Deepwater Horizon/BP Oil Spill Response

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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.

    Staff from OR&R worked to predict where the oil was going and what impacts it might have, identifying resources at risk, predicting chemical changes from the oil, and recommending cleanup methods. OR&R’s scientists provided 24-hour trajectory forecasts around the clock and overflights were conducted on a daily basis (weather permitting) to provide field verification of model trajectories. OR&R also took immediate action to initiate Shoreline Cleanup and Assessment Technique (SCAT) planning. On May 4, the first SCAT aerial observations and field teams were mobilized. NOAA spill specialists continue to advise 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.
  • 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.

  • Maritime Shipping Industry Uses NOAA Nautical Charts that Display Oil Spill Projections
    To support the continuation of safe and efficient maritime commerce following the Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill, the Office of Coast Survey produced nautical chart products that displayed oil spill zone forecasts based on NOAA Office of Response and Restoration spill projections. The nautical charts depicted the spill forecast for oil location juxtaposed against the standard safety fairways that lead to ports.  Vessels that pass through oil must undergo inspection and if necessary, decontamination before entering ports. OCS’s then daily updated electronic and raster charts assisted mariners in being able to navigate the area more efficiently by helping them avoid the spill area when possible.  The U.S. Coast Guard also used the chart information to craft instructions to vessels transiting U.S. waters.
  • Helping Gulf States Prepare for Oil Spill
    The Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management (OCRM) helped states prepare for potential impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Staff worked with the five Gulf National Estuarine Research Reserves to help them detect and prepare for the oil’s possible landfall. Reserves in Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, and Texas collected water and sediment samples to establish a baseline measure for hydrocarbon and other contaminants before the oil reached their bays and wetlands. Some reserve staff were also trained to handle hazardous materials to support cleanup and to continue sampling efforts after oil washed ashore. OCRM staff were also in regular contact with state coastal managers to provide NOAA and federal updates, information, and contacts to help them prepare. The National Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) Center created the map, U.S. MPAs in Proximity of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, to show the boundaries of MPAs that potentially affected by the oil and other data.
  • Specialized Products Developed to Support Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Response
    In order to support the Deepwater Horizon oil spill response efforts, the Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services (CO-OPS) modified existing products to display real-time data and predictions in the Gulf of Mexico.  CO-OPS reengineered its hurricane-based product, the NOAA Storm QuickLook, to include an Office of Response and Restoration spill graphic and provide a detailed view of CO-OPS water levels and meteorological data in potentially affected areas.  CO-OPS also developed a specialized display of Physical Oceanographic Real-Time System (PORTS®) data from Gulfport, Pascagoula, and Mobile Bay PORTS.  Using MyPORTS, a customizable PORTS application, CO-OPS has created a display of current speeds and directions as well as weather observations in the spill region. 

    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.

  • Baseline Samples Collected to Measure Long-term Impact of Oil
    Four teams of NOAA investigators and partners from the NOAA Mussel Watch Program collected oyster, sediment, and water samples throughout coastal Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. The teams they visited 60 sites to assess conditions in the region before any oil washed ashore. These data will provide critical background information to be used in the post-disaster impact assessment phase. To ensure the large influx of collected samples is tested correctly and consistently, the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) coordinated an inter-laboratory comparison study for sample analysis headed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. NCCOS scientists also sampled water surrounding the Deepwater Horizon disaster site to determine the size, location, and composition of underwater plumes, as well as search for the presence of dispersants.

    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.