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Oil Spill Modelling using Water Forecast Models

Niels Hvam Pedersen
DHI Water & Environment, Agern All 5, DK-2970 Hrsholm, Denmark,
Tel.: +45 4516 9200, Fax: +45 4516 9292, E-mail:

The paper discusses the principles of assessing and controlling oil spills in surface waters using
Water Forecast models. The primary goals of such a system is to forecast the movement and
spreading of oil spills in order to make decisions on how to decrease the impact of the oil spill in
the affected area. The system can also be used to detect from where the oil spill originates by
backward tracing the observed oil spill.

Oil spills are serious threats to the marine environment, and place enormous demands on the
national authorities responsible for the response and clean-up operations. In many cases, the
resources required are beyond the means of a single country.
In the last 30 years, around 5 million tonnes of oil have been spilled in the world's seas as a result of
nearly 10,000 accidents. The majority of the spills are small (less than 700 tonnes), and it is the
large spills that account for most of the amount spilled. Thus, in the period 1988-1997, 70% of the
oil spilled came from just 10 incidents. However, the history of oil spills has shown that in general
the amount of impact on the environment has rarely been correlated with the amount of oil spilled.
Many ecosystems potentially suffer from deterioration due to oil spills. Accidental spills together
with leaching of oil originating from oil production and transport activities may result in
contaminated water constituting a severe risk for the water environment, fish, birds or coral reefs
The impact depends on a number of factors, such as the ecological sensitivity of the impacted site,
type of oil and meteorological conditions (water temperature and weather). Once the spilling
incident has taken place, natural processes including weathering, evaporation, oxidation,
biodegradation and emulsification, will start taking place. They can reduce the severity of the oil
spill and accelerate the recovery of the affected area
The environmental impact of a given oil spill, however, will be influenced by many factors. The
topography of the system, evaporation, run-off events and tidal variations will determine the
magnitude and direction of flow. The position, duration and amount of oil spilled to the river/bay,
the transport/spread of the oil as well as self-purification processes in the waters will determine the
position of the oil slick and the concentration of oil constituents in the water phase.

Oil Spill Modelling using Water Forecast Models.doc/NHP-2008-02-14

This complexity clearly demonstrates that in connection with setting up an operational forecast
system, or investigating the environmental impacts of spills, it is necessary to create a basic
understanding of the flow dynamics as well as the transport/fate processes of the oil.
In the following a water forecast system forming the basis for subsequent oil spill simulations will
be described.
The basic hydraulic phenomena comprising water level and current conditions are calculated by
MIKE HD module. The model set-up comprises either a 2D or a 3D model, hosting in general a
local model of higher spatial resolution either in a nested grid or in a flexible grid. The regional
model will normally cover a large area spanning the area of interest. The local model area spans
those areas of special interest in much more detail. Figures 2.2 show the layout of a regional model,
in this case a model of South China Sea covering all the coastline of Vietnam. Local models can be
selected any place inside the regional model.
The bathymetry is made according to available sources. In this case Mike C-MAP has been used to
create a bathymetry covering the South China Sea as illustrated on Figure 2.1.

Figure 2.1

The South China Sea shown in MIKE C-MAP, which has been used to create the regional model.

Based on the electronic sea charts a model bathymetry has been created with appropriate grid spacing in order to resolve
the overall current description in the area. Fine grid will be applied in areas of special interest (Rivers, straits etc). The
regional bathymetry for the South China Sea is illustrated on figure 2.2.

Oil Spill Modelling using Water Forecast Models.doc/NHP-2008-02-14

Figure 2.2

Regional model for South China Sea.

Boundary Conditions: Water Level Variations
The regional model is controlled by predicted tides along the open boundaries in the model. The
boundaries have been extracted from the KMS global tide model, which is based on satellite
measurements during the past 14 years from TOPEX/Poseidon satellite survey. The validity of this
model has been documented through numerous model studies around the world. A Global co-tidal
map of M2 is shown in Figure 2.3 and the tidal constituents for the Phase and the Amplitude for the
regional model is shown on Figure 2.4.

Oil Spill Modelling using Water Forecast Models.doc/NHP-2008-02-14

Figure 2.3

KMS Global Tide Model. Co-tidal chart showing the M2 constituents.

Figure 2.4

KMS Regional Tide Model showing Amplitudes and Phases for M2 constituents.

