Determining Mississippi River's Role In 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill
October 24, 2013

Determining Mississippi River’s Role In Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

The complex circulation of the Mississippi River plume played a substantial role in the transport and fate of the oil following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon incident, according to a new study led by the University of Miami (UM) Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. The findings, published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans, provide new information on the transport of oil and other pollutants in the Gulf of Mexico.

A new, high-resolution model was developed by UM Research Associate Professor Villy Kourafalou to examine the movement of the surface oil patch that resulted from the deep oil release from the Deepwater Horizon well under the influence of the daily variability of the Mississippi River. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) observations were used for the evolution of the surface oil patch. The study revealed that fronts created by the Mississippi plume helped to keep oil released during the Deepwater Horizon incident away from the coasts east of the Mississippi Delta. Plume currents west of the Mississippi Delta, however, captured some oil.

"Since the Gulf of Mexico is such a complex ocean system, and the oil spill was near the Mississippi Delta, we realized we had to carefully account for both the offshore currents and the coastal currents, which are largely dominated by the Mississippi River plume," said Kourafalou. "The model was validated with data and is now part of an Earth System modeling framework to help inform decision makers in the future."

Emergency managers wondered if flooding the Mississippi River during the response to the Deepwater Horizon incident might help divert oil being released into the water from impacting communities on the Gulf's north coast. No operational computer models with details on river plume dynamics existed at the time, however, that might have predicted how the environment might react to being flooded.

Marking the first time a connection has been established between the near surface signatures of a large river plume and the hydrocarbons released from a deep oil plume, this study's prediction modeling system will help scientists better understand the transport of oil and other pollutants under the complex circulationof the Gulf of Mexico. Waters from the Mississippi have often been tracked as far south as the Florida Straits, with a potential impact on the Florida Keys.

A member of the Deep-C (Deep Sea to Coast Connectivity in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico) Consortium, Kourafalou is part of a team investigating the environmental consequences of petroleum hydrocarbon release in the deep Gulf on living marine resources and ecosystem health. Deep-C has been examining the geomorphologic, hydrologic, and biogeochemical settings that influence the distribution and fate of the oil and dispersants released during the Deepwater Horizon accident. The resulting data will be used for model studies that support improved responses to possible future incidents.