Archive for Science


LPBF Assesses Upgraded Hurricane Protection System for Greater New Orleans Eastbank

June 18, 2015 | Posted by lbourg in Hurricane Katrina, Hurricanes, K10, Reports, Science

By Ezra Boyd, PhD, Disastermap.net, LLC

The Hurricane Surge Risk Reduction System

As we approach the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the associated levee failures, the people of the Greater New Orleans (GNO) region face constant reminders that our safety and viability depend on a complex system made of numerous elements that together mitigate risks from hurricane induced tidal floods.  The near constant construction of levees, pumps and floodgates over the last decade provides the most visible evidence of this system.  Together, these components are termed the structural lines of defense. In addition, work on other important, but less visible, components have also reduced our flood risk. Broadly speaking, the other two major components are the coastal lines of defense and the community lines of defense.  Together, these three components comprise the Multiple Lines of Defense Strategy for Sustaining Coastal Louisiana (MLODS).

Beyond a list of 12 separate lines of defense (see figure below), MLODS represents a system that allows us to use the professional tools and standards of systems engineering to assess the current status of storm surge risk reduction.  Within the field of systems engineering, a system is defined as:  “an integrated set of elements, segments and/or subsystems that accomplish a defined objective.”  The 12 lines of defense make up the elements of the system, and systems engineering helps us figure out if they function in an integrated fashion to accomplish the objective of managing storm surge risk.

COASTAL MLOD GRAPHIC_modified_compressed

A recent report from the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, called “A Systems Engineering Based Assessment of The Greater New Orleans Hurricane Surge Defense System Using the Multiple Lines-of-Defense Framework,” provides a detailed assessment of the current system of levees, pumps, gates, coastal landscape features and community resilience steps that the region depends upon to manage storm surge flooding risk.

System Interactions and Factors of Concern

Once the Hurricane Surge Defense System (HSDS) hasLocations Map Final 2 been specified as a system, the tools of systems engineering then allow us to identify system interactions that create major factors of concern.  A system interaction refers to when the performance of one system element is impacted by the other elements, while a factor of concern is an element or interaction between elements that could potentially reduce the system performance. The report identified and described a number of system interactions and factors of concern.  Two of the major concerns are with the Foot of the Twin Spans bridge and the IHNC/GIWW navigation canal (shown here). Both result from interactions between systems elements that affect evacuation effectiveness.

I-10 East Evacuation Route & Chandeleur Islands

CHislandsInterstate 10 is a major evacuation route. During peak evacuation, an estimated 2,000 vehicles per hour utilize its eastbound lanes to escape GNO.  These eastbound lanes cross Lake Pontchartrain on the edge of New Orleans.  Since Hurricane Katrina, the bridge, locally known as the “Twin Spans”, has been rebuilt in an $800 million project that raised the bridge to 30 feet above sea level.  Not far from the bridge is the rebuilt levee system that provides perimeter protection for GNO.  Between the levee and foot of the bridge is an approximately 1 mile section of interstate that is at ground level and outside the levee system.  Most of this section of highway is 7 – 8  feet above sea level.  However, just before the foot of the bridge, atop of narrow peninsula that has experienced landloss on all three sides, the highway dips to around 6.7 feet above sea level.  This low, unprotected section of a major evacuation route is prone to flooding early during storm surge events, thus blocking any further evacuation.

The Chandeleur Islands, a rapidly eroding barrier island chain, are located some 60 miles from the foot of the Twin Spans bridge.  Yet, how they perform as a coastal line of defense affects the performance of the I-10 East evacuation route. Hydrological studies have determined that the elevation and integrity of the Chandeleurs influences the timing and height of the peak surge, with the surge peaking 1.5 feet higher and 1 hour sooner if the islands continue to erode. Exemplifying the concept of system interactions, the Chandeleur’s ability to mitigate storm surge impacts the available window of time to evacuate people using the eastbound I-10.

IHNC/GIWW Closure Operations, Vessel Evacuation, and Vehicular Evacuation

The Inner Harbor Navigation Canal (IHNC) and Gulf Intracoastal Watery (GIWW) are two manmade navigation canals within the eastern half of GNO.  During Hurricane Katrina, they were major conveyance pathways for storm surge and also the location of numerous levee breeches.  Since Hurricane Katrina, the area has been subject to major levee upgrades along with newly constructed floodwalls and floodgates.  While these structural improvements provide a potentially much improved level of protection, the gates in particular create a new set of concerns related to system behavior.  They also provide another example of asystem interaction that also affects evacuation effectiveness.

Simply put, closing the gates in anticipation of aIHNC-GIWW-SurgeBarrier tropical system is a complicated procedure that must be coordinated with navigational interests, railroads, and the Port of New Orleans.  Most navigational vessels are required to evacuate the IHNC/GIWW before a hurricane.  This in-turn requires that the vessels pass under a number of drawbridges.  Since the drawbridges must be opened to let vessels pass, they then hinder vehicular evacuation of the general population.  Here the operations of these structural components (the flood gates along these two canals) impact the performance of the evacuation component, another example of a system interaction that creates a major factor of concern.

Conclusion

These are just two of many factors of concern with the current HSDS.  Our report documents others, some small and others major.  Maintenance, long term funding, coordination, and public risk communication were the major themes uncovered in our study.  Because it is important for the public and policymakers to understand the true level of protection, LPBF continues to build on the momentum create by this report. As step toward addressing some of the issues identified in the report, we have recently launched the Pontchartrain-Maurepas Surge Consortium to facilitate regional collaboration between levees boards, floodplains managers, coastal scientists, and others engaged in storm surge management and risk reduction.

