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When the Clock Is Ticking: NOAA Creates Guidelines for Collecting Time-Sensitive Data During Arctic Oil Spills

Tue, 09/30/2014 - 05:00

This is a post by Dr. Sarah Allan, Alaska Regional Coordinator for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, Assessment and Restoration Division.

The risk of an oil spill in the Alaskan Arctic looms large. This far-off region’s rapid changes and growing ship traffic, oil and gas development, and industrial activity are upping those chances for an accident. When Shell’s Arctic drilling rig Kulluk grounded on a remote island in the Gulf of Alaska in stormy seas in December 2012, the United States received a glimpse of what an Arctic oil spill response might entail. While no fuel spilled, the Kulluk highlighted the need to have a science plan ready in case we needed to study the environmental impacts of an oil spill in the even more remote Arctic waters to the north. Fortunately, that was exactly what we were working on.

Soon, the NOAA Office of Response and Restoration’s Assessment and Restoration Division will be releasing a series of sampling guidelines for collecting high-priority, time-sensitive, ephemeral data in the Arctic to support Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) and other oil spill science. These guidelines improve our readiness to respond to an oil spill in the Alaskan Arctic. They help ensure we collect the appropriate data, especially immediately during or after a spill, to support a damage assessment and help the coastal environment bounce back.

Why Is the Arctic a Special Case?

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is planning for an oil spill response in the unique, remote, and often challenging Arctic environment. Part of responding to an oil spill is carrying out Natural Resource Damage Assessment. During this legal process, state and federal agencies assess injuries to natural and cultural resources and the services they provide. They then implement restoration to help return those resources to what they were before the oil spill.

The first step in the process often includes collecting time-sensitive ephemeral data to document exposure to oil and effects of those exposures. Ephemeral data are types of information that change rapidly over time and may be lost if not collected immediately, such as the concentration of oil chemicals in water or the presence of fish larvae in an area.

It will be especially challenging to collect this kind of data in the Alaskan Arctic because of significant scientific and logistical challenges. The inaccessibility of remote sites in roadless areas, limited resources and infrastructure, extreme weather, and dangerous wildlife make it very difficult to safely deploy a field team to collect information.

However, the uniqueness of the fish, wildlife, and habitats in the Arctic and the lack of baseline data for many of them mean collecting pre- and post-impact ephemeral data is even more important and makes advance planning essential.

What Do We Need and How Do We Get It?

The first step in developing these guidelines was to identify the highest priority ephemeral data needs for damage assessment in the Arctic. We accomplished this by developing a conceptual model of oil exposure and injury, conducting meetings with communities in the Alaskan Arctic, and consulting with NRDA practitioners and Artic experts.

Our guidelines do not cover marine mammals and birds because the NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service already have developed such guidelines. Instead, our guidelines are focused on nearshore habitats and natural resources, which in the Arctic include sand, gravel, rock, and tundra shorelines and estuarine lagoons. These environments are at risk of being affected by onshore and nearshore oil spills and offshore spills when oil drifts toward the coast. Though Arctic lagoons and coastlines are covered with ice most of the year, they are important habitat for a wide range of organisms, many of which are important subsistence foods for local communities.

Once we defined our high-priority ephemeral data needs, we developed the data collection guidelines based on guidance documents for other regions, published sampling methods, lessons learned from other spills, and shared traditional knowledge. Draft versions of the guidelines were reviewed by NRDA practitioners and Arctic resource experts, including people from federal and state agencies, Alaskan communities, academia, nonprofit organizations, consulting companies, and industry groups.

With their significant and valuable input, we developed 17 guidelines for collecting data from plankton, fish, environmental media (e.g., oil, water, snow, sediments, tissues), and nearshore habitats and the living things associated with them.

What’s in One of These Guidelines?

Arctic isopod collected for a tissue sample along the Chukchi coast in 2014. (NOAA)

Our Arctic ephemeral data collection guidelines cover a lot, from a sampling equipment list and considerations to address before heading out, to field data sheets and detailed sampling strategies and methods. In addition, we developed a document with alternative sampling equipment and methods to address what to do if certain required equipment, facilities, or conditions—such as preservatives for tissue samples—are not available in remote Alaskan Arctic locations.

These guidelines are focused, concise, detailed, Arctic-specific, and adaptable. They are intended to be used by NRDA personnel as well as other scientists doing baseline data collection or collecting samples for damage assessment and oil spill science, and may also be used by emergency responders.

Meanwhile, Out in the Real World

Though we often talk about the Arctic’s weather, wildlife, access, and logistical issues, it is always humbling and instructive to actually work in those conditions. This is why field validating the ephemeral data collection guidelines was an essential part of their development. We needed to make sure they were feasible and effective, improve them based on lessons learned in the field, and gauge the level of effort required to carry them out.

