The scale of the challenges facing the ocean—such as overfishing, pollution, and acidification—is enormous, and their solutions, achievable but complex. That is why the impressive progress in cleaning up a major problem in one area—Washington’s Puget Sound—can be so satisfying. Get a behind-the-scenes look at this inspiring progress in a new video from NOAA-affiliate Oregon SeaGrant on the Northwest Straits Foundation net removal project.
For over a decade, the Northwest Straits Foundation, supported by the NOAA Marine Debris Program, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, state agencies, and many others, has been removing lost and abandoned fishing nets from the inland ocean waters of Puget Sound.
A problem largely invisible to most of us, these fishing nets are a legacy of extensive salmon fishing in the Puget Sound which is now much diminished. Lost during fishing operations, the nets are now suspended in the water column or settled on the seafloor, where they snare dozens of marine species, including marine birds and mammals, and degrade the ocean habitat where they were lost. Made of plastic, these nets do not degrade significantly and continue to catch and kill animals indiscriminately for many years.
However, with the help of highly skilled divers, the foundation has removed over 4,700 of these lost nets from Puget Sound. They estimate there are fewer than 900 left in the area and, working with local commercial fishers, have a good handle on the small number of nets currently lost each year.
The NOAA Marine Debris Program has collaborated on or funded over 200 projects to research, prevent, and remove marine debris from waters around the United States. You can learn more about our other projects, such as the Fishing for Energy program, at clearinghouse.marinedebris.noaa.gov.
What does the Sahara Desert in Africa have to do with hurricanes in the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and Eastern Pacific Ocean? You might think this sounds a little crazy because hurricanes are very wet and deserts are very dry, but if it weren’t for this huge, hot, dry region in North Africa, we would see far fewer hurricanes in the United States.
The Sahara Desert is massive, covering 10 percent of the continent of Africa. It would be the largest desert on Earth, but based strictly on rainfall amounts, the continent of Antarctica qualifies as a desert and is even larger. Still, rainfall in the Sahara is very infrequent; some areas may not get rain for years and the average total rainfall is less than three inches per year. While not the largest or driest of the deserts, the Sahara has a major influence on weather across the Western Hemisphere.How a Tropical Storm Starts A-Brewin’
The role the Sahara Desert plays in hurricane development is related to the easterly winds (coming from the east) generated from the differences between the hot, dry desert in north Africa and the cooler, wetter, and forested coastal environment directly south and surrounding the Gulf of Guinea in west Africa. The result is a strong area of high altitude winds commonly called the African Easterly Jet. If these winds were constant, we would also experience fewer hurricanes.
However, the African Easterly Jet is unstable, resulting in undulations in a north-south direction, often forming a corresponding north to south trough, or wave, that moves westward off the West African Coast. When these waves of air have enough moisture, lift, and instability, they readily form clusters of thunderstorms, sometimes becoming correlated with a center of air circulation. When this happens, a tropical cyclone may form as the areas of disturbed weather move westward across the Atlantic.
Throughout most of the year, these waves typically form every two to three days in a region near Cape Verde (due west of Africa), but it is the summer to early fall when conditions can become favorable for tropical cyclone development. Not all hurricanes that form in the Atlantic originate near Cape Verde, but this has been the case for most of the major hurricanes that have impacted the continental United States.Wave of the Future (Weather)
In fact, just such a tropical wave formed off Cape Verde in mid-August of 1992. Up to that point, there had not been any significant tropical cyclone development in the Atlantic that year. However, the wave did intensify into a hurricane, and on August 24 Andrew came ashore in south Florida as a Category 5 hurricane, becoming one of the most costly and destructive natural disasters in U.S. history … until Sandy. Hurricane Sandy, which eventually struck the U.S. east coast as a post-tropical cyclone, also began as a similar tropical wave that formed off the coast of west Africa in October of 2012.
Some of these “waves” drift all the way to the Pacific Ocean by crossing Mexico and Central America. Many of the Eastern Pacific tropical cyclones originate, at least in part, from tropical waves coming off Cape Verde in Africa. Many of these waves traverse the entire Atlantic Ocean without generating storm development until after crossing Central America and entering the warm Eastern Pacific waters. Then, if the conditions are right, tropical cyclone formation is possible there. Hurricane Iselle, which hit the Big Island of Hawaii on August 8, 2014, was likely part of a wave that formed more than 8,000 miles away off of the West Coast of Africa and an example of the far-reaching influence the Sahara Desert has on our planet’s weather.
