Computer Modeling Shows Disastrous Impact of a Pipeline Break at Mackinac

By Meador, Ron | MinnPost.com, July 17, 2014 | Go to article overview

Computer Modeling Shows Disastrous Impact of a Pipeline Break at Mackinac


Meador, Ron, MinnPost.com


Shortly after Tuesday's piece on the rising risk of oil-train accidents went up, I heard from a couple of readers who suggested that maybe I should also have addressed the issues around oil shipment via pipeline.

One, who took a mildly chiding tone, pointed out that the same environmental groups who oppose rail shipment of oil also oppose creation of new pipeline capacity -- the only realistic alternative to more oil trains.

Another pointed out that both methods carry serious risks, which cannot be reduced without radical changes in American petroleum use, or in the infrastructure for distributing oil products, or both.

All fair points, and they reminded me of a piece of research I had laid aside last week for later consideration, on the subject of what a pipeline failure at the Straits of Mackinac could do to the Great Lakes basin.

Now's as good a time as any for a closer look at that work, and at the highly disturbing scenario it documents with what seems to me quite impressive scientific rigor.

Depending on your hydrological preferences, the Straits is either a 5-mile-wide waterway linking Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, or a narrows at the middle of a single Great Lake where the northern and southern shorelines come within five miles of meeting.

The watery gap is spanned by the Mackinac Bridge, connecting upper and lower Michigan. It is also spanned, under the surface and at depths of up to 270 feet, by Line 5 of Enbridge Energy Partners LP's Lakehead System.

Line 5 originates in the port of Superior, Wisconsin, and runs to Sarnia, Ontario, at the southern tip of Lake Huron. At the Straits, it splits temporarily into two 20-inch-diameter pipes, laid in 1953, which can carry up to 23 million gallons of crude oil per day.

This is a key link in the Lakehead System, which originates in northwest North Dakota and which, like the rest of the North American oil-transport infrastructure, is growing ever busier with booming production in the Dakota and Alberta oil fields.

'Worst possible place' for spill

It is also, in the opinion of oceanographer David Schwab, "the worst possible place" in the Great Lakes to have a major oil spill.

Schwab recently retired from a 30-year career at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and its Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory; he now works as a research scientist at the University of Michigan Water Center.

Schwab's longtime specialty is understanding the way lake water flows in the Great Lakes -- from seasonal variations and seiches to storm surges -- and developing models to predict these dynamics.

And he has had a special interest in the Straits, where the flow between Michigan and Huron has long been known to change direction every few days or so, and in understanding those patterns in three dimensions -- not just surface flows, but movements of water up from the depths and back down again.

Last December, he published a research paper in the respected Journal of Great Lakes Research that presented the first three- dimensional modeling of flows at the Straits. The methods laid out in the paper create a new capability "to investigate and accurately predict flow at the Straits of Mackinac and its effect on Lake Michigan and Huron" -- which, the paper noted, in combination form "the largest lake in the world by surface area and the fourth largest by volume (containing nearly 8% of the world's surface freshwater)."

Based on what he has learned about the way water moves between them, Schwab said in an interview with the Detroit Free Press last week, "I can't think -- in my experience -- of another place on the Great Lakes where an oil spill would have as wide an area of impact, in as short of time, as at the Straits of Mackinac."

The Free Press story concerned a more recent research project of Schwab's, using three-dimensional modeling and computer animations to predict visually -- so nonscientists like me, and most of you, might understand --how a major oil spill at the Straits would move into the two lakes. …

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