Federal scientists in Seattle are charged with tracking and predicting the course of the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. They use satellite images, computer programs and real-time weather data to forecast where the oil is headed and when it's likely to get there.

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The workday starts early for federal scientists in Seattle charged with tracking and predicting the course of the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Their first report is due before 3 a.m., for a White House briefing that starts at 6 sharp, East Coast time.

“We’re not quite 24-7, but we’re close to it,” said Doug Helton, who’s coordinating the scientific side of the spill response from a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) “war room” on the shores of Lake Washington.

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Helton and his team use satellite images, computer programs and real-time weather data to forecast where the oil is headed and when it’s likely to get there. With the slick already fouling the marshy coasts of Louisiana, NOAA experts are also helping identify the most sensitive areas and direct response crews.

“There’s not enough boom in the world to protect the whole shoreline,” Helton said. “You have to make choices and trade-offs.”

NOAA’s Emergency Response Division, based in Seattle, serves as the lead science adviser for major spills across the country.

Their “trajectory” models are among the most sophisticated in the world, drawing on a wide range of data, including real-time measurements from NOAA buoys of wave heights and wind speed and direction. The team is also able to get the information out quickly, providing maps within about an hour.

“We try to give the responders on the scene the best advance notice of where the oil is going,” Helton said.

The picture is grim.

“I don’t see how we’re going to avoid eclipsing the Exxon Valdez as the worst spill in the U.S.,” said Tom Leschine, director of the University of Washington’s School of Marine Affairs. Leschine, who analyzed the response to the 1989 Alaska spill, said readiness has improved — but is still fraught with weaknesses.

Among them is the lack of sustained funding for research on spill cleanup and tracking.

Methods for estimating the size of spills are still poor. The Coast Guard initially put the amount of oil gushing from the well at about 40,000 gallons a day, then upgraded it to more than 200,000 gallons.

If modelers don’t know how much oil is in the water, it’s hard to predict how the spill will behave and what its impacts will be, Leschine said. There’s also a gap in understanding underwater oil spills.

“This spill is coming from nearly a mile below the surface,” Leschine said. But modelers can’t yet predict with much accuracy how plumes of oil move through the water column.

Leschine is pushing for a UW-based research center to help bring the latest technology and science to spill response.

“We tend to infuse the funds into research after a spill, like Exxon Valdez,” he said. “Then as time goes by and spills don’t happen, the enthusiasm goes away.”

Helton and his colleagues use on-the-ground observations to reduce the uncertainty in their trajectory modeling. About 20 NOAA staff are stationed along the Gulf Coast to fly helicopter reconnaissance missions. Their observations, coupled with satellite images that are now available every few hours, identify the thickest and fastest-moving portions of the spill and give the models a more accurate starting point.

The Seattle team mobilized within a few hours of the April 20 oil-rig explosion that triggered the spill on the ocean floor. Initially, they applied their expertise on currents and weather conditions to help guide the search for survivors. Eleven crew members from the rig died in the accident.

It seemed like the major spill concern was the 700,000 gallons of diesel stored on the rig, Helton said. But it soon became clear that oil was pouring out of the ground at a staggering rate.

“I’ve been doing this for 15 years, and this is the largest one in my career,” he said.

Washington state is also contributing to the spill response.

The entire stockpiles of chemical dispersants and fireproof boom have been shipped to the Gulf, said Department of Ecology spokesman Curt Hart.

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com

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