected dolphins, observed swimming through oil and with oil on their skin, living in waters along the Gulf Coast. These ongoing efforts have included examining and analyzing dead dolphins stranded on beaches, using photography to monitor living populations, and performing comprehensive health examinations on live dolphins in areas both affected and unaffected by Deepwater Horizon oil.

The results of these rigorous studies, which recently have been and continue to be published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, show that, in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill and in the areas hardest hit, the dolphin populations of the northern Gulf of Mexico have been in crisis.

Troubled Waters

Due south of New Orleans, Louisiana, and northwest of the Macondo oil well that gushed millions of barrels of oil for 87 days, lies Barataria Bay. Its boundaries are a complex tangle of inlets and islands, part of the marshy delta where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico and year-round home to a group of bottlenose dolphins.

During the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, this area was one of the most heavily oiled along the coast. Beginning the summer after the spill, record numbers of dolphins started stranding, or coming ashore, often dead, in Barataria Bay (Venn-Watson et al. 2015). One period of extremely high numbers of dolphin deaths in Barataria Bay, part of the ongoing, largest and longest-lasting dolphin die-off recorded in the Gulf of Mexico, persisted from August 2010 until December 2011.

In the summer of 2011, researchers also measured the health of dolphins living in Barataria Bay, comparing them with dolphins in Sarasota Bay, Florida, an area untouched by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Differences between the two populations were stark. Many Barataria Bay dolphins were in very poor health, some of them significantly underweight and five times more likely to have moderate-to-severe lung disease. Notably, the dolphins of Barataria Bay also were suffering from disturbingly low levels of key stress hormones which could prevent their bodies from responding appropriately to stressful situations. (Schwacke et al. 2014)

“The magnitude of the health effects that we saw was surprising,” said NOAA scientist Dr. Lori Schwacke, who helped lead this study. “We’ve done these health assessments in a number of locations across the southeast U.S. coast and we’ve never seen animals that were in this poor of condition.”

The types of illnesses observed in live Barataria Bay dolphins, which had sufficient opportunities to inhale or ingest oil following the 2010 spill, match those found in people and other animals also exposed to oil. In addition, the levels of other pollutants, such as DDT and PCBs, which previously have been linked to adverse health effects in marine mammals, were much lower in Barataria Bay dolphins than those from the west coast of Florida.

Dead in the Water

Based on findings from the 2011 study, the outlook for dolphins living in one of the most heavily oiled areas of the Gulf was grim. Nearly 20 percent of the Barataria Bay dolphins examined that year were not expected to live, and in fact, the carcass of one of them was found dead less than six months later (Schwacke et al. 2014). Scientists have continued to monitor the dolphins of Barataria Bay to document their health, survival, and success giving birth.

Considering these health conditions, it should come as little surprise that record high numbers of dolphins have been dying along the coasts of Louisiana (especially Barataria Bay), Alabama, and Mississippi. This ongoing, higher-than-usual marine mammal die-off, known as an unusual mortality event, has lasted over four years and claimed more than a thousand marine mammals, mostly bottlenose dolphins. For comparison, the next longest lasting Gulf die-off (in 2005–2006) ended after roughly a year and a half (Litz et al. 2014 [PDF]).

Researchers studying this exceptionally long unusual mortality event, which began in February 2010, identified within it multiple distinct groupings of dolphin deaths. All but one of them occurred after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which released oil from April to July 2010, and corresponded with areas exposed heavily to the oil, particularly Barataria Bay (Venn-Watson et al. 2015). In early 2011, the spring following the oil spill, Mississippi and Alabama saw a marked increase in dead dolphin calves, which either died late in pregnancy or soon after birth, and which would have been exposed to oil as they were developing.

The Gulf coasts of Florida and Texas, which received comparatively little oiling from the Deepwater Horizon spill, did not see the same significant annual increases in dead dolphins as the other Gulf states (Venn-Watson et al. 2015). For example, Louisiana sees an average of 20 dead whales and dolphins wash up each year, but in 2011 alone, this state recorded 163 (Litz et al. 2014 [PDF]).

