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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How the Modern Day Shipping Container Changed the World

Large ships with cargo containers.

As container ships continue to grow in size and ports grow more congested by the year, NOAA plays an increasingly critical role in U.S. marine transportation. NOAA services and products improve the efficiency of ports and harbors, promote safety, and help to ensure the protection of coastal marine resources. (NOAA)

For thousands of years, methods of shipping products across the seas and oceans remained essentially the same. Products came to port in wooden crates, sacks, and kegs by wagons or, later, by trucks and trains. Ships were then loaded and unloaded crate by crate, sack by sack, and keg by keg. It was a time-consuming and labor-intensive process. Theft was a perpetual problem. Often a ship spent more time in ports, loading and unloading, than it would spend at sea.

The advent of World War II brought new logistical challenges in supplying millions of U.S and allied troops overseas and innovative approaches were needed to efficiently supply the war effort. During this period, the introduction of small, standardized boxes full of war material increased the American convoys’ capacity to deliver wartime necessities.

After the war, a trucking entrepreneur named Malcom McLean bought a shipping company and, in 1956, started the practice of transporting product-filled truck trailers that were lifted directly from truck to ship. Whole containers, not just small parcels, now moved efficiently onto ships. This transportation process, called intermodalism, allowed products to be shipped around the world quickly, cheaply, and efficiently by using cargo containers that more easily fit on trucks, trains, and ships.

The arrival of containers and intermodalism revolutionized the shipping industry. Containers could be efficiently stacked, allowing more and more goods transported across the seas. Labor costs dropped dramatically and, since containers were sealed, theft declined. Over time, the marine transportation industry and the size of ships, trucks, trains, docks, and ports increased and expanded to handle the growing use of containers. The impact on global commerce was enormous, leading to a boom in international trade due to lower transportation and handling costs.

As container ships continue to grow in size and ports grow more congested by the year, NOAA plays an increasingly critical role in U.S. marine transportation. NOAA services and products improve the efficiency of ports and harbors, promote safety, and help to ensure the protection of coastal marine resources. Today, NOAA’s PORTS® system improves the safety and capability of maritime commerce through the integration of real-time environmental observations, forecasts, and other geospatial information. NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey supplies electronic navigation charts, coast pilots, and navigation response teams to meet the increasing challenges associated with marine navigation. NOAA’s National Weather Service provides up-to-date meteorological and oceanographic data. And, when there are spills, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration provides the science-based expertise and support needed to make informed decisions during emergency responses.

Read about some of our work in maritime emergency response:

On the Hunt for Shipping Containers Lost off California Coast

How Much Oil Is on That Ship?

University of Washington Helps ITOPF and NOAA Analyze Emerging Risks in Marine Transportation.

 


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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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University of Washington Helps ITOPF and NOAA Analyze Emerging Risks in Marine Transportation

Huge container ship MSC Oscar being guided by two small ships into port.

Massive container ships, carrying unprecedented amounts of fuel and cargo, are one of many developments in marine transportation that also is bringing new risks of oil spills to the high seas. Shown here is the MSC Oscar, one of the largest container ships in the world. (Credit: kees torn, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license)

This is a guest post by University of Washington graduate students Megan Desillier, Seth Sivinski, and Nicole White.

A warming climate is opening up new shipping routes—and hence, new avenues for trade—through the Arctic Ocean as summer sea ice shrinks and thins. Developing technologies have also allowed for mega-ships (unprecedented in size) and newer cargoes to begin transiting the ocean. These developments could bring new or greater hazards, including oil spills, for the maritime shipping network worldwide.

Our group of three graduate students at the University of Washington, with the support of the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation (ITOPF) and NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, sought to understand how the world’s shipping dynamic has changed in recent years and how these emerging challenges in marine transportation will affect that dynamic. The ITOPF, NOAA, and the marine industry can consider these emerging risks in marine transportation as they plan for the future.

Here’s what we found.

A Changing Climate

Based on climate changes that have already occurred, ports are likely to experience more intense storm events and increased precipitation. In the more distant future, this greater degree of storminess will combine with sea level rise, causing both the probabilities and consequences of risk to marine transportation to increase.

Given the resources and services that ports provide, climate change could seriously impact the efficiency of the greater maritime transportation network. While infrastructure risks can be mitigated, it is important to note that according to experts in the field interviewed during this project, the majority of ports have made few preparations or plans for sea level rise related to climate change.

