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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Redrawing the Coast After Sandy: First Round of Updated Environmental Sensitivity Data Released for Atlantic States

Contsruction equipment moves sand to rebuild a New Jersey beach in front of houses damaged during Hurricane Sandy.

In Brick, New Jersey, construction crews rebuild the beaches in front of homes damaged by Hurricane Sandy. This huge storm actually changed the shape of shorelines up and down the East Coast. (Federal Emergency Management Agency/FEMA)

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Jill Petersen.

In 2012 Hurricane Sandy brought devastating winds and flooding to the Atlantic coast. In some parts of New Jersey, flood waters reached nearly 9 feet. Up and down the East Coast, this massive storm actually reshaped the shoreline.

As a result, we’ve been working to update our Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) maps to reflect the new state of Atlantic shorelines. These maps and data give oil spill planners and responders a quick snapshot of a shoreline’s vulnerability to spilled oil.

This week, we released the digital data, for use within a Geographic Information System (GIS), for the first regions updated after Hurricane Sandy. Passed the January following Sandy, the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013 provided funds to update ESI maps for eleven Atlantic coast states, ranging from Maine to South Carolina. For this project, we grouped the states into seven regions.

The GIS data for the regions released this week cover South Carolina and portions of New York and New Jersey, including the Hudson River, south Long Island, and the New York–New Jersey metropolitan area. For these two regions, we mapped more than 300 oil-sensitive species and classified over 17,000 miles of shoreline according to their sensitivity to spilled oil.

Updated GIS data and PDF maps for the remaining regions affected by Sandy will be available in the coming months.

Time for a Change

The magnitude of the overall effort has been unprecedented, and provided us with the opportunity to revisit what was mapped and how, and to update the technology used, particularly as it relates to the map production.

Our first Environmental Sensitivity Index maps were produced in the early 1980s and, since that time, the entire U.S. coast has been mapped at least once. To be most useful, these data should be updated every 5–7 years to reflect changes in shoreline and species distributions that may occur due to a variety of things, including human intervention, climate change, or, as in this case, major coastal storms.

In addition to ranking the sensitivity of different shorelines (including wetlands and tidal flats), these data and maps also show the locations of oil-sensitive animals, plants, and habitats, along with various human features that could either be impacted by oil, such as a marina, or be useful in a spill response scenario, such as access points along a beach.

New Shores, New Features

A street sign is buried under huge piles of sand in front of a beach community.

In the wake of Sandy, we’ve been updating our Environmental Sensitivity Index maps and data and adding new features, such as storm surge inundation data. Hurricane Sandy’s flooding left significant impacts on coastal communities in eleven Atlantic states. (Federal Emergency Management Agency/FEMA)

To gather suggestions for improving our ESI maps and data, we sent out user surveys, conducted interviews, and pored over historical documentation. We evaluated all suggestions while keeping the primary users—spill planners and responders—at the forefront. In the end, several major changes were adopted, and these improvements will be included in all future ESI maps and data.

Extended coverage was one of the most requested enhancements. Previous data coverage was focused primarily on the shoreline and nearshore—perhaps 2–3 miles offshore and generally less than 1 mile inland. The post-Sandy maps and data extend 12 nautical miles offshore and 5 miles inland.

This extension enables us to include data such as deep water species and migratory routes, as well as species occurring in wetlands and human-focused features found further inland. With these extra features, we were able to incorporate additional hazards to the coastal environment. One example was the addition of storm surge inundation data, provided by NOAA’s National Hurricane Center, which provide flood levels for storms classified from Category 1 to Category 5.

We also added more jurisdictional boundaries, EPA Risk Management Facilities (the EPA-regulated facilities that pose the most significant risk to life or human health), repeated measurement sites (water quality, tide gauges, Mussel Watch sites, etc.), historic wrecks, and locations of coastal invasive species. These supplement the already comprehensive human-use features that were traditionally mapped, such as access points, fishing areas, historical sites, and managed areas.

The biological data in our maps continue to represent where species occur, along with supporting information such as concentration, seasonal variability, life stage and breeding information, and the data source. During an oil spill, knowing the data source (e.g., the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) is especially important so that responders can reach out for any new information that could impact their approach to the spill response.