While these waves with origins in the Sahara Desert might generate numerous thunderstorms and a pattern with the potential for developing into a tropical cyclone, often the conditions are not quite right. Hurricane Cristobal formed from a classic Cape Verde wave last week and currently is churning Atlantic waters, but is not expected to be a threat to the United States. The formation of these disturbances off the West Coast of Africa will remain a potential source of tropical storms through the end of Atlantic hurricane season in late November. Each wave is investigated by the NOAA National Hurricane Center and you can view these active disturbances on their website.The Sahara Desert and You
When it comes to hurricanes and hurricane preparedness, it’s interesting to know how a desert half a world away can influence the formation of severe weather on our coasts—and even parts of the Pacific Ocean. And no matter where you live, the old rule of planning for the worst and hoping for the best remains the surest way to stay safe.
Learn more about how we at NOAA’s National Ocean Service are staying prepared for hurricanes [PDF], and how you can create your own hurricane plan [PDF].
This is a post by Robert Neely of NOAA’s Office of Response Restoration.
Something interesting is happening on the southern tip of Sauvie Island, located on Oregon’s Willamette River, a few miles downstream from the heart of Portland. Construction is once again underway along the river’s edge in an urban area where riverfront property typically is prized as a location for luxury housing, industrial activities, and maritime commerce. But this time, something is different.
This project will not produce a waterfront condominium complex, industrial facility, or marina. And as much as it may look like a typical construction project today, the results of all this activity will look quite different from much of what currently exists along the shores of the lower Willamette River from Portland to the Columbia River.
Indeed, when the dust settles, the site will be transformed into a home and resting place for non-human residents and visitors. Of course, I’m not referring to alien life forms, but rather to the fish, birds, mammals, and other organisms that have existed in and around the Willamette River since long before humans set up home and shop here. Yet in the last century, humans have substantially altered the river and surrounding lands, and high-quality habitat is now a scarce commodity for many stressed critters that require it for their survival.
On the site of a former lumber mill, the Alder Creek Restoration Project is the first habitat restoration project [PDF] that will be implemented specifically to benefit fish and wildlife affected by contamination in the Portland Harbor Superfund Site. The project, managed by a habitat development company called Wildlands, will provide habitat for salmon, lamprey, mink, bald eagle, osprey, and other native fish and wildlife living in Portland Harbor.
Habitat will be restored by removing buildings and fill from the floodplain, reshaping the riverbanks, and planting native trees and shrubs. The project will create shallow water habitat to provide resting and feeding areas for young salmon and lamprey and foraging for birds. In addition, the construction at Alder Creek will restore beaches and wetlands to provide access to water and food for mink and forests to provide shelter and nesting opportunities for native birds.
Driving this project is a Natural Resource Damage Assessment conducted by the Portland Harbor Natural Resource Trustee Council to quantify natural resource losses resulting from industrial contamination of the river with the toxic compounds PCBs, the pesticide DDT, oil compounds known as PAHs, and other hazardous substances. The services, or benefits from nature, provided by the Alder Creek Restoration Project—such as healthy habitat, clean water, and cultural value—will help make up for the natural resources that were lost over time because of contamination.
Wildlands purchased the land in order to create and implement an early restoration project. This “up-front” approach to restoration allows for earlier implementation of projects that provide restored habitat to injured species sooner, placing those species on a trajectory toward recovery. The service credits—ecological and otherwise—that will be generated by this new habitat will be available for purchase by parties that have liability for the environmental and cultural losses calculated in the damage assessment.
Thus when a party reaches an agreement with the Trustee Council regarding the amount of their liability, they can resolve it by purchasing restoration credits from Wildlands. And Wildlands, as the seller of restoration credits, recoups the financial investment it made to build the project. Finally, and most importantly, a substantial piece of land with tremendous potential value for the fish, birds, and other wildlife of the lower Willamette River has been locked in as high-quality habitat and thus protected from future development for other, less ecologically friendly purposes.
Robert Neely is an environmental scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Response and Restoration. He has experience in ocean and coastal management, brownfields revitalization, Ecological Risk Assessment, and Natural Resource Damage Assessment. He started with NOAA in 1998 and has worked for the agency in Charleston, South Carolina; Washington, DC; New Bedford, Massachusetts; and Seattle, Washington, where he lives with his wife and daughter. He’s been working with his co-trustees at Portland Harbor since 2005.
