On April 20, an explosion and subsequent fire damaged a deepwater drilling platform approximately 50 miles southeast of Venice, Louisiana. Eleven people lost their lives. The oil spill that followed would become one of the largest spills in history. As the nation's leading scientific resource for oil spills, NOAA was on the scene of the Deepwater Horizon incident from the start, providing coordinated scientific services to federal, state, and local organizations.
Immediate Response to the Deepwater Horizon Incident
Within hours of the Deepwater Horizon incident, oil spill specialists from the Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) were advising the U.S. Coast Guard on cleanup options as well as advising all affected federal, state, and local partners on sensitive marine resources at risk in this area of the Gulf of Mexico. OR&R experts provided scientific support directly to the U.S. Coast Guard and Unified Command from the start of the Deepwater Horizon incident. NOAA’s Scientific Support Coordinator was among the first on scene and quickly mobilized the OR&R team to provide resource at risk and trajectory information to the Coast Guard Command Post.
Planning for Recovery in the Gulf
NOAA and a team of federal and state partners planned for the assessment of injuries to natural resources, implemented sampling plans to start assessing damages, and worked to ensure that actions taken minimized harm to natural resources. One day after the release was discovered, NOAA scientists began the pre-assessment activities by identifying a range of potentially affected organisms, including fish, shellfish, bottom dwelling biota, birds, marine mammals, and turtles. Sensitive habitats such as wetlands, submerged aquatic vegetation, beaches, mudflats, and deep and shallow corals were also categorized for further study. On any given day, (as the spill progressed to the 100th day), more than 40 teams were in the field collecting data on these resources and their lost use. Teams also surveyed lost human use through daily boat ramp and shore fishing counts, and designed economic studies so that the public will be compensated.
OR&R ensured that an integrated data management effort was operating both for response and natural resource damage assessment activities that spanned multiple states and numerous working groups. ERMA, a web-based open source mapping tool, was rapidly modified and expanded to accommodate the needs of the spill, becoming an invaluable situational awareness tool for spill information management as well as outreach to the public. The public version of ERMA® is a new site that provides near-real time information about the ongoing response effort in the Gulf of Mexico.
In addition, CO-OPS and the Office of Coast Survey installed a high-resolution northern Gulf of Mexico (nGOM) model to support the Deepwater Horizon oil spill response efforts. The nGOM hydrodynamic model system has been installed on a high-performance computer and is running in automated mode. Once a day, this system is computing three-day forecasts of water levels and three-dimensional currents for the coastal area stretching from the Florida Panhandle to the Rio Grande River.
In addition, NOAA scientists conducted pre-oil-impact dolphin biopsy sampling and population assessments along hundreds of kilometers of Mississippi and Louisiana coastline, particularly Barataria Bay, Chandeleur Sound, and Mississippi Sound. They collected baseline data on dolphin behavior and contaminant levels prior to oil reaching those areas, and also conducted photographic mark-and-recapture population estimates for assessing survival rates and abundance of these marine mammals.