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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Argo Merchant: The Birth of Modern Oil Spill Response

Black and White photo of ship sinking in ocean.

The Argo Merchant was carrying 7.7 million gallons of fuel oil when it went off course and became stuck on Dec. 15, 1976. Credit: Coast Guard Historian

When the Argo Merchant ran aground on Nantucket Shoals off Massachusetts early on Dec. 15, 1976, and spilled nearly 8 million gallons of heavy fuel oil, it became the worst marine oil spill the United States had seen. It also led to the eventual creation of the Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R).

The maverick research team

In 1974, as work began on the Alaska pipeline, NOAA scientists and academics realized there were important unanswered questions about oil spills.

“How does oil behave in water, that’s what we wanted to know,” recalled Peter Grose, who was then at NOAA’s Environmental Data Services Center in the District of Columbia. “The Environmental Research Lab in Boulder were looking at impacts from Alaskan drilling. We had the simplest models then of how oil moved with wind and waves. Jerry Galt was the modeler in ERL. …. He was kind of leader of the pack.”

Santa Barbara oil spill research

“What made me stand out at the moment was I was focusing my work on oil trajectories,” Galt said. The Boulder group was looking for a way to study oil spills. It was suggested they go to Santa Barbara, where they could observe natural ocean oil seeps. Galt, along with other interested NOAA researchers, formed the first Spilled Oil Response (SOR) team.

“We were sort of mavericks,” Galt said. “This was all sort of unofficial.”

The team set some ground rules for that first trip, Galt said. All equipment had to fit into a suitcase and ocean flyovers would be from a Cessna 172, the  most commonly available rent-a-plane and already certified by Federal Aviation Administration to fly with the doors off. That made it easier for the team to drop dye into the ocean and photograph how it spread.

After a week in Santa Barbara, according to Galt, “We said well, let’s think about this and what we learned, make some notes and get together after Christmas. … Well, we didn’t make Christmas.”

The Argo Merchant spill

Word of the Argo Merchant spill spread quickly, and because the loosely formed SOR team (Galt’s colleagues from Boulder and Grose’s in D.C.) had a preliminary oil spill plan, it was decided they would head to Massachusetts.

“We took planes and shuttles to Hyannis,” said Grose. “We wanted to know if the oil stayed together or broke into smaller chunks. Did it absorb into the water column? We wanted to look at weather.”

On the trip with Grose, a physical oceanographer, was chemical oceanographer James Mattson and marine ecologist Elaine Chan. Galt’s team from Boulder included David Kennedy. The team embarked on two weeks of intense observations.

“We started being obnoxious, asking scientific questions,” Galt said. “I immediately contacted people in Woods Hole and MIT doing oceanography there and we went and talked to the Coast Guard about getting on over-flights.”

At first, the team was not there in an official capacity, but that soon changed.

“We found out a truism of oil spills: If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem,” said Galt. “So, the Coast Guard said, ‘You want to go out on our airplanes? We need observers. You work for us, all right?’ We said OK and off we went.”

The team rose at dawn to catch the Coast Guard’s flight over the spill, taking photos. For perhaps the first time, divers were enlisted to go under the spill to determine if the oil was getting into the water column. Oil samples were taken. Then the team would convene at a local hotel to analyze the day’s data.

“We learned how to develop film in a hotel room,” Galt said. “I was there for a week to start with and during that week I think I spent 10 hours in bed. … I went home for Christmas dinner and fell asleep at the table, and after I woke up I went back to the spill.”

From HAZMAT to OR&R

In addition to publishing a report in record time, the team’s experiences resulted in the improvement of science equipment and oil-spill-response techniques.

“With Argo Merchant we developed a camera that could record time,” said Grose. “It’s hard to photograph a spill in intervals when you don’t have a timestamp on the photo. That seems like a little thing, but when you come back with 10 rolls of film it ends up being a big thing.”

The experience with the Argo Merchant spill answered some of team’s questions, and showed the need for more spill information, leading to the creations of the Hazardous Materials Response Division (HAZMAT), and finally to the Office of Response and Restoration.

