Marine Science Faculty Publications

Tracking Subsurface Oil in the Aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon Well Blowout

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Book Chapter

Publication Date



deepwater horizon, gulf of mexico, lagrangian trajectory, ocean model, oil spill, subsurface

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)


The flow of oil and other hydrocarbons from the ruptured Deepwater Horizon wellhead posed a tracking problem not only for the oil that reached the surface, but also for the hydrocarbon compounds that remained at depth. By applying an existing nowcast/forecast model for the ocean circulation of the eastern Gulf of Mexico, we were able to respond immediately to this tracking need. Our approach was based on advection. We did not attempt to include thermodynamic considerations because there were too many unknowns. Instead, we assumed that some compounds would reach certain levels and be carried three dimensionally by the currents there.Without a priori knowledge, we deployed virtual drifters at depths of 1400, 1200, 1000, 800, 600, 400, 200, 100 m and at the surface, and to mimic the continual flow of oil, we added new virtual particles every 3 h from 20 April 2010, when the rig exploded, to 15 July 2010, when the ruptured wellhead was capped. We then continued tracking these virtual particles until 22 March 2011 when most of them were found to have exited the model domain. Our results are in qualitative agreement with the limited observations and inferences of subsurface hydrocarbon locations obtained by ship surveys made throughout the spill. Our work was also used to successfully inform some of these cruises on where to look for subsurface hydrocarbons. Our findings are discussed and comments are provided toward becoming better environmental stewards of the coastal ocean going forward.

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Citation / Publisher Attribution

Tracking Subsurface Oil in the Aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon Well Blowout, in Y. Liu, A. Macfadyen, Z. G. Ji & R. H. Weisberg (Eds.), Monitoring and Modeling the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: A Record Breaking Enterprise, v. 195, American Geophysical Union, p. 205-215