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How do we track oil spills?

Scientists use lots of different technologies to track oil spills and predict potential impacts on the environment (Credit: NOAA).

Scientists use lots of different technologies to track oil spills and predict potential impacts on the environment (Credit: NOAA). View and print this infographic and see the description below.

Scientists and emergency responders use many different technologies to track oil spills, predict their potential impacts, and better contain the damage they cause.

Satellite images and computer models track where oil travels after a spill. Scientists can use these models to predict where the oil might go next. Ocean currents, expected weather conditions, shipping traffic in the area, and previous observations all help scientists make those predictions.

An animated map of the Florida Keys showing yellow and red particles moving toward a shoreline. The colored particles represent a model of a hypothetical oil spill, the predicted movement of the oil, and its relative concentration (Credit: NOAA).

An animation of the WebGNOME predictions from a recent oil spill response training in the Florida Keys (hypothetical spill), showing the movement of the oil and its relative concentration (Credit: NOAA).

Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) maps provide information about coastal resources that are at risk if an oil spill occurs nearby. These include biological resources (such as birds and shellfish beds), sensitive shorelines (such as marshes and tidal flats), and human-use resources (such as public beaches and parks).

When a spill occurs, ESI maps can help responders reduce the environmental consequences of the spill and support cleanup efforts. Planners can use ESI maps before a spill happens to identify vulnerable locations, establish protection priorities, and plan cleanup strategies.

This is an example of an ESI map on the coast of Maine. Many colored icons represent threatened or endangered species of fish, birds, invertebrates, and plants that are found in this area. Shaded areas of shoreline show where sensitive habitats are found. For more information on this graphic and more detailed ESI maps, please email orr.webmaster@noaa.gov.

Environmental Sensitivity Index maps categorize and display information about plants, animals, and habitats that are sensitive to environmental hazards. This map shows part of the Maine coast. Shorelines are color-coded by sensitivity to oil. Icons and shaded areas reflect types of threatened, endangered, or rare species of plants or animals that live there (NOAA ESI 2016).

Infographic Description

This graphic describes a number of software programs and tools used by responders to address oil or chemical spills. The background of the graphic depicts a city and nearby shoreline.

In the city beside a hospital and house, the text reads: MARPLOT (Mapping Application for Response, Planning, and Local Operational Tasks) is a mapping program in CAMEO that allows users to add objects to maps, as well as view and edit data associated with those objects.

In the city from lit windows in a tall building is one callout image of a person working at a computer, with text that reads: “DIVER Explorer (Data Integration Visualization Exploration and Reporting) provides public access to NRDA data, including photographs, telemetry, field observations, and results of laboratory analysis.” There is an arrow from this callout to another, featuring a person in a yellow hard hat, with text that reads “ERMA (Environmental Response Management Application) is an online mapping tool integrating static and real-time data in a n easy-to-use format for environmental responders and decision makers.”

On the road next to the city above a fire truck, the text reads “CAMEO (Computer-Aided Management of Emergency Operations) is a software suite designated to help prepare for and respond to chemical emergencies.”

Next to the road, a railcar that has been derailed and is leaking smoke accompanies text that reads “ALOHA (Areal Locations of Hazardous Atmospheres) is an air hazard modeling program in CAMEO that estimates how a toxic cloud might disperse after a chemical release, including fire and explosion scenarios.”

Three overturned barrels are leaking material onto the shoreline beside the road, with text that reads “CAMEO Chemicals is a database program in CAMEO with thousands of hazardous chemical datasheets and a tool for predicting possible hazards from mixing chemicals.”

In the water beside the leaking barrels, there is text that reads “TAP (Trajectory Analysis Planner) analyzes statistics from potential spill trajectories generated by the oil spill trajectory model.”

On the other side of the graphic on the shoreline, there is a patch of seagrass with text that reads “ESI Maps (Environmental Sensitivity Index maps) provide a concise summary of coastal resources at risk if an oil spill occurs nearby.”

In the water beside the seagrass, the text reads “ROC (Response Options Calculator) predicts how spilled oil will change and degrade over time and the volume of oil that can be recovered, burned, or treated using different response tactics.”

In the center of the image there is a vessel with a yellow floating boom around part of an oil spill. Beside the oil spill, the text reads “GNOME (General NOAA Operational Modeling Environment) is a software modeling tool used to predict how oil and other pollutants might move and spread on the water.”

Beneath the oil spill through the water column, a school of fish swims into a darkened patch of water. Most of the fish are blue and green, but fish within the dark patch are red. Beside the fish the text reads “CAFE (Chemical Aquatic Fate and Effects) is a database program that helps responders assess potential harm to aquatic life from chemical or oil spills.”

On the other side of the dark patch of oil in the water column, the text reads “ADIOS (Automated Data Inquiry for Oil Spills) models how different types of oil change and degrade in the marine environment.”