For the third year running the Physical Oceanography Unit (PO-Unit) of the University of Malta has participated in an oil recovery response simulation exercise organized by the Transport Authority Maritime Section, the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) and the Regional Marine Pollution Emergency Response Centre (REMPEC). This year the exercise was conducted at a sea location off Munxar Point, simulating a fictitious collision between two vessels and the release of oil.

The exercise served to demonstrate the benefits of using the Malta MEDSLIK oil spill model run by the PO-Unit computing system to predict the circumstances and trajectory of oil slicks in the vicinity of the Maltese Islands, and to anticipate the likely impacts in the coastal areas. This model accurately predicts the expected state of the oil upon arriving at a specific location, including an estimate of how much oil would have evaporated, the degree of its emulsification, the amount dispersed as fine droplets through the water column, where the oil spill will most likely move to, how soon it will get there and which natural resources are at risk.  MEDSLIK also allows simulations having different boom orientations so as to assess the most adequate response under various scenarios.

The exercise simulated a continuous leak with an initial release of 250 cubic meters of oil leaked from a collision between a tanker and a cargo vessel around 35o 51.00’ N latitude and 14o 36.40’ E longitude. Capt R. Gabriele (MMA) coordinated the event as chief response commander. The M/T Santa Maria vessel acted as the ‘on-scene’ commander. A simulation of boom deployment in the ‘J’ and ‘U’ formation was carried out. The accompanying figure shows how the slick would have progressed in the subsequent 34 hours under the action of meteorological and sea conditions forecasted by the PO-Unit. In this particular scenario the slick continued to drift away from the coast in the SWW direction, allowing the response team to effectively contain the leak with minimal damage to the coastal regions. Bearing in mind that these favourable weather conditions may not always be the case in the event of a real oil slick – along with the fact that the stretch of sea separating the Maltese Islands from Sicily is amongst the most trafficked sea areas in the  Mediterranean by vessels carrying crude oil - the Maltese Islands are highly vulnerable to the hazards of oil spills at sea.

The PO-Unit is capable of running simulations within an extended Malta shelf region as well as over the Central Mediterranean up to the Libyan shores, thereby covering more than Malta’s domain. The MEDSLIK model makes use of the ROSARIO II Forecasting System which is also run operationally by the PO-Unit providing marine forecasts of sea surface temperature, sea currents and wind within the Malta shelf area. The forecast fields are published daily on a dedicated website.

Research and development on forecasting models and the oil spill modelling system is carried out under the coordination of PO-Unit’s director Prof. Aldo Drago. These activities were mostly developed within the ambit of EU funded projects. The PO-Unit works in collaboration with the Emergency Response Office (ERO), acting as a direct contact in the event of oil spills at sea in the Mediterranean.