The one grouping of dolphin deaths starting before the spill, from March to May 2010, took place in Louisiana’s Lake Pontchartrain (a brackish lagoon) and western Mississippi. Researchers observed both low salinity levels in this lake and tell-tale skin lesions thought to be associated with low salinity levels on this group of dolphins. This combined evidence supports that short-term, freshwater exposure in addition to cold weather early in 2010 may have been key contributors to those dolphin deaths prior to the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Legacy of a Spill?

A bottlenose dolphin swims in the shallow waters along a sandy beach with orange oil boom.

A bottlenose dolphin swims in the shallow waters along the beach in Grand Isle, Louisiana, near oil containment boom that was deployed on May 28, 2010. Oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill began washing up on beaches here one month after the drilling unit exploded. (U.S. Coast Guard)

In the past, large dolphin die-offs in the Gulf of Mexico could usually be tied to short-lived, discrete events, such as morbillivirus and marine biotoxins (resulting from harmful algal blooms). While studies are ongoing, the current evidence does not support that these past causes are responsible for the current increases in dolphin deaths in the northern Gulf since 2010 (Litz et al. 2014).

However, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill—its timing, location, and nature—offers the strongest evidence for explaining why so many dolphins have been sick and dying in the Gulf since 2010. Ongoing studies are assessing disease among dolphins that have died and potential changes in dolphin health over the years since the spill.

As is the case for deep-sea corals, the full effects of this oil spill on the long-lived and slow-to-mature bottlenose dolphins and other dolphins and whales in the Gulf may not appear for years. Find more information related to dolphin health in the Gulf of Mexico on NOAA’s Unusual Mortality Event and Gulf Spill Restoration websites.


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At the Bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, Corals and Diversity Suffered After Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Five Years Later

This is the second 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.

Very little, if any, light from the sun successfully travels to the extreme bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. At these dark depths, the water is cold and the inescapable pressure of thousands of feet of ocean bears down on everything.

Yet life in the deep ocean is incredibly diverse. Here, delicate branches of soft coral are embraced by the curling arms of brittlestars. Slender sea fans, tinged with pink, reach for tiny morsels of food drifting down like snow from above. From minute marine worms to elongated fish, the diversity of the deep ocean is also a hallmark of its health and stability.

However, this picture of health was disrupted on April 20, 2010. Beginning that day and for almost three months after, the Macondo wellhead unleashed an unprecedented amount of oil and natural gas nearly a mile beneath the ocean. In addition, the response to this oil spill released large amounts of chemical dispersant, both at the source of the leaking oil and on the ocean surface. These actions were meant to break down oil that might have threatened life at the sea surface and on Gulf shores. Nevertheless, the implications for the ocean floor were largely unknown at the time.

In the five years since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, a number of academic and independent scientists along with state and federal agencies, including NOAA and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, have been collaborating to study just how this oil spill and response affected the deep ocean and seafloor of the Gulf. What they found was the footprint of the oil spill on the seafloor, stamped on sickened deep-sea corals and out-of-balance communities of tiny marine invertebrates.

A Sickened Seafloor

A part of the world difficult to reach—and therefore difficult to know—the depths of the Gulf of Mexico required a huge collaborative and technological effort to study its inhabitants. Beginning in the fall of 2010, teams of scientists set out on multiple research cruises to collect deep-sea data, armed with specialized equipment, including remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), cameras capable of withstanding the crushing pressure of the deep ocean, and devices that could bore into the ocean bottom and scoop up multiple samples of sediments at a time.

Through these efforts, researchers have uncovered large areas of the Gulf of Mexico seafloor that contain most of the oil spill’s notable deep-sea impacts. One area in particular surrounds the damaged wellhead and stretches to the southwest, following the path of the massive underwater plume of Deepwater Horizon oil. At times, up to 650 feet thick and over a mile wide, the oil plume drifted at depths more than 3,500 feet beneath the ocean surface, leaving traces of its presence on the bottom as it went (Camilli et al. 2010).