Many of the guidelines can only be used when there is no shore-fast ice present, while others are specific to ice habitats or can be used in any season. We field tested versions of the guidelines’ methods near Barrow, Alaska, in the summer of 2013 and spring and summer of 2014, adding important details and making other corrections as a result. More importantly, we know in practice, not just in theory, that these methods are a reasonable and effective way to collect samples for damage assessment in the Alaskan Arctic.

Preparing to deploy a beach seine net around broken sea ice on the Chukchi coast in 2013. (NOAA)

The guidelines for collecting high priority ephemeral data for oil spills in the Arctic will be available soon at response.restoration.noaa.gov/arctic.

Acknowledgements

Thank you to everyone who reviewed the Arctic ephemeral data collection guidelines and provided valuable input to their development.

A special thanks to Kevin Boswell, Ann Robertson, Mark Barton, Sam George, and Adam Zenone for allowing me to join their field team in Barrow and helping me get the samples I needed.

Dr. Sarah Allan has been working with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration Emergency Response Division and as the Alaska Regional Coordinator for the Assessment and Restoration Division, based in Anchorage, Alaska, since February of 2012. Her work focuses on planning for natural resource damage assessment and restoration in the event of an oil spill in the Arctic.


Protecting, Restoring, and Celebrating Estuaries—Where Salt and Freshwater Meet

Tue, 09/23/2014 - 05:00

Estuaries are ecosystems along the oceans or Great Lakes where freshwater and saltwater mix to create wetlands, bays, lagoons, sounds, or sloughs. (NOAA’s National Estuarine Research Reserves)

As the light, fresh waters of rivers rush into the salty waters of the sea, some incredible things can happen. As these two types of waters meet and mix, creating habitats known as estuaries, they also circulate nutrients, sediments, and oxygen. This mixing creates fertile waters for an array of life, from mangroves and salt-tolerant marsh grasses to oysters, salmon, and migrating birds. These productive areas also attract humans, who bring fishing, industry, and shipping along with them.

All of this activity along estuaries means they are often the site of oil spills and chemical releases. We at NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration often find ourselves working in estuaries, trying to minimize the impacts of oil spills and hazardous waste sites on these important habitats.

A Time to Celebrate Where Rivers Meet the Sea

September 20–27, 2014 is National Estuaries Week. This year 11 states and the District of Columbia have published a proclamation recognizing the importance of estuaries. To celebrate these critical habitats, Restore America’s Estuaries member organizations, NOAA’s National Estuarine Research Reserve System, and EPA’s National Estuary Program are organizing special events such as beach cleanups, hikes, canoe and kayak trips, cruises, and workshops across the nation. Find an Estuary Week event near you.

You and your family and friends can take a personal stake in looking out for the health and well-being of estuaries by doing these simple things to protect these fragile ecosystems.

How We Are Protecting and Restoring Estuaries

You may be scratching your head wondering whether you know of any estuaries, but you don’t need to go far to find some famous estuaries. The Chesapeake Bay and Delaware Bay are on the east coast, the Mississippi River Delta in the Gulf of Mexico, and San Francisco Bay and Washington’s Puget Sound represent some notable estuarine ecosystems on the west coast. Take a closer look at some of our work on marine pollution in these important estuaries.

Chesapeake Bay: NOAA has been working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Defense on cleaning up and restoring a number of contaminated military facilities around the Chesapeake Bay. Because these Superfund sites are on federal property, we have to take a slightly different approach than usual and are trying to work restoration principles into the cleanup process as early as possible.

Delaware Bay: Our office has responded to a number of oil spills in and adjacent to Delaware Bay, including the Athos oil spill on the Delaware River in 2004. As a result, we are working on implementing several restoration projects around the Delaware Bay, which range from creating oyster reefs to restoring marshes, meadows, and grasslands.

Puget Sound: For Commencement Bay, many of the waterways leading into it—which provide habitat for salmon, steelhead, and other fish—have been polluted by industrial and commercial activities in this harbor for Tacoma, Washington. NOAA and other federal, state, and tribal partners have been working for decades to address the contamination and restore damaged habitat, which involves taking an innovative approach to maintaining restoration sites in the Bay.

Further north in Puget Sound, NOAA and our partners have worked with the airplane manufacturer Boeing to restore habitat for fish, shorebirds, and wildlife harmed by historical industrial activities on the Lower Duwamish River, a heavily used urban river in Seattle. Young Puget Sound Chinook salmon and Steelhead have to spend time in this part of the river, which is a Superfund Site, as they transition from the river’s freshwater to the saltwater of the Puget Sound. Creating more welcoming habitat for these fish gives them places to find food and escape from predators.

