Engineer correctly predicts spread of oil spill

A professor of mechanical engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara, successfully forecast where and when spilled oil would wash ashore after the Deepwater Horizon accident.

Together with Sophie Loire, a postdoctoral fellow who works with Mezic and colleagues at the software company Aimdyn in Santa Barbara and at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, they predicted the movement of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico after the explosion aboard the rig.

Prof Mezic and his colleagues successfully predicted where and when oil would wash ashore in parts of the Mississippi River Delta and, later, on the white-sand beaches of Pensacola, Florida. They then forecast that the spill would move farther east toward Panama City Beach. Their predictions were accurate to within a couple of miles of NOAA’s assessments of where the spilled oil actually ended up.

’It’s not easy to predict how an oil slick will spread across the ocean because of the large scale involved and the complex and constantly changing movement of water at the sea surface, which is driven primarily by wind,’ said Prof Mezic.

Prof Mezic’s new approach to the problem is based on computations that describe how slicks of oil tend to be stretched into filaments by water movement. To generate predictions about the spread of oil after the accident, Mezic and his colleagues incorporated forecasts of sea-surface conditions in the Gulf of Mexico from a US Navy model.

Prof Mezic said that further refinements of the methodology could be made to predict the spread of many other kinds of contaminants, such as ash spewed out of an erupting volcano, fallout from a nuclear accident, or warm air seeping into a climate-controlled building.