A new feature added to the biological data tables alerts users as to why a particular species’ occurrence may warrant more attention than another, providing context such as whether the animals are roosting or migrating. As always, we make note of state and federal threatened, endangered, or listed species.

Next up

Stay tuned for the digital data and PDF maps for additional Sandy-affected regions. While the updated PDF maps will have a slightly different look and feel than prior ones, the symbology and map links will be very familiar to long-time users.

In the meantime, we had already been working on updating ESI maps for two regions outside those funded by the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act. These regions, the outer coast of Washington and Oregon and the state of Georgia, have benefited from the general improvements brought about by this process. As of this week, you can now access the latest GIS data for these regions as well.

Jill PetersenJill Petersen began working with the NOAA spill response group in 1988. Originally a programmer and on-scene responder, in 1991 her focus switched to mapping support, a major component of which is the ESI program. Throughout the years, Jill has worked to broaden the ESI audience by providing ESIs in a variety of formats and developing appropriate mapping tools. Jill has been the ESI program manager since 2001.


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How Do We Use Satellite Data During Oil Spills?

This is a post by NOAA’s George Graettinger with Amy MacFadyen.

A view of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill from NASA's Terra Satellites.

A view of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill from NASA’s Terra Satellites on May 24, 2010. When oil slicks are visible in satellite images, it is because they have changed how the water reflects light, either by making the sun’s reflection brighter or by dampening the scattering of sunlight, which makes the oily area darker. (NASA)

Did you know satellites measure many properties of the Earth’s oceans from space? Remote sensing technology uses various types of sensors and cameras on satellites and aircraft to gather data about the natural world from a distance. These sensors provide information about winds, ocean currents and tides, sea surface height, and a lot more.

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is taking advantage of all that data collection by collaborating with NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service to put this environmental intelligence to work during disasters such as oil spills and hurricanes. Remote sensing technology adds another tool to our toolbox as we assess and respond to the environmental impacts of these types of disasters.

In these cases, which tend to be larger or longer-term oil spills, NOAA Satellites analyzes earth and ocean data from a variety of sensors and provides us with data products such as images and maps. We’re then able to take that information from NOAA Satellites and apply it to purposes ranging from detecting oil slicks to determining how an oil spill might be impacting a species or shoreline.

Slick Technology

During an oil spill, observers trained to identify oil from the air go out in helicopters and planes to report an oil slick’s exact location, shape, size, color, and orientation at a given time. Analogous to this “remote sensing” done by the human eye, satellite sensors can help us define the extent of an oil slick on the ocean surface and create a target area where our aerial observers should start looking for oil.

In the case of a large oil spill over a sizable area such as the Gulf of Mexico, this is very important because we can’t afford the time to go out in helicopters and look everywhere or sometimes weather conditions may make it unsafe to do so.

The three blue shapes represent the NOAA oil spill trajectory for May 17, 2010, showing potential levels of oiling during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The green outline represents the aerial footprint or oil extent for the same day, which comes from the NOAA satellite program. All of these shapes appear on a NASA MODIS Terra Satellite background image, as shown in our online response mapping program ERMA.

The three blue shapes represent the NOAA oil spill trajectory for May 17, 2010, showing potential levels of oiling during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The green outline represents the aerial footprint or oil extent for the same day, which comes from the NOAA satellite program. All of these shapes appear on a NASA MODIS Terra Satellite background image, as shown in our online response mapping program ERMA. (NOAA)

Satellite remote sensing typically provides the aerial footprint or outline of the surface oil (the surface oiling extent). However, oil slicks are patchy and vary in the thickness of the oil, which means having the outline of the slick is useful, but we still need our observers to give us more detailed information. That said, we’re starting to be able to use remote sensing to delineate not just the extent but also the thickest parts of the slicks.

Armed with information about where spilled oil may be thickest allows us to prioritize these areas for cleanup action. This “actionable oil” is in a condition that can be collected (via skimmers), dispersed, or burned as part of the cleanup process.

You can see how we mapped the surface oiling extent during the Deepwater Horizon spill based on data analyses from NOAA Satellites into our online response mapping program ERMA.

