Physical Oceanography Unit participates in the MALTEX 11 Oil Recovery Response Exercise    

For the fourth 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). The exercise this year was conducted at a sea location off Zonqor Point, Marsascala, a fictitious collision between two cargo tankers and the release of oil, was simulated.

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.

In the exercise an oil leak resulting from the collision of two vessels due to severe bad weather was simulated. In this fictitious scenario, the broken and leaking cargo tanker was assumed to be at a depth of 100m and had 2,500 cubic meters of heavy oil stored in the wing and centre tanks. The accident was taken to happen at 35o 54.5’ N latitude and 14o 37.5’ E longitude.

Capt R. Gabriele (MMA) coordinated the event as chief response commander. The ships on scene were Santa Maria, Balluta Bay, Felicia, Spinola, St. Rocco, AFM Patrol Boat, Police Rib and Bravo. Transport Malta, the Armed Forces of Malta, Falzon Marine, Tankship Management Ltd., Cassar Ship Repair, Tug Malta Ltd., EMSA, Malta Pilots and the Police, participated in the exercise. Members of the PO-Unit provided input from the Emergency Control Centre (ECC) at Transport Malta.

Figure 1 shows how the slick would have progressed in the subsequent 48 hours under the action of meteorological and sea conditions forecasted by the PO-Unit. Click here to view animation. In this particular scenario the slick continued to drift away from the coast in the SE direction, allowing the response team to effectively contain the leak with no 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.

Figure 1: The predicted evolution of the oil slick


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 and provides 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.

Figure 2: HF radar installation sites in Malta and Sicily

Further upgrading to the forecasting and oil spill models is being done through the CALYPSO project , partly financed by the EU under the Operational Programme Italia-Malta 2007-2013, and co-ordinated by Prof. Aldo Drago from the Physical Oceanography Unit. which is also coordinated by the PO-Unit. The main aim of this project is to utilise top-end technology, consisting of an array of HF radars to monitor in real-time marine surface conditions in the Malta Channel. The CALYPSO project brings together 4 partners from Malta (namely University of Malta, Transport Malta, Civil Protection Malta and Armed Forces of Malta) and 4 partners from Sicily (ARPA Sicilia, IAMC-CNR Capo Granitola, Università degli Studi di Palermo and Universita’ Di Catania). The consortium consists of research entities and also public entities with responsibilities for civil and environmental protection, surveillance, security and response to hazards. The HF radar system set-up within this project will consist of permanent installations on the Malta/Gozo northern shoreline and on the southern Sicilian side as shown in Figure 2. The system will be able to operate routinely to provide synoptic maps of currents in real-time every hour and with a high resolution and coverage in space. Data from the HF radars together with outputs from numerical modelling applications that will be also further developed within this project, provide accurate information that allow the monitoring and effective response for the eventuality of an oil spill.

Around 20% of global oil transported by sea traverses the Mediterranean, amounting to an annual flux of 350 million tons of crude oil and refined products. Most of this maritime traffic travels across the Malta Channel and includes, besides oil, many other hazardous liquid substances. Hence, the risk of oil from marine spillages beaching on shores and hitting important economic resources and causing irreversible environmental damage is a very realistic menace in the stretch of sea between Malta and Sicily. Especially in a small island state like Malta where economic assets are concentrated in space, the damage would be even more devastating. Such risks can be highly minimised by using the best tools for surveillance, operational monitoring against pollution threats, as well as a capacity to respond with informed decisions in case of emergency. Therefore, real-time data from such an HF-radar network would be crucial in the response for such environmental emergencies.

More information on the CALYPSO project can be accessed from: Research and development on forecasting models and the oil spill modelling system is carried out under the coordination of the 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.