Researchers race to produce 3D models of BP oil spill

NSF approves supercomputing time as researchers apply storm surge models to oil spread

Scientists have embarked on a crash effort to use one the world's largest supercomputers to create 3D models to simulate how BP's massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill will affect coastal areas.

Acting within 24 hours of receiving a request from researchers, the National Science Foundation late last week made an emergency allocation of 1 million compute hours on a supercomputer at the Texas Advanced Computing Center at the University of Texas to study how the oil spreading from BP's gusher will affect coastlines.

The goal is to produce models that can forecast how the oil may spread in environmentally sensitive areas by showing in detail what happens when oil interacts with marshes, vegetation and currents.

What may be just as important are models that simulate what could happen if a hurricane carried the oil miles inland, said researchers in interviews.

The computer model they are working on "has the potential to advise and undergird many emergency management decisions that may be made along the way, particularly if a hurricane comes through the area," said Rick Luettich, a professor of marine sciences and head of the Institute of Marine Sciences at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, who is one of the researchers on this project.

The computer models now being used to track the oil's spread aren't finely tuned enough to show just what happens as the oil nears the coastline, said Luettich

"I don't think that they have any idea how this oil is predicted to move through the marshes and the nearshore zone," said Luettich.

The project is getting a "high priority," said another researcher, Clint Dawson, a professor of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics at the University of Texas. "What our model can do that a lot of the other models can't do is actually track the oil spill up into marshes and the wetlands because we have fine-scale resolution in those areas."

The researchers are also looking at the possibility of a hurricane in the Gulf this summer and what would happen "if the oil gets blown around," said Dawson.

Many of the computer models tracking the oil spill have resolutions of 500 meters to a kilometer, but the model being created on the Texas supercomputer can bring the detail down to a resolution of 50 to 40 meters, which is fine enough to show, for instance, simulations of currents moving up channels, said Dawson.

Researchers are starting with a 2D model of the spill and hope to get to 3D as quickly as possible.

The main problem, said Dawson, is determining where the oil is in the "water column" -- the vertical area from the surface to the bottom of the Gulf. "Our hope is that we can provide some guidance, especially with respect to possible scenarios if this oil gets away from its immediate area ... and give [disaster responders] some guidance about what might happen, where it might go and what wetlands and marshes might be most affected," he said.

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