Oil spill: Technology tested by tyranny of depth

Efforts to stem the flow of crude oil gushing from a damaged well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico illustrate the limits of oil-spill technology

The ongoing efforts to stem the flow of crude oil gushing from a damaged well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico have illustrated the limits of the technology used by the government and private sector to respond to such calamities.

The primary challenge comes from the location of the leak 5,000 feet below the surface of the water, where the “tyranny of distance and depth” have hampered attempts to apply a mechanical fix to the severed pipe, said Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen, who was designated as the national incident commander to coordinate efforts by federal agencies and BP, the owner of the oil field.

The accident occurred April 20 after an explosion destroyed the offshore drilling rig, which Transocean operates under a contract with BP. Eleven rig workers are unaccounted for and presumed dead. Estimates about the rate at which oil is leaking vary from 5,000 to 25,000 barrels a day, which further complicates efforts to contain the spill.

“In the past, most of these events have related to surface incidents or collisions of very large ships carrying crude oil," Allen said. "And we've been able to actually quantify how much oil was at risk. What makes this anomalous is, until we cap the well, we have an indeterminate [amount] of oil potentially that could come to the surface and have to be dealt with.”

Even if the flow amount could be pinpointed, accurately predicting how an underwater leak will disperse is beyond the capability of current computer modeling software, which relies on surface measurements such as wave heights and wind speed and direction to determine where the oil is likely headed, writes Sandi Doughton for the Seattle Times.

Doughton reports how scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Emergency Response Division in Seattle have used modeling tools first to guide the search for survivors and then later to direct response crews trying to minimize environmental damage.

Meanwhile, NASA satellites equipped with Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometers provided responders with a multispectral, high-altitude view of the spreading oil. However, the satellites cannot glean important information related to the thickness of the slick, which is crucial for knowing where skimmers can do the most good, writes Adam Hadhazy for TechNewsDaily.

"With this particular spill, it is so large they can use satellite imagery to get a gross outline, but they are not able to get thickness variations," said Judd Muskat, an environmental scientist at the Office of Spill Prevention and Response at the California Department of Fish and Game.

For that, responders will likely turn to OSPR's special, portable multispectral sensing equipment for use on aircraft. Muskat said he and his colleagues expect to be deployed to the Gulf of Mexico to assist with the disaster effort.

During the early stages of the crisis, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said industry has much of the technology and assets required to support the response mission. However, BP has asked the Navy to call in some subsea imaging technology and remote operating equipment that apparently is not available commercially to help plug the underwater leak, reports Elizabeth Montalbano in InformationWeek.

Outside government and industry, a New Orleans advocacy group is tapping into a technology created to track political violence in Kenya to log the effects of the oil spill on the Gulf Coast, reports Sarah Wheaton in the New York Times. The Louisiana Bucket Brigade Web site uses witnesses’ texts, tweets and e-mail messages to generate a rainbow of dots on a map and a database of spill-related damage, such as reports of odors, unemployed fishermen and affected wildlife.

“We will have absolutely crystal-clear data about people affected, and that should certainly inform policy-makers,” said Anne Rolfes, the group’s director.

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