The wind is very important and wind fields can be obtained from various sources either national
or global. In this example the Global Forecast System GFS has been used, which among other
parameters calculates the Air Pressure, Wind Speed and Direction, Ice coverage, Air Temperature,
Precipitation and Cloudiness. The forecast is calculated four times per day (00 UTC, 06 UTC, 12
UTC, and 18 UTC) out to 384 hours. The horizontal forecast resolution is approximately degree.
All GFS runs get their initial conditions from the Spectral Statistical Interpolation (SSI) global data
assimilation system (GDAS), which is updated continuously throughout the day. An example of the
applied wind field from the global wind is shown in Figure 2.5 and the regional wind field is shown
in Figure 2.6.

Oil Spill Modelling using Water Forecast Models.doc/NHP-2008-02-14

Figure 2.5

Global Wind Field from GFS (showing wind speed, direction and wind pressure)

Figure 2.6

Regional Wind Field from GFS (showing wind speed, direction and wind pressure)

Calculated Currents
The model can calculate generated currents from tide and wind, and two typical examples of the
calculated current pattern are shown in Figures 2.7.

Oil Spill Modelling using Water Forecast Models.doc/NHP-2008-02-14

Figure 2.7

Typical calculated water level variation and current speed

The regional model is calibrated towards numerous tidal and current stations.
With the same model set-up waves can be calculated within the same grid and even used in the
hydrodynamic model if necessary. But normally waves will be forecasted in a water forecast model
in order to describe the wave influence for other purposes than Oil Spills, but in some cases it can
be important even for Oil Spills.
The Oil Spill Analysis model (OSA) simulates and predicts the spread/thickness of the oil slick on
the water surface as well as the concentration distribution of up to eight oil constituents in the water
column. These results can be further evaluated with respect to the environmental impact caused by
oil spills, including modelling of sensitive areas, assessment of ecotoxicological effects and
estimation of animal mortality, or being the core in an operational forecast system for oil spill
contingency planning. Figure 3.1 shows the conceptual diagram of the model.

Oil Spill Modelling using Water Forecast Models.doc/NHP-2008-02-14

Oil Spill Modelling

Rainfall runoff

Hydrodynamic modelling

Oil spills
Diffuse sources

Transport and
Oil Weathering processes

Water levels


Transport/fate of oil slicks

Ecotoxicological effects

Assessment of environmental effects


Oil Spill Contingency Planning

Figure 3.1

Structure of the OSA model

The environmental modules of the MIKE system have been developed to determine the fate of
substances subject to transport such as oil constituents. The Oil Spill Analysis module simulates the
spreading and transformation of hydrocarbons in the aquatic environment under the influence of the
fluid transport and the associated physical and chemical dispersion processes such as
advection/dispersion, evaporation, mechanical spreading, dissolution and emulsion. These
processes, often referred to as weathering processes, are in the model calculated based on the
chemical and physical properties for the oil constituents separating the oil component into a number
of fractions with different chemical and physical characteristics, see Figure 3.2.

Figure 3.2

Weathering processes included in the OSA model

Oil Spill Modelling using Water Forecast Models.doc/NHP-2008-02-14

The modular structure of the MIKE modelling system provides flexibility to combine different
types of modules, e.g. hydrodynamics and waves to describe wave driven currents, and thus also in
general the option of adding new/improved descriptions to an existing set-up.
The biological, chemical and ecotoxicological expertise at DHI opens the possibility of adding
intervention scenarios to the operational oil spill model, so that rapid assessment of different
intervention scenarios involving, for example, chemical methods of intervention or biodegradation
can be made.
The Oil Spill Analysis model has been used in various places some are described in the following.

Figure 4.1

Spill scenario in The Sound, Denmark

First example is related to a spill scenario in the Sound in the narrow strait between Saltholm and
Copenhagen. The current is strongly towards North and the dispersion of the Oil Spill is small.

Oil Spill Modelling using Water Forecast Models.doc/NHP-2008-02-14

Figure 4.2

Oil Spill in the Great Belt, Denmark (Picture from SOK, DK)

The next is from the Sound, Denmark. On the picture taken by SOK shortly after the spillage shows
that the spill is still visible. But later the oil changed properties and drifted around as a submerged
Oil Spill. Difficult to locate, but with a forecast system even a submerged spillage can be traced as
seen on Figure 4.3.

Figure 4.3 Simulation of Submerged Oil Spill in the Great Belt, Denmark

Oil Spill Modelling using Water Forecast Models.doc/NHP-2008-02-14

DHI, 2005: Oil Spill Modelling Concept, June 2003

The GFS Atmospheric Model:

Andersen, O. B., Global ocean tides from ERS-1 and TOPEX/POSEIDON altimetry, J. Geophys
Res. 100 (C12), 25,249-25,259, 1995.
Andersen, O. B. The AG06 global ocean tide model, September 2006.

Oil Spill Modelling using Water Forecast Models.doc/NHP-2008-02-14