San Francisco Bay: In 2007 the M/V Cosco Busan crashed into the Bay Bridge and spilled 53,000 gallons of thick fuel oil into California’s San Francisco Bay. Our response staff conducted aerial surveys of the oil, modeled the path of the spill, and assessed the impacts to the shoreline. Working with our partners, we also evaluated the impacts to fish, wildlife, and habitats, and determined the amount of restoration needed to make up for the oil spill. Today we are using special buoys to plant eelgrass in the Bay as one of the spill’s restoration projects


10 Unexpected Reasons to Join This Year’s International Coastal Cleanup

Mon, 09/15/2014 - 05:00

Volunteers collect debris from the water during the 2013 International Coastal Cleanup in Honolulu, Hawaii. (NOAA)

There are plenty of obvious reasons to join the more than half a million other volunteers picking up trash during this year’s International Coastal Cleanup on Saturday, September 20, 2014. Keeping our beaches clean and beautiful. Preventing sea turtles and other marine life from eating plastic. Not adding to the size of the garbage patches.

But just in case you’re looking for a few less obvious incentives, here are 10 more reasons to sign up to cleanup.

Weird finds from the 2013 International Coastal Cleanup. Credit: Ocean Conservancy

After this one day of cleaning up trash on beaches across the world, you could:

  1. Furnish a studio apartment (fridge, TV, complete bed set? Check).
  2. Get ready for an upcoming wedding with the wedding dress and veil, top hat, and bowties that have turned up in the past.
  3. Outfit a baby (including clothes, bottles, high chairs, and baby monitor).
  4. Find your lost cell phone.
  5. Adopt a cyborg sea-kitty.
  6. Make friends with the 200,000+ others participating in the United States.
  7. Get some exercise (and fresh air). In 2013, U.S. volunteers cleaned up 8,322 miles of shoreline.
  8. Create a massive marine debris mosaic mural with the nearly 2.3 million, less-than-an-inch long pieces of plastic, foam, and glass found on beaches worldwide.
  9. Stock up the entire United States with enough fireworks to celebrate Fourth of July (and then organize a Fifth of July cleanup).
  10. Help you and your neighbors benefit millions of dollars by keeping your local beaches spic-and-span.

The NOAA Marine Debris Program is a proud sponsor of the International Coastal Cleanup and we’ll be right there pitching in too. Last year NOAA volunteers across the nation helped clean up more than 1,000 pounds of debris from our Great Lakes, ocean, and waterways in Washington, D.C.; Alabama; Washington; Oregon; California; and Hawaii.

Join us on Saturday, September 20 from 9:00 a.m. to noon and help keep our seas free of trash with any one (or all) of these 10 easy steps:

10 things you can do for trash-free seas. Credit: Ocean Conservancy

You can find more trashy facts in the Ocean Conservancy’s 2014 Ocean Trash Index.


Adventures in Developing Tools for Oil Spill Response in the Arctic

Thu, 09/11/2014 - 16:45

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Zachary Winters-Staszak. This is the third in a series of posts about the Arctic Technology Evaluation supporting Arctic Shield 2014. Read the first post, “NOAA Again Joins Coast Guard for Oil Spill Exercise in the Arctic” and the second post, “Overcoming the Biggest Hurdle During an Oil Spill in the Arctic: Logistics.”

The crew of the icebreaker Healy lowering an iSphere onto an ice floe to simulate tracking oil in ice. (NOAA/Jill Bodnar)

The Arctic Ocean, sea ice, climate change, polar bears—each evokes a vivid image in the mind. Now what is the most vivid image that comes to mind as you read the word “interoperability”? It might be the backs of your now-drooping eyelids, but framed in the context of oil spill response, “interoperability” couldn’t be more important.

If you’ve been following our latest posts from the field, you know Jill Bodnar and I have just finished working with the U.S. Coast Guard Research and Development Center on an Arctic Technology Evaluation during Arctic Shield 2014. We were investigating the interoperability of potential oil spill response technologies while aboard the Coast Guard icebreaker Healy on the Arctic Ocean.

Putting Square Pegs in Round Holes

As Geographic Information Systems (GIS) map specialists for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, a great deal of our time is spent transforming raw data into a visual map product that can quickly be understood. Our team achieves this in large part by developing a versatile quiver of tools tailored to meet specific needs.

For example, think of a toddler steadfastly—and vainly—trying to shove that toy blue cylinder into a yellow box through a triangular hole. This would be even more difficult if there were no circular hole on that box, but imagine if instead you could create a tool to change those cylinders to fit through any hole you needed. With computer programming languages we can create interoperability between technologies, allowing them to work together more easily. That cylinder can now go through the triangular hole.

New School, New Tools

Different technologies are demonstrated each year during Arctic Shield’s Technology Evaluations and it is common for each technology to have a different format or output, requiring them to be standardized before we can use them in a GIS program like our Environmental Response Management Application, Arctic ERMA.