“In the end,” Grose said, “what we learned was how much there was to still learn about oil spills.”

This is the third in a series of six stories examining the oil spill in 1976 of tanker Argo Merchant resulting in the creation of the Office of Response and Restoration.


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Argo Merchant: The Growth of Scientific Support

Black and white photo of ship with waves crashing on it.

Heavy seas cover the decks of the Argo Merchant while the tanker lies aground near Nantucket Island. Credit: Coast Guard Historian

Disasters often spark major changes. The sinking of the Titanic led to increased international requirements for lifesaving equipment, and the Exxon Valdez led to double-hull tankers and a host of other safety improvements. The 1976 grounding of the Argo Merchant led to the creation of the Scientific Support Coordinator (SSC) program that today is the backbone of the marine spill response.

The road to SSC program started with the nation’s first National Contingency Plan (NCP) in 1968, a result of the massive oil 1967 spill from the tanker Torrey Canyon off the coast of the United Kingdom. There was no plan in place to cope with the more than 37 million gallons of crude oil spilled into the water, causing governmental confusion and massive environmental damage.

To avoid the problems England faced by response officials involved in the Torrey Canyon incident, the United States developed a coordinated approach to cope with potential spills in the nation’s waters. The 1968 plan provided the first comprehensive system of accident reporting, spill containment and cleanup. The plan also established a response headquarters, a national reaction team and regional reaction teams (precursors to the current National Response Team and Regional Response Teams).

Filling a gap in science coordination

But that 1968 NCP had some gaps. One was science coordination. The 1976 Argo Merchant spill threatened one of the most productive fishing grounds in the nation, and raised the immediate attention of the high concentration of federal, state and academic science institutions in the region.  And those scientists had no shortage of ideas, predictions, and samples they wanted collected as well as studies they wanted to conduct. However, the United States Coast Guard (USCG), the federal agency tasked with responding to spills, had its hands full with the stricken tanker, growing slicks, and mounting public concerns.

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

The Argo Merchant spill was the first major deployment of the SOR Team. After arriving on scene, the Coast Guard quickly asked the SOR Team to act as its scientific adviser and be an informal liaison with the scientific community concerned with the spill.

The coordination was rocky at first, but within a few months of the spill, the NOAA team compiled and published “The Argo Merchant Oil Spill; a Preliminary Scientific Report.”  The 200+ page initial report represented the work of over 100 scientists from numerous agencies and institutions:

  • NOAA
  • USCG
  • NASA
  • The U.S. Navy
  • Department of the Interior
  • The Commonwealth of Massachusetts
  • University of Rhode Island
  • Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • University of Southern California
  • Manomet Bird Observatory
  • Marine Biological Laboratory

Several other synthesis reports were published in the following year.

From HAZMAT to the Emergency Response Division

After the Argo Merchant spill, NOAA created the Hazardous Material Response Division (HAZMAT team) to provide scientific expertise during a response incident. Now called the Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division, it has grown from a handful of oceanographers, mathematicians, and computer modelers in 1976, into a highly diverse team of chemists, biologists, geologists, information management specialists, and technical and administrative support staff.

The once-informal role of scientific coordination is now formally recognized in the National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan. NOAA has a dozen Scientific Support Coordinators (SSCs) attached to USCG offices around the country. During spills, training, and exercises, the SSC is a direct science advisor to the Federal On-scene Coordinator.

In 2016, the SSC team responded to 178 spills around the country. The SSCs still serve USCG to help protect the public, the environment, and economic interests — in the nation’s ports and waterways, along the coast, on international waters, or in any maritime region as required to support national security and help maintain the health and vibrancy of our nation’s oceans and coasts.

This is the second in a series of six stories examining the oil spill in 1976 of tanker Argo Merchant resulting in the creation of the Office of Response and Restoration.


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Bay Long Oil Spill in Louisiana

Woman looking out at water with boom floating in it.

