Gulf Disaster: Accurately Predicting Spread of Oil

Wednesday, September 8, 2010 @ 06:09 PM gHale


Keeping in the line of thought there is always a silver lining to any dark cloud, there is now a new way of predicting how contaminants like oil will spread.
Taking the Deepwater Horizon disaster and attempting to learn something from it, a UC Santa Barbara scientist was able to forecast several days in advance that oil from the spill would wash ashore in particular parts of the Gulf of Mexico.
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“We predicted where the oil was going to go,” said Igor Mezic, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of California Santa Barbara who studies fluid dynamics. “We were able to do 3-day predictions pretty accurately.”
Mezic and his team were able to predict the movement of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico after the April 20 Deepwater Horizon explosion.
In the following weeks, Mezic and his colleagues generated frequent forecasts of the movement of the spill and passed them on to those involved in the cleanup.
“We were on the phone with people, several days in advance, telling them where the oil was going to go,” said Mezic, who began the work after watching coverage of the oil spill. “I looked at this problem on the TV and thought I could do something about it. I felt there could be a better set of theories to predict how oil will move.”
Mezic and his colleagues predicted where and when oil washed ashore in the Mississippi River Delta and later, on the white-sand beaches of Pensacola, FL, and they forecast the spill would then move east toward Panama City Beach. Their predictions were accurate to within a couple of miles of the actual extent of the spill later assessed by NOAA from aerial surveys.
It’s not easy to predict how an oil slick will spread across the ocean because of the large scale involved, and the constantly changing movement of water at the sea surface, driven largely by wind, Mezic said.
Mezic bases the new approach on computations that describe how slicks of oil tend to stretch into filaments by motion at the sea surface. To produce predictions of oil movement after the Deepwater Horizon accident, the researchers incorporated forecasts of sea surface conditions from a U.S. Navy model.
Mezic said further refinements to this new methodology will have to occur so they can predict the spread of other contaminants such as ash spewed out of an erupting volcano or warm air seeping into a climate-controlled building.
“It’s pretty universal,” Mezic said. “It could be applied to many different kinds of situations where a contaminant or heat is moved around by a liquid or gas.”



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