The report, along with LPBF’s continuing efforts at implementing MLODS for coastal flood protection, has been funded by the Kresge Foundation.

 Additional resources:

LPBF MLODS Reports

LPBF's Systems Engineering Report

Systems Engineering Presentation to Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East

International Council on System Engineering (INCOSE)

2012 State Master Plan

Hydrological Study of Chandeleur Islands Impact of Storm Surge

Interaction of Barrier Islands and Storms: Implications for Flood Risk Reduction in Louisiana and Mississippi

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Hydrocoast Maps Monitor Changes in Mississippi River Estuaries

June 4, 2015 | Posted by lbourg in Reports, Science

By John Lopez, Ph.D., Coastal Sustainability Program Director, Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation

The Lake Pontchartain Basin Foundation (LPBF) is releasing a report describing the methodology of its Hydrocoast Maps program, a research effort that began in 2012 and monitors water flow, salinity and other factors to better understand the Mississippi River estuary in the Pontchartrain Basin.

What are the Hydrocoast Maps?

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Hydrocoast Map

The Hydrocoast Maps monitor the distribution of salinity, changes in water quality, and other pertinent information across the Pontchartrain Basin to provide an ongoing, relevant and accurate assessment of basin conditions. LPBF produces a biweekly map series that displays information on salinity, freshwater discharge, water quality, impairments, fisheries activity and a variety of estuarine-related information.

The Hydrocoast Maps provide a snapshot of the condition of the estuary, such as the distribution of saline to fresh water and other relevant factors. LPBF’s goal is for the maps to be useful to a diverse audience – including the general public, but more specifically commercial and recreational fishers, state and federal agency personnel making restoration decisions, scientists and academics.

The biweekly Hydrocoast Map products, and what they analyze, include:

  1. Salinity Map – isohalines (lines on maps connecting points of equal salinity) and freshwater inflows
  2. Biological Map – fisheries fleets and closures
  3. Habitat Map – wetland classification and soil salinity
  4. Water Quality Map – water quality impairments and fecal coliform counts
  5. Weather Map – cumulative rainfall, wind and tide data

Current and archived Hydrocoast Maps can be found here.

The Mississippi River Estuary

On the Louisiana coast, fresh water from rainfall and rivers flows seaward and mixes with salt water from the Gulf of Mexico, resulting in a coastal zone called an estuary. This estuarine system also coincides with the extensive deltaic (wetland) plain of the Mississippi River and gives rise to Louisiana’s valuable and productive “working coast.” There are many factors that affect this estuary, such as pollution, fisheries, hydrologic alterations, wetland loss and freshwater inflows. These influences are dynamic and the estuary is shifting daily, but it is also undergoing long-term changes. For example, since 1932 these wetlands have been converting to open water at an unnatural and alarming rate, giving rise to Louisiana’s coastal wetland crisis.

Understanding all of these natural and manmade influences on the estuary is important for local recreational and commercial fisheries, as well as for restoration scientists who may gain a deeper understanding of how the estuary functions and its trajectory of change. Change is inevitable, but we should use the best available data to work with the deltaic system and bring about comprehensive restoration of the Mississippi River Delta

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NOAA Study Confirms BP Oil Spill Led to Dolphin Deaths in Northern Gulf of Mexico

May 20, 2015 | Posted by lbourg in 5 Years Later, BP Oil Disaster, Media Resources, NOAA, Reports, Science

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact:
Emily Guidry Schatzel, National Wildlife Federation, 225.253.9781, schatzele@nwf.org
Jacques Hebert, National Audubon Society, 504.264.6849, jhebert@audubon.org
Elizabeth Van Cleve, Environmental Defense Fund, 202.553.2543, evancleve@edf.org

NOAA Study Confirms BP Oil Spill Led to Dolphin Deaths in Northern Gulf of Mexico 

Leading Conservation Groups Call on BP to Accept Responsibility for Continued Environmental Damage

(New Orleans, LA—May 20, 2015) Today, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released a peer-reviewed study confirming that the 2010 Gulf oil disaster contributed to an increase in dolphin deaths in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Examining dolphins, including those in Barataria Bay, La. – an area hit particularly hard with heavy oil in 2010 – scientists found that contaminants from petroleum in BP oil caused lung and adrenal lesions that led to death in these dolphins.

In response, national and local conservation groups working on Mississippi River Delta and Gulf Coast restoration, including Environmental Defense Fund, National Audubon Society, National Wildlife Federation and the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, issued the following statement:

“BP has spent millions of dollars trying to dodge responsibility and convince the American public that wildlife and habitat in the Gulf were minimally impacted by its hundreds of millions of gallons of oil spilled in 2010. Just two months ago, BP marked the fifth anniversary of the Gulf oil disaster by releasing a report claiming the Gulf had largely recovered from the spill.

“Despite BP’s best claims, this new NOAA study definitively links the increased dolphin deaths in Barataria Bay with the 2010 Gulf oil disaster and is yet another example of the extensive and destructive impact that BP’s oil unleashed on the people, wildlife and environment of the Gulf. Additional scientific research conducted through the Natural Resource Damage Assessment indicates that dolphins – a top predator – are experiencing impacts from BP’s oil and are still dying at higher than normal rates due to oil exposure in the Gulf ecosystem.

