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Dynamics and Impacts of Deep Water Oil Spills in the Faroe-Shetland Channel | Seth Thomas

Updated: Aug 9, 2020

EnvEast is a new doctoral training partnership offering a wide variety of projects in Environmental Sciences. Recently recruiting it’s second cohort of students, a fresh batch of research projects are getting underway, both at UEA and other partner institutions. Today, we are focusing on one project, from new Student Ryan Gilchrist, Dynamics and Impacts of Deep Water Oil Spills in the Faroe-Shetland Channel.

Oil Spill Dynamics

The Deepwater Horizon Spill in the Gulf of Mexico was perhaps the worst marine environmental disaster in history. It took authorities over three months to plug the well, and caused billions of pounds worth of damage.

As the oil industry slowly recovers, there is growing concern that a similar incident could occur in UK waters. One area where oil exploration continues to venture out into deeper water is the Faroe-Shetland Channel (FSC), which is often described as having the most extreme oceanography on the planet.

Many dramatic physical processes occur within the channel, including mesoscale eddies, internal tides, extreme surface waves, and along-slope currents at the shelf break, making it both a very interesting and challenging area to study.

Of these variables, eddies and internal waves are poorly represented with present-day spill response systems. However, they may also be important mixers of oil in the ocean.

Ryan’s project will help bridge this knowledge gap, and give us an insight into how these processes influence the trajectory and fate of fossil fuels released below the sea surface. I recently met Ryan to talk through what his project means to him, and how he intends to tackle it.

Why UEA?

S: What lead you to apply for your project?

R: I’ve always had a fascination with how much there is left to discover within our oceans. I also have a background in how energy generation systems interact with our atmosphere and oceans. This project is the perfect opportunity to conglomerate all of my academic interests to work on something with good industrial application. Not only would I be learning more about what I love, but would also be helping to make a difference in what the industry puts into practice.

S: UEA has produced leading research into ocean-atmosphere interactions, did this play a part in your application?

R: I’d already been at UEA for my undergraduate degree, so had a good idea of what the university was like before applying. I’m continually impressed by what the university has to offer, and combined with how well-known the environmental sciences department is, it was a no-brainer. I’d also be working with the Centre for Environmental, Fisheries and Aquaculture Sciences (Cefas), in Lowestoft. I’d love to work somewhere like Cefas one day, so to be able to get involved there from the first week was an opportunity too good to miss.

S: I know that EnvEast produced a real opportunity for me, was the DTP in anyway a deciding factor in your choice of institution?

R: EnvEast was the final piece of the puzzle. The DTP offer a huge selection of useful training opportunities. There’s something for everyone, which is incredible when you consider just how different each PhD project is. There’s also something to be said for the people you are surrounded by whilst studying. EnvEast make a large effort to bring us all together as researchers, through summer/winter schools, webinars between different institutions, and even inter-cohort events.

S: That’s great, a lot of that echoes across the cohort. So talk to me about your research, what are it’s major aims?

R: This project will help to better our understanding of how key mixing processes can be represented in numerical models. Our current response system relies on very coarse hydrodynamic forcing fields (10km horizontal and 50m vertical resolution), which is inadequate for resolving eddies and internal waves. Consequently, new parameterisations need to be developed to enable future models to more accurately predict the path of sub-surface oil plumes.

S: A lot of focus is on science and industry collaborations across NERC funded projects currently, do you see any potential for this in your work?

This work will also help to improve the emergency response systems. This benefits the industry by reducing the large uncertainty associated with oil pollution emergency plans, an important step for the development of new wells. Finally, the government will benefit, through improvements to the advice given by Cefas on mitigation and emergency response measures. As a result, the risk of severe environmental damage will be reduced. These aims will be achieved through the use of a three-pronged approach: observations of key physical processes from ADCP, CTD and seaglider data, using models to help validate data and provide a sensitivity analysis of present day hydrodynamic models, and exploration of operational oil spill models to identify their strengths and weaknesses.

S: That’s really interesting, but what about you in particular? If you could realise one outcome of your work, what would you chose?

R: If I could choose one outcome of my research, it would be to successfully use seagliders to observe the important spill dynamics in the FSC. With significant budget cuts likely to occur over the next few years, DEFRA will be looking to replace research cruises with autonomous underwater vehicles. To be able to help with this transition, and maintain a high quality of science in the face of reduced resources, would be a very fulfilling experience.

One of Many

Ryan is just one of many project students in EnvEast. I mentioned in a previous post that EnvEast is producing a new generation of scientist, with fresh perspectives on research. Ryan is a prime example of this, yet not the only one. You can follow the research and more of EnvEast students over at their own website.

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