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Oil Spills: Improving Emergency Responses Through Ocean Observing Systems

On 6 January 2018, the collision in the East China Sea between a freighter and an oil tanker carrying 136,000 tons of “gas condensate”, a particularly explosive type of oil, caused a major spill of potentially dangerous proportions. As authorities scramble to solve a growing environmental crisis, they turn to ocean observations for crucial monitoring and forecast information needed to contain the damages to marine biodiversity.

Directly involved in monitoring oil spills in the Mediterranean, Professor Nadia Pinardi from the University of Bologna and the Euro-Mediterranean Center on Climate Change (CMCC), tells us how ocean observing systems are helping manage and potentially contain such disasters.

How can ocean observing systems help manage or prevent oil spills?

Management of oil spill emergencies at sea means:

      a) having the correct governmental and legal framework to react to the emergency: coast guards, civil protection connected to related Ministries and operational monitoring systems, etc.;

      b) having operational oceanographic monitoring and forecasting systems to provide a forecast of the path and impact of the spill on the coast.

An operational ocean forecasting system is composed of numerical ocean and oil spill models. The numerical ocean model uses at its heart observations of the ocean (currents, chemistry, etc.) to forecast how the oil spill is likely to behave. How fast and how big will it get? Which ocean and coastal areas might be potentially damaged? Strong ocean observations reduce uncertainty in the forecasts, help provide the forecasts in the first place, and to verify and correct the forecast models we gather more data from continuous observation.

Could you give us a concrete example of how the Mediterranean oil spill alert system operates?

An example of an operational warning and monitoring system is the Mediterranean Decision Support System for Marine Safety, dedicated to maritime risk prevention and strengthening of maritime safety related to oil spill pollution in the region.

At the same time, the Mediterranean Operational Network for the Global Ocean Observing System (MONGOOS) has developed an exchange platform that shares data and model outputs between national systems, as well as a basin-scale model that is now part of the Copernicus Marine Environment Monitoring Service.

Furthermore, MONGOOS has been engaged for many years with the Regional Marine Pollution Emergency Response Centre for the Mediterranean Sea (REMPEC) to offer technical support to Mediterranean countries in case of accidents. MONGOOS oceanographic centers provide assistance to REMPEC, which has the legal responsibility to respond to emergencies in coordination with the countries.

The European project AtlantOS is developing another piece of the puzzle: coastal oil spill hazard mapping. Scenarios are pre-computed and made available to users for a quick look at the likely path of the oil spill, based on the source of oil. This system will help in case of emergencies where information is needed in less than one hour.

Are similar alert systems available in other areas of the world – in particular in the East China Sea?

Many systems are in place for forecasting oil spill movement in support of emergency management. They are hosted by national weather services and use the operational forecasting currents from oceanographic operational modelling centers.

In the East China Sea, the National Marine Environmental Forecaster Center (NMEFC) of China’s State Oceanic Administration (located in Beijing) is fully equipped with ocean forecasts and oil spill models to provide, within hours, projections of the oil spill track and act in support of coast guards.

In the Republic of Korea, the Korea Meteorological Administration is developing an oceanographic forecasting system and oil spill models but the system is not operational yet.

How can observing systems be strengthened to more effectively support emergency response to oil spills?

There are several major observational and modelling gaps to fill to better inform emergency fighters and reduce impacts of oil spills. In terms of information, we need more and better data on vulnerability and human activity, such as the extent of habitats, socio-economic activities along the coasts, maritime traffic routes, etc.

In terms of technology, we should be developing satellite monitoring systems (SAR) with short revisit time that can follow the slick movement of oil.

Finally, in terms of models, we need to develop coastal forecasting models at 100-10 meters resolution along the coasts, but for this we’re back to the question of data. These models require particularly detailed bathymetry data – the depth of the ocean floor – and coastal observations to work properly.

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Nadia Pinardi holds a Ph.D. in Applied Physics from Harvard University, and is an Associate Professor of Oceanography at the University of Bologna, Italy. She is also member of the Strategic Council of the Euro-Mediterranean Center on Climate Change (CMCC).

Her interests include ocean numerical modelling and forecasting, development of marine biogeochemical models, and oil spill numerical modelling coupled to operational oceanographic forecasts.

She has coordinated, since the middle of the nineties, the development and implementation of operational oceanography in the Mediterranean Sea. Prof Pinardi is now co-president of the Joint Committee for Oceanography and Marine Meteorology (JCOMM), a UNESCO-IOC and WMO coordinating group. She was awarded in 2007 the European Geosciences Union (EGU) Fridtjof Nansen Medal for Oceanography, and in June 2008 the IOC Roger Revelle Medal.

For more information about ocean observing systems, please contact:

Albert Fischer (a.fischer(at)unesco.org)

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