“Last fall, BP was found to be grossly negligent for its actions in the Gulf oil disaster. This study is a stark reminder that the oil is still in the Gulf, it’s still causing sickness and death in some species and it’s still affecting the entire ecosystem. It’s time for BP to stop denying the true impacts of the spill and accept responsibility for its actions, so that meaningful restoration can proceed.”

 Background:

Since the BP oil disaster five years ago, ongoing findings deliver truths omitted by BP’s ads: the oil disaster’s negative effects are increasingly clear, present and far from resolved.

A recent infographic depicts ongoing impacts of the Gulf oil disaster five years later. And over the past year alone, new scientific research has surfaced:

  • A 2014 study found evidence of a 1,250-square-mile area of oil contamination on the ocean floor around the Macondo wellhead in deep Gulf sediments.
  • A previous NOAA study found a large number of dead dolphins in heavily oiled places, including Barataria Bay, La.
  • Recent studies estimate 1,000,000 birds died as a result of being exposed to BP oil.
  • Modeling for a recent stock assessment projected that between 20,000 and 60,000 Kemp’s ridley sea turtles died in 2010 as a result of the spill.
  • A 2014 study found concentrations of PAH (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon) – which can cause harmful effects in many birds, fish and wildlife – in Barataria and Terrebonne marshes, which may persist for decades.
  • A 2012 study found that oiled marshes in Barataria Bay eroded at double the rate of non-oiled marshes.
  • A recent survey found that 70 percent of Americans believe BP should pay maximum fines under the Clean Water Act for its role in the 2010 Gulf oil spill.

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Following the oil spill, new science and research efforts develop in the Gulf of Mexico

May 5, 2015 | Posted by lbourg in 5 Years Later, BP Oil Disaster, Restoration Projects, RESTORE Act, Science

By Estelle Robichaux, Restoration Project Analyst, Environmental Defense Fund

This is the final post in a series about Gulf oil spill early coastal restoration funding and projects. Be sure to check out parts one, two and three.

In addition to environmental restoration projects and programs, four different science programs have been created through oil-spill related funding streams. See the info boxes for details on each program.

Because these programs began developing around the same time and around the same general topics – the Gulf of Mexico, ecosystem restoration and oil and gas production – there is often a lot of confusion about what these programs do and how they are different. We are here to help!

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How are the areas of focus in each of these science programs different?

There are three broad areas of focus that all of these programs collectively address:

  • Ecosystems & the environment
  • The human element
  • Offshore oil development & the environment

However, there are key distinctions between each program and how they address these broader topics.

Ecosystems & the environment

Based on the statutory language in the RESTORE Act, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) science program covers all marine and estuarine ecosystems in the Gulf of Mexico. The Centers of Excellence (CoE) programs are more narrowly focused on coastal and deltaic systems. Both of these programs also include fisheries, with CoE programs being limited to coastal fisheries but also covering coastal wildlife.

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) program broadly addresses protection of environmental resources, while the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) does not have a directive to concentrate on specific ecosystems or species.

GoMRI does, however, have an explicit focus on ecosystem recovery. The CoE programs can emphasize ecosystem restoration and sustainability, and NAS has interpreted language in the settlement agreements to include restoration of the environment and ecosystem services under their program as well.

The NOAA program is supposed to support ecosystem sustainability and restoration “to the maximum extent practicable.” There is a focus on ecosystem management in the current science plan, but this program is not specifically designed around restoration science.

The human element

The BP oil disaster also has had a great impact on human communities. Both the NAS program and GoMRI are investigating human and public health issues that have developed in the wake of the spill. This includes socioeconomic research as well as behavioral, mental and social well-being. CoE programs can address economic and commercial development in the Gulf region, with a focus on sustainable and resilient growth.

Offshore oil development & the environment

Throughout the Gulf Coast and particularly in Louisiana, the oil and gas industry is an important economic driver and employer. But offshore oil and gas production needs to be done responsibly, for both the people and environment of the Gulf.

Safe and sustainable offshore energy development is something on which CoEs can focus. The NAS program is will be addressing oil system safety and GoMRI will be developing technology related to oil spill response and remediation.

GoMRI’s primary focus is on the impacts of oil and dispersants on Gulf ecosystems and organisms as well as the physical and chemical questions surrounding oil and dispersants, such as where did the oil go and how has the oil and dispersants been degrading.

Are all of these programs investing the same kinds of science?diagram

As with the areas of focus, there is a lot of overlap in the types of science activities that these programs are targeting, but there are a few important differences.

The obvious commonality among all four programs is research, which is not surprising as they are all science-focused endeavors.

GoMRI, CoEs and the NAS program also all have some focus on technology and development. This means that some of the science and research that these programs fund will be targeted towards developing new technologies, products or procedures.

The NOAA and NAS programs, as well as CoEs, will invest in monitoring. As discussed in this previous blog post, the BP oil spill highlighted the lack of coordinated, comprehensive monitoring throughout the Gulf region. These programs will fund research into what monitoring does exist throughout the Gulf and explore options and opportunities for implementing monitoring programs.

Even among the distinguishing types of activities these programs will pursue, there are areas of convergence. The NAS program has a mandate to focus on education & training; CoEs on mapping the Gulf of Mexico; and the NOAA program on data collection and fisheries pilot programs. However, training and pilot programs may find overlap with development initiatives. Similarly, data collection and mapping are both important activities strongly related to monitoring. With so many intersections between and among programs, it is essential that these programs communicate with one another.

What’s missing?

