Notre Dame faculty to assist in oil spill forecasting

by William G. Gilroy


University of Notre Dame researchers Joannes Westerink and Andrew Kennedy are participating in an innovative effort to forecast the movement of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to coastal areas of the Gulf Coast.

In 1991, Westerink, a professor of civil engineering and geological sciences at Notre Dame, and his MIT classmate Rick Luettich, now a University of North Carolina professor, developed ADCIRC: the Advanced Circulation Model. ADCIRC has since become the authoritative computer model for storm surge used by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the state of Louisiana to determine water levels due to hurricane surge and to design levee heights and alignments.


Westerink, Kennedy, Luettich and researchers from the University of Texas and Louisiana State University are now applying the ADCIRC program to help predict the near-shore and “inner-shore” movement of oil from the Horizon spill off the Louisiana coast.

Westerink notes that there are existing predictive models that are well suited for projecting the movement of the oil plume in deep ocean water and on the mid to outer continental shelf. However, these models lack the horizontal resolution and physics components that are critical for realistically portraying water and oil movement on the inner shelf, the near-shore and the “inner shore” (sounds, estuaries, marshes and bayous).

Westerink, Kennedy and their partners have received funding from the Department of Homeland Security and the National Science Foundation to apply ADCIRC to the oil spill and provide “nowcasts” and forecasts of the oil spill movement to the inner-shelf, near shore and inner-shore areas of coastal Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.

“The longevity of oil in seawater, which can be months to years, implies that a long-term, sustained response will be required throughout much of the Gulf (and perhaps beyond) to protect the fragile coastal habitat and the associated ecosystems,” Westerink said. “Given the great size of the potential impact area, accurately tracking and projecting the spill movement in the near shore is critically important for effectively allocating resources for cleanup and other mitigation efforts.”

ADCIRC employs computer science, coastal oceanography, mathematics and engineering to forecast tides, riverine flows, wind and wave-driven currents as well as incoming storm surge. Storm surge is the wall of water pushed onto land as a hurricane comes ashore. The model is increasingly more accurate as geographic detail, resolution and the underlying physics and computational engines are improved. Recent refinements have increased its accuracy to within half a meter 90 percent of the time in hindcasting high water for a hurricane.

The team of researchers also will be working to project oil movement onto land should the Gulf area be impacted by a hurricane during the rapidly approaching hurricane season.

A faculty member since 1990, Westerink directs the Computational Hydraulics Laboratory at Notre Dame. His research focuses on computational fluid mechanics, finite element methods, the modeling of circulation and transport in coastal seas and oceans, tidal hydrodynamics, and hurricane storm surge prediction.

Kennedy joined the Notre Dame faculty in 2007 and directs the Coastal Hydraulics Laboratory. His research focuses on wind wave theory, modeling and measurements.

Both laboratories are part of the Environmental Fluid Dynamics Laboratories within the College of Engineering.

Contacts: Joannes Westerink, professor of civil engineering and geological sciences, 574-631-6475,;
Andrew Kennedy, assistant professor of civil engineering and geological sciences, 574-631-6686,