November 20, 2007 12:32 PM PST
Mixing high tech into oil spill cleanup efforts
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To be sure, Graham--who frequently consults on spill cleanup operations--said software is often used for what is known as "trajectory analysis," or the prediction of where oil will go after a spill.
NOAA's Henry explained that cleanup agencies often use software called TAP (Trajectory Analysis Planner), which is used to help answer questions about spills based on known information about local conditions.
According to NOAA, TAP provides information about how a spill is likely to affect local shorelines; about how quickly a response must be launched to avoid massive local contamination; about where spills are likely to happen; and about how much response is necessary to deal with a spill when it does happen.
Of course, many of the features of software like TAP are useful only before a spill happens. And in the case of the recent Bay Area spill--which has killed hundreds of shorebirds and affected many other marine animals--the software didn't help prevent the spread of the oil to more than two dozen beaches.
In fact, according to Carlos Fonseca, an oil spill prevention specialist at the California Department of Fish and Game's spill prevention and response unit, while trajectory analysis software was used to gauge tide conditions after the Cosco Busan disaster, the bulk of the work has been very low-tech: helicopter and airplane flyovers looking for oil slicks.
The problem with that, said Graham, is that bunker oil quickly sinks below the surface of the water and can't be seen from the air.
And that may account for the thousands of gallons of oil in and around the San Francisco Bay region that are as yet unrecovered.
Particularly galling about the response to the Cosco Busan accident is that in August 2006, several agencies, including NOAA and the U.S. Coast Guard, ran a response drill outside the Golden Gate. Yet when the ship hit the Bay Bridge, the Coast Guard bungled the response, delaying hours in informing local officials about the extent of the spill and potentially exacerbating the damage.
For his part, Graham said his company is developing scenario-planning software called Oscar (on-scene coordinator's adviser for responding to oil spills) that could help local agencies better prepare the type of necessary response when an accident does occur.
But the software has yet to hit the market.
For now, then, agencies tasked with dealing with oil spills are still turning largely to legacy equipment and a small selection of software tools to aid with cleanup.
To Graham, such a reliance on older tools means that the best chances for a quick and effective cleanup may be missed.
"If a spill happens somewhere, chances are a similar spill has already happened somewhere else," he said. "So why not take advantage of lessons already learned?"
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