Taking lessons learned from Arctic Shield 2013’s Technology Evaluation, we came prepared with tools in ERMA that would allow us to automate the process and increase our efficiency. We demonstrated these tools during the “oil spill in ice” component of the evaluation. Here, fluorescein dye simulated an oil plume drifting across the water surface and oranges bobbed along as simulated oiled targets.

The first new tool allowed us to convert data recorded by the Puma, a remote-controlled aircraft run by NOAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Program. This allowed us to associate the Puma’s location with the images it was taking precisely at those coordinates and display them together in ERMA. The Puma proved useful in capturing high resolution imagery during the demonstration.

A similar tool was created for the Aerostat, a helium-filled balloon connected to a tether on the ship, which can create images and real-time video with that can track targets up to three miles away. This technology also was able to delineate the green dye plume in the ocean below—a function that could be used to support oil spill trajectory modeling. We could then make these images appear on a map in ERMA.

The third tool received email notifications from floating buoys provided by the Oil Spill Recovery Institute and updated their location in ERMA every half hour. These buoys are incredibly rugged and produced useful data that could be used to track oiled ice floes or local surface currents over time. Each of the tools we brought with us is adaptable to changes on the fly, making them highly valuable in the event of an actual oil spill response.

Internet: Working With or Without You

Having the appropriate tools in place for the situation at hand is vital to any response, let alone a response in the challenging conditions of the Arctic. One major challenge is a lack of high-speed Internet connectivity. While efficient satellite connectivity does exist for simple communication such as text-based email, a robust pipeline to transmit and receive megabytes of data is costly to maintain. Similar to last year’s expedition, we overcame this hurdle by using Stand-alone ERMA, our Internet-independent version of the site that was available to Healy researchers through the ship’s internal network.

NOAA’s online mapping tool Arctic ERMA displays ice conditions, bathymetry (ocean depths), and the ship track of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy during the Arctic Technology Evaluation of Arctic Shield 2014. (NOAA)

This year we took a large step forward and successfully tested a new tool in ERMA that uses the limited Internet connectivity to upload small packages (less than 5 megabytes) of new data on the Stand-alone ERMA site to the live Arctic ERMA site. This provided updates of the day’s Arctic field activities to NOAA staff back home. During an actual oil spill, this tool would provide important information to decision-makers and stakeholders at a command post back on land and at agency headquarters around the country.

Every Experience Is a Learning Experience

I’ve painted a pretty picture, but this is not to say everything went as planned during our ventures through the Arctic Ocean. Arctic weather conditions lived up to their reputation this year, with fog, winds, and white-cap seas delaying and preventing a large portion of the demonstration. (This was even during the region’s relatively calm, balmy summer months.)

Subsequently, limited data and observations were produced—a sobering exercise for some researchers. I’ve described only a few of the technologies demonstrated during this exercise, but there were unexpected issues with almost every technology; one was even rendered inoperable after being crushed between two ice floes. In addition, troubleshooting data and human errors added to an already full day of work.

Yet every hardship allowed those of us aboard the Healy to learn, reassess, adapt, and move forward with our work. The capacity of human ingenuity and the tools we can create will be tested to their limits as we continue to prepare for an oil spill response in the harsh and unpredictable environs of the Arctic. The ability to operate in these conditions will be essential to protecting the local communities, wildlife, and coastal habitats of the region. The data we generate will help inform crucial and rapid decisions by resource managers, making interoperability along with efficient data management and dissemination fundamental to effective environmental response.

Editor’s note: Use Twitter to chat directly with NOAA GIS specialists Zachary Winters-Staszak and Jill Bodnar about their experience during this Arctic oil spill simulation aboard an icebreaker on Thursday, September 18 at 2:00 p.m. Eastern. Follow the conversation at #ArcticShield14 and get the details: http://1.usa.gov/1qpdzXO.

Bowhead whale bones and a sign announcing Barrow as the northernmost city in America welcomed Zachary Winters-Staszak to the Arctic in 2013. (NOAA)

Zachary Winters-Staszak is a GIS Specialist with the Office of Response and Restoration’s Spatial Data Branch. His main focus is to visualize environmental data from various sources for oil spill planning, preparedness, and response. In his free time, Zach can often be found backpacking and fly fishing in the mountains.


Science of Oil Spills Training Now Accepting Applications for Fall 2014

Tue, 09/09/2014 - 11:31

These trainings help oil spill responders increase their understanding of oil spill science when analyzing spills and making risk-based decisions, and also include a field trip to a beach to apply newly learned skills. (NOAA)

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, a leader in providing scientific information in response to marine pollution, has scheduled a Science of Oil Spills (SOS) class for the week of November 17–21, 2014 in Norfolk, Virginia.

We will accept applications for this class through Friday, October 3, 2014, and we will notify applicants regarding their participation status by Friday, October 17, 2014.

SOS classes help spill responders increase their understanding of oil spill science when analyzing spills and making risk-based decisions. They are designed for new and mid-level spill responders.