August in the Arctic can mean balmy weather and sunny skies or, fifteen minutes later, relentless freezing rain and wind blowing off ice floes, chilling you to the core. If you were headed to an oil spill there, your suitcase might be carrying a dry suit, down parka, wool sweaters and socks, your heaviest winter hat and gloves, and even ice traction spikes for your boots. Transit could mean days of travel by planes, car, and helicopter to a ship overseeing operations at the edge of the oil spill. Meanwhile, the oil is being whipped by the wind and waves into the nooks and crannies on the underside of sea ice, where it could be frozen into place.
Even for an experienced oil spill responder like Jill Bodnar, the complexity of working in such conditions goes far beyond the usual response challenges of cleaning up the oil, gathering data about the spill, and minimizing the impacts to marine life and their sensitive habitats. Rather, in the Arctic, everything comes down to logistics.
The unique logistics of this extreme and remote environment drive to the heart of why Bodnar, a NOAA Geographic Information Systems (GIS) specialist, and her colleague Zachary Winters-Staszak are currently on board the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, at the edge of the sea ice north of Alaska. They are participating in an Arctic Technology Evaluation, an exercise conducted by the U.S. Coast Guard Research and Development Center (RDC) in support of the Coast Guard’s broader effort known as Arctic Shield 2014.
Building on what was learned during the previous year’s exercise, the advanced technologies being demonstrated in this evaluation could potentially supplement those tools and techniques responders normally would rely on during oil spills in more temperate and accessible locations. This Arctic Technology Evaluation provides multiple agencies and institutions, in addition to NOAA, the invaluable opportunity to untangle some of the region’s knotty logistical challenges on a state-of-the-art Coast Guard icebreaker in the actual Arctic environment.Getting from A to B: Not as Easy as 1-2-3
Bodnar has been mapping data during oil spills for more than a decade, but this exercise is her first trip to the Arctic. While preparing for it, she found it sobering to learn just how many basic elements of a spill response can’t be taken for granted north of the Arctic Circle. In addition to the scarcity of roads, airports, and hotels, other critical functions such as communications are subject to the harsh Arctic conditions and limited radio towers and satellite coverage. Out at sea ships depend on satellites for phone calls and some Internet connectivity, but above the 77th parallel those satellites often drop calls and can only support basic text email.
The remoteness of the Arctic questions how hundreds of responders would get there, along with all the necessary equipment—such as boom, skimmers, and vessels—not already in the area. Once deployed to the spill, response equipment has the potential to ice-over, encounter high winds, or be grounded from dense fog. Communicating with responders and decision makers on other ships, on shore at a command post, or even farther away in the lower 48 states would be an enormous challenge.
For example, if an oil spill occurs in the Beaufort Sea, north of Alaska, the nearest and “largest” community is Barrow, population 4,429. However, Barrow has very limited accommodations. For comparison, 40,000 people, including Bodnar, responded to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. This was possible because of the spill’s proximity to large cities with hotel space and access to food and communications infrastructure.
This is not the case for small Arctic villages, where most of their food, fuel, and other resources have to be shipped in when the surrounding waters are relatively free of ice. But to respond to a spill in the Arctic, the likely center of operations would be on board a ship, yet another reason working with the Coast Guard during Arctic Shield is so important for NOAA.NOAA’s Role in Arctic Shield 2014
During this August’s Arctic Technology Evaluation, the Coast Guard is leading tests of four key areas of Arctic preparedness. NOAA’s area focuses on how oil disperses at the edge of the sea ice and collects under the older, thicker ice packs. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is working with NOAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) program to develop techniques for quickly identifying and delineating a simulated oil spill in the Arctic waters near the ice edge. The Coast Guard will be using both an unreactive, green fluorescein dye and hundreds of oranges as “simulated oil” for the various tools and technologies to detect.
Normally during an oil spill, NOAA or the Coast Guard would send people up in a plane or helicopter to survey the ocean for the oil’s precise location, which NOAA also uses to improve its models of the oil’s expected behavior. However, responders can’t count on getting these aircraft to a spill in the Arctic in the first place—much less assume safe conditions for flying once there.