With everything these four science programs are doing, it may be hard to believe that anything is lacking. But there are two very important things missing from these collective efforts.

One is formal coordination among programs. Over the last few years, as these programs have begun developing, there has been copious discussion about not duplicating efforts among programs. However, there has been little conversation about devising specific, formal coordination mechanisms to make sure that such duplication does not happen.

Development and implementation of formal coordination mechanisms would also allow programs to take advantage of overlap, by providing points of discussion for complementary or parallel endeavors, particularly those that might span ecosystem boundaries or involve large-scale research or monitoring.

The second missing piece is a means for integrating findings into restoration activities, like those discussed here. Although this will require work beyond the four programs examined here, these science programs should make every effort to ensure that results from their funded research and activities are publicly accessible and readily communicated to decision-makers.

These science programs may not be constructing restoration projects, but the results from their research and other activities may have important implications for restoration efforts now and in the future.

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In Ads Across State, Leading Wildlife & Fisheries Biologists Endorse Sediment Diversions

May 3, 2015 | Posted by lbourg in 2012 Coastal Master Plan, Community Resiliency, Diversions, Restoration Projects, Science

By Natalie Peyronnin, Director of Science Policy, Mississippi River Delta Restoration, Environmental Defense Fund

Twenty-seven leading wildlife and fisheries biologists and other wetlands professionals are urging Louisiana’s citizens to support the construction of sediment diversions to restore marshes vital for protecting Louisiana’s diminishing coast and the people and wildlife it supports.

In full-page ads that will begin appearing in Louisiana media, including the state’s largest newspapers, this Sunday, May 3, the experts write:

“Louisiana urgently needs to restore a better balance between wetland building and wetland loss, between freshwater intrusion and saltwater intrusion, and between the river and the sea so that Louisiana’s wildlife, fish, culture, communities and economy will benefit for generations.”

These wildlife and fisheries biologists and wetlands experts who signed onto the letter have a connection to Louisiana’s coast and want to see it restored: “Like many of you, the signers of this letter know all too well what is at stake. We are wetland professionals who share a passion for Louisiana’s natural places and the extraordinary abundance of fish and wildlife it sustains…In addition to our professional work, we hunt, fish and spend much of our leisure time enjoying our state’s coastal wildlife and fisheries. We watch the wetlands convert to shallow water every day, every year. No one wants to save Louisiana’s coastal fish and wildlife more than we do.”

“We call on Louisiana to continue moving forward with the construction of large-scale wetland-building diversions,” the experts write. “We call on federal agencies to support Louisiana’s efforts by streamlining project implementation. We call on the citizens of Louisiana to insist that our leaders hold to the plan and move quickly.”

Despite the ability of sediment diversions to anchor and sustain the overall coastal restoration system for years to come, opposition exists in limited pockets. Last week, the St. Bernard Parish Council adopted a resolution opposing the use of state funding for four proposed sediment diversion projects, and some commercial fisherman say the diversions would push their saltwater fishing areas further from the coast. The scientists acknowledge this, noting, “Wetland-building diversions will not destroy fisheries but instead will immediately push them farther from some parts of the coast” and recommend objective policies to assist affected fisherman.

“We shouldn’t manage coastal wetlands only for our generation,” the scientists write in their letter, saying that the continuing loss of wetlands will rob future generations of jobs, Louisiana’s unique culture and wildlife habitat.

They also note that “places on our coast continue to thrive . . . where the river is allowed to work its magic.”

The paid advertisements will appear in the following publications in the coming weeks: The Advocate, The Plaquemines Gazette, The St. Bernard Voice, The Times-Picayune, The Houma Courier, Coastal Angler and Louisiana Sportsman.

You can read their letter in full below:

An Open Letter to the Citizens of Louisiana

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Using adaptive management to help restore coastal Louisiana

April 15, 2015 | Posted by lbourg in 2012 Coastal Master Plan, 5 Years Later, BP Oil Disaster, Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA), Reports, Science

By Estelle Robichaux, Restoration Project Analyst, Environmental Defense Fund

This post is part of a series about oil spill early coastal restoration funding and projects, be sure to check out parts one and two.

In November 2014, the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) announced that its Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund would award more than $13.2 million to Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) to fund and further develop parts of its Adaptive Management Program. Louisiana’s Coastal Master Plan has been designed around an adaptive management approach to ecosystem restoration. The parts of the adaptive management program funded through NFWF will help CPRA make decisions about current and future barrier island and river diversion projects.

What is adaptive management and why is it important?

Adaptive management is a foundational concept in modern ecosystem management and restoration. The primary motivation behind adaptive management is to reduce the uncertainty surrounding actions that will affect an ecosystem or natural resource.

Using a combination of active and passive learning – experimentation and monitoring, respectively – adaptive management answers questions and provides information about how ecosystems react to management actions, such as restoration projects, as part of a science-based decision-making process.

Monitoring is one of the most important components of effective ecosystem restoration and management, though its necessity and usefulness are often misunderstood or overlooked. Monitoring is essential because it helps keep managers informed about short- and long-term trends in an ecosystem.

Long-term monitoring is particularly important because ecosystems are complex, sensitive and often slow to change. For projects, monitoring is essential for proving success or identifying possible areas for improvement or changes in operations.

While project-level monitoring is helpful in learning about localized outcomes of restoration, the BP oil spill highlighted the lack of coordinated, comprehensive monitoring throughout the Gulf region. There are multiple ongoing monitoring efforts in Louisiana, some of which are both long-term and large-scale. However, without coordination among systems, the information produced through monitoring cannot be used to its highest potential in adaptive management, which is an integral part of large-scale ecosystem restoration.