A Model for the Future

A common use of remotely sensed data in our work is with our oil spill models. Reports of a slick’s extent from both satellite sensors and aerial observers, who report additional information about constantly changing oil slicks, helps our oceanographers improve the forecasts of where the oil will be tomorrow.

Just as weather forecasters continually incorporate real-time observations into their models to improve accuracy, our oceanographers update oil spill trajectory models with the latest overflights and observations of the surface oiling extent (the area where oil is at a given moment). These forecasts offer critical information that the Coast Guard uses to prioritize spill response and cleanup activities.

A Sense of Impact

Oil at the water's surface in a boat wake.

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill provided us with a number of new opportunities to work with remotely sensed data. One use was detecting the outline of oil slicks on the ocean surface. (NOAA)

Over the course of an oil spill, knowing the surface oiling extent and where that oil is going is important for identifying what natural resources are potentially in harm’s way and should be protected during the spill response.

In addition, the data analyses from remote sensing technology directly support our ability to determine how natural resources, whether salt marshes or dolphins, are exposed to spilled oil. Both where an oil slick is and how often it is there will affect the degree of potential harm suffered by sensitive species and habitats over time.

In recent years, we’ve been learning how to better use the remote sensing data collected by satellite and aircraft to look at how, where, and for how long coastal and marine life and habitats are impacted by oil spills and then relate this oil exposure to actual harm to these resources.

Large amounts of oil that stay in the same place for a long time have the potential to cause a lot more harm. For example, dolphins in a certain impacted area might breathe fumes from oil and ingest oil from food and water for weeks or months at a time. Without remotely sensed data, it would be nearly impossible to accomplish this task of tying the exact location and timing of oil exposure to environmental harm.

Remote Opportunities

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill provided us with a number of new opportunities to work with remotely sensed data. For example, we used this technology to examine the large scale features of the circulation patterns in the Gulf of Mexico, such as the fast-moving Loop Current and associated eddies. The Loop Current is a warm ocean current that flows northward between Cuba and Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, moves north into the Gulf of Mexico, then loops east and south before exiting through the Florida Straits and ultimately joining the Gulf Stream.

During this oil spill, there were concerns that if the oil slick entered the Loop Current, it could be transported far beyond the Gulf to the Caribbean or up the U.S. East Coast (it did not). NOAA used information from satellite data to monitory closely the position of the slick with respect to the Loop Current throughout the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Our partnership with NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service has been a fruitful one, which we expect to grow even more in the future as technology develops further. In January, NOAA Satellites launched the Jason-3 satellite, which will continue to collect critical sea surface height data, adding to a satellite data record going back to 1992. One way these data will be used is in helping track the development of hurricanes, which in turn can cause oil spills.

We hope ongoing collaboration across NOAA will further prepare us for the future and whatever it holds.


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What Are Our Options for Restoring Lands Around Washington’s Hanford Nuclear Reservation?

Shrub-covered plains next to the Columbia River and bluffs beyond.

The dry shrub-steppe habitat at Washington’s Hanford Nuclear Reservation is rare for the region because it is so extensive, intact, and relatively healthy. (Department of Energy)

Many people might be inclined to write off the wide, dry plains stretching around the Hanford Nuclear Reservation as lost lands. After all, this area in eastern Washington was central to the top-secret Manhattan Project, where plutonium was produced for nuclear bombs used against Japan near the end of World War II. In addition, nuclear production continued at Hanford throughout the Cold War, ending in 1987.

This history left an undeniable legacy of pollution, which is still being studied and addressed today.

Yet this land and the Columbia River that curves in and around it are far from being irredeemable. The Hanford site encompasses 586 square miles. Yes, some parts of Hanford have been degraded by development from its nine (now decommissioned) nuclear reactors and associated processing plants and from chemical and radionuclide contamination.

But the site also includes vast, continuous tracts of healthy arid lands that are rare in a modern reality where little of nature remains untouched by humans.

Where We Are and Where We’re Going

This potential is precisely what encourages Christina Galitsky, who recently joined NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration to work on the Hanford case. Currently, she is leading a study at Hanford as part of a collaborative effort known as a Natural Resource Damage Assessment, a process which is seeking to assess and make up for the years of environmental impacts at the nuclear site.

