UD, DBI join effort to track Gulf of Mexico oil spill
A screen shot from Google Earth showing the clean up area. Florida is the gray area to the right. The flagged areas represent where the autonomous underwater vehicles have been deployed as of Wed, May 26, 2010. Green polygons are surface deployed drifters, color is sea surface temperature and arrows are modeled currents.
Matt Oliver

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10:43 a.m., May 26, 2010----The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has been the focus of news all over the world for more than a month, and a group of public and private organizations -- including the University of Delaware (UD) and the Delaware Biotechnology Institute (DBI) -- have come together to assist in the clean up.

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These organizations have joined efforts to form the DeepWater Horizon Response and they are tasked with employing the best techniques to clean up the spill while trying to save the wildlife affected.

Meanwhile, as the spill travels further every day, seemingly without any slowing of the leak, a UD scientist is helping the team understand where the oil may travel next.

UD's contribution to the DeepWater Horizon Response is the processing of real-time data of sea surface temperatures, as well as the deployment of an autonomous underwater vehicle called a Slocum Electric Glider (Glider). This work is possible through funding by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NASA, and through the Delaware Sea Grant program at UD.

Sea surface temperature is important because it allows scientists to track ocean currents. Based on the surface temperature of the water, researchers can determine how fast the water is moving, which direction its moving in, and as a result, where the oil will be traveling.

“The temperature of the water is a signal for what currents are approaching the spill location,” says Matt Oliver, assistant professor in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment. “This helps us determine where we need to focus clean up efforts.”

The gliders are remotely operated robots that swim a saw-tooth pattern and scan the ocean interior for traces of oil. They will provide live data via Google Earth, showing what is happening under the water and how the environment is being affected by the oil spill.

“UD's autonomous underwater vehicle will be deployed this week,” says Oliver. “We'll be able to send real-time data to researchers concerning densities, and the presence or absence of oil.”

The data Oliver and his team collects is being analyzed through a cluster of computers housed at DBI. These computers use the institute's powerful cyber infrastructure to calculate data based on input from UD's team of researchers. These data streams are visualized in real-time at the Global Visualization Lab on the Hugh R. Sharp Campus in Lewes, Del.

"This effort to facilitate real-time monitoring of events in the Gulf is an example of how the DBI infrastructure can be effectively directed to support faculty research, interact with other institutions, and help reduce the environmental impact of the leak," says Kelvin Lee, DBI director.

UD is one of several university partners involved with the Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS), which has coordinated the creation of the DeepWater Horizon Response. To learn more about the DeepWater Horizon Response, visit the website.

Article by Laura Crozier

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