The Macondo wellhead sits at the center of a bull’s-eye–shaped pattern of harm on the seafloor, with oil-related impacts lessening in intensity farther from the oil’s source. Further tying this pattern of injury to the Deepwater Horizon spill, a conservative chemical tracer of petroleum turned up in surface seafloor sediments extending 15 miles from the wellhead (Valentine et al. 2014).

Diversity Takes a Nose Dive

Few people ever see the bottom of the deep ocean. So what do these impacted areas actually look like? Starting several months after the leaking well was capped, researchers used ROVs and special cameras to dive down roughly 4,500 feet. They found multiple deep-sea coral colonies showing recent signs of poor health, stress, and tissue damage. On these corals, the polyps, which normally extend frilly tentacles from the corals’ branching arms, were pulled back, and excessive mucus hung from the corals’ skeletons, which also revealed patches of dead tissue. All of these symptoms have been observed in corals experimentally exposed to crude oil (White et al. 2012 PDF).

Five photos of deep-sea coral showing the progression of impacts over several years.

A time series of coral showing the progression of typical impacts at a site of coral colonies located less than seven miles from the source of Deepwater Horizon oil. You can see the brown “floc” material present in November 2010 disappears by March 2011 and afterward, is replaced by fuzzy gray hydroids and the coral loses its brittlestar companion. (Credit: Hsing et al. 2013)

Many of these coral colonies were partly or entirely coated in a clumpy brown material, which researchers referred to as “floc.” Chemical analysis of this material revealed the presence of petroleum droplets with similar chemical markers to Deepwater Horizon oil. The brittlestars usually associated with these corals also appeared in strange colors and positions. Some entire coral colonies were dead.

Research teams noted these observations only at corals within roughly 16 miles of the wellhead (White et al. 2012 PDF, Fisher et al. 2014). However, many similar coral colonies located further from the spill site showed no poor health effects.

Even one and two years later, deep-sea corals within the footprint of the spill still had not recovered. Hydroids took the place of the brown floc material on affected corals. Relatives of jellies, hydroids are fuzzy, grayish marine invertebrates that are known to encrust unhealthy coral.

Life on and under the sediment at the bottom of the Gulf also suffered, with the diversity of a wide range of marine life dropping across an area roughly three times the size of Manhattan (Montagna et al. 2013). Notably, numbers of tiny, pollution-tolerant nematodes increased in areas of moderate impact but at the expense of the number and types of other species, particularly copepods, small crustaceans at the base of the food chain. These effects were related to the concentration of oil compounds in sediments and to the distance from the Deepwater Horizon spill but not to natural oil seeps.

Top row, from left,  two types of crustaceans and a mollusk. Bottom row shows three types of marine worms known as polychaetes.

Examples of some of the common but very small marine invertebrates found living on and under the Gulf of Mexico seafloor. The top row shows, from left, two types of crustaceans and a mollusk, which are more sensitive to pollution. The bottom row shows three types of marine worms known as polychaetes, which tended to dominate ocean sediments with higher oil contamination found near corals. (Courtesy of Paul Montagna, Texas A&M University)

More sensitive to pollution, fewer types and numbers of crustaceans and mollusks were found in sediments around coral colonies showing impacts. Instead, a few types of segmented marine worms known as polychaetes tended to dominate ocean sediments with higher oil contamination near these corals (Fisher et al. 2014).

A Long Time Coming

Life on the bottom of the ocean moves slowly. Deep-sea corals live for hundreds to thousands of years, and their deaths are rare events. Some of the corals coated in oily brown floc are about 600 years old (Prouty et al. 2014). The observed impacts to life in the deep ocean are tied closely to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, but the full extent of the harm and the eventual recovery may take years, even decades, to manifest (Fisher and Demopoulos, et al. 2014).

Learn more about the studies supported by the federal government’s Natural Resource Damage Assessment for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which determines the environmental harm due to the oil spill and response and seeks compensation from those responsible in order to restore the affected resources.