Although Arctic climate change is creating new shipping opportunities, these come with great challenges for the marine transportation system, especially in the second half of this century. At sea, the retreat of sea ice is accompanied by an increase in storminess, increasing risks to ships and shipping infrastructure from storm surge and waves. On land, permafrost has already begun to thaw, contributing to impacts to infrastructure, including railroads, ice roads, airstrips, and pipelines.

Taken together, the changing Arctic climate will require changes in the marine transportation system both at sea and on land. These changes include improved infrastructure along shipping routes, harbors of refuge, search and rescue capabilities, ice-breaking services, and coordination among organizations with a central role in spill response.

Changing Patterns of Trade

Rough seas pound the hull of support ship USNS Arctic as it sails alongside aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman.

A changing climate opens up greater potential for marine traffic in the Arctic, but it is accompanied by an increase in storms and other threats to maritime infrastructure. Here, rough seas pound the hull of support ship USNS Arctic as it sails alongside aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman during a mission to the Arctic. (U.S. Navy)

An increase in maritime activity surrounding both the Panama and Suez Canals could increase the risk of incidents in these areas, especially as infrastructure development around them increases. Larger canals will allow for bigger ships, which will make more concentrated port calls. This means that the vessels will spend more time in ports and unload more cargo. This is expected to be most common on the eastern seaboard of the United States as the Panama Canal expands.

In addition, the lifting of the American ban on crude oil exports could impact imports and exports of both crude and refined products. Much of the increase in oil exports from the United States would head to Europe and Asia.

The Arctic is receiving considerable emphasis as an emerging trade shortcut for maritime shipping, especially from Asian nations, but currently the majority of the activity in this region comes from tourism, mining, and fossil fuel extraction. This includes marine traffic supplying these activities as well as the transport of extracted resources.

Developing Technologies

Recently, the marine transportation system witnessed the introduction of the “mega-container ship.” A “mega-container ship” could be considered any container ship over 10,000 twenty-foot equivalent units, or TEUs. However, the largest “mega-container ship” to date can handle 18,000 TEUs. The development of these vessels has brought a safer, more fuel-efficient method of transportation for shipping containers throughout the world.

However, these massive vessels potentially increase the consequences of pollution-related incidents, as they carry larger amounts of fuel and cargo, which could result in larger oil spills. Incidents involving these vessels may also be more difficult for salvage and response organizations to mitigate as they would have to remove more fuel and cargo from larger disabled ships.

Another vessel to watch is the LNG carrier. These vessels transport liquefied natural gas (LNG), which requires special attention to temperature and pressure for it to remain in liquid form. U.S. imports and exports of LNG are expected to increase. This will require monitoring during transit, as well as safe handling practices while being loaded and unloaded in port.

Increased vessel automation potentially introduces new risks via reduced crew size and increasing bridge automation, even though enhanced bridge automation ostensibly represents a safety improvement. For example, if a vessel is being operating by a “minimally manned crew,” crew members may find it harder to meet required rest hours, becoming fatigued. In a situation where a fatigued crewmember is operating automated equipment on the bridge, the chances for human error increase. Additionally, if that equipment fails, fatigued crewmembers might find themselves relying largely on their own technical skills to mitigate the risks—all while fatigued.

Finally, we’ve noted concern over the introduction of new ship propulsion fuels, such as LNG. The emergency response community lacks experience with LNG propulsion fuel incidents, leaving some uncertainty surrounding the probability and consequences of such an accident. As LNG is further adopted as a propulsion fuel, the supporting infrastructure to transport it will have to be updated as well. Training for safe handling and transport of the fuel will also need to be further introduced to crews and ports in order to mitigate the associated risks of managing this fuel.

Conclusions

Response organizations will need to emphasize new contingency planning and condition monitoring and assessment in response to these changes in the marine transportation system. For example, there is a fairly high certainty regarding how sea-level rise and other climate change–associated impacts will affect ports in coming years, and ports will need to take the changing environment into account in their planning and preparedness to reduce the likelihood of future incidents associated with these changes.

This contrasts with the Arctic where there are higher uncertainties associated with the emerging risks outlined here. In the Arctic, response organizations will need to focus on monitoring the evolution of climate change impacts and shipping activities as well as participate in the development of mitigation actions. All parties will need to identify the steps that will lead to safe Arctic shipping, salvage, and pollution response.

