NOAA Scientist, Doug Helton, Answers
Kids' Questions on Gulf Oil Spill

Deepwater Horizon spill site
NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson at the Deepwater Horizon oil spill site. (Credit: NOAA)

August 2010

NOAA is the government agency that focuses on the oceans and skies. Whether you live near the beach, in the mountains, or on the plains, NOAA is at work for you, predicting your weather, studying climate, exploring the oceans, managing coastal resources, assessing fish and marine mammals, and a whole lot more. Our reach goes from the surface of the sun to the depths of the ocean floor as we work to keep citizens informed of the changing environment around them. NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration is the nation's lead scientific support agency for spill response in coastal and marine areas, and for assessing the injury to natural resources from these spills.

Doug Helton is the operations coordinator for the NOAA spill team. He works to make sure that responders have the best scientific information to guide their efforts to clean up the oil and protect the natural resources in the ocean and along the shoreline. In this interview, Doug tells us more about how NOAA and the government are helping to clean up the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Q: How are NOAA scientists helping to clean up the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico?

DH: NOAA scientists from across the agency are helping to clean up the spill. Once oil is spilled in the ocean, it begins to move with winds and currents, and NOAA oceanographers predict where the oil will spread. NOAA maps the oil at sea and on the shore so that cleanup crews know where to go. Some of the shorelines are sandy, and some are marshy. NOAA helps to decide how best to clean different kinds of shorelines. NOAA weather forecasters predict the winds and sea conditions and hazardous weather like thunderstorms, so that cleanup workers stay safe while working on small boats and shorelines. NOAA biologists collect samples to ensure that seafood is safe and help to capture and clean sea turtles and marine life that is oiled.

Q: How much oil has spilled?

DH: Scientists have worked hard to figure out how much has spilled. This was not an easy task because the leak was over a mile deep, and everything had to be done by remotely operated submarine robots. Right now, our best estimate is that 4.9 million barrels of oil were released into the Gulf of Mexico over about 87 days. A barrel is 42 gallons, so that adds up to 205 million gallons total. That is a big number - the largest spill in US history. To give you some perspective, a typical bathtub is about 40-60 gallons, and an Olympic sized swimming pool holds about 660,000 gallons. So imagine 4 million bathtubs, or 340 swimming pools filled with oil.

Dolphins swimming in surface oil
Striped dolphins (Stenella coeruleoalba) observed in emulsified oil on April 29, 2010 (Credit: NOAA)
Q: How much of the oil has settled to the ocean floor?

DH: This is a really good question, and scientists are still trying to figure out where all the oil may have gone. Although responders worked hard to collect the oil, we know that some oil is still on shorelines, some has been broken up into tiny droplets in the water, and some may have sunk to the sea floor. Oil normally floats, but there are a couple ways that oil can get to the sea floor. Oil is sticky, and oil that stranded on sandy shorelines can pick up enough sand to wind up on the bottom. We think this mostly happens in bays and close to shore. Offshore, small droplets of oil can also sink, but bacteria is also eating this oil. Because of the small size of these droplets - smaller than the size of the period at the end of this sentence - we don't expect to find a visible layer on the deep ocean seafloor, but there may be oil that is detectable in chemical testing.

Q: Which animals have been affected the most?

DH: We are still studying the impact on marine life, but we know that a lot of birds and sea turtles have been oiled. These large animals are pretty easy to see and count. Smaller animals that live below the sea surface like fish and shrimp are harder to count, but we are doing studies to look at the impacts to these animals. Often the most sensitive animals are the eggs and larval stages of fish and shellfish because these float with the same currents that carry oil. These tiny animals, called zooplankton, can't swim away from the oil. Animals that live attached to the sea bottom or shoreline like oysters also can't escape oil.

Oil encroaching on marsh
Oil moving into a marsh (Credit: NOAA Habitat Conservation)
Q: Will the clean-up crews be able to save the coastlines and marshes of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama?

DH: We are working hard to protect the marshes affected by the spill. Booms or floating barriers were used to keep oil out of the marshes because these habitats are so sensitive to oil and so hard to cleanup. But we also know that cleanup can cause impacts too, so it is a balancing act. We want to remove the oil but not trample the plants and animals still living in the marsh. We know that some of the heaviest oiled marshes will take a long time to recover, but we have seen some signs of recovery already.

Q: What are some of the tools (equipment, technology) that NOAA scientists use to keep track of where the oil is going?

DH: There is a lot of cool equipment to track the oil. We have used helicopters and airplanes to fly over the spill, satellites to monitor the slicks from space, radar stations to track the oil from shore, and we have used a lot of devices -- including undersea gliders -- to look at what is happening below the surface. The gliders are underwater robots that look like a cross between a torpedo and an airplane. These are equipped with sensors called fluorometers that can help locate oil. The gliders travel at various depths. Some gliders dive no deeper than 100 feet, while others are capable of collecting data nearly a mile underwater.

Q: What can kids do to help NOAA scientists?

DH: You are already helping by reading about the Earth's oceans and atmosphere, and everyone can help by raising awareness and caring about our planet. Oil spills are not the only problem, and we are going to need a lot of help to make sure that our oceans are healthy and fun places to visit.

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