Overseeing cleanup operations on Chenier Ronquille Island. (U.S. Coast Guard)

On September 5, 2016, a marsh excavator operated by Great Lakes Dredge and Dock Company tracked over pipeline while performing restoration activities in Bay Long, a sub-estuary of Barataria Bay, discharging approximately 5,300 gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The pipeline was shut in and is no longer leaking. The incident occurred at an active restoration site for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The cause of the incident is still under investigation.

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration has been providing scientific support including trajectories and fate of oil, resources at risk, information on tides and currents, and technical guidance towards the response. Other roles provided by NOAA are guidance on Shoreline Cleanup and Assessment Technique (SCAT), a systematic method for surveying an affected shoreline after an oil spill, as well as data management and updates through Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA®). OR&R’s Emergency Response Division has a team of six on site.

For more information, read the September 11, 2016 news release from the U.S. Coast Guard.


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Abandoned Vessels of Florida’s Forgotten Coast

This is a post by NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator Adam Davis of the Office of Response and Restoration.

Derelict vessel with osprey nest on top of broken mast.

Along Florida’s Forgotten Coast, a pair of osprey had built a nest on an abandoned vessel. The U.S. Coast Guard called in NOAA for assistance as they were trying to remove fuel from that boat with minimal impact to wildlife. (NOAA)

There is a stretch of the Florida Panhandle east of the more heavily developed beach destinations of Destin and Panama City that some refer to as the “Forgotten Coast.” This area has vast tracts of pine forest including large stands of longleaf pine and savanna, towering dunes and nearly undeveloped barrier islands, seemingly endless coastal marsh, and miles and miles of winding shoreline along its expansive bays and coastal rivers.

It is no coincidence that much of the area is undeveloped; reserves, wildlife refuges, and other federal and state protected lands and waters occupy a large percentage of the area.

However, this flattened landscape of wild greens and blues is occasionally punctuated by the unnatural texture of human influence of a certain type: rusting hulls, broken masts, boats half-submerged in the muddy waters. It was one of these abandoned and decaying vessels that brought me to Florida’s Forgotten Coast.

Birds-Eye View of a Problem

The U.S. Coast Guard as well as state and local agencies and organizations have been working to address potential pollution threats from a number of abandoned and derelict boats sprinkled throughout this region. Vessels like these often still have oils and other hazardous materials on board, which can leak into the surrounding waters, posing a threat to public and environmental health and safety.

Half-sunken boat surrounded by oil containment boom.

Even a small release of marine fuel in sensitive environmental areas like this can have significant negative environmental consequences. Many abandoned vessels still have fuel and other hazardous materials on board. (NOAA)

As a Scientific Support Coordinator for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, I provide assistance to the Coast Guard in their pollution response efforts. This support often involves analyzing which natural resources are vulnerable to pollution and the potential fate and effects of oil or chemicals released into the environment.

In this case, the Coast Guard called me with an unusual complication in their efforts: A pair of osprey had taken up residence on one of these abandoned vessels. Their nest of sticks was perched atop the ship’s mast, now bent at a precarious 45 degree angle. The Coast Guard needed to know what kind of impacts might result from assessing the vessel’s pollution potential and what might be involved in potentially moving the osprey nest, or the vessel, if needed.

As a federal agency, the Coast Guard must adhere to federal statutes that protect wildlife, such as the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Essentially, these statutes require the Coast Guard (or other person or organization) to consider what effect their actions might have on protected species, in this case, osprey.

This is where we Scientific Support Coordinators often can provide some assistance.  A large part of our support in this area involves coordinating with the “trustee” agencies responsible for the stewardship of the relevant natural resources.

My challenge is evaluating the scientific and technical aspects of the planned action (disturbing the chicks and their parents or possibly moving the osprey nest in order to remove the vessel), weighing possible effects of those actions against threats posed by no action, and communicating all of that in an intelligible way to trustees, stakeholders, and the agency undertaking the action in question.

Fortunately, the pollution assessment and removal in the case of the osprey-inhabited vessel proved very straightforward and the abandoned vessels project got off to a good start.

