From oil spills to lost shipping containers - why 24/7 response modelling is a must

RPS’ General Manager of Ocean Science and Technology, Dr Sasha Zigic explains how early response modelling saves time, optimises resources, and minimises damage to the marine environment.

When the bulk carrier Wakashio ran aground onto a coral reef off the southern coast of Mauritius in late July 2020, there was no plan in place to deal with the impending disaster.

By early August - when the ship began leaking oil into the pristine lagoon - there was still no expert intel on the metocean conditions (wind and currents) to know where the oil would spread, to then aid an effective response.

The Mauritian marine environment boasts a rich biodiversity with the East African country’s waters home to thousands of species, coral reefs, seagrasses, and mangroves. But as the hours, days and weeks went by – the risks and long-term damage to the marine environment, sea life and human health intensified.

Wakashio oil spill - volunteers cleaning up along the coast of Mauritius

Volunteers work to limit the damage from the Wakashio oil spill

The two-hour window

RPS’ team of marine scientists and technical experts were called to help with the Wakashio spill. But had a plan been in place, the team could have begun work within two hours of the incident – not two weeks after the fact.

Time is critical when responding to maritime emergencies and response modelling helps to answer the crucial questions of:

  • Where is it (for example oil, chemical, or debris) heading?
  • What will it hit?
  • Which then informs: What will it hurt? And what can we do about it?

If you can’t predict where the oil is heading, as was the case with the Wakashio spill, you can’t plan and develop effective response strategies for combating the spill. You won’t know where to place equipment and response teams. You won’t know how far and wide the spill will spread in five hours… or five days or what will be impacted. Without this information you can’t respond quickly or reliably.

Delaying or failing to provide accurate and timely information during an incident will undoubtedly have long-lasting repercussions on both the environment and the economy.

State of play on our seas

The traffic on our seas is significant. A glance at MarineTraffic’s map shows how congested our waters are at any given time with all kinds of vessels setting course across the globe including container ships, tanker ships, bulk carriers, fishing trawlers, naval ships and cruise liners. Plus there are all the pipelines, rigs and other offshore infrastructure too.

An incident at sea has the potential to set off a devastating domino effect. Depending on what has occurred, a marine accident can shut down ports and shipping channels causing huge delays for industries and businesses around the world. Spills – whether oil, chemical, or vapour – can have devastating impacts on the environment and cause economic, health, food security and tourism losses. Not to mention damage to reputations if companies and/or authorities mismanage responses.

There are also huge fines, compensation payouts and the very real risk to marine and human life.

Responding in the immediate aftermath gives you the best possible chance to minimise the impact of the incident. As does ongoing monitoring of events, to refine and adapt response measures.

Wakashio oil spill - map showing spill modelling results

Map showing spill modelling results from the Wakashio oil spill

Round the clock help

For more than 40 years, RPS has been a leading provider of coastal and oceanographic modelling services. We provide situational awareness and modelling support for a wide range of organisations including oil and gas operators, governments agencies, emergency response companies and safety authorities to deal with maritime emergencies.

Our work has included responding to challenging oil and chemical spills as well as tracking objects adrift at sea like lost shipping containers, debris from offshore wind farms, microplastics, and powerless vessels. And we’re available 24/7, so our clients can get help any time, and any day of the year.

We work with organisations to understand their operations and potential risks. So, when an incident occurs, we can respond within hours with modelling and real-time response advice needed to answer the critical questions of where ‘it’ is heading and what ‘it’ will hit (and hurt). And we continue to provide ongoing response modelling and support services until the incident is settled.

As shipping traffic, offshore developments and maritime activities continue to increase, the importance of preparedness cannot be underestimated. The stakes are high, and being ready to face emergencies is not an option – it's a necessity.

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