These trainings cover:

  • Fate and behavior of oil spilled in the environment.
  • An introduction to oil chemistry and toxicity.
  • A review of basic spill response options for open water and shorelines.
  • Spill case studies.
  • Principles of ecological risk assessment.
  • A field trip.
  • An introduction to damage assessment techniques.
  • Determining cleanup endpoints.

To view the topics for the next SOS class, download a sample agenda [PDF, 170 KB].

Please be advised that classes are not filled on a first-come, first-served basis. The Office of Response and Restoration tries to diversify the participant composition to ensure a variety of perspectives and experiences to enrich the workshop for the benefit of all participants. Classes are generally limited to 40 participants.

Additional SOS courses will be held in 2015 in Houston, Texas; Mobile, Alabama; and Seattle, Washington. Course dates will be posted as they are determined.

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


Join NOAA for a Tweetchat on Preparing for Arctic Oil Spills

Thu, 09/04/2014 - 09:31

 

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, a state-of-the-art icebreaker and the August 2014 home of a team of researchers evaluating oil spill technologies in the Arctic. (U.S. Coast Guard)

As Arctic waters continue to lose sea ice each summer, shipping, oil and gas exploration, tourism, and fishing will increase in the region. With more oil-powered activity in the Arctic comes an increased risk of oil spills.

In August of 2014, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration sent two GIS specialists aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy for an exercise in the Arctic Ocean demonstrating oil spill tools and technologies. This scientific expedition provided multiple agencies and institutions with 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. It is one piece of the Coast Guard’s broader effort known as Arctic Shield 2014.

Part of NOAA’s focus in the exercise was to test the Arctic Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA®), our interactive mapping tool for environmental response data, during a simulated oil spill.

Join us as we learn about NOAA’s role in the mission and what life was like aboard an icebreaker. Use Twitter to ask questions directly to NOAA GIS specialists Jill Bodnar and Zachary Winters-Staszak.

Get answers to questions such as:

  • What type of technologies did the Coast Guard Research and Development Center (RDC) and NOAA test while aboard the Healy and what did we learn?
  • What was a typical day like on a ship that can break through ice eight feet thick?
  • Why can’t we just simulate an Arctic oil spill at home? What are the benefits of first-hand experience?
Tweetchat Details: What You Need to Know

What: Use Twitter to chat directly with NOAA GIS specialists Jill Bodnar and Zachary Winters-Staszak.

When: Thursday, September 18, 2014 from 11:00 a.m. Pacific to 12:00 p.m. Pacific (2:00 p.m. Eastern to 3:00 p.m. Eastern).

How: Tweet questions to @NOAAcleancoasts using hashtag #ArcticShield14. You can also submit questions in advance via orr.rsvp.requests@noaa.gov, at www.facebook.com/noaaresponserestoration, or in the comments here.

About NOAA’s Spatial Data Branch

Jill Bodnar is a GIS specialist in the Assessment and Restoration Division of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. She is an experienced oil spill responder and has been mapping data during oil spills for more than a decade. This is her first trip to the Arctic.

Zachary Winters-Staszak is a GIS specialist in the Assessment and Restoration Division of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. While not aboard the Healy, he co-leads an effort to manage data and foster partnerships for Arctic ERMA. This is his second time participating in the annual Arctic Technology Evaluation in support of Arctic Shield. You can listen to him discuss this exercise and NOAA’s participation in a NOAA’s Ocean Service audio podcast from August 2014.

About Oil Spills and NOAA

Every year NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) responds to more than a hundred oil and chemical spills in U.S. waters. OR&R is a center of expertise in preparing for, evaluating, and responding to threats to coastal environments, including oil and chemical spills, releases from hazardous waste sites, and marine debris. This work also includes determining damage to coastal lands and waters after oil spills and other releases and rotecting and restoring marine and coastal areas, including coral reefs.

Learn more about how NOAA responds to oil spills and the full range of OR&R’s activities in the Arctic.


Diving for Debris: Washington’s Success Story in Fishing Nets out of the Ocean

Tue, 09/02/2014 - 10:12

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.

Removing derelict nets south of Pt. Roberts in Washington’s Puget Sound. (NOAA)

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 Have to Do with Hurricanes?

Thu, 08/28/2014 - 09:36

This is a post by Charlie Henry, Director, NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center and Jeff Medlin, Meteorologist in Charge, National Weather Service Weather Forecast Office Mobile.

Sahara Desert dunes photographed from the International Space Station on July 7, 2007. This large desert has a surprising degree of influence on the frequency of hurricanes we see in the United States. (NASA)

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.

All North Atlantic and Eastern North Pacific hurricanes
(at least Category 1 on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale). Note how many originate at the edge of Africa’s West Coast, where the desert meets the green forests to the south. (NOAA)

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].


