The Gulf: What’s Next?

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Now that the Deepwater Horizon man-made gusher has been capped and most of the oil declared out of action, millions of Americans are breathing a sigh of relief, and the news media and national leadership are turning their attention to other high-priority issues. Wait, not so fast! We cannot afford simply to declare victory and move on. Now is the time to study, to learn and to invest in improved systems and processes that will provide insurance for the future. What could be next, and are we prepared to respond effectively?

The sensitivity of the economy to the environment has never been more apparent. Even now, the final effects of this incident on our productive Gulf Coast environment remain unknown. New regulations are needed, but no matter how complete and clever, they will never guarantee that similar or totally new catastrophes will not happen in the future.

It is evident that businesses and citizens rely on government agencies to have effective environmental warning and response systems to track, predict and recover from life- and economy-threatening conditions. There has never been a more critical time for government agencies to have relevant, funded research programs and the best operational technologies in place to forecast and respond to problems before they become disasters.

What would have happened if a Category 5 hurricane appeared in the Gulf of Mexico during the capping and containment operation? With a Gulf Coast smeared in oil, the threat of hurricanes in the region takes on an entirely new danger as these extreme weather patterns threaten to spread ecological and economic devastation from the shores of Mexico to the Eastern Seaboard. We were extremely fortunate such an event did not occur.

What should we be doing? Two examples provide an answer.

After the devastating earthquake and resultant tsunami at Banda Aceh in Sumatra, which cost the lives of more than 200,000 people, the United States invested in a successful effort to install a comprehensive tsunami warning system in the Pacific and North Atlantic oceans. As a result, rapid and accurate forecasts of tsunami waves were broadcast around the Pacific during the recent Chilean earthquake and tsunami. Emergency managers were able to warn and prepare quickly and effectively. This system is being expanded to the Indian Ocean by surrounding nations with international and U.S. assistance.

Another shining longer-term example is our hurricane tracking, warning and response system with coordinated actions from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and many other agencies from federal to local levels. While we cannot stop a hurricane, we can save lives and protect property because of improved forecasts coordinated with emergency actions.

This concept should be and can be enlarged. Even today, debate rages over the estimates and location of remaining oil in the gulf. What is the ongoing effect on our fisheries, beaches and water quality? What can we expect in the future, and more importantly, how can we anticipate the proper courses of action to minimize damage and harm to our environment and economy? Today, we simply do not have the observation assets and systems in place to answer these questions.

The answer begins with embracing as a national priority the installation of a comprehensive and sustainable environmental warning and response system. The technologies exist and are no more costly than present ocean and atmospheric sensors and buoys. Such a system would monitor the physical, chemical and biological characteristics of the Gulf and surrounding coastal areas. It would be a comprehensive system using a variety of Earth-observing space assets that were enormously useful during the current crisis, augmented by sea-based buoys and oil platforms with remote atmospheric and ocean sensors, land-based high-frequency radar systems, ocean gliders, and research fleets with underwater manned and unmanned vehicles.

Real-time data collection systems would gather the information, data centers would maintain and broadcast the information, and models would be used to monitor and determine changes in conditions. These models would also warn local, state and federal officials as to any developing issues, such as oil leaks, chemical changes, red tides and harmful beach conditions, storm conditions, and the potential effects on the coastal population.

Specifically, it would be highly useful to have fingerprints on file of all oil being produced from the Gulf wells for comparison to determine the location of any detected contamination and monitor movement through the water. Chemical sensors could determine the quality of the water and potential changes due to introduction of agents either accidentally (spills) or deliberately (dispersants or terrorist actions). Regular sampling of the food webs supporting important fisheries could be established to ensure both the economic value and the safety of our food supplies.

In addition to permanent placement of new observation assets, adequate resources and support would be needed for research programs that use these observations to expand our knowledge of the environment.

Improving and building new models is also critical. NOAA and its National Weather Service and Oceanic and Atmospheric Research branches and others are working on high-performance computing initiatives that that can predict, with relatively high accuracy, how changing weather patterns can affect disasters that happen in the Gulf. Specific to oil spills, high-performance computing could be engaged in the development of models that predict oil movement based on shifts in weather patterns, enabling businesses to engage in safe operations. Other important chemical and biological parameters could similarly be included. Such is the complexity of Earth system modeling that it now requires continual improvement of our high-performance computing assets to provide the answers.

The entire range of technology just described is necessary for success, but without effective organizations in the public and private sector to develop and operate the systems, there can be little benefit. Coordination across the relevant federal agencies needs to be in place long before a potential disaster happens again. Federal cooperation with state and local officials is essential. We have learned well how to accomplish these tasks during severe events such as hurricanes, floods and now tsunamis. We need to ensure this hard-gained knowledge is taken to the next level in supporting a comprehensive environmental warning and response system.

Never again should we have to ask questions such as: How much oil and where is it? With minimal resources devoted to space and in-situ sensors, communication systems, data centers, high-performance computing, modeling and forecasting, and with coordinated agency procedures in place, we can have confidence for the future.

Only through the development and implementation of reliable environmental warning and response systems can the effects of disasters be prevented or mitigated. When the economy is tied so closely to the environment, preventing and controlling these disasters is vital to the health of our economy and our citizens.

 

Retired U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Conrad C. Lautenbacher, former administrator of NOAA, is vice president of the North American Public Sector of CSC. The Falls Church, Va.-based global corporation provides technology-enabled solutions and services serving every department in the U.S., including environmental, health and defense agencies.