While there is no one complete solution to address all risks, our analysis offers information relevant to multiple sectors of the maritime transportation network. By forging relationships among these sectors, response organizations will be able to better develop the most comprehensive responses to address pressures and gaps emerging as a result of the changing environment, changing patterns of trade, and developing technologies. And hopefully these organizations will be even better prepared for the oil spills of the future, no matter the scenario.

Megan Desillier, Seth Sivinski, and Nicole White are Master’s candidates at the University of Washington (UW) in the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs working with faculty advisors Robert Pavia and Thomas M. Leschine. The team completed the research of emerging risks in marine transportation for the International Tanker Owner Pollution Federation (ITOPF) and was provided additional assistance in their research from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The students completed this research over the course of an academic year as part of the thesis/capstone requirement for the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs at the UW. Our team would like to thank our sponsor, ITOPF, as well as NOAA for providing additional assistance. To contact the authors, please email Robert Pavia at bobpavia@uw.edu.

The views expressed in this post reflect those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official views of ITOPF, NOAA, or the U.S. federal government.

Photo of MSC Oscar: kees torn,  Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license


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10 Photos That Tell the Story of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill and its Impacts

Exxon Valdez ship with response vessels in Prince William Sound.

The single-hull tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska, March 24, 1989, spilling 11 million gallons of crude oil. (U.S. Coast Guard)

While oil spills happen almost every day, we are fortunate that relatively few make such large or lasting impressions as the Deepwater Horizon or Exxon Valdez spills. Before 2010, when the United States was fixated on a gushing oil well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, most Americans could probably only name one spill: when the tanker Exxon Valdez released 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound on March 24, 1989.

Here we’ve gathered 10 photos that help tell the story of the Exxon Valdez oil spill and its impacts, not only on the environment but also on science, policy, spill response, school kids, and even board games. It has become a touchstone event in many ways, one to be learned from even decades after the fact.

1. Time for safety

Calendar showing March 1989 and image of Exxon Valdez ship.

In an ironic twist of fate, the Exxon Shipping Company’s safety calendar featured the tanker Exxon Valdez in March 1989, the same month the ship ran aground. Image: From the collection of Gary Shigenaka.

Long before the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, a series of events were building that would enable this catastrophic marine accident to unfold as it did. These actions varied from the opening of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in the 1970s to the decision by the corporation running that pipeline to disband its oil spill response team and Exxon’s efforts to hold up both the tanker Exxon Valdez and its captain, Joseph Hazelwood, as exemplars of safety.

Captain Hazelwood received two Exxon Fleet safety awards for 1987 and 1988, the years leading up to March 1989, which was coincidentally the month the Exxon Valdez was featured on an Exxon Shipping Company calendar bearing the warning to “take time to be careful – now.”

Read more about the timeline of events leading up to the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

2. A law for the birds

Birds killed as a result of oil from the Exxon Valdez spill.

Thanks to the Oil Pollution Act, federal and state agencies can more easily evaluate the full environmental impacts of oil spills — and then enact restoration to make up for that harm. (Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council)

Photos of oil-soaked birds and other wildlife in Prince William Sound reinforced just how inadequate the patchwork of existing federal, state, and local laws were at preventing or addressing the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

While lawmakers took nearly a year and a half—and a few more oil spills—to pass the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, this landmark legislation was without a doubt inspired by that major oil spill. (After all, the law specifically “bars from Prince William Sound any tank vessels that have spilled over 1,000,000 gallons of oil into the marine environment after March 22, 1989.” In other words, the Exxon Valdez.) In the years since it passed, this law has made huge strides in improving oil spill prevention, cleanup, liability, and restoration.

3.  The end of single-hull tankers

People observe a large tanker with a huge gash in its hull in dry dock.

Evidence of the success of double-hull tankers: The Norwegian tanker SKS Satilla collided with a submerged oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2009 and despite this damage, did not spill any oil. (Texas General Land Office)

This image of a damaged ship is not showing the T/V Exxon Valdez, and that is precisely the point. The Exxon Valdez was an oil tanker with a single hull, which meant that when it hit ground, there was only one layer of metal for the rocks to tear through and release its tanks of oil.

But this 2009 photo shows the Norwegian tanker SKS Satilla after it sustained a major gash in its double-sided hull — and didn’t spill a drop of oil. Thanks to the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, all new tankers and tank-barges were required to be built with double hulls to reduce the chance of another Exxon Valdez situation. January 1, 2015 was the final deadline for phasing out single-hull tankers in U.S. waters.