Instead, the UAS group is testing the feasibility of using unmanned, remote-controlled aircraft such as the Puma to collect this information and report back to responders on the ship. Bodnar and Winters-Staszak will be pulling these data streams from the Puma into Arctic ERMA®, NOAA’s mapping tool for environmental response data. They’ll be creating a data-rich picture of where the oil spill dye and oranges are moving in the water and how they are behaving, particularly among the various types of sea ice.
Once the oil spill simulation is complete, Bodnar and Winters-Staszak will be reporting back on how it went and what they have learned. Stay tuned for the expedition’s progress in overcoming the many logistical hurdles of a setting as severe as the Arctic here and at oceanservice.noaa.gov/arcticshield.
On the Chesapeake Bay, Overcoming the Unique Challenges of Bringing Restoration to Polluted Military Sites
Transformations are taking place at more than 10 government facilities, mostly owned by the Department of Defense, across the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. These properties typically include large, relatively undisturbed natural areas, which often serve as key habitats for endangered fish, birds, and wildlife. Yet the same federal facilities also have become Superfund sites, slated for cleanup under CERCLA, with pollution at levels which threaten the health of humans and the environment.
Yet in spite of some unique challenges, these areas are being cleaned up and restored to become healthy places for all once more. Success has stemmed largely from two critical pieces of the process: collaborating closely among numerous government agencies and incorporating restoration into the process as early and often as possible.
According to Paula Gilbertson of the U.S. Navy, “The close partnership among the many federal and state agencies involved has provided a framework for success. Great things can happen when people work together toward a common goal.”Moving Past the Past
Past activities leading to pollution at U.S. Army, Air Force, and Navy sites on Chesapeake Bay were many and varied, and included: incineration, landfilling, ship and airplane repair and maintenance, military testing, and pesticide and munitions disposal. As a result, beginning in the 1980s, entire facilities along the bay became Superfund sites and listed for priority cleanup.
Typically during the Superfund process, the party responsible for polluting has to work with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which leads the cleanup, and other state and federal agencies—known as trustees—which represent affected public lands and waters.
But in these cases, the Department of Defense has to play multiple roles: trustee of natural resources on the property, entity responsible for contamination, and lead cleanup agency. In addition, the EPA still oversees the effectiveness of the Superfund cleanup, and the military branches at each site still have to coordinate with the other trustees: NOAA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and state agencies.
NOAA and the Fish and Wildlife Service also are part of a special technical group run by the EPA (the Biological Technical Assistance Group, or BTAG), which coordinates trustee participation and offers scientific review throughout the ecological risk assessment and cleanup process at each site.
According to Bruce Pluta, coordinator of the EPA BTAG, “The collaborative efforts of the EPA Project Team, including the BTAG, and our partners at the Department of Defense have resulted in model projects which integrate remediation and ecological restoration.”Working Together for the Future
What does not change during this process is that the trustees are working to protect and restore the “trust resources,” including lands, waters, birds, fish, and wildlife affected by contamination coming from these military sites. This can include natural areas adjacent to the sites and the animals that could migrate onto the federal properties, such as striped bass, herring, blue crabs, eagles, and herons.
Other important differences exist governing how all these government entities work together in the Superfund cleanup process. For example, NOAA often works to evaluate ecological risks and determine environmental injuries resulting from hazardous material releases at Superfund sites. Then we implement restoration projects to compensate for the injuries to coastal and marine natural resources and the benefits they provide to the public. This is the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process. NOAA seeks legal damages (payment) or works with those responsible for the pollution through cooperative agreements to restore, replace, or acquire the equivalent natural resources.
As federal trustees, we are significantly limited in our ability to conduct a formal damage assessment against a fellow federal agency doing cleanup because we are both trustees of the affected natural resources. However, all federal and state trustees can work together with EPA to protect the lands, waters, and living things during cleanup, maximize the potential for restoration at each site, and develop measures to ensure both environmental recovery and resilience.
“By considering restoration early in the process and getting input from natural resource managers, many simple, common sense measures are being incorporated that benefit ecosystems, reduce overall costs, and improve the effectiveness of the cleanup,” says Simeon Hahn of NOAA.Overcoming Challenges
Having so many government agencies involved in overlapping but distinct roles requires a great deal of collaboration and communication. This became clear early in the process if each case were to achieve multiple objectives:
- Cleaning up the military sites and returning the lands and waters to productive uses.
