New Cook Inlet spill tool makes debut during Kulluk grounding

A recently released, web-based oil spill response tool developed specifically for Cook Inlet helped responders monitoring Royal Dutch Shell’s grounded Kulluk oil drilling rig near Kodiak, officials close to the situation said.

The Cook Inlet Response Tool is the result of an 18-month partnership between the Alaska Ocean Observing System and Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council to synthesize high-resolution images of area coastline with various layers of data helpful in preparing for, or responding to an oil spill.

The CIRT allows spill responders and planners — as well as researchers, managers, and the curious public — to stream high definition video from coastal aerial surveys, view weather, wind speeds, water levels, temperatures, ocean currents, biological information and other data from more than 100 real time sensors. The tool also allows for visualization of “climate and oceanographic forecast models across time and depth,” and for accessing other useful data in sensitive habitat areas.

“We all saw pictures of the Kulluk when it went aground, well the tide was pretty high and the surf was really up,” said Susan Saupe, CIRCAC Director of Science and Research. “Well, (using CIRT) you could pull up imagery and see exactly what that looks like at the very lowest tides.”

Officials planned not to release the CIRT tool until mid-January, but it was recently made available to Shell and now the public. Although the tool focuses on Cook Inlet, it incorporates data layers — one of which is the Alaska ShoreZone’s high-resolution images and video of coastline — for a larger area that were of help to Shell’s responders, Saupe said. In addition to visuals, the tool provided area data like habitat information, real-time wind, weather, ocean sensors, and forecast models of wind and ocean currents, Saupe wrote in an email.

Saupe spoke from Kodiak late last week as she was sent there by CIRCAC to be close to the Kulluk. Although the grounding incident did not result in a spill — the rig carried about 150,000 gallons of diesel and approximately 12,000 gallons of other petroleum products — it illustrates how the tool could be used to respond to an actual spill, the threat of one, or to prepare, she said.

“Imagine an oil spill happened in the middle of the night and it’s winter and you’re not going to be able to do an overflight until 10 hours later,” Saupe said. “You know a lot of Alaska’s coastline is remote and people don’t know what it looks like. A chart can only tell you so much, and Google Earth pictures are not that great and they are not often done at low tides or anything.”

The images are combined with information on habitats that are particularly sensitive to oil and that provide special habitat for other species like kelp and eelgrass beds and herring spawn areas, Saupe wrote in an email. CIRT is also the first time the highest resolution video from the ShoreZone surveys has been available online, she wrote.

“Instead of having this information in all these different places you could be able to pull all this information up and look at it together because the intersection of all this information often times tells you a lot about what areas are at most risk,” she said. “Or what areas might retain oil the longest if oil were to hit the shore.”

However, the CIRT tool does not provide a specific oil spill trajectory model. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration makes that projection at the time of the incident, Saupe said.

“In the future, we hope to integrate those trajectories into CIRT so that the trajectories could be visualized along with coastal imagery and data where the trajectories intersect with near-shore (and) intertidal areas,” Saupe wrote.

The CIRT tool can also be accessed by anyone, including search and rescue teams, permitting agencies, recreational users, pilots and others.

“Anybody who has an interest in the coastal marine environment, I think, in this part of Alaska can benefit from information provided on that,” she said.

The CIRT tool can be found online at

Brian Smith can be reached at [email protected].

01/16/2013 - 11:42am