Ask a Responder: Q&A with a NOAA Oil Spill Monitoring Scientist
Debbie Payton is a physical oceanographer for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, based in Seattle, Wash. During her 33-year tenure at NOAA, Debbie has worked on hundreds of oil spills, including the Ixtoc spill in 1979, the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, and now on the Deepwater Horizon spill.
What is your role in the response?
My role with the response includes managing the forecasting efforts, helping get scientists in the field, and doing overflight training for the Coast Guard, States, and other NOAA personnel. I’ve recently done a rotation as the chief scientist of the subsurface monitoring unit.
How does working on the Deepwater Horizon spill compare to working on other oil spills?
There is a small group of people at NOAA that specializes in oil forecasting. On average, we respond to about 150 oil spills each year. Our work is important, but not particularly visible, because – fortunately – the majority of oil spills are not of this scale. We’ve never had to do forecasting for an event of this scope. The modeling and forecasting efforts were very intensive.
How are models and forecasts related?
Models use mathematics to provide guidance, experts then use that information to make forecasts. We often run four or five models and compare them to the most recent information we’ve collected. That includes data from satellites and other platforms, overflight observations of oil sheen on the water, and reports of where oil has been seen on shore. Based on this information, we decide which model works best for that time and place. We then use the output of the model to make a forecast, in this case, a trajectory map, of where we expect the oil to go over the next 24, 48, or 72 hours.
How are trajectory maps used in responding to and studying an oil spill?
We use trajectory maps in many ways. For example, responders use the maps to help determine what areas might be at risk from oil and when they might be at risk, to help prioritize where to send equipment. The subsurface monitoring program uses trajectory maps to focus its search for oil that can be cleaned up. Fisheries personnel use the trajectory maps to help determine areas to close to fishing and where to do fisheries monitoring. We also use trajectory maps to decide where to send aerial teams for overflights and where to deploy teams to beaches. One very creative way the trajectory maps were used during the spill was by mariners trying to navigate around the affected area through NOAA’s Electronic Navigational Charts.
Do you find the work you did rewarding?
I find it very rewarding to do work that allows me to learn new things and stretch my brain. Working on the response stretched me in directions I haven’t been stretched before – and I hope I won’t have to be again. I absolutely hope another spill like Deepwater Horizon never happens. That said, scientists have never had a chance to learn from a sustained release this deep in the ocean. We gathered a lot of information and data, we learned how to prepare, and we learned about challenges and how to respond to them. Because of the coordinated efforts of government, academic, and independent scientists, we have a lot of information that can help oil spill response in the future. It’s rewarding to know that we can learn from this response in order to be better prepared – even though we hope we don’t have to use the information and skills we acquired.