- Performing cleanups using environmentally friendly strategies to remove, recycle, and reuse materials while also addressing climate resiliency.
- Protecting and restoring natural resources.
- Accomplishing everything within a reasonable budget and timeframe.
Despite the many challenges, the process of cleaning up and restoring these contaminated military facilities has been going well. EPA, the Department of Defense, and fellow trustees have collaborated to protect and restore affected natural resources while also helping adapt these areas to the threats and impacts of climate change. By integrating restoration into cleanup planning early and often, we have made significant progress toward a healthier Chesapeake Bay—at lower costs and in less time.
Over the coming months, we will be sharing more about these successes here on the blog. We will recount the removal and recycling of thousands of tons of concrete; the restoration of hundreds of acres of wetlands, shorelines, creeks, and forested areas; and the revitalization of numerous acres of land contributing to benefits such as natural defenses for coastal communities. Stay tuned!
I recently had the opportunity to attend an interesting seminar on the use of dispersants in oil spill response. On August 8, 2014, OR&R Emergency Response Division marine biologist, Gary Shigenaka, and Dr. Adrian C. Bejarano, aquatic toxicologist, made presentations to a group of oil spill response professionals as part of the Science of Oil Spills class, offered by OR&R in Seattle last week.
Mr. Shigenaka introduced the subject, giving the students background on the history of dispersant use in response to oil spills, starting with the first use in England at the Torrey Canyon spill. Because the first generation of oil dispersants were harsh and killed off intertidal species, the goal since has been to reduce their inherent toxicity while maintaining effectiveness at moving oil from the surface of the water into the water column. He gave an overview of the most prevalent commercial products, including Corexit 9527 and Corexit 9500, manufactured by Nalco, and Finasol OSR52, a French product.
Shigenaka reviewed the U.S. EPA product schedule of dispersants as well as Ohmsett – National Oil Spill Response Research Facility in Leonardo, N.J. Ohmsett is run by the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. He showed video clips of oil dispersant tests conducted recently at the facility by the American Petroleum Institute.
- The first showed oil being dispersed on the water’s surface.
- The second video clip demonstrated oil being dispersed from beneath the surface.
The corporate proprietary aspects of the exact formulation of dispersants were described by Shigenaka as one of the reasons for the controversy surrounding the use of dispersants on oil spills.
Dispersant Use in Offshore Spill Response
Dr. Bejarano’s presentation, “Dispersant Use in offshore Oil Spill Response,” started with a list of advantages of dispersant use such as reduced oil exposure to workers; reduced impacts on shoreline habitats; minimal impacts on wildlife with long life spans; and keeping the oil away from the nearshore area thus avoiding the need for invasive cleanup. She followed with some downside aspects such as increased localized concentration of hydrocarbons; higher toxicity levels in the top 10 meters of the water column; increased risk to less mobile species; and greater exposure to dispersed oil to species nearer to the surface.
Dr. Bejarano is working on a comprehensive publicly-available database that will include source evaluation and EPA data as well as a compilation of data from 160 sources scored on applicability to oil spill response (high, moderate, low and different exposures).
Her presentation concluded with a summary of trade-offs associated with dispersant use:
- Shifting risk to water column organisms from shoreline, which recover more quickly (weeks or months).
- Toxicity data are not perfect.
- Realistic dose and duration are different from lab to field environment.
- Interpretation of findings must be in the context of particular oil spill considerations.
Dr. Bejarano emphasized the need for balanced consideration in reaching consensus for the best response to a particular spill.
Following the formal presentations, there was a panel discussion with experts from NOAA, EPA, and State of Washington, and the audience had an opportunity to ask questions. Recent research from the NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service/ Montlake Laboratory was presented, focusing on effects of oil and dispersants on larval fish. The adequacy of existing science underlying trade-offs and net environmental benefit was also discussed.
Read our related blog on dispersants, “Help NOAA Study Chemical Dispersants and Oil Spills.”
This post was written by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Meg Imholt and is based on research done during the summer of 2014 by OR&R intern, Emory Wellman.
Nearly a year ago, one lawsuit spurred the question–how much do coastal ecosystems protect people from storms and what is that worth? It’s a question NOAA scientists and economists are working to answer.
