NOAA's Seattle employees working on oil spill


by Associated Press

Posted on June 2, 2010 at 10:29 AM

Updated Wednesday, Jun 2 at 10:29 AM

SEATTLE -  Workers at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's Seattle offices and laboratories are putting in long hours to help track the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and gauge its environmental damage.

NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration produces the daily forecast maps of where the millions of gallons of oil might head, along with detailed technical information to aid the Coast Guard and other agencies combatting the spill.

NOAA Fisheries labs here are studying the effects the massive spill might have on marine life.

Doug Helton, who coordinates the response office's efforts on the Gulf spill, told Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., during a briefing Tuesday about how his group tries to estimate where the oil may be heading based on information from satellites, aircraft, radar and onsite observers.

Helton said his office has been working around the clock since the spill began after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded April 20, killing 11 workers and eventually collapsing into the gulf.

An estimated 20 million to 40 million gallons of oil have gushed from the wellhead, far surpassing the 11 million that leaked in the Exxon Valdez disaster.

The likelihood that much of the oil is still deep underwater makes it difficult to determine how much is there and where it might spread, Helton said.

"The challenge is that this leak is a mile deep. And unlike a tanker, you can't go out and visually see what's happening -- we can't gauge it," he said. "And it's important to remember that after even a tanker or barge accident, it may take several months to determine how much was spilled."

Much of the underwater oil may have dispersed into microscopic globules that float like a thin smoke deep below the surface and are extremely hard to detect, Helton said.

Walton Dickhoff, a director at NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center, said researchers at the Seattle lab have been establishing baseline information on samples of uncontaminated fish and shellfish from the Gulf. That information will be used to determine how badly marine life is harmed if it comes in contact with the oil.

The response office is developing a website to allow the public to view real-time maps, oil movement predictions and other technical information about the spill and its environmental effects.

The site is being tested and should be ready next week, said Amy Merten, who heads the website team.