Up close, the Gulf oil spill is horrific, but difficult to grasp. What does it mean to have millions of gallons of crude oil spreading through the water?
Malcolm L. Spaulding, a professor of ocean engineering at the University of Rhode Island, has been modeling oil spills, their impacts and containment since the 1970s. The company he co-founded in 1979, Applied Science Associates, is an international leader in this field.
PBN: You’ve been modeling oil spills for a long time. How did that start?
SPAULDING: We got a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy in the early 1970s to look at the efficacy of using dispersants to treat spills. I worked on two big pieces of that project: to develop an oil spill model, and to develop a tool to assess the impact of oil spills on commercial fisheries. … Those technologies have been commercialized [through Applied Science Associates] and are very widely used now.
PBN: Some of those tools are being used to model the Gulf oil spill?
SPAULDING: The model is being used to assist in figuring out where to go to do sampling.
Our spill models have been used in every major oil spill for the last 25 years, so this represents another case example. … [But] the way the system is structured now is that the company is under directions from the [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] to not comment to the press beyond saying that they’re working on this.
PBN: How much have these tools improved over time?
SPAULDING: The evolution of them actually followed quite closely the evolution of computing systems. … What we’ve seen is a dramatic increase in computing capacity and access to data via the Internet. So we’re bringing in enormous amounts of information, and the models have gotten much, much more complex as a result.