At NOAA, our job is to protect our coasts, but often, coastal ecosystems are the ones protecting us. When a severe storm hits, wetlands, sand dunes, reefs, and other coastal ecosystems can slow waves down, reducing their height and intensity, and prevent erosion. That means less storm surge, more stable shorelines, and more resilient coastal communities.
When the coastal Borough of Harvey Cedars, New Jersey, replenished beaches with sand dunes to offer this ecosystem service, a New Jersey couple, the Karans, sued on the grounds that the newly placed dunes obstructed the ocean view from their home. Initially, the court barred the jury from considering storm protection benefits from the dunes in their decision. The jury awarded the Karans $375,000, but New Jersey Supreme Court overturned the ruling. The jury should consider storm protection benefits, according to the Supreme Court, and when it did, the Karan’s settlement dropped to $1.
Cases like this one spur a lot of questions for both science and the courts.
NOAA has been supporting ecosystem services in court for decades through Natural Resource Damage Assessments (NRDA), but putting a price tag on ecosystem services isn’t easy. Instead, NOAA often determines how ecosystem services were hurt and what it will take to replace them. Following a spill or chemical release, NOAA is one of a number of mandated state and federal natural resource trustees that assess if and how ecosystem services were injured and typically focuses on habitat and recreation. That assessment is then used to determine how much restoration the responsible party must provide to compensate for the injury.
Determining exactly how much storm protection may have been lost is another challenge. We know that already; there are a variety of estimates showing how much coastal ecosystems reduce a storm’s impact. Still, the science of storm protection is complicated. For example, an ecosystem’s type, location, topography, and local tides all impact its ability to protect us from storms. So, determining how much storm protection services were lost, who they benefited, and what type of restoration could compensate depends on all of those factors too.
Ultimately, the decision on how to assess storm protection benefits may be up to the courts. The next case like Borough of Harvey Cedars v. Karan may provide some clues, but until then, we’ll keep working on the science.
OR&R’s Doug Helton recalls his experience responding to a major spill in 1993.
August 10 is an anniversary of sorts. 21 years ago, I spent much of the month of August on the beaches of Pinellas County, Florida. But not fishing and sunbathing. On August 10, 1993, three vessels, the freighter Balsa 37, the barge Ocean 255, and the barge Bouchard 155, collided near the entrance of Tampa Bay, Florida.
The collision resulted in a fire on one of the barges and caused a major oil spill. Over 32,000 gallons of jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline and about 330,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil spilled from the barges. Despite emergency cleanup efforts, the oil fouled 13 miles of beaches and caused injury to birds, sea turtles, mangrove habitat, seagrasses, salt marshes, shellfish beds, as well as closing many of the waterways to fishing and boating.
The prior year I had been hired by NOAA and tasked with developing a Rapid Assessment Program (RAP) to provide a quick response capability for oil and chemical spill damage assessments, focusing on the collection of perishable data and information, photographs, and videotape in a timely manner to determine the need for a natural resource damage assessment. The emergency nature of spills requires that this type of information be collected within hours after the release. Time-sensitive data, photographs, and videotape are often critical when designing future assessment studies and initiating restoration planning—and are also used later as evidence in support of Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) claims. The Tampa Bay spill was one of the first major responses for the RAP team.
The case was settled long ago and restoration projects have all been implemented to address the ecological and socioeconomic impacts of the spill. But some of the damage assessment approaches developed during that incident are still used today, and some of the then innovative restoration approaches are now more commonplace.
This is a post by NOAA Environmental Scientist Dr. Amy Merten.
It is no mystery anymore that the Arctic is undergoing unprecedented change and the extent of summer sea ice continues to shrink. As the ice contracts, shipping within and across the Arctic, oil and gas exploration, and tourism likely will increase, as will fishing, if fisheries continue migrating north to cooler waters. With more oil-powered activity in the Arctic and potentially out-of-date nautical charts, the region also will see an increased risk of oil spills.
Although the Arctic may have “ice-free” summers, it will remain a difficult place to respond to spills, still facing conditions such as low visibility, mobilized icebergs, and extreme cold. Much of the increased activity exploits the longer amount of time between the sea ice breaking up in the spring and freezing up in the fall. Accidents on either end of this longer window could mean responding to oil spills complicated by sea ice.
