Oil Spill Assessment: Transport and Fate

Author(s): McAnally, W.; Martin, J.; Alarcon, V.; Diaz-Ramirez, J.; Amburn, P.

Oil spilled from the Deepwater Horizon incident has been reported washing ashore from Florida to Texas, affecting shoreline over thousands of km. Beyond the effects of the oil itself are those of the dispersants that have been used and the combined oil-dispersant emulsions. BP, Inc. has asked the Northern Gulf Institute (NGI) to provide research results that will, among other objectives, predict the distribution, dispersion and dilution of these contaminants under the action of currents and storms in estuaries. In response, an integrated assessment of physical and biological processes and effects of oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico is being performed by an interdisciplinary NGI team. This paper reports on the use of numerical models to examine the transport and fate of those contaminants in nearshore waters.

The use of mathematical models is well established, such as in the regulatory environment to estimate impacts of remediation of contaminated sediments and a variety of other purposes. Predictive water quality models are typically used to develop linkages between sources and targets. The models provide a quantitative link between sources and targets, or cause-and effect relationship, in order to determine the capacity of the waterbody to assimilate contamination and to address the site-specific nature of the problem. Models of open waters and Gulf estuaries most commonly include hydrodynamic, sediment, and water quality models, due to the importance of transport on the fate of water quality constituents. The models may then be focused on the kinetic and transformation process impacting the specific issue of concern (oil spills, etc.) in order to address specific concerns such as algal growth, hypoxia, and others.

The research is focusing on quickly applying available models of Gulf estuaries, demonstrating how they may be used to assess the long-term impacts of the oil spill (e.g. on hypoxia, sequestration in sediments, toxicity to algae, etc.), establishing and prioritizing remedial actions, and indentifying deficiencies in the literature impacting or introducing uncertainty into those predictions, such as kinetic rates impacting fate. Visualization and interpretation of the results is a key component of the assessment, so 2D and 3D visualization tools have been employed.

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