Smart Tracking Oil Spills With Apps and Software

By now, most of us have heard about the infamous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the woes that BP has had in trying to cap it. The exact total amount of the spillage is actually unknown, but estimates keep climbing.

But have you ever considered exactly how they calculate and track that oil spill? Well, there happens to be some very specialized software that does exactly that… and given the current events we thought it would be good to take a look at this software. There are two types of software that we need to look at — one to estimate the size of the spill at the site, and the other to track that spill over a given period of time.

Calculating Spill Size

Released by The Oil Spill Training Company Limited, The Slick Calculator And Reporter uses the Bonn Agreement Code — an internationally recognized system — to generate its information. The software uses the overall appearance of the oil spill to calculate the volume of oil in the water by the estimated oil thickness.

The software uses either aerial photography or surface measurements of an oil spill. Drawing and input tools allows the spills to be measured, and the comparison to the Bonn Agreement code gives the volume, once the range is calculated. Once the size of the spill is known, then it can be reported to the inter-related agencies using the known standard. From there the focus is not on the size of the spill, but rather coordinated containment efforts.

Not only does the Slick Calculator give you a total on the spot, it can also spit out detailed reports based on statutory or international formats as required, utilizing a full range of markers, standard terms, and symbols. This gives the information needed for both historical documentation and incident debriefing.

Tracking the Spill

GNOME (General NOAA Operational Modeling Environment) is the oil spill trajectory model used by the OR&R Emergency Response Division (ERD) responders during a live oil spill event. ERD uses GNOME in a diagnostic mode to create scenarios quickly, but anyone can use GNOME in its standard mode of operation. In fact, you can download it right now for free.

Using Gnome could not be simpler. Download it to your machine of choice (Windows or Mac are currently supported), and install it as usual. When the program starts, it will ask you for a location file which describes the area in question. If you just want to try the program, one location file is shipped with it (Central Long Island Sound), and load it up. The program starts up, and you can enter the spill by drawing it on the map with the mouse.

Once entered, the app asks you for details, such as what kind and how much material was spilled (such as from the Slick Calculator above). From there it is a simple process to select a time in the future to see on a map how our spill has progressed. You can also fine tune the information to get a more in depth model. In the screen shot below I added a linear spill of 12,000 barrels, and the map shows how it would be 23 hours later.

Of course, you may want to model places other than the included location, and NOAA has happily provided location files for many areas, with new files being added as time progresses. For a better experiment, we take our hand at modeling a spill in the Gulf of Mexico. We download a Mobile Bay location file, and set up a spill out from the shore with a spill having 25,000 barrels (in other words, 5 days of the estimated 5k/day that BP is spilling in the Gulf of Mexico as of this writing). We add in a steady wind at 2 knots for good measure, and run the simulator. See the results below:

Diagram 1: Fresh Spill in Mobile Bay in the Gulf of Mexico

Diagram 2: Same Spill 24 Hours Later

Diagram 3: Spill hits land in 48 hours

You can freely download the app and desired location files to play your own “What If” scenario as you see fit, and there are example scenarios with the location files to let you understand the modeling process better than what space allows here.

The important thing to note from our look at software tools to track oil spills is this – anyone with a modern day desktop or laptop and access to information found on the web can easily run their own oil spill tracking scenario. You are not limited to what the news reports – instead you can model it for yourself.

When news of offshore drilling drops, you can see what potential impact it could have in your area of concern. With a little effort and some information about historical (and current, unfortunately) spill volumes, you can quickly have a fairly good idea of what could happen if the unthinkable happens.

Article by D. Salmons from TestFreaks, which collects product information and reviews from over 60 countries and several thousand sources.

Photo: Deepwater Horizon Response

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One comment on “Smart Tracking Oil Spills With Apps and Software


GNOME only has two location files that can be used. You CANNOT just input your data and expect it to give you a trajectory.

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