 4. Oiled otters and angry kids

Policymakers weren’t the only ones to take note and take action in the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Second grader Kelli Middlestead of the Franklin School in Burlingame, California, was quite upset that the oil spill was having such devastating effects on one of her favorite animals: sea otters. So, on April 13, 1989, she wrote and illustrated a letter to Walter Stieglitz, Alaskan Regional Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to let him know she felt that the oil spill was “killing nature.”

Indeed, sea otters in Prince William Sound weren’t declared recovered from the Exxon Valdez oil spill until 2013. Other species still haven’t recovered and in some sheltered beaches below the surface, you can still find pockets of oil.

5. Oil and killer whales do mix (unfortunately)

Killer whales swimming alongside boats skimming oil from the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Killer whales swimming in Prince William Sound alongside boats skimming oil from the Exxon Valdez oil spill (State of Alaska, Dan Lawn).

One of the species that has yet to recover after the Exxon Valdez oil spill is the killer whale, or orca. Before this oil spill, scientists and oil spill experts thought that these marine mammals were able to detect and avoid oil spills. That is, until two killer whale pods were spotted swimming near or through oil from this spill. One of them, a group nicknamed the “AT1 Transients” which feed primarily on marine mammals, suffered an abrupt 40% drop in population during the 18 months following the oil spill.

The second group of affected killer whales, the fish-eating “AB Pod Residents,” lost 33% of their population, and while they have started to rebound, the transients are listed as a “depleted stock” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and may have as few as seven individuals remaining, down from a stable population of at least 22 in the 1980s.

Building on the lessons of the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon oil spills, NOAA has developed an emergency plan for keeping the endangered Southern Resident killer whale populations of Washington and British Columbia away from potential oil spills.

6. Tuna troubles

Top: A normal young yellowfin tuna. Bottom: A deformed yellowfin tuna exposed to oil during development.

A normal yellowfin tuna larva (top), and a larva exposed to Deepwater Horizon crude oil during development (bottom). The oil-exposed larva shows a suite of abnormalities including excess fluid building up around the heart due to heart failure and poor growth of fins and eyes. (NOAA)

How does crude oil affect fish populations? In the decades since the Exxon Valdez spill, teams of scientists have been studying the long-term effects of oil on fish such as herring, pink salmon, and tuna. In the first couple years after this spill, they found that oil was in fact toxic to developing fish, curving their spines, reducing the size of their eyes and jaws, and building up fluid around their hearts.

As part of this rich research tradition begun after the Exxon Valdez spill, NOAA scientists helped uncover the precise mechanisms for how this happens after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. The photo here shows both a normal yellowfin tuna larva not long after hatching (top) and a larva exposed to Deepwater Horizon crude oil as it developed in the egg (bottom).

The oil-exposed larva exhibits a suite of abnormalities, showing how toxic chemicals in oil such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) can affect the embryonic heart. By altering the embryonic heartbeat, exposure to oil can transform the shape of the heart, with implications for how well the fish can swim and survive as an adult.

7. Caught between a rock and a hard place

Mearns Rock boulder in 2003.

The boulder nicknamed “Mearns Rock,” located in the southwest corner of Prince William Sound, Alaska, was coated in oil which was not cleaned off after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. This image was taken in 2003. (NOAA)

Not all impacts from an oil spill are as easy to see as deformed fish hearts. As NOAA scientists Alan Mearns and Gary Shigenaka have learned since 1989, picking out those impacts from the noisy background levels of variability in the natural environment become even harder when the global climate and ocean are undergoing unprecedented change as well.

Mearns, for example, has been monitoring the boom and bust cycles of marine life on a large boulder—nicknamed “Mearns Rock”—that was oiled but not cleaned after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. What he and Shigenaka have observed on that rock and elsewhere in Prince William Sound has revealed large natural swings in the numbers of mussels, seaweeds, and barnacles, changes which are unrelated to the oil spill as they were occurring even in areas untouched by the spill.

Read more about how these scientists are exploring these challenges and a report on NOAA’s involvement in the wake of this spill.

8. A game culture

A view of part of the board game “On the Rocks: The Great Alaska Oil Spill” with a map of Prince William Sound.