CPRA’s Adaptive Management Program

CPRA’s Adaptive Management Program is made up of more than 20 different components, four of which will be supported by NFWF funds over the next three years.

Coast-wide Reference Monitoring System

CRMS stations

CRMS monitoring stations in coastal Louisiana. Photo: CRMS

Louisiana, in conjunction with the U.S. Geological Survey and funding from the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act (CWPPRA), has had the Coast-wide Reference Monitoring System (CRMS-Wetlands) in operation for more than a decade. Although the large-scale and long-term information produced by this monitoring system has been very useful, it is not fully comprehensive because it is limited to wetlands.

Barrier Island Comprehensive Monitoring Program

The Barrier Island Comprehensive Monitoring (BICM) program, which was implemented in 2006, was designed to complement CRMS-Wetlands. BICM provides long-term data on Louisiana’s barrier islands to help inform the planning, design, evaluation and maintenance of barrier island restoration projects.

System-Wide Assessment and Monitoring Program

Near Caminada Bay

CRMS monitoring station in salt marsh near Caminada Bay. Monitoring gauges are contained in the pipes. Photo: CRMS

The concept of a System-Wide Assessment and Monitoring Program (SWAMP) for coastal Louisiana has been envisioned since the development of CRMS-Wetlands and was proposed under the Louisiana Coastal Area Ecosystem Restoration Study. Although CRMS-Wetlands and BICM are seen as building blocks for SWAMP, these programs do not monitor many important elements of the ecosystem, including coastal waters, non-tidal freshwater habitats, riverine conditions or natural resources, such as fisheries.

CPRA and The Water Institute of the Gulf recently presented on the latest SWAMP components developed, including programmatic monitoring plans at the coast-wide and basin-wide scales and a basin-specific monitoring plan for the Barataria region. The Barataria monitoring plan is nested within the coast-wide framework and its application will serve as the pilot for basin- and coast-wide implementation of SWAMP.

Small-scale Physical Model

Once built,the expanded small-scale physical model the will be one of the largest moving bed models in the world. Representing the lower Mississippi River from Donaldsonville to the Gulf of Mexico in 90 feet by 120 feet, the expanded model will be four times larger in both scale and size than the existing physical model.

Because it is difficult to experiment at the large scale needed for coastal restoration in Louisiana, this model will serve as a proxy for the active learning, or experimentation, component of adaptive management. The expanded small-scale physical model, which is being designed to very accurately represent properties of the river, will help simulate water, sediment and physical dynamics that may result from restoration and management actions. This will help restoration planners make informed decisions about the most effective ways to restore and sustain Louisiana’s coast.

Adaptive management is important to restoration efforts in the Mississippi River Delta because it is a large, dynamic ecosystem and the long-term impacts of restoration may not be observable right away. Managers must stay informed by monitoring the ecosystem and use that knowledge to inform future restoration actions or decisions, so we can have more efficient and beneficial restoration outcomes.

For more information, read part one and two of this blog series

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The Science of the Spill

April 14, 2015 | Posted by lbourg in 5 Years Later, BP Oil Disaster, Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA), Science

By Alisha Renfro, Coastal Scientist, National Wildlife Federation

The blow out of the Macondo well claimed 11 lives and began the largest marine oil spill in U.S. history. It took 87 days to finally cap the well and by then at least 134 million gallons of crude oil had been expelled into the Gulf of Mexico.

With the source of the oil nearly a mile below the surface of the water and at four times the size of the Exxon Valdez, the BP oil disaster presented many new challenges. The experience and response methods used in previous oil spills was often found to be impossible to apply or ineffective. As a result, scientists began scrambling to measure how much oil was leaking from the well, tracking and predicting where it would go and trying to understand what this spill would mean for the people, wildlife and habitat of the Gulf.

While large amounts of scientific data have been collected and published in peer-reviewed journals in the five years since the oil spill, more scientific research is still ongoing. The science related to the spill has been largely funded through a few different sources, including:

The NSF has scientific funding available to address pressing research needs during unanticipated events, like the BP oil spill. The availability and flexibility of this funding source allowed scientists receiving this grant to quickly mobilize and collect important data that may have otherwise been missed in the confusion in the days after the spill when oil was still gushing out of the wellhead.

In May-2010, BP dedicated $500 million over 10 years to independent scientific research to investigate the oil spill impacts on the Gulf of Mexico and Gulf coast states. This initiative funded research projects and research consortia that range from the deep Gulf to the shoreline. Hundreds of peer-reviewed publications have resulted from this initiative and a searchable list of this research can be found here.

NRDA TrusteesThe Oil Pollution Act of 1990 authorizes natural resource trustees – specific federal agencies, affected states and the party responsible, in this case BP – to evaluate the impacts of this oil spill on the natural resources of the region and to implement projects that restore or replace those resources. While the NRDA process related the BP oil spill is touted as the most transparent in its history, the many findings of the ongoing assessment are not available to the public.

The unprecedented size and complexity of the BP oil spill demands well-funded, intensive and wide-ranging scientific study. This research, particularly through NRDA, is crucial for the path forward  towards restoration that will bolster and restore the health of the Gulf ecosystem and the people and wildlife that depend on it.