“The purpose of our study is to begin to understand habitat restoration options for Hanford,” Galitsky explained. “We are starting with terrestrial habitats and will later move to the aquatic environment.”

A worker drains a pipe that contains liquid chromium next to a nuclear reactor.

From the 1940s to 1980s, the Hanford site was used to produce plutonium in nuclear weapons, and which today is home to the largest environmental cleanup in the United States. Here, a cleanup worker deals with chromium pollution near one of the decommissioned nuclear reactors. (Department of Energy)

NOAA is involved with eight other federal, state, and tribal organizations that make up the Hanford Natural Resource Trustee Council, which was chartered to address natural resources impacted by past and ongoing releases of hazardous substances on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

The study, begun in the summer of 2015, will be crucial for helping to inform not only restoration approaches but also the magnitude of the environmental injury assessment.

“We want to understand what habitat conditions we have at Hanford now,” Galitsky said, “what restoration has been done in similar dry-climate, shrub-steppe habitats elsewhere and at Hanford; what restoration techniques would be most successful and least costly over the long term; and how to best monitor and adapt our approaches over time to ensure maximum ecological benefit far into the future.”

The Hanford site is dominated by shrub-steppe habitat. Shrub-steppe is characterized by shrubs, such as big sagebrush, grasses, and other plants that manage to survive with extremely little rainfall. The larger Hanford site, comprised of the Hanford Reach National Monument and the central area where nuclear production occurred, contains the largest blocks of relatively intact shrub-steppe habitat that remain in the Columbia River Basin.

More Work Ahead

Roads and facilities of Hanford next to the Columbia River with bluffs and hills beyond.

The Hanford site, which the Columbia River passes through, encompasses 586 square miles of sweeping plains alongside an atomic legacy. (Department of Energy)

Galitsky’s team includes experts from NOAA, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and other trustees involved in the damage assessment. For this study, they are reviewing reports, visiting reference and restoration sites in the field, creating maps, and organizing the information into a database to access and analyze it more effectively.

They presented their preliminary results to the trustee council in November. So far, they are finding that limited restoration has been done at Hanford, and, as is fairly common, long-term data tracking the success of those efforts are even more limited. Over the next six months, they will expand their research to restoration of similar shrub-steppe habitats elsewhere in the Columbia Basin and beyond.

Thanks to additional funding that stretches into 2017, the team will begin a second phase of the study later this year. Plans for this phase include recommending restoration and long-term habitat management approaches for the trustee council’s restoration plan and examining the benefits and drawbacks of conducting shrub-steppe restoration both on and off the Hanford site.

Steppe up to the Challenge

Two American White Pelicans fly over the Columbia River and Hanford's shrubby grasslands.

A surprising diversity of plants and animals, such as these American White Pelicans, can be found in the lands and waters of Hanford. (NOAA)

The natural areas around Hanford show exceptional diversity in a relatively small area. More than 250 bird species, 700 plant species, 2,000 insect species, and myriad reptiles, amphibians, and mammals inhabit the site. In addition, its lands are or have been home to many rare, threatened, and sensitive plants, birds, reptiles, and mammals, such as the Pygmy rabbit

Furthermore, the shrub-steppe habitat at Hanford holds special significance because this habitat is so rare in the Columbia Basin. Elsewhere in the region, urban and agricultural development, invasive species, and altered fire regimes continue to threaten what remains of it. As Galitsky points out, “At Hanford there is an opportunity to restore areas of degraded shrub-steppe habitat and protect these unique resources for generations.”

Restoring habitats on or near the Hanford site may create benefits not only on a local level but also more broadly on a landscape scale. These efforts have the potential to increase the connectivity of the landscape, creating corridors for wildlife and plants across the larger Columbia River Basin. The team will be evaluating these potential landscape-scale effects in the second phase of this project. Stay tuned.


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How Do You Keep Killer Whales Away From an Oil Spill?

This is a guest post by Lynne Barre of NOAA Fisheries.

Two killer whales (orcas) breach in front a boat.

