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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Investigating Environmental Impacts: Oil on the Kalamazoo River

Posted sign closing river activity due to oil spill response.

The Kalamazoo River has been closed to the public since the spill in 2010. We’re examining how this has affected public recreation and tribal cultural uses. (Terry Heatlie, NOAA)

In late summer of 2010, while the nation was fixated on the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, an underground pipeline in Michigan also began gushing oil. My job has been to help investigate the environmental damage that spill caused when the oil flowed into the Kalamazoo River.

The Situation
More than 800,000 gallons of crude oil** poured out of the leaking pipeline before it was eventually shut off. It oozed through the soft, wet ground just outside of Marshall, Mich., before washing into the Kalamazoo River, one of the largest rivers in southern Michigan.

I was at a meeting in Milwaukee with my suitcase full of sandals and skirts — not exactly dressed for an oil spill — when I got called to the scene. I drove nearly nonstop to Marshall, with only a quick detour in Indiana to buy steel-toed boots and work pants.

The Challenges
When I arrived, the other scientists and I made plans to collect data on the oil’s damage. Heavy rains had caused the river to flood over its banks, and as the oil flowed approximately forty miles* down the Kalamazoo, it was also carried up onto the banks and into trees. As the flood waters receded, oil was left on overhanging branches and in floodplains.

As the flood water receded, oil was left behind on river vegetation and overhanging tree branches, as well as in yards and forested floodplains. Yellow containment boom is in the foreground. (Gene Suuppi, State of Michigan)

The river’s floodplains, full of forests and wetlands, are also home to sensitive seasonal ponds, which provide valuable habitat for fish and macroinvertebrates (aquatic “bugs” at the base of the food chain). Therefore, we needed to find out: how far did the oil make it into the floodplain, what did it contact while there, and how much oil was left?

The smell of oil was sickeningly strong at first. Residents evacuated the houses nearest to the leak, and workers within half a mile of the pipeline break had to wear respirators to protect them from inhaling fumes. Even a dozen miles downstream, I could smell the oil and feel the fumes irritating my eyes. These fumes were the light components of the oil evaporating into the air. The heavy components of the oil were left behind on the banks or gradually sank to the bottom of the river.

The sunken oil has proven difficult to clean up. This winter, spill responders have been working to quantify how much sunken oil is left and to develop and test techniques for cleaning it up.

The Science
Along with my team from NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the State of Michigan, and the Huron Band and Gun Lake Tribe of the Potawatomi joined together as trustees to assess damages that the spill caused to natural resources.

We’ve conducted a variety of studies to collect information on the impacts of the spill and repeated some of the studies to see how the environment is recovering. Now we’re gathering all this data for the official damage assessment. We’ve examined samples of fish, mussels, water, and sediments for evidence of oil-related chemicals. We’ve collected observations of oiled vegetation and records of the number and condition of animals brought to the wildlife rehab center.

Talmadge Creek cleanup crews on Aug 6, 2010.

Cleanup crews place absorbent pads to sop up oil at Talmadge Creek, near the source of the spill, on Aug 6, 2010. We also take into account the effect cleanup has on the environment. (Chuck Getter)

Unfortunately, cleanup-related activities have an environmental impact too. For example, extra boat traffic on the river during cleanup led to some riverbank erosion and crushed freshwater mussels. Our studies include these factors too. We’ll also look into the effect the spill had on public recreation (the river has been closed to the public since the spill) and on tribal cultural uses.

What Next?
We and the other trustees will seek out restoration projects that address the impacts caused by the spill, being careful to balance the projects with the results of our studies. We’ll take project ideas from the public and from watershed organizations to make sure that we choose projects that fit in well with other restoration work being done across the broader Kalamazoo River watershed.

Enbridge Energy, as the owner of the pipeline, will have the option to implement the projects themselves with oversight from us trustees, or could pay for the cost of these projects as part of a larger legal settlement.

Stay tuned and we’ll keep you updated as this story unfolds.

*Correction: This originally stated that the oil flowed thirty miles down the Kalamazoo River.

**This was later discovered to be an oil sands (or tar sands) product.


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How Do You Picture Science?

Explaining the environmental ramifications of the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill [leaves this blog] in the Gulf of Mexico is no easy task. Visualizing those impacts in an easy-to-understand way? Maybe even harder.

Last year NOAA scientists Mary Baker and Debbie Payton needed to figure out how to do just that, and as a communications coordinator for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R), it was my job to make it happen. Although I had yet to work with her, I thought of Kate Sweeney, a medical and scientific illustrator for UWCreative [leaves this blog], out of the University of Washington (Seattle), whose specialty is creating accessible and understandable illustrations that depict complex scientific processes.

After the initial spill in the Gulf, oil moved through the water column in a variety of ways, and the potential for it to move into the sediments at the bottom included several possible scenarios. The challenge for this graphic was to clearly describe the different ways the oil could move into the sediment layer at the ocean floor. Using mapping data provided by OR&R and discussing the concepts with NOAA scientists and myself, Kate developed a single, striking graphic illustration that clearly encompassed all the possibilities. As a result, we were able to use the illustration extensively to inform the public about the spill.