You can read more of my blog posts here:

Five years later, scientists gather to assess ongoing impact of BP oil spill

New study examines ecological and coastal restoration benefits of oyster reefs

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BP's Sleight of Hand

April 8, 2015 | Posted by lbourg in 5 Years Later, Birds, BP Oil Disaster, Reports, Science, Wildlife

Cat Island 2010 and 2015_NWF photo

This post has been cross-posted from an article originally published on the National Audubon Society’s website

By: Melanie Driscoll, Director of Bird Conservation, Gulf Coast Conservation/Mississippi Flyway, Erik Johnson, Director of Bird Conservation, Audubon Louisiana

A BP-authored report claiming that the Gulf has recovered is inaccurate and insulting—here’s why.

Nearly five years after the largest accidental marine oil spill in U.S. history, BP is doing its best to convince the public that the 4.9[1] million barrels of oil that leaked into the Gulf of Mexico have done no lasting damage. That’s the message found in The Gulf of Mexico Environmental Recovery and Restoration report the company released three weeks ago.

Based on what the report does present, it’s obvious that BP chose to ignore recent research that shows the ongoing impact of the oil spill, particularly on birds (pp 15-17 of report). That BP ignores peer-reviewed science is nothing new—they have been denying culpability and the validity of peer-reviewed, published research since the spill itself. Meanwhile, their own conclusions lack peer-review and they have not released their methodology. Because of this lack of transparency, BP has made claims that are impossible to refute or verify.

One of the government agencies responsible for monitoring the Gulf health following the oil spill—the NOAA Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program—is expected to hold itself to a high standard of independent scientific peer-review as it completes its Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA). While we await the NRDA studies to be completed and released, BP has flaunted such professional standards in its allusions to NRDA findings that cannot be verified at this stage. The trustees of NRDA themselves called BP’s recent report “inappropriate as well as premature.”

Along with others in the scientific community, the National Audubon Society rejects BP’s claims. While their report leaves much to criticize, here are its five main flaws:

  • Their conclusions are not credible given lack of peer-review, questionable methodology and premature conclusions.

They claim “search teams likely found 97 percent of large birds and 78 percent of small birds.” These numbers are inconceivable to any researcher or birder who has looked for birds on a beach. It stands to reason that a detection rate of 97 percent as claimed by BP is unlikely, even for living and mobile birds; their estimate seems grossly optimistic compared to detection rates published widely in the scientific literature. In addition, BP compared their estimate of searcher efficiency for carcasses placed on beaches to the searcher efficiency across sandy beach, rocky beach, and marsh habitats. Detection rates are known to vary widely based on factors such as carcass coloration and habitat, and the actual searches in the Deepwater Horizon disaster occurred across marsh, mangrove, rocky beach, and sandy beach habitats.  Attacking a single parameter from a complex study, and doing so using an apples-to-oranges comparison, is disingenuous and misleading.

  • The Gulf of Mexico ecosystem has not returned to a pre-oil spill “baseline condition”.

First of all, the oil is not gone. Significant deposits (up to 230,000 barrels) of oil have been discovered in the sediment on the Gulf floor. This oil regularly washes ashore during storms, re-oiling marshes and beaches. In October 2014, researchers discovered a 1,250-square-mile “bathtub ring” of oil on the Gulf floor–equivalent to the size of Rhode Island. Indeed, as the BP report was released a 22,000-pound tar mat was being removed from East Grand Terre Island in Barataria Bay, LA.

BP’s conclusions are incredibly premature. With lagged effects, trophic cascades, food web effects, and repeated re-oiling of the coast, we could be seeing surprises and environmental effects for years to come on birds and on the entire ecosystem.

Erosion is forever. Land and crucial habitats have disappeared. It’s impossible to return to a “baseline” when the land that composed that baseline and is crucial to coastal bird populations has disappeared. Studies show that marsh that was heavily oiled was undercut and eroded back, creating ragged marsh edges that were unoiled or lightly oiled. The scientists have then seen a wave of erosion of these unoiled or lightly oiled marsh, as waves reshape the ragged marsh edge to create a new, smoother edge. Not only has much of the heavily oiled marsh eroded, but marsh that was less damaged has followed.

  • Damage to birds from the BP oil spill is evident and has been well documented, contrary to what BP reports.  

In the 95 days following the oil spill, conservative estimates are that hundreds of thousands to more than a million birds died.

This acute damage does not take into account the molecular, cellular, reproductive, and developmental damage that may accumulate in birds for years to come. That is significant, it is long-term, and it matters.

Birds exposed to oil during their early development may accumulate damage that causes failed reproduction. Additionally, many long-lived species like pelicans, terns, and egrets do not breed until their second, third, or fourth year of life, meaning the young exposed to oil early in their lives hadn’t started breeding in 2011, making BP’s conclusions based on 2011 information premature.

  • More studies are needed to understand the ongoing and long-term effects on bird populations.

In other species, lagged and trophic level effects have resulted in increasing effects from oil being detected over time since the disaster. Very few studies on bird productivity have been published that looked beyond the 2010-2011 nesting season. More studies are needed to draw broad conclusions.

Scientifically, the most reliable way to study productivity is to compare productivity of birds exposed to oil and not exposed to oil within the same season. The only study of which we are aware that has used this reliable methodology is a study of the Seaside Sparrow, which showed reduced nest success for sparrows on oiled sites in 2012 and 2013.

  • BP’s use of Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count (CBC) data is flawed and their summaries of other data are incomplete and misleading.