In Oregon, an Innovative Approach to Building Riverfront Property for Fish and Wildlife

Tue, 08/26/2014 - 09:39

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.

The Alder Creek Restoration Project will benefit Chinook salmon, mink, and other fish and wildlife living in Portland Harbor. (Roy W. Lowe)

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.

Fish and wildlife species targeted for restoration include salmon (such as the juvenile Chinook salmon pictured here), lamprey, sturgeon, bald eagle, osprey, spotted sandpiper, and mink. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

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.


Overcoming the Biggest Hurdle During an Oil Spill in the Arctic: Logistics

Fri, 08/22/2014 - 09:29

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy breaks ice in Arctic waters. A ship like this would be the likely center of operations for an oil spill in this remote and harsh region. (NOAA)

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

Wed, 08/20/2014 - 09:15

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.

Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek, a major base for the Navy’s Atlantic fleet, is one of the facilities that was slate for cleanup on the Chesapeake Bay. Here, heavy equipment prepare a former landfill for restoration post-cleanup in 2006. (U.S. Navy)

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.

A landfill on the Little Creek naval base before cleanup in 2006. (U.S. Navy)

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.

A site transformed: Immediately after completion of cleanup and restoration activities at a landfill on the Little Creek naval base on the Chesapeake Bay. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

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.

Hazardous waste sites on federal properties in the Chesapeake Bay area. (NOAA)

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!


OR&R Defines the Issues Surrounding Oil Spill Dispersant Use

Tue, 08/12/2014 - 12:35

Oil on the water’s surface. (NOAA)

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.

The Ohmsett facility is located at Naval Weapons Station Earle, Waterfront. The research and training facility centers around a 2.6 million-gallon saltwater tank. (Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement)

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 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.”


How Much do Coastal Ecosystems Protect People from Storms and What is It Worth?

Mon, 08/11/2014 - 14:49

Sand dunes along the New Jersey shore. (NOAA)

 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.

At the end of October 2012, Hurricane Sandy sped toward the East Coast, eventually sweeping waves of oil, hazardous chemicals, and debris into the coastal waters of New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut. (U.S. Air Force)

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.


A Major Spill in Tampa Bay—21 Years Ago this Month

Thu, 08/07/2014 - 15:28

An oil soaked barge, after the 1993 Tampa Bay spill. (NOAA)

 

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 spill. (NOAA)

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.

Tampa Bay, Skyway Bridge sunset, August 3, 2013. (Jeff Krause/Creative Commons)


NOAA Again Joins Coast Guard for Oil Spill Exercise in the Arctic

Wed, 08/06/2014 - 14:02

This is a post by NOAA Environmental Scientist Dr. Amy Merten.

U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy.

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.)

NOAA’s remote-controlled Puma aircraft. (NOAA)

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/.

Dr. Amy Merten is pictured here with children from the Alaskan village of Kivalina. She was in Alaska for an oil spill workshop in the village of Kotzebue.

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.

 


Mysterious Oil Spill Traced to Vessel Sunk in 1942 Torpedo Attack

Mon, 08/04/2014 - 13:52

U.S. Coast Guard overflight photo, taken on July 17, 2014. (USCG)

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.

A 1942 photo of the W.E. Hutton. (USCG)

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.

A multibeam scan of the wreck of the W.E. Hutton taken in 2010. (NOAA)

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.

 


Buoys Serve as Latest Gardening Tool for Restoring Eelgrass in San Francisco Bay

Thu, 07/31/2014 - 16:44

“Seed buoys” are dotting the waters of San Francisco Bay. Below the water, they are attached to mesh bags filled with shoots of eelgrass, which spread seeds that will eventually sprout and restore habitat on the bay’s bottom. (NOAA)

Many of us likely have spent some time planting seeds in our yards to grow vegetables or flowers. But how do scientists plant seeds to help restore plants in our bays and coastal waters? If you look out on the waters of San Francisco Bay right now, you can see the answer.

Floating on the surface of the bay is a series of “seed buoys.” Each buoy is connected to a mesh bag containing shoots of the underwater plant eelgrass (Zostera marina). These shoots, which are flowering, were harvested by biologists and will soon be releasing ripening seeds. These buoys will move with the tides, distributing seeds that, by next spring, will develop into new eelgrass seedlings on the bay bottom. The seed buoy is a relatively easy, low-tech way of growing this underwater grass. The traditional method of planting eelgrass—by hand in the bay’s floor using scuba divers—can be dangerous, expensive, and labor intensive.

Anchored to various locations on the sea floor, seed buoys perform like flowering eelgrass plants, dispersing seeds as the water current moves these mesh bags. Buoys are placed where underwater soil conditions are optimal for the seeds to germinate into young plants. (NOAA)

By seeding and transplanting eelgrass in this area where none currently exists, we hope to create vibrant eelgrass beds that provide cover and food for fish, juvenile Dungeness crabs, and birds. Eelgrass beds provide important habitat in California’s San Francisco Bay, serving as nurseries for young fish and foraging areas for many species of fish, invertebrates, and birds. They also improve water quality by reducing turbidity, or cloudiness, of the water.