NOAA developed an oil spill response plan for killer whales that includes three main techniques to deploy quickly to keep these endangered animals away from a spill. (NOAA)

I sleep better at night knowing that we have a plan in place to keep endangered Southern Resident killer whales away from an oil spill. Preventing oil spills is key, but since killer whales, also known as orcas, spend much of their time in the busy waters around Seattle, the San Juan Islands, and Vancouver, British Columbia, there is always a chance a spill could happen.

The Southern Residents are a small and social population of killer whales, so an oil spill could have major impacts on the entire population if they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

We’ve learned from past experience with the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill that killer whales and other marine mammals don’t avoid oiled areas on their own and exposure to oil likely can affect their populations. New information on impacts from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill on bottlenose dolphins (a close relative of killer whales) gives us a better idea of how oil exposure can affect the health and reproduction of marine mammals.

Oil spills are a significant threat to the Southern Resident population, which totals less than 90 animals, and the 2008 recovery plan [PDF] calls for a response plan to protect them. We brought experts together in 2007 to help us identify tools and techniques to deter killer whales from oil and develop a response plan so that we’d be prepared in case a major oil spill does happen.

The Sound of Readiness

Killer whales are acoustic animals. They use sound to communicate with each other and find food through echolocation, a type of biosonar. Because sound is so important, using loud or annoying sounds is one way that we can try to keep the whales away from an area contaminated with oil. We brainstormed a variety of ideas based on experience with killer whales and other animals and evaluated a long list of ideas, including sounds, as well as more experimental approaches, such as underwater lights, air bubble curtains, and hoses.

After receiving lots of input and carefully evaluating each option, we developed an oil spill response plan for killer whales that includes three main techniques to deploy quickly if the whales are headed straight toward a spill. Helicopter hazing, banging pipes (oikomi pipes), and underwater firecrackers are on the short list of options. Here’s a little more about each approach:

  • Helicopters are often available to do surveillance of oil and look for animals when a spill occurs. By moving at certain altitudes toward the whales, a helicopter creates sound and disturbs the water’s surface, which can motivate or “haze” whales to move away from oiled areas.
  • Banging pipes, called oikomi pipes, are metal pipes about eight feet long which are lowered into the water and struck with a hammer to make a loud noise. These pipes have been used to drive or herd marine mammals. For killer whales, pipes were successfully used to help move several whales that were trapped in a freshwater lake in Alaska.
  • Underwater firecrackers can also be used to deter whales. These small explosives are called “seal bombs” because they were developed and can be used to keep seals and sea lions away [PDF] from fishing gear. These small charges were used in the 1960s and 1970s to help capture killer whales for public display in aquaria. Now we are using historical knowledge of the whales’ behavior during those captures to support conservation of the whales.

In addition, our plan includes strict safety instructions about how close to get and how to implement these deterrents in order to prevent injury of oil spill responders and the whales. In the case of an actual spill, the wildlife branch within the Incident Command (the official response team dealing with the spill, usually led by the Coast Guard) would direct qualified responders to implement the different techniques based on specific information about the oil and whales.

Planning in Practice

Several killer whales break the surface of Washington's Puget Sound.

Killer whales use sound to communicate with each other and find food through echolocation. That’s why NOAA’s plan for keeping these acoustic animals away from oil spills involves using sound as a deterrent. (NOAA)

After incorporating the killer whale response plan into our overall Northwest Area Contingency Plan for oil spills, I felt better but knew we still had some work to do.

Since finalizing the plan in 2009, we’ve been focused on securing equipment, learning more about the techniques, and practicing them during oil spill drills. Working with the U.S. Coast Guard and local hydrophone networks (which record underwater sound), we’ve flown helicopters over underwater microphones to record sound levels at different distances and altitudes.

With our partners at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Island Oil Spill Association, we built several sets of banging pipes and have them strategically staged around Puget Sound. In 2013 we conducted a drill with our partners and several researchers to test banging pipes in the San Juan Islands. It takes practice to line up several small boats, coordinate the movement of the boats, and synchronize banging a set of the pipes to create a continuous wall of sound that will discourage whales from getting close to oil. We learned a few critical lessons to update our implementation plans and to incorporate into plans for future drills.

