ND scientists develop model to track oil spill

The hurricane season could have a big effect on what's being called the worst oil spill ever.

Two Notre Dame researchers are working to help minimize the damage by developing a model that tracks the oil spill.

The two professors are experts in predicting hurricanes and now they are using that knowledge to watch where the oil will go next.

“You can see the hurricane is starting to build-up water and the vectors are the wind vectors over here,” said Professor Joannes Westerink as he points to a former model of Hurricane Katrina.

Westerink and Professor Andrew Kennedy, from Notre Dame’s Department of Civil Engineering and Geological Sciences, have researched hurricanes like Katrina, Ike and Gustav.

In two to three weeks they plan to have a model ready that will use similar technology to predict where the oil spill will end up.

Professor Andrew Kennedy explained when the project started: “People said can you apply these models? Can you modify them so we can track the oil? So we can see what's happening in the marshes?”

So far what's called "tar balls" have only surfaced on beaches but if a hurricane hits it could be devastating.

“You are going to have massive environmental devastation,” noted Westerink.

If a hurricane does start to build Kennedy will likely drop ‘rapid response wave and surge measuring devices’ into the ocean before the storm hits.

“What that does is it gives you an absolute record of what happened during the storm,” he explained.

They measure wave heights and water levels during the storm and help predict future ones.

Overall the project uses weather forecasting, maps, and water movement.

But Notre Dame’s model is different than other models because it goes one step further by tracking whether the oil ends up along the inner shore.

“We have very detailed representations of where there is land, where there is water, what type of vegetation is in these areas, and exactly what is going to happen when there is a storm,” said Kennedy.

When the model is finished the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and states affected by the spill could end up using it and that could help them make decisions that will minimize the damage in their areas.

Westerink just returned from a trip to Hawaii where he was helping them plan for a disaster.

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