The game “On the Rocks: The Great Alaska Oil Spill” challenges players to clean all 200 miles of shoreline oiled by the Exxon Valdez — and do so with limits on time and money. (Credit: Alaska Resources Library and Information Services, ARLIS)

Just as the Exxon Valdez oil spill touched approximately 200 miles of remote and rugged Alaskan shoreline, this spill also touched the hearts and minds of people far from the spill. References to it permeated mainstream American culture in surprising ways, inspiring a cookbook, a movie, a play, music, books, poetry, and even a board game.

That’s right, a bartender from Valdez, Alaska, produced the board game “On the Rocks: The Great Alaska Oil Spill” as a result of his experience employed in spill cleanup. Players vied to be the first to wash all 200 miles of oiled shoreline without running out of time or money.

9. Carrying a piece of the ship

The rusted and nondescript piece of steel on the left was a piece of the tanker Exxon Valdez, recovered by the salvage crew in 1989 and given to NOAA marine biologist Gary Shigenaka. It was the beginning of his collection of Exxon Valdez artifacts and remains the item with the biggest personal value to him. The piece of metal on the right, inscribed with "On the rocks," is also metal from the ship but was purchased on eBay.

The rusted and nondescript piece of steel on the left was a piece of the tanker Exxon Valdez, recovered by the salvage crew in 1989 and given to NOAA marine biologist Gary Shigenaka. It was the beginning of his collection of Exxon Valdez artifacts and remains the item with the biggest personal value to him. The piece of metal on the right, inscribed with “On the rocks,” is also metal from the ship but was purchased on eBay. (NOAA)

One NOAA scientist in particular, Gary Shigenaka, who kicked off his career working on the Exxon Valdez oil spill, was personally touched by this spill as well. After receiving a small chunk of metal from the ship’s salvage, Shigenaka began amassing a collection of Exxon Valdez–related memorabilia, ranging from a highball glass commemorating the ship’s launch in 1986 (ironic considering the questions surrounding its captain being intoxicated the night of the accident) to the front page of the local paper the day of the spill.

See more photos of his collection.

10. The infamous ship’s fate

Exxon Valdez/Exxon Mediterranean/Sea River Mediterranean/S/R Mediterranean/Mediterranean/Dong Fang Ocean/Oriental Nicety being dismantled on the beach of Alang, India, 2012.

Exxon Valdez/Exxon Mediterranean/Sea River Mediterranean/S/R Mediterranean/Mediterranean/Dong Fang Ocean/Oriental Nicety being dismantled in Alang, India, 2012. Photo by ToxicsWatch Alliance.

After causing the largest-to-date oil spill in U.S. waters, what ever happened to the ill-fated Exxon Valdez ship? It limped back for repairs to San Diego Bay where it was built, but by the time it was sea-ready again, the ship had been banned from Prince William Sound by the Oil Pollution Act and would instead be reassigned to the Mediterranean and Middle East and renamed accordingly, the Exxon Mediterranean.

But a series of new names and bad luck continued to follow this ship, until it was finally sold for scrap in 2011. Under its final name, Oriental Nicety, it was intentionally grounded at the infamous shipbreaking beaches of Alang, Gujarat, India, in 2012 and dismantled in its final resting place 23 years after the Exxon Valdez ran aground half a world away.


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How Much Oil Is on That Ship?

The massive container ship Benjamin Franklin pulls into the Port of Seattle.

The container ship Benjamin Franklin, the largest cargo ship to visit the United States, arrives in Elliott Bay at the Port of Seattle on February 29, 2016. Credit: Don Wilson/Port of Seattle

Like many people with an interest in the maritime industry, I’ve been following the story of the huge container ship Benjamin Franklin that recently visited Seattle’s port.

The news stories about it were full of superlatives. It was the largest cargo vessel to visit the United States, measuring 1,310 feet in length, or longer than the height of two Space Needles.

This massive ship can carry 18,000 shipping containers, known in the business as 20-foot equivalent units or TEUs. That is more than double the cargo of most container ships calling on the Port of Seattle. Loaded on a train (and most of them will be) those containers would stretch more than 68 miles, or the distance from Tacoma, Washington, to Everett.

Considering this ship’s massive size made me wonder how much fuel is on board. After some research, I found out: about 4.5 million gallons. That makes it just a bit bigger than my sailboat which holds only 20 gallons of fuel.

Understanding the potential volumes of oil (either as fuel or cargo) carried on ships is a major consideration in spill response planning.

