After the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, the federal government launched a geospatial information system that gave first responders and the public unprecedented access to timely data on the oil spill’s trajectory, the state of fisheries, weather conditions, the exact location of response vessels and much more.
The cutting-edge online data system had been developed as a small pilot project and operational site, and was greatly expanded in the midst of the crisis by Amy Merten and her team from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of New Hampshire. The site provided officials with continuous information on the worst oil spill in the nation’s history and helped shape critical decisions on how they responded to the environmental disaster.
“It allowed us to have a complete picture of what we were doing and what was occurring in the Gulf. The technology has been there, but it’s never been applied in a disaster that was this large scale,” said Ret. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the national incident commander for the spill. “We’re going to have to incorporate this system into our disaster response doctrine.”
Allen said Merten was instrumental in setting up the situational awareness system, and with her team, keeping the voluminous data flowing every day of the lengthy crisis. “She combines the technical expertise and knowledge of information technology and data systems with a sense of mission,” said Allen.
On April 20, 2010, a British Petroleum offshore oil rig exploded, killing 11 workers and ultimately spewing about 5 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The spill resulted in devastating consequences for fragile wetlands, critical habitats, fisheries, wildlife and beaches in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida. The oil well was capped after 86 days and declared dead that September.
Merten and her team were dispatched to the Gulf soon after the oil rig explosion, taking a data system she and researchers at the University of New Hampshire created in 2008 and building it into a major online geospatial system as the environmental disaster was unfolding.
The web-based system featured an interactive map called the Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA) that provided massive flows of data coming from more than a dozen agencies involved in the spill response, and made it all available in one place.
Points of interest, such as the surface location of the damaged wellhead, command posts for the clean-up effort, community outreach centers, the wind and wave conditions, satellite views of the oil footprint, fishery area closures, ship locations and wildlife situations, were all marked on the map and accessible with the click of a computer mouse.
Merten said the idea for creating ERMA originally stemmed from a presentation she saw using real-time weather information for web-mapping. After years of relying on manual maps and lagging information, Merten said she became determined to create a decision-making tool that would provide timely and comprehensive data to help leaders respond to oil spills.
“We had a lot of naysayers,” said Merten. But she said the Environmental Protection Agency, Coast Guard and NOAA leaders were supportive, and helped pave the way for its success.
“This is a revolutionary project because we have now moved into a different way of managing our responses,” said Robert Haddad, division chief for NOAA’s Assessment and Restoration Division.
Merten, the spatial data branch chief for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, also developed a parallel system to provide the general public with detailed information about what was happening in the Gulf. When this interactive website went live on the Internet, it received more than 3.9 million hits on the first day.
“There were millions of people regionally that the spill affected. Amy’s efforts to bring that information to the public, given the importance not just for response decisions, but for fishermen and business owners down there, is an incredible accomplishment,” said Brian Julius, deputy director of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.
Most importantly, Merten said the system allowed those involved in crisis management, whether in Louisiana or Washington, D.C., to simultaneously have access to enormous amounts of data dealing with every aspect of the spill and the response.
“We were all operating off the same information and able to make decisions in a much faster and more comprehensive way than happened previously,” said Merten.
With the positive response to ERMA after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Merten has begun building another system for the Arctic and the U.S. Pacific Islands, and is updating the other ERMA programs developed for use in New England and the Caribbean.