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Geophysical Monograph Series



  • oil spill simulation
  • drift prediction
  • spill forecast assessment
  • Lagrangian coherent structures
  • pollution response
  • Gulf of Mexico

Index Terms

  • 4251 Oceanography: General: Marine pollution
  • 4255 Oceanography: General: Numerical modeling
  • 4263 Oceanography: General: Ocean predictability and prediction
  • 4219 Oceanography: General: Continental shelf and slope processes



Surface Drift Predictions of the Deepwater Horizon Spill: The Lagrangian Perspective

Helga S. Huntley

School of Marine Science and Policy, University of Delaware, Newark, Delaware, USA

B. L. Lipphardt Jr.

School of Marine Science and Policy, University of Delaware, Newark, Delaware, USA

A. D. Kirwan Jr.

School of Marine Science and Policy, University of Delaware, Newark, Delaware, USA

Forecasting the movement of the oil after a massive spill like that from the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico is critical for pollution containment and mitigation. Assessing such forecasts a posteriori is also relevant for future drilling risk assessments. This study considers surface drift simulations based on a regional circulation model. Initialization and assessment is performed with two distinct satellite-derived observational products. Two metrics are introduced for measuring forecast success: percent of the predicted spill area contained in the observation and percent of the observed spill area contained in the forecast. Simple passive tracer advection for 2–5 days yields about 30%–75% of the forecast in the observation. The second metric scores around 30% for almost all cases studied. The unquantified continuing leakage of oil from the ruptured well is modeled at two rates. At the lower rate, it has barely any effect on the forecast, while the higher rate leads to a doubling or greater of the captured observation (second metric), accompanied by a significantly smaller deterioration in the first metric. The role of wind is also explored and found to be negligible away from the coastal areas. Lagrangian coherent structures, in the form of direct Lyapunov exponents and mesohyperbolicity, are tested for their ability to describe the oil advection characteristics without the sensitivity to observational errors in the initialization and without the details that are most error-prone. They are found to have some skill in capturing the deformation patterns exhibited by the observed oil slick.

Citation: Huntley, H. S., B. L. Lipphardt Jr., and A. D. Kirwan Jr. (2011), Surface drift predictions of the Deepwater Horizon spill: The Lagrangian perspective, in Monitoring and Modeling the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: A Record-Breaking Enterprise, Geophys. Monogr. Ser., vol. 195, edited by Y. Liu et al., pp. 179–195, AGU, Washington, D. C., doi:10.1029/2011GM001097.


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