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Forecasting sudden changes in environmental pollution patterns

Olascoaga, María J., Haller, George
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 2012 v.109 no.13 pp. 4738-4743
air, atmosphere, disasters, ecosystems, mixing, oil spills, pollution, prediction, society, Gulf of Mexico
The lack of reliable forecasts for the spread of oceanic and atmospheric contamination hinders the effective protection of the ecosystem, society, and the economy from the fallouts of environmental disasters. The consequences can be dire, as evidenced by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. We present a methodology to predict major short-term changes in environmental contamination patterns, such as oil spills in the ocean and ash clouds in the atmosphere. Our approach is based on new mathematical results on the objective (frame-independent) identification of key material surfaces that drive tracer mixing in unsteady, finite-time flow data. Some of these material surfaces, known as Lagrangian coherent structures (LCSs), turn out to admit highly attracting cores that lead to inevitable material instabilities even under future uncertainties or unexpected perturbations to the observed flow. These LCS cores have the potential to forecast imminent shape changes in the contamination pattern, even before the instability builds up and brings large masses of water or air into motion. Exploiting this potential, the LCS-core analysis developed here provides a model-independent forecasting scheme that relies only on already observed or validated flow velocities at the time the prediction is made. We use this methodology to obtain high-precision forecasts of two major instabilities that occurred in the shape of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. This is achieved using simulated surface currents preceding the prediction times and assuming that the oil behaves as a passive tracer.