New system aims to monitor Gulf

Professor develops system to predict the flow of oil spills Anna Snook Vanguard staff While scientists clamor for answers to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, one Portland State professor is on the cusp of completing a two-and-a-half year project that may revolutionize the way in which the Gulf is monitored. The project’s goal is to predict the flow and turbulent dispersal of present and future oil spills. Professor Chris Mooers-along with his colleagues at Princeton University, North Carolina State University, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Naval Research Laboratory, Texas A&M University and the University of California, Los Angeles-is currently developing a 3-D computer modeling system that evaluates and predicts changes in ocean surface height patterns and currents, based on various observation systems, including satellite radar and thermal images. The models show detailed charts of everything from ocean temperatures to major currents and eddies, as well as height to salinity levels in the Gulf and its surrounding areas. By examining the charts, one can predict a few days or weeks worth of Gulf patterns. For example, the salinity levels can help indicate the way oil plumes migrate through the Gulf. Based on such data, it could be predicted which way, and how fast, oil plumes could be expected to travel. Mooers’ project, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, was originally started with the purpose of helping to ensure the safe recovery of hydro-carbon resources from the Gulf of Mexico Exclusive Economic Zone. While energy still remains the general focus of the project, the recent oil spill has contributed to the purpose of the models and has increased the immediate need for effective monitoring systems in the Gulf. “These models are not being paid attention to…because they haven’t been tested uniformly,” Mooers said, who has been evaluating different computer-generated models over the course of 2009 and 2010. “[We’re] trying to make conclusions about whether these models as a group are better or not than the individual models. By being clever, we can put the best models together and come up with something satisfactory.” However, Mooers is also realistic about the future of the system he’s helping to develop. “The accuracy of the models is determined and constrained by the quality of available observation, and subject to different conditions, but I think we’re in a good position to argue for better monitoring systems now,” he said. There are currently no regular programs of this kind in the Gulf of Mexico, according to Mooers. The present systems are mainly commercial, and the data isn’t readily available to the public. “We need a system in which the data are provided to the public, including research scientists and engineers,” he said. Ideally, this system would show charts in real time. One challenge will be to find out how far in advance the 3-D models can forecast. In particular, oil companies push for getting early forecasts, which can be as much as four months in advance. Their fear is that the eddy currents will interfere with their drill rigs-causing safety and cost issues. “[As of now] it’s not clear how much forecast we can gain,” Mooers said. “Atmospheric forecasts are very good [for] up to three or four days, but they have very little skill after two weeks. [We] may not be able to get a useful forecast after three to four weeks…but we have to try.” The desired result of the project is to make a recommendation on which model should be used to monitor and predict patterns in the Gulf. The results will be reported in peer-reviewed scientific literature, and a proposal will be made to the federal government about the models. In the process, “[the federal government] will be challenged to step up and provide a means of long-term observation of the Gulf,” Mooers said. The agency that will most likely be in charge of monitoring the Gulf of Mexico is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which, along with the U.S. Navy, already has preliminary monitoring systems at work, Mooers said. The project is scheduled for two years, but Mooers indicated that there may be reason to continue longer than its estimated length. “Since the recent occurrence of the catastrophic oil spill, chances are that interest in successfully monitoring the Gulf of Mexico will increase,” he said.