A large oil spill in Southern Resident killer whale habitat would be a nightmare. I’m so glad we have partners focused on preventing and preparing for oil spills, and it is good to know we have a plan to keep an oil spill from becoming a catastrophe for endangered killer whales. That knowledge helps me rest easier and focus on good news like the boom in killer whale calves born to mothers in Washington’s Puget Sound.

You can find more information on our killer whale response plan and our recovery program for Southern Resident killer whales.

Lynne Barre in front of icy waters and snowy cliffs.Lynne Barre is a Branch Chief for the Protected Resources Division of NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region. She is the Recovery Coordinator for Southern Resident killer whales and works on marine mammal and endangered species conservation and recovery.


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Apply Now for NOAA’s First Class Examining the Science of Chemical Spills

People standing in a lab next to chemical testing equipment.

This three and a half day class will provide a broad, science-based approach to understanding chemical release response. (NOAA)

For years, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration has been offering our popular Science of Oil Spills classes to oil spill responders and planners. But oil isn’t the only hazardous material for which we have expertise. This March, we’ll launch our first official Science of Chemical Releases (SOCR) class to share this expertise in new ways.

This class is designed to help spill responders and planners increase their scientific understanding when preparing for and analyzing chemical spills, which could range from toluene to sulfuric acid, and when making risk-based decisions to protect public health, safety, and the environment in the event of such a release.

The three and a half day class will take place at NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center in Mobile, Alabama, from March 21–24, 2016.

We are accepting applications for this class until Friday, February 19, 2016. We will notify accepted participants by email no later than Friday, February 26.

The class is primarily intended for new and mid-level spill responders, planners, and stakeholders from all levels of government, industry, and academia.

During the class, participants will be introduced to a realistic scenario to demonstrate the use of scientific tools, resources, and knowledge to aid in response to chemical releases. The scenario will be centered on a hypothetical chemical incident involving the derailment of multiple railcars containing hazardous chemicals, resulting in a fire and release of dangerous chemicals into the environment.

Through this new training, we hope to provide a broad, science-based approach to understanding chemical release response, thereby increasing awareness and preparedness and reducing uncertainty and risk associated with this type of incident.

There is no tuition for this class. However, students are responsible for all miscellaneous expenses, including lodging, travel, and food.

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

If you have any questions or experience any problems with your application, please send us an email.

To receive updates about our activities and events, including Science of Chemical Releases or Science of Oil Spills classes, subscribe to our monthly newsletter.


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Alaska Updates Plan for Using Dispersants During Oil Spills

Humpback whale and seabirds at surface of Bering Sea with NOAA ship beyond.

By breaking crude oils into smaller droplets, chemical dispersants reduce the surface area of an oil slick as well as the threats to marine life at the ocean surface, such as whales and seabirds. (NOAA)

While the best way to deal with oil spills in the ocean is to prevent them in the first place, when they do happen, we need to be ready. Cleanup is difficult, and there are no magic remedies to remove all the oil. Most big oil spills require a combination of cleanup tools.

This week the Alaska Regional Response Team, an advisory council for oil spill responses in Alaska, has adopted a revised plan for one of the most controversial tools in the toolbox: Chemical dispersants.

How Dispersants Are Used in Oil Spills

Dispersants are chemical compounds which, when applied correctly under the right conditions, break crude oils into smaller droplets that mix down into the water column. This reduces not only the surface area of an oil slick but also the threats to marine life at the ocean surface. By making the oil droplets smaller, they become much more available to natural degradation by oil-eating microbes.

Dispersants are controversial for many reasons, notably because they don’t remove oil from the marine environment. Mechanical removal methods are always preferred, but we also know that during large oil spills, containment booms and skimmers can get overwhelmed and other pollution response tools may be necessary. This is a big concern especially in Alaska, where weather and remote locations increase the logistical challenges inherent in a large scale oil spill response.

Although dispersants get a lot of attention because of their extensive use after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, they actually are used rarely during oil spills. In fact, dispersants have only been applied to about two dozen spills in the United States in the last 40 years. The only time they were tested during an actual spill in Alaska was during the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.

Some oils like light and medium crude are often dispersible and others, like heavy fuel oils, often are not. In some cases dispersants have worked and in others they haven’t. The results of the Exxon Valdez testing were unclear and still subject to debate. So, why have a plan for something that is rarely used and may not be successful?

