Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


The shape of things to come

Mathematical methods help predict movement of oil and ash following environmental disasters

When oil started gushing into the Gulf of Mexico in late April 2010, friends asked George Haller whether he was tracking its movement. That's because the McGill engineering professor has been working for years on ways to better understand patterns in the seemingly chaotic motion of oceans and air. Meanwhile, colleagues of Josefina Olascoaga in Miami were asking the geophysicist a similar question. Fortunately, she was.

For those involved in managing the fallout from environmental disasters like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, it is essential to have tools that predict how the oil will move, so that they make the best possible use of resources to control the spill. Thanks to work done by Haller and Olascoaga, such tools now appear to be within reach. Olascoaga's computational techniques and Haller's theory for predicting the movement of oil in water are equally applicable to the spread of ash in the air, following a volcanic explosion.

"In complex systems such as oceans and the atmosphere, there are a lot of features that we can't understand offhand," Haller explains. "People used to attribute these to randomness or chaos. But it turns out, when you look at data sets, you can find hidden patterns in the way that the air and water move." Over the past decade, the team has developed mathematical methods to describe these hidden structures that are now broadly called Lagrangian Coherent Structures (LCSs), after the French mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange.

"Everyone knows about the Gulf Stream, and about the winds that blow from the West to the East in Canada," says Haller, "but within these larger movements of air or water, there are intriguing local patterns that guide individual particle motion." Olascoaga adds, "Though invisible, if you can imagine standing in a lake or ocean with one foot in warm water and the other in the colder water right beside it, then you have experienced an LCS running somewhere between your feet."

"Ocean flow is like a busy city with a network of roads," Haller says, "except that roads in the ocean are invisible, in motion, and transient." The method Haller and Olascoaga have developed allows them to detect the cores of LCSs. In the complex network of ocean flows, these are the equivalent of "traffic intersections" and they are crucial to understanding how the oil in a spill will move. These intersections unite incoming flow from opposite directions and eject the resulting mass of water. When such an LCS core emerges and builds momentum inside the spill, we know that oil is bound to seep out within the next four to six days. This means that the researchers are now able to forecast dramatic changes in pollution patterns that have previously been considered unpredictable.

So, although Haller wasn't tracking the spread of oil during the Deepwater Horizon disaster, he and Olascoaga were able to join forces to develop a method that does not simply track: it actually forecasts major changes in the way that oil spills will move. The two researchers are confident that this new mathematical method will help those engaged in trying to control pollution make well-informed decisions about what to do.

For an abstract of the paper just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:

The research was funded by: the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), NIH/National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, NASA, BP/The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, and Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).


Katherine Gombay
Relations avec les médias | Media Relations
Université McGill | McGill University
T. 514-398-2189!/McGilluMedia
Barbra Gonzalez
Communications, Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Studies
Univeristy of Miami
T. 305-421-4704

Katherine Gombay | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Ecology, The Environment and Conservation:

nachricht Invasive Insects Cost the World Billions Per Year
04.10.2016 | University of Adelaide

nachricht Malaysia's unique freshwater mussels in danger
27.09.2016 | The University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus

All articles from Ecology, The Environment and Conservation >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Etching Microstructures with Lasers

Ultrafast lasers have introduced new possibilities in engraving ultrafine structures, and scientists are now also investigating how to use them to etch microstructures into thin glass. There are possible applications in analytics (lab on a chip) and especially in electronics and the consumer sector, where great interest has been shown.

This new method was born of a surprising phenomenon: irradiating glass in a particular way with an ultrafast laser has the effect of making the glass up to a...

Im Focus: Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

Terahertz excitation of selected crystal vibrations leads to an effective magnetic field that drives coherent spin motion

Controlling functional properties by light is one of the grand goals in modern condensed matter physics and materials science. A new study now demonstrates how...

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

Greater Range and Longer Lifetime

26.10.2016 | Power and Electrical Engineering

VDI presents International Bionic Award of the Schauenburg Foundation

26.10.2016 | Awards Funding

3-D-printed magnets

26.10.2016 | Power and Electrical Engineering

More VideoLinks >>>