Ready, Set, (Pretend to) Spill
With these challenging circumstances in mind, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration again will be sending spatial data specialists aboard the Coast Guard icebreaker Healy for an Arctic Technology Evaluation, a month-long scientific expedition to the Arctic Ocean to demonstrate and evaluate oil spill tools, technologies, and techniques as part of Arctic Shield 2014. The ship leaves for the edge of the sea ice from Seward, Alaska, on August 8. We will be working with the U.S. Coast Guard Research and Development Center (RDC) to operate Arctic ERMA, our mapping tool geared at oil spill response. Normally an online tool, a special internet-independent version of ERMA, known as Stand-alone ERMA, will serve as the common operational picture for scientific data during this Arctic Technology Evaluation.
NOAA provides scientific support to the Coast Guard during oil and chemical spills, and ERMA is an extension of that support. This Arctic Technology Evaluation is an opportunity to work with the Coast Guard in as realistic conditions as possible—on a ship in the Arctic Ocean. Once the Healy makes it far enough north, the Coast Guard RDC will deploy a simulated oil spill so they can test oil spill detection and recovery technologies in ice conditions. The team will test unmanned technology platforms (both airborne and underwater) to detect where the spilled “oil” is and to collect ocean condition data, such as sea temperature, currents, and the areas where oil is mixing and spreading in the water column. In this case the simulated oil will be fluorescein dye, an inert tracer used for other simulated spills and water transport studies in the ocean and rivers. (Other simulated spilled “oils” have included peat moss, rubber ducks, and oranges.)
One major objective is for NOAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems group to fly their 8.5 foot wingspan, remote-controlled Puma, instead of an airplane with a human observer, to delineate the extent of the “oil” plume. ERMA’s job will be to display the data from the Puma and other unmanned technologies so all of the team can see where measurements have been taken and identify insights into how they could hypothetically clean up a spill in the remote, icy environment.
Arriving at the Arctic
In many ways, our office is a newcomer to the Arctic, and we still have a lot to learn about past research and current ways of life in the region. As the NOAA co-director for the Coastal Response Research Center (a joint partnership with the University of New Hampshire), I worked with my co-director, UNH professor Nancy Kinner, to promote understanding of the risks the Arctic is facing. In 2007, we participated in a joint industry study which brought me to the Arctic at the SINTEF lab on Svalbard in Norway. Here, I saw firsthand how difficult it can be to find oil mixed in ice and then try to do something about it, such as burn it. The temperature extremes in the Arctic limit mobility and the amount of time one can be outside responding to a spill—if you can get to the spill in the first place.
At the same time, we were developing ERMA® (Environmental Response Management Application), a web-based mapping tool for environmental response, which is customized for various regions in the United States. As NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration began developing strategies for working in the Arctic, support emerged for customizing ERMA for the Arctic region. We worked with several organizations, including Arctic communities, to develop Arctic ERMA, taking care to make connections and build relationships with the people who live in and know the region and its natural resources. ERMA also will use the Healy’s onboard satellite communications to relay data back to the live Arctic ERMA website, allowing people outside the vessel to stay up-to-date with the mission.
Responding to Reality
I’m excited for my ERMA colleagues, Jill Bodnar and Zach Winters-Staszak, to experience this extreme and special environment firsthand. Academically, you can think through the challenges a spill in the Arctic would present, but actually experiencing it quickly reveals what will and will not work. Partnering with the Coast Guard is helping those of us at NOAA be proactive responders in general, and in particular, is teaching the ERMA team how to pull into this tool data from multiple platforms and improve response decision-making.
We’re all connected to the Arctic; weather and oceanographic patterns are changing world wide because of the rapidly changing Arctic. Oil and gas coming from the Arctic will fuel the U.S. economy and current way of life for the foreseeable future. We hope that Arctic Shield and other oil spill exercises will better prepare us for whatever happens next. Follow along with NOAA’s efforts during Arctic Shield at http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/arcticshield/.
Amy Merten is the Spatial Data Branch Chief in NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. Amy developed the concept for the online mapping tool ERMA (Environmental Response Mapping Application). ERMA was developed in collaboration with the University of New Hampshire. She expanded the ERMA team at NOAA to fill response and natural resource trustee responsibilities during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill. Amy oversees data management of the resulting oil spill damage assessment. She received her doctorate and master’s degrees from the University of Maryland.
