The European Space Agency (ESA) in mid February began issuing ocean current forecasts to the oil production industry based on a combination of state-of-the-art ocean models and satellite measurements.
The program, dubbed Ocean Focus, is designed to warn the industry of dangerous eddies and proved beneficial almost immediately, as the forecasts was able to provide oil production operators of a new warm eddy that has formed in the oil and gas-producing region of the Gulf of Mexico.
These eddies, similar to underwater hurricanes, spin off the Loop Current - an intrusion of warm surface water that flows northward from the Caribbean Sea through the Yucatan Strait then moving past the tip of Florida, into the Atlantic to initiate the Gulf Stream. In the Gulf, the Loop can become quite unstable, which results in the creation of warm eddies.
Oil companies require early warning of these eddies in order to minimize loss of production, optimize deep water drilling activities and prevent damage to underwater equipment used extensively in the region for deep water oil production activities. In summer 2003, such eddies caused serious and very costly damage to deep water installations in the Gulf of Mexico.
Ocean Focus was developed by Ocean Numerics, a joint venture of France's Collecte Localisation Satellites, Fugro Global Environmental & Ocean Sciences of the United Kingdom and Norway's Nansen Environmental and Remote Sensing Centre. The program is partially supported by ESA's Earth Observation Market Development program.
The Loop Current and eddies shedding from it pose two problems for underwater production systems: direct force and induced vibrations, which create more stress than direct force and results in higher levels of fatigue and structural failure.
Previous attempts to use Earth observation data were based on sea surface temperature measurements only. However, temperature measurements in the Gulf of Mexico are limited during the summer, due to the uniform warm temperatures of the surface layer. Ocean Focus combines satellite measurements of sea surface temperature, altimeter measurements of sea surface height and ocean color measurements, with in-situ data, while using state-of-the art numerical modeling techniques. The combination of data allows Ocean Focus to provide current water velocity, as well as animations and recent satellite images useful for exploration, drilling, construction and production activities. All information is disseminated via a secure web site, e-mail or fax.
Allowing with helping to protect equipment from damage, Ocean Focus forecasts will be used in planning major operations such as installing new equipment - which can be very sensitive to local conditions and may require prolonged windows of low current speed to achieve successful completion.
Currently, the Loop Current is flowing north of its average position, sparking concerns that more eddies could be generated over the next few weeks, ESA said. The current eddy, dubbed Walker, was detected breaking away from the Loop Current in mid February.
Ocean Focus also is being developed for application in West Africa and Brazil.