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Tracking Oil Spills & Preventing Future Disasters

RALEIGH, N.C (Ivanhoe Newswire) --It was a little over a year ago that BP’s deepwater horizon oil rig exploded, sending millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the worst oil spill in U.S history. From oil-covered birds to the spreading oil slick on the water, it was an environmental disaster like we’ve never seen before. Now, scientists and mathematicians have developed a new predictive tool that could track the spread of oil spills even before they happen.

“Oh my God. It was so huge,” Andreas Teske, Ph.D., a marine microbiologist at the University of North Carolina told Ivanhoe.

We saw the disaster on television, but Andreas Teske and Tingting Yang were there.

Tingting took pictures from a research boat, just six weeks after the spill.

“When we were near the wellhead, it was shock I mean…when you see the ocean turns to red and it smells like gas, it’s just hard to accept,” Tingting Yang, a marine sciences graduate student at the University of North Carolina told Ivanhoe.

Andreas saw the underwater damage we couldn’t see.

“The sea floor is covered with brown ooze maybe two inches thick and this brown ooze has smothered all the sea floor life. We didn’t find a single live organism,” Dr. Teske said.

He’s developed computer models of the ocean’s surface to predict what could happen in the future, where the oil that stays on the surface could spread, based on factors like wind and weather patterns.

“How do you get in front and anticipate what you might have to be dealing with,” Rick Luettich, Ph.D., Oceanographer at the University of North Carolina told Ivanhoe.

This is the worst-case scenario—first an oil spill, then a hurricane.

“What might happen in terms of that oil moving from say the Mississippi coast around to the Texas coast, or would it go to the Florida coast,” Dr. Luettich said.

Anticipating the worst, to try to prevent it.

“There’s always going to be natural hazards. They key is to try to keep them from becoming disasters,” Dr. Luettich concluded.

Some of Dr. Luettich’s models were put to work after last year’s oil spill to help track the movement of the oil on the surface of the gulf and to pinpoint the areas of damage. Researchers are continuing to expand and modify their oil spill models, planning for future disasters they hope will never happen.

The American Physical Society, the American Geophysical Union, the American Mathematical Society and the Mathematical Association of America, the American Statistical Association, and the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics contributed to the information contained in the TV portion of this report.

Click here to Go Inside This Science and View Video or contact:

Rick Luettich, Director Institute of Marine Sciences
University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill
UNC Center for Natural Hazards and Disasters
Renaissance Computing Institute

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