All tank vessels (tankers and barges) and all non-tank vessels (freighters, cruise ships, etc.) larger than 400 gross tons have to have vessel response plans. Key metrics in those plans include listing the maximum amount of oil that could be spilled (known as the worst case discharge) and the maximum most probable discharge, which, for non-tank vessels, is generally defined as 10% of the vessel’s total fuel capacity.

What about other types of vessels? How much oil in the form of fuel or cargo do they typically carry?

Here are some approximate numbers, many of which are pulled from this Washington State Department of Ecology report [PDF]:

  • Small speedboat (12–20 feet): 6–20 gallons
  • Sailing yacht (33–45 feet) : 30–120 gallons
  • Motor yacht (40–60 feet) : 200–1,200 gallons
  • Large tanker truck: 5,000–10,000 gallons
  • Small tugboat (30–60 feet): 1,500–25,000 gallons
  • Petroleum rail car: 30,000 gallons
  • Boeing 747 airplane: 50,000–60,000 gallons
  • Ocean-going tugboat (90–150 feet): 90,000–190,000 gallons
  • Puget Sound jumbo ferry (440 feet): 130,000 gallons
  • Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s yacht M/V Octopus (416 feet): 224,000 gallons
  • Bulk carrier of commodities such as grain or coal (500–700 feet): 400,000–800,000 gallons
  • Large cruise ship (900–1,100 feet): 1–2 million gallons
  • Inland tank barge (200–300 feet): 400,000–1.2 million gallons
  • Panamax container ship that passes through the Panama Canal (960 feet): 1.5–2 million gallons
  • Container ship Benjamin Franklin (1,310 feet): 4.5 million gallons
  • Ocean-going tank barge (550–750 feet): 7 million–14 million gallons
  • T/V Exxon Valdez and similar large oil tankers (987 feet): 55 million gallons

Thanks to developing technologies, such “mega-vessels” as the Benjamin Franklin appear to be on the rise, a trend we’re watching along with the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation and University of Washington.

How will these larger ships carrying more oil affect the risk of oil spills and how should NOAA prepare for these changes? Stay tuned.


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Accidents on a Flooded Lower Mississippi River Keep NOAA Busy with a Rash of Spills

Damaged barge on the Mississippi River.

A barge carrying slurry oil being pushed by the towing vessel Amy Francis hit the Natchez-Vidalia Bridge, Jan. 21, 2016. The barge reportedly has a maximum potential of more than 1 million gallons of slurry oil on board. (U.S. Coast Guard)

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Donna Roberts.

Did you know that oil spills occur every day in U.S. waters? Rivers bustling with ship traffic, such as the Mississippi, are no exception to this rule.

In the past few weeks, we’ve been involved with quite a few accidents involving vessels carrying oil and chemicals on the Lower Mississippi River.

These river accidents coincided with high water and swift currents. Despite safeguards for vessel traffic put in place by the U.S. Coast Guard, the river conditions resulted in ships colliding, hitting bridges and ground, and breaking away from their towing vessels. One unlucky railroad bridge in Vicksburg, Mississippi, has been hit by vessels five times already this year.

Even now, the NOAA River Forecast Center reports that the Lower Mississippi is experiencing moderate flood conditions. It’s difficult to navigate a river with a tow of barges at any flow—and extremely challenging when the flow is high and fast. In spite of everyone’s best efforts, under conditions like these, accidents can and do still happen, and investigations are ongoing into the precise causes.

Luckily, most of the incidents that have occurred were relatively minor, resulted in no injuries to vessel crews, and all spills received immediate responses from state and federal agencies. Still, when oil or chemicals spill into rivers, we know that they differ from spills in the ocean or along coasts, and therefore present different challenges for spill responders.

Here are just a few of the dozen or so spills and near-spills we know of and which have been keeping our spill modelers, chemists, and Scientific Support Coordinators busy over the past few weeks.

January 21, 2016: A barge being towed by the UTV Amy Frances struck the Natchez Bridge, where Highway 84 crosses over the Lower Mississippi River between Mississippi and Louisiana, in the vicinity of Mile Marker 363. As a result, two of the barge’s tanks were damaged, spilling slurry oil, which our chemical lab confirmed was denser than water. That means this oil sinks.

In the wake of this oil spill, one of our Scientific Support Coordinators helped survey the river to detect sunken oil. Given the river’s very fast and turbulent water at the time, we think any oil released from the damaged tanks was immediately broken into small droplets and carried downstream while also sinking below the river surface. Any oil that reached the bottom was probably mixed with or buried by the sand moving downstream near the river bottom. This is because rivers that move a lot of water also move a lot of sediment.