BP misused CBC data to obscure potential impacts. It’s likely they used data from well outside the impacted areas. Particularly, Sandwich Terns and Northern Gannets are not counted by CBC participants 10-100 times more than Piping Plovers in the impacted areas. The numbers they used for Red Knots appear to include the entire rufa subspecies, which mainly winters in the Tierra del Fuego region in southern Argentina and the Maranhão region of northeastern Brazil. It is difficult to tell how CBC data were used, but it is clear from the relative abundance of some species that data from outside the Gulf were included in analyses. Using broader data from other regions could mask any local and regional changes in populations due to the oil spill. Without describing their methods, it is apparent that BP’s report represents a misuse of Audubon’s publicly available data.

BP reported oiling rates from long after the oil well was capped, resulting in oiling rates that appear to be very low: In its report, BP cites data saying “researchers saw no visible oil in 99 percent of the roughly 500,000 live bird observations from May 2010 to March 2011.” A study following the Deepwater Horizon spill showed that 8.6 percent of captured shorebirds showed evidence of oiling, indicating that BP’s observational evidence may have underestimated exposure by as much as an order of magnitude.

BP selected a study that appeared to show no effects on birds to highlight a success that is likely just a lack of use of the oiled region:  In BP’s reference to the Northern Gannet publication, researchers in this paper used light-level geolocators to determine wintering locations of Northern Gannets. Digging into the details of the paper, it is clear that only a small sample of the researcher’s birds wintered in the Gulf of Mexico (8 birds in their study) and that the Gulf birds foraged in areas primarily >100 miles away from the spill site, i.e., well outside of area of the most devastating impacts. Thus it may be no surprise that these few birds did not show elevated polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (harmful chemicals from oil) levels as they were not in the spill zone. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s published account of bird deaths following the spill paints a different picture—Northern Gannets were one of the most frequently encountered dead bird after the spill.

BP incorrectly concluded from a published study that researchers did not find evidence that variations in age classes of Brown Pelicans on Louisiana barrier islands were related to the oil spill. However, the paper specifically states “…additional research is required to evaluate potential long-term population trends.” Also, “Care should be taken in interpretation of our result as a lack of effect [of oil] on demography because there are combinations of spill-related reductions in fecundity and age-specific mortality that could result in no changes in age structure.” One scenario that’s easy to imagine is that all age classes were reduced similarly. In short, like the authors state, there are many possible scenarios that could influence their findings.

Despite BP’s claims, we may not know the full impact of the oil spill for decades to come. Even more, we will not achieve lasting, meaningful restoration in the Gulf Coast until BP quits stalling, quits the legal and publicity campaign and actually funds full restoration.

Sign this petition telling BP to stop their delay tactics and fully fund Gulf restoration.

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A visit to the Caminada Headland Beach & Dune Restoration project

April 7, 2015 | Posted by lbourg in 5 Years Later, BP Oil Disaster, Clean Water Act, Restoration Projects, Science

By Estelle Robichaux, Restoration Project Analyst, Environmental Defense Fund

The BP oil spill has had devastating impacts on Gulf Coast ecosystems and communities, but coastal Louisiana’s land loss crisis began decades before the disaster. The Clean Water Act fines and other money paid through settlements relating to the spill offer an unprecedented opportunity to restore Gulf Coast habitats and natural resources.

Many of the early restoration projects funded in Louisiana are focused on barrier islands because of the important role they play in the coastal ecosystem and the severe impacts they experienced during the spill. Louisiana’s barrier islands were heavily oiled because they act as a “first line of defense” against disturbance, such as storm surge or, in this case, oil. In fact, Louisiana’s coastal islands continue to experience re-oiling even today.

Caminada Headland Beach & Dune Restoration

One very important barrier island restoration project currently underway is the Caminada Headland Beach & Dune restoration, which is part of our coalition’s priority project, Belle Pass to Caminada Pass Barrier Island Restoration. The Caminada Headland forms the western edge of the Barataria Basin barrier system and has experienced some of the highest rates of shoreline retreat and land loss along the Louisiana coast.

Caminada map_LB

Photo: Google Earth

I recently had the opportunity to see the first constructed phase of the Caminada restoration project on a field trip hosted by our partner, Restore or Retreat, and the Greater Lafourche Port Commission. It was inspiring to see restoration at work! There were birds and crabs on the shoreline, small plants naturally re-vegetating and the different project components working together – breakwaters protecting the shore and the sand fence having created a substantial dune. More projects like this are exactly what coastal Louisiana needs.

Why is the Caminada Headland important?

The Caminada Headland is a significant feature along Louisiana’s coastline because it provides critical habitat for important neotropical migratory birds and threatened or endangered species, such as the piping plover and Kemp’s ridley sea turtle. It is also a buffer from storm surge and waves for valuable public and private infrastructure, including Port Fourchon and Highway 1, which provides the only evacuation route for coastal communities such as Grand Isle, La.

Piping plover. Photo: Erik Johnson

Piping plover. Photo: Erik Johnson

Port Fourchon. Photo: Estelle Robichaux

Port Fourchon. Photo: Estelle Robichaux

Port Fourchon is an important nexus in our national energy infrastructure system. Approximately 18 percent of the nation’s oil supply is transported through the port, and it is the land base for the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port (LOOP). The LOOP is connected to refineries across the country, which collectively make up half of the oil refining capacity in the U.S., and handles about 15 percent of our foreign oil imports. The activity, infrastructure and continuing growth of the port is truly impressive!

What makes this restoration project unique?

