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How Technology Has Changed Spill Response Since Deepwater Horizon

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Image courtesy NOAA

By NOAA National Ocean Service 04-24-2020 10:47:04

The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was on the scene of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill from the earliest moments of the crisis in April 2010. Our scientists used data from satellites, aircraft, ships, buoys, and gliders to collect and provide mission-critical information to guide the emergency response to the spill, as well as the long-term assessment and restoration of the Gulf Coast.

Now, ten years later, we look at a few examples of how lessons learned during and research following Deepwater Horizon have better prepared the agency to provide expert scientific support for future events.

1. Advances in information sharing technology mean NOAA can share its information more quickly

With a major oil spill or other disaster, responders, decision-makers, and the public need accurate information quickly. And the need for information doesn't end with the immediate crisis. NOAA also leads efforts to assess how the environment was damaged by a spill and, in the longer term, manages complex projects aimed at restoring damaged ecosystems. As the agency that provides scientific support during this type of event, NOAA maintains a suite of data and visualization tools to help gather data and to keep the information flowing as quickly as possible. Two of the most important of these tools — which are referred to by the acronyms ERMA and DIVER — have come a long way in the past ten years. Think of these tools as the "digital backbones" of data collection: ERMA helps people visualize massive amounts of information by overlaying data on interactive maps, while DIVER allows people to search for and download the data they are looking for.

The Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA) is an online geographic information system (GIS) and visualization tool that integrates static and real-time data in an easy-to-use format for environmental responders and decision-makers. ERMA helps people to visualize information relevant to spill preparedness and planning, assists in coordinating emergency response efforts and increases situational awareness for human and natural disasters, supports the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process, and aids in ecological recovery and restoration efforts.

The Data Integration Visualization Exploration and Reporting (DIVER) Explorer, created after Deepwater Horizon, allows users to search and download environmental and project planning data specific to geographic regions or activities. This tool was developed by NOAA to support the Natural Resource Damage Assessment for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The tool serves as a centralized data repository that integrates diverse environmental data sets collected from across different ecosystems. It allows scientists from different organizations and laboratories located across the country to upload field data, analyses, photographs, and other key information related to their studies in a standardized format. DIVER brings together all of that validated information into a single, web-based tool.

2. Advances in oil spill science continue to improve decisionmaking ability

During a spill, NOAA experts provide responders with models that help predict the movement, trajectory, and behavior of oil or other pollutants in the ocean. While NOAA scientific support historically focused on the movement of surface oil, the depth of the Deepwater Horizon spill presented unique challenges. Over the past ten years, scientists have taken lessons learned from these unique challenges to further develop and refine a set of modeling tools collectively known as the GNOME Suite. While the improvements made to this suite of digital tools are complex, the net result is that today's oil spill modeling capabilities are more accurate and robust than ever.

NOAA's scientific support role is not limited to support of the immediate spill response effort, however. Following the Deepwater Horizon spill, NOAA and partners continued to analyze data, conduct studies, and evaluate what happened for many years following the Deepwater Horizon spill. These efforts generated tens of thousands of samples, millions of analytical results, and more than a dozen published studies. This scientific research helped us understand the injuries caused by the Deepwater Horizon spill in aid of the restoration of the Gulf region. Knowledge gained from these efforts — combined with many new oil spill studies and research conducted over the past ten years — will prove valuable during future spill events.

For instance, scientists are developing new methods to classify oil thickness using remote sensing tools, are advancing what we know about oil toxicity, and have developed new methods to measure flow rates of oil spills from deep within the ocean using acoustic technologies.

3. NOAA now has a dedicated regional facility for spills in the Gulf of Mexico region.

Over the past decade, the Gulf of Mexico has faced both natural and human-caused disasters, including hurricanes, oil spills, tornadoes, droughts, harmful algal blooms, and wildfires. While we cannot prevent these severe events, we can reduce their impacts by helping to prepare federal, state, and local decision-makers for a variety of hazards and threats. Two years after Deepwater Horizon, NOAA opened the Disaster Response Center (DRC) in Mobile, Alabama — an unprecedented regional presence for the Gulf of Mexico area.

This facility greatly expands the federal capacity to plan for and respond to hazards of all types, bringing together NOAA-wide resources to improve preparedness, planning, and response capacity for natural and human-caused disasters along the Gulf coast. The DRC is at the heart of NOAA's Disaster Preparedness Program — which builds upon the DRC's operational capabilities and knowledge to ensure that commerce, communities, and natural resources can recover from disasters as quickly as possible.

The DRC focuses on the needs of federal, state, and local partners who rely on NOAA scientific support in emergencies and serves as a central coordination point in the Gulf of Mexico for access to these products and services.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.