Researchers forecast wind and waves

Preventing oil pollution: Israeli-German research team is developing an early warning system for marine disasters

Professor Roberto Mayerle
Professor Roberto Mayerle Uni Kiel

The last major oil spill was only a few months ago: some 600 tonnes of crude oil polluted the Atlantic Ocean off the Brazilian coast in August 2019. In all, 200 beaches were affected. The cause has still not yet been identified, but there are suspicions about the sabotage of an oilfield auction in Venezuela. Dramatic oil disasters keep occurring all over the globe. Pipelines burst, oil wells leak and oil tankers collide. The consequences for seas and coastal regions are dramatic.

The project is being coordinated from Kiel University.
The project is being coordinated from Kiel University. imago images

However, the ecological, economic and health costs could be limited if it were possible to predict how wind and waves would spread an oil spill, enabling appropriate measures to be taken to prevent greater pollution of marine waters and coasts. This is precisely what an Israeli-German research team wants to achieve. Since 2019 it has been working hard to develop an automatic and intelligent information system that can issue early warnings in real time following a disaster, identify the exact location of the accident and make precise predictions about the spread of an oil spill. Dartis is the name of the binational research project involving Kiel University, the German Aerospace Center (DLR), the University of Haifa and Sea and Sun Technology GmbH. The research team, which is coordinated by Professor Roberto Mayerle in Kiel, aims to develop the system by 2022. It is initially intended to be deployed off the coast of Israel and subsequently worldwide

A cruise ship in the Suez Canal near Port Said
A cruise ship in the Suez Canal near Port Said Uni Kiel

Port Said in Egypt is the first test area

The researchers have selected Port Said as the test area. Oil accidents frequently occur off the coast near the port city in northeastern Egypt. The researchers can determine the location of pollution with the aid of satellite data and use model simulations to calculate the direction in which the crude oil will drift under the influence of the wind and the movement of the waves. This prognosis then makes it possible in turn to make recommendations on preventative measures.

A DLR team led by Dr Sven Jacobsen is responsible for the detection of oil pollution. “We determine the size and coordinates of a spill and then pass our data on to the colleagues in Kiel and Haifa, who then simulate the movement of the pollution,” explains Jacobsen. “The Israeli colleagues have the best local transport models. If we have the best possible model, we can order high-resolution satellite images of the area in a targeted way and determine the scale of an oil spill much more exactly. We can also apply this system to the German Bight or other locations where we have precise transport models.”

You barely notice a colleague’s nationality in international projects like these.

Sven Jacobsen, Head of the DLR team for Dartis

He says the interfaces between groups of researchers are crucial for the success of the joint project. “Everyone has relative autonomy over how they work on their individual project component and complete their part of the chain. Eventually, however, the individual links in the chain have to be connected together,” explains Jacobsen. His encounters with Israeli colleagues have been a very enriching experience. Jacobsen has not detected any intercultural tensions: “In my experience you barely notice a colleague’s nationality in international projects like these because solving a problem depends on a researcher’s expertise as an oceanographer, meteorologist or physicist. It’s like people say: science unites.”

Researcher exchange promotes cooperation

In addition to regular meetings in Germany and Israel, there is also an exchange of researchers. A doctoral student from Kiel University will go to Haifa for several months in the summer and work there in the Israeli research team. At the same time, two colleagues from Haifa will carry out research in the German team in Kiel.

Professor Isaac Gertman
Professor Isaac Gertman privat

Professor Isaak Gertman, Head of the Department of Physical Oceanography in Haifa, is impressed by the specialist expertise of his German colleagues. “Our collaboration has been very successful; we are working at a high scientific level. Our research field is totally new, and we are benefiting from the advantage that the colleagues in Kiel have in the field of data assimilation systems and artificial intelligence. Professor Mayerle’s team has a very extensive database and, as a result, data processing in the self-learning elements of our early warning system is also correspondingly productive.” Mayerle, the project coordinator who is himself Brazilian, is also extremely satisfied with the “close and very positive cooperation”. The professor, who has already led numerous collaborative projects with researchers from different parts of the world, considers Dartis one of his best projects, because the level of research, the commitment and the communication cultures of the participating researchers from Germany and Israel harmonise very well.

Coronavirus also hindering this project

Whether the exchange of research colleagues between Haifa and Kiel will actually take place this summer as planned remains to be seen since the Israeli government is currently denying travellers from Germany entry to the country as a result of the global coronavirus outbreak. In an age of digital communications, however, the virus will not be able to put the success of this Israeli-German research project at risk.