Where Is the Oil Headed?

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) currently tracks wind and tidal data in the gulf. That data has helped offer an initial, course-grained look at the likely path of the oil. But now a team of computer scientists from Texas, North Carolina, and Indiana are looking to offer a finer picture of where the oil is likely to end up, particularly as it washes through the complex web of channels in the wetlands off the Louisiana coast.

Last month, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Homeland Security quickly backed a proposal to use highly detailed supercomputer models to forecast how the oil will affect coastal areas. Over the past decade, modelers led by Clint Dawson of the Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences at the University of Texas, Austin; Rick Luettich of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; and Joannes Westerink of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana developed a model, known as ADCIRC, to predict hurricane storm surges throughout the gulf. Now they're feeding their model data from NOAA and elsewhere in hopes of getting a more precise look at the oil's course. Unlike less precise weather and tidal forecasts of the gulf, ADCIRC has a resolution of 40 to 50 meters, allowing the researchers to track the movement of water (and oil) through the wetlands. Other computer models tracking the spill have a resolution of 500 meters.

Dawson says that initially they will be able to model oil only on the water's surface, which can be seen from satellite shots. But as better data on undersea plumes of oil become available, they hope to add that information as well, giving them a three-dimensional view of where the oil is and where it's headed. "We desperately need that data," Dawson says. As for now, the oil "is really not moving that much," Dawson says. "It's kind of sloshing back and forth" in the gulf. But that could change with the coming of hurricane season, which began yesterday. Dawson says he and his colleagues plan to use extensive data from Hurricane Gustav, which passed through the same region of the oil spill in 2008, to see what effect an upcoming hurricane may have. They also hope to model the effect of a chain of humanmade barrier islands now being tested to protect the wetlands.