Abandoned But Not Forgotten

Aerial view of abandoned vessels with osprey nest on mast, located in Florida waterway.

NOAA’s Adam Davis helped the U.S. Coast Guard with a project spanning more than 230 miles of Florida coastline and resulted in the removal of hundreds of gallons of fuel and other hazardous materials from six abandoned vessels and one shoreline facility. (NOAA)

Over the course of eight weeks, I was fortunate to contribute in a number of ways to this project. For example, I joined several aerial overflights of the coast from Panama City to St. Marks, Florida, and participated in numerous boat rides throughout the Apalachicola Bay watershed to identify, assess, and craft strategies for pollution removal from abandoned vessels.

Ultimately, the project spanned more than 230 miles of coastline and resulted in the removal of hundreds of gallons of fuel and other hazardous materials from six abandoned vessels and one shoreline facility. Most of the fuel was removed from vessels located in highly sensitive and valuable habitats, such as those located along the Jackson and Brother’s Rivers.

Portions of both of these rivers are located within the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve and are designated as critical habitat for Gulf sturgeon, a federally threatened species of fish that, like salmon, migrates between rivers and the ocean.

Even a small release of marine fuel in areas like this can have significant negative environmental consequences. Impacts can be even more severe if they occur during a time when species are most vulnerable, such as when actively spawning, breeding, or nesting.  In addition, spills in these otherwise pristine, protected areas can have negative consequences for important commercial and recreational activities that rely upon the health of the ecosystem as a whole.

People on boats on a Florida coastal river.

When NOAA supports the Coast Guard with abandoned vessels work, our efforts often involve analyzing which natural resources are vulnerable to pollution and the potential fate and effects of oil or chemicals released into the environment. These Coast Guard boats are equipped to remove fuel from abandoned vessels. (NOAA)

While we’d like to be able to remove the entire vessels every time, which can be navigation hazards and create marine debris, funding options are often limited for abandoned vessels. However, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 enables us to remove the hazardous materials on board and reduce that environmental threat.

I find working in the field directly alongside my Coast Guard colleagues to be invaluable. Inevitably, I come away from these experiences having learned a bit more and increased my appreciation for the uniqueness of both the people and the place. Hopefully, that makes me even better prepared to work with them in the future—and in the beautiful and remote wilds of the Forgotten Coast.

NOAA's Adam Davis, left, on a Coast Guard boat removing oil from a derelict vessel.Adam Davis serves as NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator for U.S. Coast Guard District 8 and NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center. He graduated from the University of Alabama at Birmingham before entering the United States Army where he served as a nuclear, biological, and chemical operations specialist. Upon completing his tour in the Army, Adam returned home and completed a second degree in environmental science at the University of West Florida. He comes with a strong background in federal emergency and disaster response and has worked on a wide range of contaminant and environmental issues. He considers himself very fortunate to be a part of NOAA and a resident of the Gulf Coast, where he and his family enjoy the great food, culture, and natural beauty of the coast.


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Preparing for Anything: What to Do When a Hypothetical Ferry Disaster Overlaps with a National Presidential Convention

This is a post by NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator Frank Csulak.

A small boat on the Delaware River with Philadelphia's skyline in the background

In June 2016, team of federal and state emergency responders practiced responding to a hypothetical ferry disaster and oil spill scenario in anticipation of the Democratic National Convention, which occurred in Philadelphia at the end of July. (Credit: Kevin Harber, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

When you’re in the business of emergency response, you need to be prepared for all kinds of disasters and all kinds of scenarios. Being a NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator, the disaster scenarios I’m usually involved with have some connection to the coast or major U.S. waterways.

And being ready for a disaster means practicing pretty much exactly what you would do during an emergency response, even if it’s for a relatively unlikely scenario, such as a catastrophic ferry explosion, collision, and oil spill during a major political party convention.