Read more: Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Tied to Further Impacts in Shallower Water Corals, New Study Reports


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Untangling Both a Whale and Why Marine Life Get Mixed up With Our Trash

Tail-view of humpback whale tangled in rope and nets underwater.

A humpback whale entangled in fishing gear swims near the ocean’s surface in 2005. (NOAA/Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary)

In the United States alone, scientific reports show at least 115 different species of marine life have gotten tangled up—literally—in the issue of marine debris. And when you look across the globe that number jumps to 200 species. Those animals affected range from marine mammals and sea turtles to sea birds, fish, and invertebrates.

Sadly, a humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) swimming in the blue waters off of Maui, Hawaii, got first-hand experience with this issue in February 2014. Luckily, trained responders from the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary were able to remove the long tangle of fishing rope wrapped around the whale’s head, mouth, and right pectoral fin. According to NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuaries:

“A long pole with a specially designed hook knife was used by trained and permitted personnel to cut through the entanglement.

Hundreds of feet of small gauge line were collected after the successful disentanglement. The entanglement was considered life threatening and the whale is confirmed to be totally free of gear.”

Check out these short videos taken by the response team for a glimpse of what it’s like trying to free one of these massive marine mammals from this debris:

Net Results

While this whale was fortunate enough to have some help escaping, the issue of wildlife getting tangled in marine debris is neither new nor going away. Recently, the NOAA Marine Debris Program and National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science reviewed scientific reports of ocean life entangled by marine debris in the United States. You can read the full NOAA report [PDF].

They looked at more than 170 reports reaching all the way back to 1928. However, wildlife entanglements didn’t really emerge as a larger problem until after 1950 and into the 1970s when plastic and other synthetic materials became popular. Before that time, fishing gear and “disposable” trash tended to be made out of materials that broke down in the environment, for example, hemp rope or paper bags. Nowadays, when plastic packing straps and nylon fishing ropes get lost or discarded in the ocean, they stick around for a lot longer—long enough for marine life to find and get wrapped up in them.

One of the findings of the NOAA report was that seals and sea lions (part of a group known as pinnipeds) were the type of marine life most likely to become entangled in nets and other debris in the United States. Sea turtles were a close second.

But why these animals? Is there something that makes them especially vulnerable to entanglement?

Location, Location, Location

The two species with the highest reported numbers of entanglements were northern fur seals (Callorhinus ursinus) and Hawaiian monk seals (Monachus schauinslandi). Both of these seals may live in areas where marine debris tends to build up in higher concentrations, increasing their chances of encountering and getting tangled in it.

For example, Hawaiian monk seals live among the coral reefs of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, where some 50 tons of old fishing gear washes up each year. These islands are near the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone, where oceanic and atmospheric forces bring together not only plenty of food for marine life but also lots of debris floating in the ocean. Humpback whales migrate across these waters twice a year, which might be how the humpback near Maui ended up in a tangled mess earlier this year.

Just Behave

Monk sleep sleeping on nets on beach.

An endangered Hawaiian monk seal snuggles up on a pile of nets and other fishing gear in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Between the mid-1950s and mid-1990s, the population declined to one-third of its size due at least in part to entanglement in trawl nets and other debris that drift into the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands from other areas (e.g., Alaska, Russia, Japan) and accumulates along the beaches and in lagoon reefs of atolls. (NOAA)

While being in the wrong place at the wrong time can lead to many unhappily tangled marine animals, behavior also plays into the problem. Some species exhibit particular behaviors that unknowingly put them at greater risk when marine debris shows up.

Not only does the endangered Hawaiian monk seal live on shores prone to the buildup of abandoned nets and plastic trash, but the seals actually seem to enjoy a good nap or lounge on piles of old fishing gear, according to visiting scientists in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The playful, curious nature of young seals and humpback whales also makes them more likely to become entangled in marine debris.

