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June 2015
Oil Spill at Refugio State Beach: SeaSonde Helps IOOS Protect The Coast
Contributed by Brian Emery & Libe Washburn of University of California, Santa Barbara

On the afternoon of May 19th, 2015, between 21,000 and 105,000 gallons of oil flowed from a cracked pipeline on to the beach just west of Santa Barbara, California. While there is much to be learned about the ecological impact and the efficiency of the clean up, the spill provided an exemplary test of the effectiveness of an operational coastal ocean observing system built with SeaSondes.


The spill occurred just a few hundred yards from one of the longest continuously operating HF radars sites in the U.S. The Refugio State Beach SeaSonde began operation in Oct. 1997 and was established with funds provided by the W.M. Keck Foundation and the Minerals Management Service (MMS), now known as Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. The W.M. Keck Foundation was interested in the use of HF radar for ecological studies while the MMS saw its potential for assisting spill response efforts. This illustrates the value of HF radar for basic science and for environmental protection.

Oil Spill at Refugio State Beach: SeaSonde® Helps IOOS Protect The Coast

Figure 1: The mobile SeaSonde HF radar unit owned by Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, deployed by UCSB researchers near Gaviota State Beach, California.

 

Map of the Santa Barbara Channel showing the TRL site, the spill site near the RFG SeaSonde, and a simulation of the advection of oil (blue particles) about 6 days after the spill. 

Through the years, a number of agencies funded the operation and expansion of the HF radar network in and around the Santa Barbara Channel. These included the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans (PISCO), and the California state Coastal Ocean Current Monitoring Program (COCMP). The COCMP aided the development of the larger U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS), managed by NOAA, by providing funds for most of the HF radars now operating along the California coast. U.S. IOOS now funds HF radar operations around the United States through a series of regional observing systems. The HF radars used in the Refugio oil spill are part of the IOOS-funded Southern California Coastal Ocean Observing System (SCCOOS). Because the SCCOOS SeaSondes were in place before and during the Refugio oil spill, maps of regional ocean currents were readily available to spill responders when needed.

Figure 2: Map of the Santa Barbara Channel showing the TRL site, the spill site near the RFG SeaSonde, and a simulation of the advection of oil (blue particles) about 6 days after the spill.


 

SCCOOS observations of ocean currents are available in real time for scientists, response managers and the general public. Sites like the SeaSonde at Refugio are connected to the HFRNET, a data aggregation hub, run by Scripps Institution of Oceanography Coastal Ocean Research and Development Center (CORDC). As news of the spill made its way to NOAA, data from SCCOOS HF radar sites, were available for NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration (ORR) who operate a spill response model. Along with the California State Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR), the SeaSonde data were used in comparing results with numerical oil spill forecast models and coordinating the efforts of some 30 vessels.

As news of the spill spread, SeaSonde operators at UC Santa Barbara and SCCOOS personnel at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego worked to ensure that data were continuously available to responders and managers. UC Santa Barbara personnel deployed a mobile, solar-powered HF radar site (Fig. 1) owned by Cal Poly San Luis Obispo near Gaviota State Beach (TRL, Fig. 2) just west of the spill site. This installation augmented the coastal ocean area covered by the existing HF radars. Cal Poly San Luis is a member of the Central and Northern California Coastal Ocean Observing System (CeNCOOS). Within hours of the spill, Eduardo Romero and a group of volunteers from UCSB had the site in place and operating. Early the following morning, Mr. Romero completed an antenna pattern measurement using an autonomous system developed at UCSB. Shortly after that, data from the new site was on the HFRNET, and available for use by spill responders.

To supplement the oil spill model runs by NOAA, Brian Emery of UCSB ran a local spill simulation, which showed how oil might move under the action of surface currents measured by the SeaSondes. (Fig. 2, see also: http://euler.msi.ucsb.edu/realtime/spill/sim/). This simulation, an implementation of a Lagrangian Stochastic Model (LSM), was used by local UCSB researchers in efforts to guide ecological assessment. The location of the Refugio the spill occurred in a region with extensive ecological and oceanographic data from before the spill. These baseline data were collected as part of the NSF-sponsored Santa Barbara Coastal Long Term Ecological Research (SBC LTER) site and the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans (PISCO) funded by the David and Lucille Packard Foundation.

This collection and delivery of real-time ocean current data to assist responders with this spill was the culmination of years of work by many groups. Fortunately, the spill was relatively small and it is hoped that the negative impacts will not be long lasting. The event provided an opportunity to demonstrate improvements to spill response resulting from the efforts of U.S. IOOS, and the technological advances provided by the SeaSonde.

Oil-coated rocks at Refugio State Beach in Santa Barbara County, California. Image credit: NOAA
Oil-coated rocks at Refugio State Beach in Santa Barbara County, California. Image credit: NOAA

 

 






                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          




 

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