The first phase of the Caminada Headland restoration project created and enhanced more than 300 acres of beach and dune habitat. This project used a mix of sediment pumped from the Mississippi River and high-quality, beach-compatible sand from Ship Shoal, a large marine sand deposit just offshore of Isles Dernieres. Most of the other nearby sand sources have been exhausted, so this was the first time that sediment from Ship Shoal has been used for restoration.

Caminada pre-post construction 2

Photo: Gulf Coast Air Photo

The planning and design of the Caminada project was funded using the Coastal Impact Assistance Program and Louisiana state surplus funds, but they only had enough money (~$70 million) to restore a portion of the island. The success of this first phase, however, was leveraged when more funding became available, via the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, to complete restoration of Caminada’s beach and dune habitat.

Construction on the first phase of the beach and dune habitat restoration is complete and soon the entire project area will be planted with native vegetation. The second phase of construction for the Caminada Headland restoration project – which at 489 acres, is the largest restoration project ever undertaken by Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority – should begin within the next month. Design for restoration of the Caminada Headland back barrier marsh is also currently underway.

Check out my previous post in this series, Exploring Early Coastal Restoration Funding and Projects

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Five Years Later: Gulf Oil Disaster’s Impacts to Habitat and Wildlife Still Evident

March 31, 2015 | Posted by Elizabeth Van Cleve in Birds, BP Oil Disaster, Clean Water Act, Media Resources, RESTORE Act, Science, Wildlife

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact:
Emily Guidry Schatzel, National Wildlife Federation, 225.253.9781, schatzele@nwf.org
Jacques Hebert, National Audubon Society, 504.264.6849, jhebert@audubon.org
Elizabeth Van Cleve, Environmental Defense Fund, 202.553.2543, evancleve@edf.org

Five Years Later: Gulf Oil Disaster’s Impacts to Habitat and Wildlife Still Evident

Leading Conservation Groups Highlight BP Spill’s Ongoing Effects, Continued Need for Restoration

(New Orleans, LA—March 31, 2015) Five years after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, killing 11 men and spewing at least 3.19 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, leading national and local conservation organizations working on Mississippi River Delta and Gulf Coast restoration – Environmental Defense FundNational Audubon SocietyNational Wildlife Federation and Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation – released the following statement:

“Despite BP’s claims that the Gulf oil disaster and its ecological impacts are over, ongoing research and present-day observations in areas that were heavily oiled tell a different story.

“New independent scientific studies provide evidence that the full consequences of the spill to wildlife and habitats are still unfolding. From dolphins to sea turtles to birds, we still are seeing the real and lasting environmental impacts of one of the worst oil spills in our nation’s history.

“BP claims the nearly 134 million gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf has not negatively affected the ecosystem. But continued surveillance of areas like Barataria Bay, where thick oil coated vital wildlife habitat, including marshes and barrier islands, reveals lasting effects of the spill. Cat Island, a mangrove island that was heavily oiled, was once a lush, thriving rookery for brown pelicans and other birds, but today it is gray, lifeless and has nearly disappeared. Other coastal areas damaged by the spill are also still in need of repair.

“To this day, oil is still being found, most recently in the form of a 25,000-pound tar mat located on a Louisiana barrier island, near where 40,000 pounds of BP-oiled material was unearthed two years ago. It’s time for BP to put the publicity campaign aside, stop shirking responsibility and finally ‘make it right’ for the people, wildlife and habitats of the Gulf Coast.

“The oil disaster wreaked incomparable damage to an already-stressed Gulf Coast ecosystem. In Louisiana, the oil spill dealt another blow to an area ravaged by land loss – since the 1930s, Louisiana has lost nearly 1,900 square miles of land, or an area the size of Delaware. Nowhere is restoration more needed than the Mississippi River Delta, which is the cornerstone of a healthy Gulf ecosystem.

“Restoration solutions are within reach and plans are in place, but implementation of restoration plans cannot fully begin until BP accepts responsibility and pays its fines. Thanks to vehicles like Louisiana’s Coastal Master Plan and the historic RESTORE Act of 2012, which ensures that the Clean Water Act fines BP pays will be used for restoration, the Gulf Coast can make headway on real restoration projects that can make a difference. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to restore the health of our wetlands, revive Gulf Coast economies that depend on them, and make the Gulf Coast better than it was before the spill, but we must begin restoration now. The Gulf Coast – and the people, wildlife and jobs that depend on it – cannot wait any longer.”

Background:

Since the BP oil disaster five years ago, ongoing findings deliver truths omitted by BP’s ads: the oil disaster’s negative effects are increasingly clear, present and far from resolved.

A new infographic depicts ongoing impacts of the Gulf oil disaster five years later. And over the past year alone, new scientific research has surfaced:

  • A 2014 study found evidence of a 1,250-square-mile area of oil contamination on the ocean floor around the Macondo wellhead in deep Gulf sediments.
  • A new NOAA study found a large number of dead dolphins in heavily oiled places, including Barataria Bay, La.
  • Recent studies estimate 800,000 birds died as a result of being exposed to BP oil.
  • Modeling for a recent stock assessment projected that between 20,000 and 60,000 Kemp’s ridley sea turtles died in 2010 as a result of the spill.
  • A 2014 study found concentrations of PAH (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon) – which can cause harmful effects in many birds, fish and wildlife – in Barataria and Terrebonne marshes, which may persist for decades.
  • A 2012 study found that oiled marshes in Barataria Bay eroded at double the rate of non-oiled marshes.

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David Muth

David Muth of the National Wildlife Federation on a tour of Barataria Bay, La. March 31, 2015.

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