In addition, we provided information on the expected fate and effects of the barge’s spilled slurry oil and on the animals and habitats that could be at risk.

Workers on a river edge pump oil from a damaged barge.

Response crews remove oil from the damaged MM-46 barge, Jan. 23, 2016, on the Mississippi River. Crews estimate that approximately 76,000 gallons of clarified oil mixture is still unaccounted for. Crews continue to take soundings of the damaged barge tank to determine the amount spilled while assessment teams work to locate missing product. (U.S. Coast Guard)

January 25, 2016: Just a few days later, the Coast Guard called on us for advice related to a barge containing liquid urea ammonium nitrate (liquid fertilizer), which sank south of Valewood, Mississippi, at Mile Marker 501 on the Mississippi River. Side-scan sonar indicates the barge is upside-down on the river bottom, approximately 80 feet down.

Given the position and water pressure, we believe the chemical cargo stored on the barge was likely released into the river. The chemical is heavier than water and will mix quickly into the water column. Because elevated levels of ammonia can affect aquatic life, our focus was on predicting and tracking where the chemical would go downriver and what would happen to it. Salvage efforts for the barge itself continue.

January 26, 2016: The next day, two vessel tows collided upriver of New Orleans, Louisiana, near Mile Marker 130 on the Lower Mississippi River. The collision capsized one of two barges carrying caustic soda, or sodium hydroxide. We provided the Coast Guard with an initial chemical hazard assessment for this chemical, which is a strong base. The release of a large enough quantity of sodium hydroxide could raise the pH of the water around it, posing a risk to local fish and other aquatic life nearby. The barge is secure, but righting it is difficult in the swift currents. No pollution release has been reported to date.

Science for Spills of All Kinds

During these kinds of spills, we have to be ready to provide the same round-the-clock, science-based support to the Coast Guard and other agencies as big spills like the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico.

For example, if a chemical has spilled into a river, we need to know where it’s going to go, what’s going to happen to it, and what, if any, species will be harmed by it. To help answer the “where’s it going?” question, our response specialists use the spill trajectory tool, GNOME, to predict the possible route the pollutant might follow.

To better understand the pollutant and its possible effects, we use software tools such as CAMEO Chemicals to provide information about the chemical’s properties, toxicity, and behavior as it is diluted by the river water. Our Chemical Aquatic Fate and Effects (CAFE) database contains information on the effects of thousands of chemicals, oils, and dispersants on aquatic life.

The Mississippi River and its floodplain are home to a diverse population of living things. On the Lower Mississippi, there may be as many as 60 separate species of mussel. To protect vulnerable species, we use our Environmental Sensitivity Index maps and data to report what animals or habitats could be at risk, particularly those that are threatened or endangered. Keeping responders and the public safe and minimizing environmental harm are two of our top priorities during any spill, no matter the size.

Donna Roberts

Donna Roberts

Donna Roberts is a writer for the Emergency Response Division of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R). Her work supports the OR&R website and the Environmental Sensitivity Index mapping program.


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How Will Climate Change, New Technologies, and Shifting Trade Patterns Affect Global Shipping?

Large waves crash on a huge cargo ship aground on a beach.

After a major storm, a massive bulk cargo ship, the Pasha Bulker, ran aground on a beach in Australia in 2007. (Credit: Tim J. Keegan/Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license)

This is a guest post by University of Washington graduate students Megan Desillier, Seth Sivinski, and Nicole White.

A warming climate is opening up new shipping routes through the Arctic Ocean as summer sea ice shrinks. Developing technologies allow mega-ships unprecedented in size and cargo to take to the seas. North America is increasingly exporting oil, shifting global trade patterns.

Each of these issues poses a suite of potential challenges for safely shipping commodities across the ocean and around the world. Out of these challenges, new risks are emerging in marine transportation that NOAA and the maritime industry need to consider.

Our group of three graduate students at the University of Washington, with the support of the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation (ITOPF) and NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, are looking to understand how the world’s shipping dynamic has changed in recent years and how these emerging challenges in marine transportation will affect that dynamic. And then we aim to answer: how should NOAA and ITOPF best prepare for responding to these new risks?