What follows is the hypothetical scenario that a team of federal and state emergency responders walked through at a training workshop from June 12-14, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

U.S Coast Guard Sector Delaware Bay hosted this practice scenario in anticipation of the Democratic National Convention, which occurred (thankfully without any major security incidents) in Philadelphia at the end of July. The team involved was comprised of members from the U.S. Secret Service, Federal Bureau of Investigation, New Jersey and Pennsylvania state police, U.S. Coast Guard, and NOAA.

Ready for Anything You Can Imagine (And This Is Imagined)

Exercise scenario: It is the first day of the Democratic National Convention, which is taking place in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Tens of thousands of people, including hundreds of elected officials and the Democratic Party’s presumptive presidential candidate, are just arriving at the event.

The Secret Service reports that VIPs continue to land at Philadelphia International Airport. Security is tight. A large safety perimeter has been established around the convention center, with surrounding streets and highways closed to all traffic and thousands of law enforcement officers posted at strategic locations throughout the city.

Meanwhile, the RiverLink Ferry is making the 2:00 p.m. trip from Philadelphia to Camden, New Jersey. There are 21 passengers and two crew members on board. The ferry is crossing the federal channel of the Delaware River when an explosion of unknown cause erupts from the ferry’s engine room. The explosion causes the vessel to lose propulsion and steering. It begins listing to the starboard side and drifting down the Delaware River. Smoke can be seen billowing from vents and openings.

Simultaneously, the tug The Caribbean Sea II is pushing the barge The Resource II upriver. The barge attempted to avoid the distressed ferry but is unsuccessful, striking the ferry and causing significant structural damage to both vessels.

Damaged barge on the Mississippi River.

A damaged barge which caused an oil spill on the Mississippi River in early 2016. Responders need to prepare for all kinds of maritime disasters. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Numerous ferry passengers are thrown onto the deck or into the river; others begin jumping into the water. Responders from the U.S. Coast Guard, New Jersey State Police Marine Services Bureau, and the marine units of the Philadelphia Fire and Police Departments all rushed to the scene. Already, they encounter both seriously injured survivors and casualties as far as 200 yards down river of the vessels.

Rescue boats pick up eight survivors from the water and begin offloading them at Penn’s Landing Marina. Responders continue to evacuate people from the sinking ferry until it slips completely under water in the vicinity of the Penn’s Landing helicopter port. A total of 14 people are rescued and three bodies recovered, some found as far as a quarter mile down river. Six people remain missing.

Thankfully, no injuries are reported among the tugboat’s four person crew. However, one of the two crewmembers on the barge, a 60-year-old male, has fallen and broken his arm. He appears to be going into shock and needs to be evacuated.

As a result of the collision, the tug only has partial steering capabilities but continues to push the barge several hundred yards up river, where it drops anchor. The two damaged vessels remain in the river channel, and as responders assess the vessels’ conditions, they uncover that the barge is leaking oil. Manhole-sized bubbles of oil are burping to the water’s surface, coming from the port side damage below the water line. Oil appears to be leaking from a tank which is holding 5,000 barrels of oil. In all, the barge is carrying 50,000 barrels of heavy bunker fuel oil.

Reining in Hypothetical Chaos

Three damaged vessels. People injured, dead, and missing. A potentially large oil spill on a busy river. First responders diverted from a high-security national event to a local aquatic incident In other words, quite a hypothetical mess.

Was the explosion on the ferry due to terrorism? Was it due to human error? Or was it due to a mechanical malfunction in the engine room? We had to imagine how we would deal with these many complicated issues in the heat of the moment.

Group of responders in safety vests standing and sitting around tables.

NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator Frank Csulak, standing at right, briefing the Unified Command during another U.S. Coast Guard oil spill training exercise in Virginia in 2015. (U.S. Coast Guard)

As a member of the local Coast Guard’s response team during this exercise, I helped with many key decisions and procedures and with establishing priorities for response. I acted as a member of what’s known in the emergency response community as the “Unified Command,” or the established hierarchy of agencies and organizations responding to an emergency, such as an oil spill or hurricane.