This work is part of a restoration project which has the ultimate goal of compensating for past oil spill impacts in San Francisco Bay as a result of the 2007 M/V Cosco Busan oil spill. It aims to create 70 new acres of eelgrass habitat at several sites throughout San Francisco Bay over nine years. This project is funded by the legal settlement resulting from the cargo ship Cosco Busan striking one of the towers of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and releasing 53,000 gallons of heavy oil into the surrounding waters.

A result of the work of the Cosco Busan Oil Spill Trustee Council, the eelgrass restoration project also is carried out in cooperation with San Francisco State University and Merkel and Associates, Inc.

For more information, you can read about:


NOAA Prepares for Bakken Oil Spills as Seattle Dodges Oil Train Explosion

Fri, 07/25/2014 - 15:04

As federal leaders in oil spill response science, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is grateful for each oil spill which does not take place, which was fortunately the case on July 24, 2014 in Seattle, Washington, near our west coast office. A train passing through the city ran off the tracks, derailing three of its 100 tank cars carrying Bakken crude oil from North Dakota to a refinery in the port town of Anacortes, Washington. No oil spilled or ignited in the accident.

However, that was not the case in five high-profile oil train derailments and explosions in the last year, occurring in places such as Casselton, North Dakota, when a train carrying grain derailed into an oil train, causing several oil tank cars to explode in December 2013.

Oil production continues to grow in North America, in large part due to new extraction technologies such as hydraulic fracturing (fracking) opening up massive new oil fields in the Bakken region of North Dakota and Montana. The Bakken region lacks the capacity to transport this increased oil production by the most common methods: pipeline or tanker. Instead, railroads are filling this gap, with the number of tank cars carrying crude oil in the United States rising more than 4,000 percent between 2009 (9,500 carloads) and 2013 (407,761).

Just a day before this derailment, Seattle City Council signed a letter to the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, urging him to issue an emergency stop to shipping Bakken crude oil in older model tank train cars (DOT-111), which are considered less safe for shipping flammable materials. (However, some of the proposed safer tank car models have also been involved in oil train explosions.) According to the Council’s press release, “BNSF Railway reports moving 8-13 oil trains per week through Seattle, all containing 1,000,000 or more gallons of Bakken crude.” The same day as the Council’s letter, the Department of Transportation proposed rules to phase out the older DOT-111 model train cars for carrying flammable materials, including Bakken crude, over a two-year period.

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is examining these changing dynamics in the way oil is moved around the country, and we recently partnered with the University of Washington to research this issue. These changes have implications for how we prepare our scientific toolbox for responding to oil spills, in order to protect responders, the public, and the environment.

The fireball that followed the derailment and explosion of two trains, one carrying Bakken crude oil, on December 30, 2013, outside Casselton, N.D. (U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration)

For example, based on our knowledge of oil chemistry, we make recommendations to responders about potential risks during spill cleanup along coasts and waterways. We need to know whether a particular type of oil, such as Bakken crude, will easily ignite and pose a danger of fire or explosion, and whether chemical components of the oil will dissolve into the water, potentially damaging sensitive fish populations.

Our office responded to a spill of Bakken crude oil earlier this year on the Mississippi River. On February 22, 2014, the barge E2MS 303 carrying 25,000 barrels of Bakken crude collided with a towboat 154 miles north of the river’s mouth. A tank of oil broke open, spilling approximately 31,500 gallons (750 barrels) of its contents into this busy waterway, closing it down for several days. NOAA provided scientific support to the response, for example, by having our modeling team estimate the projected path of the spilled oil.

Barge E2MS 303 leaking 750 barrels of Bakken crude oil into the lower Mississippi River on February 22, 2014. (U.S. Coast Guard)

We also worked with our partners at Louisiana State University to analyze samples of the Bakken crude oil. We found the oil to have a low viscosity (flows easily) and to be highly volatile, meaning it readily changes from liquid to gas at moderate temperatures. It also contains a high concentration of the toxic components known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that easily dissolve into the water column. For more information about NOAA’s involvement in this incident, visit IncidentNews.


At the Trans Alaska Pipeline’s Start, Where 200 Million Barrels of Oil Begin their Journey Each Year

Wed, 07/23/2014 - 15:32

NOAA’s Incident Operations Coordinator at milepost 0 of the Trans Alaska Pipeline in Deadhorse, Alaska. (NOAA)

A couple years ago I visited the southern end of the 800-mile-long Trans Alaska Pipeline in Valdez, Alaska. As the northernmost port that remains free of ice, the Valdez Marine Terminal is where crude oil from the North Slope oil fields is loaded on tankers destined for refineries on the west coast of the United States. Last month I got to visit the northern end of the pipeline in Deadhorse, Alaska, where on average 17,001 gallons of oil enter the pipeline each minute and more than 200,000,000 barrels each year [PDF].