Potential Pathways of Oil

Illustration showing the potential pathways of spilled oil following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP incident in the Gulf of Mexico. Click to view larger image. Credit: NOAA/Kate Sweeney.

Kate compares the process of creating complex scientific images to telling a story, and she has seen demand for her illustrations grow as the expectation for high-quality visuals has increased.

According to Kate, a key component to this process is working collaboratively with the scientists. When we first sat down with her at our office, she created a rough sketch in the first hour that we were able to comment on. With that initial feedback, she returned to her office and developed the first electronic draft. She didn’t hesitate to do several rounds of drafts back and forth, using discussion along with trial and error to get it right.

Kate recently completed another marine illustration for OR&R, “Conceptual Model of Arctic Oil Exposure and Injuries,” that shows natural resources at risk and the potential impacts of an oil spill in the Arctic.

Oil impacts on Arctic food webs

The illustration shows potential oil spill impacts to wildlife and habitats in the Arctic sea. Click for larger view. Credit: NOAA/Kate Sweeney, Illustration.

As sea ice recedes in the Arctic, shipping routes will open, increasing vessel traffic and increasing the likelihood of spills. Increasing pressure for more oil exploration in the region also highlights the need to be prepared in the event of a spill during offshore drilling. This diagram in particular is useful in discussions with the public, industry, and other trustee agencies to reach a common understanding of which resources are most at risk, and what information on those resources is needed now as baseline data we can use for comparison and for planning how to respond in case of a spill.

Kate says that her biggest challenge as a scientific illustrator is gaining enough of a fundamental understanding of the subject matter. Meeting that challenge, however, and executing the drawing successfully is what she enjoys most about her job.

Contact Kate Sweeney at kateswe@u.washington.edu.

Example illustration of repair of a herniated diaphragm

Example of the artist’s recent work for the University of Washington: Repair of Herniated Diaphragm, prepared for JD Godwin, MD, Department of Radiology. A: Front cutaway view of herniated diaphragm B: Plication sutures are placed in the diaphragm C: Top view of sutures before they are drawn tight D: Sutures are drawn tight to reduce the bulge in the diaphragm. Credit: Kate Sweeney.

“To create the images for this surgical procedure, I met with both the radiologist and the surgeon who performs this repair, and we discussed the anatomy and subsequent repair. Over a series of sketches, we developed and refined the views and details of the narrative.”–Kate Sweeney


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What’s in the Oil from the Deepwater Horizon Spill? What’s in ANY Oil?

Heavy band of oil in the Gulf of Mexico

Heavy band of oil seen during an overflight in the Gulf of Mexico on May 12,2010. Credit: NOAA.

What is in oil? Well, there are literally thousands of individual compounds in oil. So what was in the oil flowing out of the Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico last summer?

Researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution took samples in order to figure this out and just published some of their findings on the chemical composition of the Deepwater Horizon oil in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [PDF]. You can read a non-scientist’s summary of these findings at Scientific American.

The Scientific American story points out that crude oil is not a single substance but is a mix of different hydrocarbons and other chemicals and trace metals. But did you know that there are also thousands of different kinds of crude and refined oils?

Oil from the Alaska North Slope is really different than oil from Alaska’s Cook Inlet, not to mention places like Angola, Nigeria, or Venezuela. The chemical components of the oil depend on the geologic formation they are extracted from, and even oil from the same geologic formation can vary over time.

Another way to think about this is to imagine separate regions of the world that make “wine.” There are many types of wine, but a merlot doesn’t taste like a chardonnay because the grapes are a different variety. But even a merlot with grapes grown in California will have a distinct flavor from a merlot grown in France, from a neighboring valley in California, and even from the same vineyard from year to year. Why? Because the ingredients in the soil, the weather conditions, and how the grapes were grown create these differences in the grapes. All of these and other factors come together to give you a different kind of “wine.” It’s a similar concept for oil.

Comparing diesel and bunker fuel oils

Diesel fuel, left, is a much lighter oil than the heavy, slow-moving bunker fuel on the right. Credit: Doug Helton, NOAA.

These differences in the ratios of certain hydrocarbons and other chemicals (the varying “recipes” for oils) make a difference in the extraction and refining process—as well as in spill cleanup. Some crude oils are heavy and viscous (sticky and slow-moving), like roofing tar, while others are light, like diesel fuel. Some oils have a lot of sulfur compounds. These are called sour crudes. Oils without a lot of sulfur are referred to as sweet crudes.

Some oils are so heavy that they sink beneath the water surface when spilled, and some are so light that a large fraction will evaporate. Some will mix with water and form stable emulsions, like an oil-based salad dressing. Some oils are amenable to specific response strategies such as burning or chemical dispersants. Because these variations in oil can make a big difference when oil is spilled, we have computer programmers who created and maintain a database of oils and their properties to help make decisions during spill responses.

Our Automated Data Inquiry for Oil Spills (ADIOS2) model has a database containing more than a thousand crude oils and refined products and provides quick estimates of the expected characteristics and behavior of spilled oil.

The database was compiled from different sources, including Environment Canada, the U.S. Department of Energy, and industry. Take a look for yourself at all of the information about oil in the database, and then create a mock spill to calculate how much of the oil would have evaporated, been naturally dispersed in the water column, and is still remaining on the water surface.