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Making Waves: Episode 17 (Feb. 20, 2009)

…NOAA’s role in the recent U.S. Airways crash on the Hudson River
…And experts from NOAA, California, Oregon, and Washington State meet to tackle the growing problem of Harmful Algal Blooms on the West Coast

It’s Friday, February 20th. Those stories are coming up today on Making Waves from NOAA’s National Ocean Service.

(NOAA Responds to U.S. Airways Flight 1549 Crash)

On January 15, U.S. Airways Flight 1549 made an emergency water landing on the Hudson River, on the West Side of Manhattan.

As you probably know, all 155 passengers on board the flight thankfully survived.

But what you may not know is that the National Ocean Service and its partners played a big role in the aftermath of the crash. NOS aided passenger rescue, helped to measure the risk of contamination to the environment, and aided the surveying of the icy water for the wreckage of the plane.

The first part of NOAA that aided in the effort was the Integrated Ocean Observing System. And really, the credit here needs to go to our regional partners in New Jersey who make up part of this System. More on that in a moment.

But first: what’s the Integrated Ocean Observing System, you ask? Well, you can think of it as a ‘system of systems.’ It’s an effort to tie together all of the ocean, coastal water, and Great Lakes data collected by federal agencies and regional associations around the country. By tying together all of this data from all of these partners, the System is a big help in situations when up-to-date information is needed immediately.

In this case, the systems’ network sensors within the New York Harbor Observing Prediction System were critical in reducing the response time to the crash. Because temperatures were below freezing and currents were swift in the river, rescuers had to act fast to bring the passengers to safety.

Within minutes after the aircraft went down, Integrated Ocean Observing System partners at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey delivered a detailed report of near real-time water conditions surrounding the site and a forecast of conditions for the next 48 hours to first responders.

Then the NOS Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division stepped in to help, coordinating with the National Weather Service to provide the Coast Guard with weather forecast and river current information on the Lower Hudson River. This office also prepared an analysis of the potential fate of the fuel onboard the aircraft.

And in the hours following the crash, the Office of Coast Survey’s Navigation Response Team 5 helped to locate the missing engines from the plane. Since the NRT5 boat was under repair and out of service at the time of the accident, Coast Survey personnel worked on board a police boat to locate objects of interest using side scan sonar. That’s an an echo sounding technology that captures images from the sea floor.

NOAA also supplied a portable side scan sonar that was used on an Army Corps of Engineers survey vessel by Navigation Response Team personnel in order to double search efforts. This portable side scan sonar is a dedicated NOAA tool which can be shipped quickly to anywhere in the coastal U.S. to support efforts like this during emergency marine situations.

And finally, NOS and Integrated Ocean Observing System partners provided around-the-clock, on-call assistance to emergency response agencies in order to help with salvage operations. The National Transportation Safety Board and salvage teams used this information to lift the plane out of the water.

(Summit Sets Stage for Harmful Algal Bloom Response Network, Forecasting System for West Coast)

Now we’re going to head to the other coast to talk about the first-ever West Coast Regional Harmful Algal Bloom Summit.

Last week, NOAA experts were part of a group of eighty scientists, managers, and industry representatives gathered in Portland, Oregon, for this workshop.

The big outcome of the meeting was the endorsement of a new initiative to create a regional harmful algal bloom monitoring, alert and response network and forecasting system.

That system is the vision of the West Coast Governors’ Agreement on Ocean Health, a regional collaboration to protect and manage ocean and coastal resources along the entire West Coast.

This system will provide advanced early warning of harmful algal blooms. And that will help to minimize fishery closures, protect the economy of coastal communities, lessen the impacts to marine life and better protect public health.

You probably know harmful algal blooms better as ‘red tides.’ The blooms occur when algae—simple ocean plants that live in the sea—grow out of control while producing toxic or harmful effects on people, fish, shellfish, marine mammals and birds. Experts who deal with these blooms usually refer to them as HABs.

At the Summit, attendees looked at the causes of HABs, and they mapped out research and management actions needed to lessen the impacts of this threat to water quality, living resources, and coastal communities.

The group also sought to reach consensus on the present state-of-knowledge and prioritized the information needed by decision makers to lessen the impacts of HAB events on humans and critical marine resources.
The meeting builds upon more than 10 years of NOAA support for HAB research and management on the West Coast.

(Taking a Closer Look: West Coast HABs)

So, now we know what the meeting was about…now let’s take a closer look at why this is such a big deal for West Coast states.

Harmful algal blooms have been having a big impact on the California, Oregon, and Washington coastal communities for decades. Blooms close beaches to recreational razor clam harvesting, make Dungeness crabs too toxic to eat, close mussel and oyster beds to recreational and commercial harvesting, and cause the death of marine mammals and pelicans. These problems are widespread and often extend beyond state boundaries.

In 2002-2003, toxic algae caused razor clam and Dungeness crab fishery closures in Washington resulting in $10-12 million in lost revenue, and a razor clam fishery closure at Clatsop Beach, Oregon, cost the local communities $4.8 million.

Toxic algae have also led to more than 14,000 sick or dead seals, sea lions, sea otters, dolphins, birds, and gray whales along the California shoreline and other parts of the West Coast over the last decade.

These effects have not only resulted in economic losses, but also in an erosion of community identity, community recreation, and a traditional way of living for native coastal cultures.

So you can see why this is so important…and it’s also important to note that this problem isn’t just on the West Coast. Last year, the Department of Commerce declared a commercial fishery failure in New England because of harmful algal blooms. HABs have been reported in almost every coastal state in the nation, and blooms may be on the rise.


That’s all for this episode. If you have any questions about this week’s podcast, about the National Ocean Service, or about our ocean, send us an email at

Let’s bring in the ocean....

This is Making Waves from NOAA’s National Ocean Service. See you next week.