I was in Deadhorse to meet with Alaska Clean Seas, the primary Oil Spill Response Organization (OSRO) for all of the oil exploration and production operations in Prudhoe Bay and the other nearby oil fields.

Everyone traveling to Deadhorse, Alaska, where the Trans Alaska Pipeline begins, must follow strict Arctic fashion guidelines. (NOAA)

The flight from Anchorage was right on time, boarded quickly, and was full of jackets and hats with every industry logo in the oilfield servicing business. Safety is a big concern in a place that is so remote, and the safety policy starts at Anchorage. Nobody is allowed on the plane without appropriate clothing.

The scenery in Deadhorse is difficult to describe. It has a flat, sprawling industrial footprint surrounded by vast tundra, shallow braided rivers, and innumerable shallow ponds and lakes. All of the infrastructure is built on large gravel pads: living quarters, warehouses, huge drilling rigs, and other equipment, with multiple racks of elevated pipelines running every direction. Unheated structures sit on the ground, but heated buildings are constructed on concrete stilts to prevent thawing of the permafrost.

Deadhorse is home to the beginning of the Trans Alaska Pipeline, combining oil from five major feeder pipelines that originate in the different oil fields that comprise the North Slope. Oil takes about 15 days to get to Valdez, moving about five miles per hour. Since its construction in 1977, the Trans Alaska Pipeline System has transported nearly 17 billion barrels of oil.

While in Deadhorse, I also got to see the Beaufort Sea. Although it was close to the summer solstice (the last sunset was about a month ago), the ocean was still mostly frozen. Response boats remained staged on land, waiting for open water.

As you can gather from these descriptions and the pictures that follow, the Arctic is not a place that easily lends itself to the type and speed of oil spill cleanup possible in warmer and more accessible areas. Learn more about NOAA’s ongoing Arctic efforts in a series of reports released in April 2014.


You Say Collision, I Say Allision; Let’s Sort the Whole Thing Out

Wed, 07/16/2014 - 11:51

Despite improved navigation aids, including charts and Global Positioning Systems (GPS), ships still have accidents in our nation’s waterways, and I regularly review notification reports of these accidents from the National Response Center. Sometimes I need to consult the old nautical dictionary I inherited from my grandfather (a lawyer and U.S. Navy captain) to figure out what they mean.

Keeping it all straight. (NOAA)

The U.S. Coast Guard investigates ship accidents, but they use the terms “marine casualty or accident” interchangeably [PDF]. Mariners are required to report any occurrence involving a vessel that results in:

  • Grounding
  • Stranding
  • Foundering
  • Flooding
  • Collision
  • Allision
  • Explosion
  • Fire
  • Reduction or loss of a vessel’s electrical power, propulsion, or steering capabilities
  • Failures or occurrences, regardless of cause, which impair any aspect of a vessel’s operation, components, or cargo
  • Any other circumstance that might affect or impair a vessel’s seaworthiness, efficiency, or fitness for service or route
  • Any incident involving significant harm to the environment

Some of those terms are pretty straightforward, but what is the difference between grounding and stranding? Or foundering and flooding? And my favorite, collision and allision?

Here is my basic understanding of these terms, but I am sure that some of these could fill an admiralty law textbook.

Groundings and strandings are probably the most common types of marine casualties. A grounding is when a ship strikes the seabed, while a stranding is when the ship then remains there for some length of time. Both can damage a vessel and result in oil spills depending on the ocean bottom type (rocky, sandy, muddy?), sea conditions, and severity of the event (is the ship a little scraped or did it break open?).

Flooding means taking on excessive water in one or more of the spaces on a ship (e.g., the engine room), while foundering is basically taking on water to the point where the vessel becomes unstable and begins to sink or capsize. Note that “foundering” is different than “floundering,” which is to struggle or move aimlessly.

And collision and allision … These terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but technically, a collision is when two vessels strike each other, while an allision occurs when a vessel strikes a stationary object, such as a bridge or dock.

A U.S. Coast Guard boat approaches the gash in the side of the M/V Cosco Busan after it allided (rather than collided) with San Francisco’s Bay Bridge on November 7, 2007, releasing 53,000 gallons of bunker oil into San Francisco Bay. (U.S. Coast Guard)

No matter the proper terminology, all of these incidents can result in spills, keeping us pollution responders on our toes because of the potential impacts to coasts, marine life, and habitats such as coral reefs and seagrass beds. But understanding these various nautical terms helps us understand the circumstances we’re dealing with in an emergency and better adapt our science-based recommendations as a result. And as my grandfather used to say, a collision at sea can ruin your entire day …