Probably the biggest reason is pragmatic. Dispersants work best on fresh, unweathered oil. Ideally, they should be applied to oil within hours or days of a spill. Because time is such a critical factor to their effectiveness, dispersants need to be stockpiled in key locations, along with the associated aircraft spraying and testing equipment. People properly trained to use that equipment need to be ready to go too.

A New Plan for Alaska

Airplane sprays dispersants over an oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico.

Although only used once in an Alaskan oil spill, dispersants have already been an approved oil spill response tool in the state for a number of years. This new plan improves the decision procedures and designates areas where dispersant use may be initiated rapidly. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

Now, dispersants have already been an approved oil spill response tool in Alaska [PDF] for a number of years. This new plan improves the decision procedures and designates areas where dispersant use may be initiated rapidly while still requiring notification of the natural resource trustees, local and tribal governments, and other stakeholders before actual use.

Alaska’s new plan specifies all the requirements for applying dispersants on an oil spill in Alaskan waters and includes detailed checklists to ensure that if dispersants are used, they have a high probability of success.

The new plan sets up a limited preauthorization zone in central and western Alaska, and case-by-case procedures for dispersant use elsewhere in Alaska. The plan also recognizes that there are highly sensitive habitats where dispersant use should be avoided.

In addition, preauthorization for using dispersants exists only for oil spills that happen far offshore. Most states have similar preauthorization plans that allow dispersant use starting three nautical miles offshore. The new Alaska plan starts at 24 miles offshore.

We realize that even far offshore, there may be areas to avoid, which is why all of the spill response plans in central and western Alaska will be revised over the next two years. This will occur through a public process to identify sensitive habitats where dispersant use would be subject to additional restrictions.

Planning for the Worst, Hoping for the Best

As the NOAA representative to the Alaska Regional Response Team, I appreciate all of the effort that has gone into this plan. I am grateful we developed the many procedures through a long and inclusive planning process, rather than in a rush on a dark and stormy night on the way to an oil spill.

But I hope this plan will never be needed, because that will mean that a big oil spill has happened. Nobody wants that, especially in pristine Alaskan waters.

Any decision to use dispersants will need to be made cautiously, combining the best available science with the particular circumstances of an oil spill. In some cases, dispersants may not be the best option, but in other scenarios, there may be a net environmental benefit from using dispersants. Having the dispersants, equipment, plans, and training in place will allow us to be better prepared to make that critical decision should the time come.

At the same time, NOAA and our partners are continuing to research and better understand the potential harm and trades-offs of dispersant use following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. We are participating in an ongoing effort to understand the state of the science on dispersants and their potential use in Arctic waters. (The University of New Hampshire is now accepting comments on the topic of dispersant efficacy and effectiveness.)

You can find Alaska’s new dispersant policy and additional information at the Alaska Regional Response Team website at www.alaskarrt.org.

For more information on our work on dispersants, read the April 2015 article, “What Have We Learned About Using Dispersants During the Next Big Oil Spill?” and July 2013 article, “Watching Chemical Dispersants at Work in an Oil Spill Research Facility.”


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What Do We Know Today About Microbeads and Microplastics in the Ocean?

Plastic microbeads visible in toothpaste on a toothbrush.

Microbeads are tiny pieces of polyethylene plastic added to health and beauty products, such as some cleansers and toothpastes. They can pass through wastewater treatment processes and end up in the ocean and Great Lakes, posing a potential threat to aquatic life. (NOAA)

Almost four years ago, I was surprised to find out about the presence of plastic microbeads in cosmetic products, such as exfoliating face cleansers and some types of toothpaste.

The problem with these tiny pieces of polyethylene plastic is that once they are washed down the drain, they escape being filtered by wastewater treatment processes, allowing them to enter the ocean and Great Lakes where they could absorb toxic chemicals in the environment and be ingested by animal life.

Microbeads are actually not a recent problem; according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), plastic microbeads first appeared in personal care products about fifty years ago, with plastics increasingly replacing natural ingredients with the same purpose in these products. But even in 2012, this issue was still relatively unknown, with an abundance of products containing plastic microbeads on the market and not a lot of awareness on the part of consumers.

