When a major pollution spill occurs in the Gulf of Mexico, disaster response officials have to make quick decisions about the allocation of resources to prevent damage to coastal areas. Numerical modeling techniques can make predictions about the spread and eventual destination of contaminants, but current models aren’t as accurate as they could be, limiting the effectiveness of disaster prevention and recovery efforts.
Dr. Joe Kuehl, assistant professor of mechanical engineering in Baylor’s School of Engineering and Computer Science, is part of a research team that was recently awarded a $285,000 grant from the Texas General Land Office for oceanographic research aimed at improving these models to predict how contaminants spread through the Gulf of Mexico during a spill.
An oil slick spreads in the Gulf of Mexico during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill. Dr. Joe Kuehl is part of a team of researchers working to improve current models for predicting the flow of contaminants from similar events. NASA image.
The topography of the ocean floor creates a barrier between coastal waters and the open ocean at the shelf break – the point near the shore at which the ocean floor changes from low-slope coastal terrain to the higher-slope that marks the beginning of the open ocean.
While the shelf break largely prevents water from the open ocean from mixing with coastal waters, Kuehl says, the barrier is not completely impenetrable. Underwater currents, circulation patterns and weather phenomena can create pathways that allow water to move across the shelf-break barrier. When these pathways exist, water from the open ocean can flow into coastal areas, potentially bringing pollutants with it.
While mathematical models exist to predict how and where these pathways will form, Kuehl says they are limited by the data on which they are based.
“The standard models are most useful only at shallower depths because we don’t have observational data from the bottom boundary layer – the deepest layer along the ocean floor,” he explains. “So when we apply these standard models to pollutants in the bottom boundary layer, we have to make some assumptions.”
To fill in those gaps in knowledge, Kuehl will deploy newly developed current meters to gather data on the way ocean water circulates in the bottom boundary layers over time. That data will become a part of high-resolution simulations created by Kuehl’s collaborator on the project, Dr. William Anderson of the University of Texas at Dallas.
Ultimately, Kuehl and Anderson hope their research will contribute to better understanding of the way contaminants can flow through the Gulf of Mexico, helping government and business leaders carry out risk assessment and economic planning along the Texas coast.