In the course of this research project, we will attempt to identify and assess significant emerging risks in marine transportation that have the potential to lead to oil or chemical spills. We are focused on three drivers of emerging risks in the global shipping network: developing technologies, changing patterns of marine trade, and shifting environmental conditions due to climate change. Each of these drivers will be considered within three distinct time frames: the present, 4-10 years from now, and more than 10 years from now.

Risky Business

Fishing vessl half in water and half on a damaged building.

Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge left this fishing vessel on top of a local fish dealer shop in Mississippi. Even small changes in sea levels can have major effects on storm surge. How will a changing climate affect affect global shipping? (NOAA)

The emerging risks that we will identify and assess come from analyzing the network of global cargo ship movements, focusing on the emerging usage of the Northern Sea Route, Northwest Passage, Trans-Arctic Route, the Panama Canal, the Suez Canal, and the possibility of a future Nicaraguan Canal.

At this point in our project, we have come across several interesting findings relating to each of our three main research areas. Within the area of developing technology, for example, we are examining the emerging risk of “mega-vessels,” which include “mega-containers,” “mega-tankers,” and “mega-bulkers,” depending on their cargo type. These mega-vessels are massive and measure significantly larger than previous, standard-sized vessels. For example, any container ship over 10,000 twenty-foot equivalent units, or TEUs, can be considered a “mega-ship.” However, the largest mega-vessel to date can handle 18,000 TEUs.

Bulk carriers are used to transport unpackaged cargo in bulk, such as grain, ore, and cement. These ships have also grown in size to the new mega-bulkers, which can handle over 80,000 deadweight tons (DWT), as opposed to the most common, smaller-sized bulk carrier that can handle 60,000 DWTs. In addition, ships are carrying riskier cargoes, which, depending on the cargo, can lead to a dangerous phenomenon known as liquefaction. In general, liquefaction can occur during events like earthquakes, when intense shaking causes “water-saturated sediment temporarily [to lose] strength and [act] as a fluid.”

This phenomenon can also happen on board ships when a cargo, like nickel-ore, becomes wet either before being loaded or while on board and then liquefies due to the ship’s movements. When that happens, the liquefied cargo quickly destabilizes the ship and can lead to it sinking. There are numerous cases of cargo liquefaction occurring on standard-sized bulk carrier ships, which can result in the loss of both crew and vessel.

Context Clues

We also have incorporated several elements to give social-economic, technological, and environmental context to our research of emerging maritime risks. The social-economic element considers the form of cargoes being shipped, environmental resources potentially affected by pollution, available industry tools, and the types of vessels involved.

As for the technical element, we’ll focus on understanding the gap in the salvage of mega-vessels and vessels in the Arctic region, the increased use of floating production storage and offloading vessels (FPSOs, which act like semi-mobile floating fuel storage tanks), risks from vessel automation technologies, and finally, the increased congestion of ships in high-risk areas and choke points, such as the narrow Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia.

For the environmental context, we’ll examine changing environmental conditions that may present additional risks to marine transportation, such as the increased intensity and frequency of storms, sea level rise, and Arctic sea ice melt.

We’ll also consider some market drivers, such as the North American oil trade and the International Maritime Organization’s Polar Code (which is an international shipping safety code for polar waters), in a broad global context. However, our research will not directly consider organizational, regulatory, and market contextual elements in any significant detail.

Relevance and Risk

After we analyze and categorize potential risks, we’ll consider the materiality, or relevance, of our identified risks and the types of incidents that could result. We’ll be connecting how important our identified risks are to the potential losses and damages to vessels, cargoes, and the environment resulting from specific types of incidents. For example, if larger ships are carrying larger quantities of oil as fuel or cargo, then damage to a ship’s hull could spill more oil and result in greater potential environmental impacts.

Stay tuned for updates on our research over the next few months.

Megan Desillier, Seth Sivinski, and Nicole White are Master’s Candidates at the University of Washington (UW) in the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs working with faculty advisors Robert Pavia and Thomas M. Leschine. The team is researching emerging risks in marine transportation for the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation (ITOPF) and is being provided additional assistance in their research from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The students are completing this research over the course of an academic year as part of the thesis/capstone requirement for the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs at the UW. Our team would like to thank our sponsor, ITOPF, as well as NOAA for providing additional assistance. To contact the authors, please email Robert Pavia at bobpavia@uw.edu.

The views expressed in this post reflect those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official views of NOAA or the U.S. federal government.

Photo of Pasha Bulker courtesy of Tim J. Keegan and used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.