A few weeks ago a North Carolina fisherman had a sinking feeling as he saw “black globs” rising to the ocean surface about 48 miles offshore of Cape Lookout. From his boat, he also could see the tell-tale signs of rainbow sheen and a dark black sheen catching light on the water surface—oil. But looking around at the picturesque barrier islands to the west and Atlantic’s open waters to the east, he couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. What was the source of this mysterious oil?
Describing what he saw, the fisherman filed a pollution report with the U.S. Coast Guard. On July 17, 2014, a U.S. Coast Guard C-130 aircraft flew over the site and confirmed the presence of a sheen of oil in the same vicinity. Based on the location and persistence of the sheens, the responders suspected the oil possibly could be leaking from the sunken wreck of the steamship W.E. Hutton, 140 feet below the water surface. Shortly after, archeologists confirmed that to be the case.
At the Bottom of the Graveyard of the Atlantic
This area off of North Carolina’s Outer Banks is known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic. The combination of harsh storms, piracy, and warfare have left these waters littered with shipwrecks, and because of the conditions that led to their demise, many of them are broken in pieces. In the midst of World War II, on March 18, 1942, the W.E. Hutton was one of three U.S. vessels in the area torpedoed by German U-boats. Tragically, 13 of the 23 crewmembers aboard the ship were killed. The Hutton’s survivors were rescued by the Port Halifax, a British ship.
When the steam-powered tanker was hit by German torpedoes, the Hutton was en route from Smiths Bluff, Texas, to Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania, with a cargo of 65,000 barrels of #2 heating oil. An initial torpedo hit the starboard bow, and the second hit to the port side came 10 minutes later. The ship sank an hour after the first hit, eventually settling onto the seafloor. Today, it is reportedly upside down, with the port side buried in sand but with the starboard edge and some of its railing visible.
The wreck of the W.E. Hutton also is located in the NOAA Remediation to Undersea Legacy Environmental Threats (RULET) Database. Evaluated in the 2013 NOAA report “Risk Assessment for Potentially Polluting Wrecks in U.S. Waters,” this wreck was considered a low potential for a major oil spill because dive surveys “show all tanks open to the sea and no longer capable of retaining oil.” However, as the fisherman could observe from the waters above, some oil clearly remains trapped in the wreckage.
This shipwreck was described by wreck diver and historian Gary Gentile as having “enough large cracks to permit easy entry into the vast interior.” Another wreck diver and historian, Roderick Farb, noted that the largest point of entry into the hull is “about 150 feet from the stern,” through a “huge crack in the hull full of rubble, iron girders, twisted hull plates and other wreckage.” This wreck is the closest one to the spot where the fisherman first saw the leaking oil, and given the Hutton’s inverted position and such cracks, we now realize the possibility that the inverted hull has been trapping some of the 65,000 barrels of its oil cargo as well as its own fuel.
Solving the Problems with Sunken Shipwrecks
On July 21, 2014, a commercial dive company contracted by the U. S. Coast Guard sent down multiple dive teams to the Hutton’s wreck to assess the scope and quantity of the leaking oil. The contractor developed and implemented a containment and mitigation plan, which stopped the flow of oil from a finger-sized hole in the rusted hull. It is not known how much oil escaped into the ocean or how long it had been leaking before the passing fisherman noticed it in the first place.
NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, led by Scientific Support Coordinator Frank Csulak, provided the U.S. Coast Guard access to historical data about shipwrecks off of North Carolina, survey information, including underwater and archival research, and the animals, plants, and habitats at risk from the leaking oil. Our office frequently provides scientific support in this way when a maritime problem occurs due to sunken wrecks. They may pose a significant threat to the environment, human health, and navigational safety (as an obstruction to navigation). Or, as in this case, shipwrecks can threaten to discharge oil or hazardous substances into the marine environment.
Last May, our office released an overall report describing this work and our recommendations, along with 87 individual wreck assessments. The individual risk assessments highlight not only concerns about potential ecological and socio-economic impacts, but they also characterize most of the vessels as being historically significant. In addition, many of them are grave sites, both civilian and military. The national report, including the 87 risk assessments, is available at “Potentially Polluting Wrecks in U.S. Waters.” Several of those higher-risk wrecks also lie in the Graveyard of the Atlantic, but as we discovered, it is difficult to predict where and when a rusted wreck might release its oily secrets to the world.
OR&R’s Doug Helton and Frank Csulak contributed to this post.