Perspective: Eyes on the Gulf
Interview by Elizabeth Kelsey
We asked Professor Daniel R. Lynch, an expert on physical and biological interactions in the coastal ocean and advanced computational methods for tracking water resources, for his perspective on the Deep Water Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
What goes through your mind as an engineer when you think about the oil spill?
I think about transport and fate of the oil and what goes on biochemically while it is being transported. It’s released somewhere and it’s reacting, but where does it go and what does it become?
Are simulation models of currents being used to predict where the oil is going?
Yes, the Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS) covers the ocean shelves with computer models and observations. Right now, those simulating the Gulf are mostly operating in universities and research labs in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, and up the Atlantic coast.
Does your research contribute to the oceanographic work that’s being done?
There are people like myself who aren’t on the Gulf Stream, but whose research improves the methods oceanographers use for observing, simulating, and making forecasts and predictions. This is a major NSF and NOAA research topic.
Have you noticed any discussion of these models in the news coverage?
It doesn’t show up in the newspapers very much, just the simple details. I think it would help people to see images from the Coastal Circulation Nowcast/Forecast System and the Naval Research Laboratory Nowcast/Forecast System.
What technology is available for following the currents and oil dispersion?
For the longest time there was an implied assumption in the press that all the oil would go to the surface. But as tar balls and deep plumes indicate, you can’t assume that all the oil floats. A lot of attention was paid to the satellite imagery because satellites are looking down all the time. Satellite imagery will only see the surface, so you have to infer what’s below. You can put out moorings and current meters at different depths to record data and observe dispersion. These data are telemetered to a land station, so you can compare that with the satellite imagery and have information for what’s underneath as well as what’s on the surface of the sea. There are also drifting instruments you can just throw into the water. They have GPS units on them and they drift around with the current and radio back their positions with super accuracy. We would like to see some drifters tossed in at different depths. And, of course, simulation models are used to fill in the gaps.
Why aren’t agencies using drifting instruments and current meters to track the spill?
It wouldn’t be hard to marshal a response. Although the current meters require planning, the drifters are easy to launch and track. But the ocean research community has limited manpower, and it cannot make up for a lack of operational capability. It is clear that we need to attract the best people into our resource agencies, and we need national-level preparedness for rapid, coordinated responses to emergencies. We are living in a dream world if we expect university researchers to mount emergency responses ad-hoc. Relying on that is tantamount to assuming there will be no problems or accidents — clearly wrong.
— Elizabeth Kelsey is a contributing editor at Dartmouth Engineer.