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U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2012-1234

Application of a Hydrodynamic and Sediment Transport Model for Guidance of Response Efforts Related to the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Northern Gulf of Mexico Along the Coast of Alabama and Florida

Executive Summary

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U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientists have provided a model-based assessment of transport and deposition of residual Deepwater Horizon oil along the shoreline within the northern Gulf of Mexico in the form of mixtures of sand and weathered oil, known as surface residual balls (SRBs). The results of this USGS research, in combination with results from other components of the overall study, will inform operational decisionmaking. The results will provide guidance for response activities and data collection needs during future oil spills.

In May 2012 the U.S. Coast Guard, acting as the Deepwater Horizon Federal on-scene coordinator, chartered an operational science advisory team to provide a science-based review of data collected and to conduct additional directed studies and sampling. The goal was to characterize typical shoreline profiles and morphology in the northern Gulf of Mexico to identify likely sources of residual oil and to evaluate mechanisms whereby reoiling phenomena may be occurring (for example, burial and exhumation and alongshore transport). A steering committee cochaired by British Petroleum Corporation (BP) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is overseeing the project and includes State on-scene coordinators from four States (Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi), trustees of the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), and representatives from the U.S. Coast Guard.

This report presents the results of hydrodynamic and sediment transport models and developed techniques for analyzing potential SRB movement and burial and exhumation along the coastline of Alabama and Florida. Results from these modeling efforts are being used to explain the complexity of reoiling in the nearshore environment and to broaden consideration of the different scenarios and difficulties that are being faced in identifying and removing residual oil. For instance, modeling results suggest that larger SRBs are not, under the most commonly observed low-energy wave conditions, likely to move very far alongshore. This finding suggests that SRBs from one source location may not (outside of storm conditions) be redistributed to other up or down coast locations. This information can guide operational response decisions. In addition, because SRBs are less mobile compared with sand, they are likely to become buried and unburied under normal sand transport processes thereby lengthening the time SRBs may take to move onshore. The rate of onshore movement was not specifically addressed by this study, yet the results resolve the cross-shore domain and cross-shore variations in alongshore transport that are relevant to achieving the primary objectives. Furthermore, during infrequent events (for example, winter storms and severe meteorological events such as Hurricane Isaac of August 2012), energy is shown to be sufficient to move a greater range of SRB sizes and potentially expose and break up submerged oil mats. When SRBs do move alongshore, the models indicate that there are regions that are more conducive to accumulation of SRB material than others. Accumulation can occur where there are reversals and decelerations in alongshore currents and where forces created by shear stress drops below critical thresholds to maintain or initiate SRB movement. In addition, flow and SRB mobility patterns around inlets indicate patterns in hydrodynamic forces that influence redistribution of SRBs and the surface oil that mixed with sediment to form oil mats in the first place.

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