Sea turtles, young and old, are another group whose behaviors evolved to help them survive in a world without human pollution but which in today’s world sometimes place them in harm’s way. Young sea turtles like to hide from predators under floating objects, which too often end up being marine debris. And because sea turtles enjoy munching on the food swirling around ocean convergence zones, such as the one in the North Pacific, they also munch on and get mixed up with the marine debris that gathers there too—especially items with loops and openings to get caught on.

While these animals can’t do much about their behaviors, we humans can. You can:


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NOAA Prepares for Bakken Oil Spills as Seattle Dodges Oil Train Explosion

As federal leaders in oil spill response science, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is grateful for each oil spill which does not take place, which was fortunately the case on July 24, 2014 in Seattle, Washington, near our west coast office. A train passing through the city ran off the tracks, derailing three of its 100 tank cars carrying Bakken crude oil from North Dakota to a refinery in the port town of Anacortes, Washington. No oil spilled or ignited in the accident.

However, that was not the case in five high-profile oil train derailments and explosions in the last year, occurring in places such as Casselton, North Dakota, when a train carrying grain derailed into an oil train, causing several oil tank cars to explode in December 2013.

Oil production continues to grow in North America, in large part due to new extraction technologies such as hydraulic fracturing (fracking) opening up massive new oil fields in the Bakken region of North Dakota and Montana. The Bakken region lacks the capacity to transport this increased oil production by the most common methods: pipeline or tanker. Instead, railroads are filling this gap, with the number of tank cars carrying crude oil in the United States rising more than 4,000 percent between 2009 (9,500 carloads) and 2013 (407,761).

Just a day before this derailment, Seattle City Council signed a letter to the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, urging him to issue an emergency stop to shipping Bakken crude oil in older model tank train cars (DOT-111), which are considered less safe for shipping flammable materials. (However, some of the proposed safer tank car models have also been involved in oil train explosions.) According to the Council’s press release, “BNSF Railway reports moving 8-13 oil trains per week through Seattle, all containing 1,000,000 or more gallons of Bakken crude.” The same day as the Council’s letter, the Department of Transportation proposed rules to phase out the older DOT-111 model train cars for carrying flammable materials, including Bakken crude, over a two-year period.

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is examining these changing dynamics in the way oil is moved around the country, and we recently partnered with the University of Washington to research this issue. These changes have implications for how we prepare our scientific toolbox for responding to oil spills, in order to protect responders, the public, and the environment.

The fireball that followed the derailment and explosion of two trains, one carrying Bakken crude oil, on December 30, 2013, outside Casselton, N.D.

The fireball that followed the derailment and explosion of two trains, one carrying Bakken crude oil, on December 30, 2013, outside Casselton, N.D. (U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration)

For example, based on our knowledge of oil chemistry, we make recommendations to responders about potential risks during spill cleanup along coasts and waterways. We need to know whether a particular type of oil, such as Bakken crude, will easily ignite and pose a danger of fire or explosion, and whether chemical components of the oil will dissolve into the water, potentially damaging sensitive fish populations.

Our office responded to a spill of Bakken crude oil earlier this year on the Mississippi River. On February 22, 2014, the barge E2MS 303 carrying 25,000 barrels of Bakken crude collided with a towboat 154 miles north of the river’s mouth. A tank of oil broke open, spilling approximately 31,500 gallons (750 barrels) of its contents into this busy waterway, closing it down for several days. NOAA provided scientific support to the response, for example, by having our modeling team estimate the projected path of the spilled oil.

Barge leaking oil on a river.

Barge E2MS 303 leaking 750 barrels of Bakken crude oil into the lower Mississippi River on February 22, 2014. (U.S. Coast Guard)

We also worked with our partners at Louisiana State University to analyze samples of the Bakken crude oil. We found the oil to have a low viscosity (flows easily) and to be highly volatile, meaning it readily changes from liquid to gas at moderate temperatures. It also contains a high concentration of the toxic components known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that easily dissolve into the water column. For more information about NOAA’s involvement in this incident, visit IncidentNews.