Microbeads, Macro-attention

For several years, the NOAA Marine Debris Program has been working with researchers that are investigating issues relating to microbeads in our marine environment. In recent years, the issue has received a fair amount of attention in the media and elsewhere.

As a result of increasing overall awareness of the problem, many companies that use microbeads in their products have been phasing them out voluntarily. On December 28, 2015, President Obama signed the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 [PDF], banning plastic microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products.

The law was met with a lot of support, including from the Personal Care Products Council, an industry group who commented during the act’s approval process, which said:

“Solid, plastic microbeads are used in personal care cleansing products because of their safe and effective exfoliating properties. Research by independent scientists and nongovernmental organizations show that microbeads from all types of industrial uses are miniscule contributors to marine plastic debris; cosmetic microbeads are a tiny fraction of that. At the same time, our member companies take very seriously their role as environmental stewards of their products. As a result, companies have voluntarily committed to replace solid plastic microbeads. We look forward to this important bipartisan legislation making its way to President Obama’s desk and being signed into law.”

Under the Microscope

Tiny bits of microplastics litter a sandy patch of beach.

Microplastics, which include microbeads, are less than 5 millimeters long (roughly the size of a sesame seed). Most microplastic in the ocean actually ends up there after breaking down from bigger pieces of plastic on beaches. (NOAA)

After I originally learned about microbeads in cosmetic products, I discussed the issue with Dr. Joel Baker, Port of Tacoma Chair in Environmental Science at the University of Washington Tacoma and the Science Director of the Center for Urban Waters.

At the time, he was leading a project for the NOAA Marine Debris Program focused on detecting microplastics in the marine environment. Microplastics, which include microbeads, are minute pieces of plastic less than 5 millimeters long, or about the size of a sesame seed. More recently, he has conducted a study, “Quantification of Marine Microplastics in the Surface Waters of the Gulf of Alaska,” that examined the quantity and distribution of microplastics at specific locations in Alaskan waters over time.

Following the signing of the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, I checked back in with Dr. Baker to get his thoughts on the issue now. Four years ago, he had told me, “While we don’t yet understand the impacts of microplastics to aquatic organisms, we do know that releasing persistent materials into the ocean will result in ever-increasing concentrations of marine debris.”

Speaking to him now, while Dr. Baker sees the attention given to microbeads in health and beauty products over the last few years as a good way to raise awareness about plastics in the ocean, he cautions that there still is not enough known about the damage that these extremely small particles cause. He further points out that while certainly not insignificant, they represent a very small percentage of total microplastic debris in the ocean.

We need more research to be able to measure accurately the presence of smaller microplastics, including microbeads, in the ocean. While Dr. Baker and his colleagues have developed a manual on laboratory methods for extracting microplastics from water samples, the methods do not yet detect the smallest particles such as the microbeads that exist in some health and beauty products.

Breaking Down the Issues

In addition, Dr. Baker pointed out to me that microbeads are not the largest source of marine plastic or even microplastics. “Most plastic in the ocean is from beach plastics that break down and improper disposal of trash,” he said. Cosmetic microbeads are much smaller, and are considered primary microplastics [PDF], as opposed to secondary microplastics, which are the result of larger pieces of plastic breaking down into smaller pieces.

While Dr. Baker found encouraging the news that we’ll be stopping one of the many ways plastic reaches the ocean, he emphasized there are plenty more that will require a lot of effort. He suggested that more attention needs to be paid to the abundance of plastic bags that end up in the ocean, which he feels represents a larger part of the plastic marine debris problem.

The NOAA Marine Debris Program strives to learn more about the impacts of marine microplastics. In addition to Dr. Baker’s work, the program currently is supporting microplastic research projects that include, but aren’t limited to, measuring microplastics in the marine environment; the presence of microplastics in different geographical regions, such as the coastal mid-Atlantic region and national park beaches; examining juvenile fishes to determine if they are ingesting microplastic; and the effects of microplastics in aquatic food chains.

For more information on these issues, you also can refer to a UNEP 2014 update on plastic debris in the ocean [PDF].

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