Modeling Helps Clarify Effect of Dispersants on Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

Coral Gables (February 19, 2013) — In a recent Nature News article, reporter Mark Schrope detailed the various efforts under way to determine the effects of chemical dispersants used on the 2010 Deepwater Horizon (DWH) oil spill. Among the efforts Schrope highlights in his article is the work of University of Miami researcher Claire Paris-Limouzy and her colleagues.

Paris-Limouzy’s team was the first to examine the effects of the use of unprecedented quantities of synthetic dispersants on the distribution of an oil mass in the water column, based on a modeling approach. Working collaboratively, the team developed and tested models that demonstrate that the application of oil-dispersing chemicals had little effect on the oil surfacing in the Gulf of Mexico.

An associate professor of applied marine physics at UM’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, Paris-Limouzy and colleagues estimated the distribution of oil droplet sizes with and without injection of dispersants at the wellhead. Supported by funding from the National Science Foundation, they then applied a novel oil-mass tracking model of the Connectivity Modeling System developed shortly after the DWH incident.

To examine the possible effects of the synthetic dispersant on the oil transport in the water column, the team presented a three-dimensional simulation of the DWH spill during the disaster. The model indicated that the oil may have been dispersed by the turbulent discharge contributing to the observed so-called deep plume. The subsea application of dispersant did not result in the expected outcome, according to a peer-reviewed article that appeared in the November 12 issue of the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

“Scientists working on this aspect of the oil spill concur that a powerful chemical dispersant was applied at Macondo. But it has since become clear that numerical simulations could have helped us to assess the alternatives available and quantify the trade-offs we were making in terms of water column contamination,” said Paris-Limouzy, one of the principal investigators of the Center for Integrated Modeling and Analysis of the Gulf EcoSystem (C-IMAGE), funded by the Gulf of Mexico Research Institute. “Our numerical model can help estimate the trapping of oil at depth that prevents the bulk of oil reaching the surface.”


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