In this scenario, I was specifically charged with commanding, coordinating, and managing the oil spill response, which is my specialty. I started by identifying and obtaining resources to support the spill response and cleanup and conducting an assessment of natural resources at risk from the oil. Meanwhile, I coordinated with my NOAA support team of scientists back in Seattle, Washington, to provide information on local weather conditions, tides, oil trajectory forecasts, and modeling of the oil’s fate and effects.

In addition, I had to coordinate a variety of notifications and consultations required under the Endangered Species Act, the Essential Fish Habitat provision of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, and the National Historic Preservation Act, which protects historical and archaeological sites.

As you can see, my role during a disaster like this hypothetical one is far-reaching. And that’s not even everything. I also helped protect nearby wetlands and other environmentally sensitive areas from the thick, spreading oil; prioritized which areas needed protective booming to prevent contact with oil; and led the response’s environmental team, which had representatives from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and the U.S. Coast Guard. Of course, all of this was an exercise and there was no ferry incident and no oil spill.

During the actual Democratic National Convention, which took place July 25–29, 2016, I was ready and waiting for any call for help from Coast Guard Sector Delaware Bay. I’m pleased to report that it never came, but if it did, I’d know what to do.

Editor’s note: NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration also supported the U.S. Coast Guard’s maritime security activities surrounding the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, July 18–21, 2016. Two NOAA staff members worked as part of the Coast Guard’s Incident Management Team in Cleveland, managing the event’s data in our online mapping tool known as ERMA® (Environmental Response Management Application), and coordinating with the several other agencies involved with the convention’s security.

The Coast Guard provided maritime security and monitored potential situations along the Lake Erie shoreline and the Cuyahoga River during the convention. ERMA allowed Coast Guard leadership and others in the command post to access near real-time data, such as locations of field teams and tracked vessels, as well as other agency data such as Department of Homeland Security safety zones, infrastructure status, and protest locations. This gave them a comprehensive picture of the Coast Guard’s efforts and the ability to assess potential issues from any location.

Photo of Philadelphia waterfront courtesy of Kevin Harber and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator Frank Csulak.

Frank Csulak is a NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator with the Office of Response and Restoration. Based in New Jersey, he is the primary scientific adviser to the U.S. Coast Guard for oil and chemical spill planning and response in the Mid-Atlantic region, covering New York, Delaware Bay, Baltimore, Hampton Roads, and North Carolina.


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

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

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

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

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

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

Sound Information

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

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

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

Spills Closer to Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making Safer Moves

A fuel barge in Puget Sound on a cloudy day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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NOAA Supporting Spill Response in the Green Canyon Oil Reserve Area of the Gulf of Mexico

Vessels skim oil from the surface of the Gulf of Mexico.

Vessels conduct skimming operations, May 14, 2016, in response to an estimated 88,200 gallons of crude oil discharged from a segment of flow line at the Glider Field approximately 90 miles south of Timbalier Island, Louisiana. As of May 15, the vessels have removed a combined total of more than 51,000 gallons of oily-water mixture since the discharge on May 12, 2016. (U.S. Coast Guard)

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is supporting the U.S. Coast Guard response to an oil spill in the Green Canyon oil reserve area in the Gulf of Mexico. We are providing oil spill trajectory analysis and information on natural resources potentially at risk from the oil. The NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator has been on-scene.

The spill occurred at approximately 11:00 a.m. on May 12, 2016 when 2,100 barrels (88,200 gallons) of oil was discharged from a Shell subsea well-head flow line at the Glider Field. Since then, the source has been secured and the pipeline is no longer leaking. The U.S. Coast Guard reports that the spill happened approximately 90 miles south of Timbalier Island, Louisiana.

We are providing scientific support, including consulting with natural resource trustees and environmental compliance requirements, identifying natural resources at risk, coordinating overflight reports, modeling the spill’s trajectory, and coordinating spatial data needs, such as displaying response data in a “common operational picture.” The reported oil trajectory is in a westerly direction with no expected shoreline impact at this time.

For more details, refer to the May 15 U.S. Coast Guard press release or the May 15 Shell Gulf of Mexico Response press release.