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Engineers work on their SUNTANS as they track waves and beaches

Nearly a month has passed since the wounded tanker Prestige spilled thousands of tons of heavy oil into the Atlantic and fouled dozens of Spanish beaches. But anxious residents of coastal Spain and Portugal remain on high alert - wondering where and when the noxious crude will wash ashore next.

In recent years, tanker accidents have ruined fisheries and tourist beaches from Alaska to France. But do oil spills always have to end in catastrophe? Perhaps the most vulnerable beaches and coastal habitats could be identified and protected well in advance, if scientists had some way to predict where a glob of spilled crude was likely to end up.

A team of engineers from Stanford University is trying to accomplish that challenging task by developing a computer code capable of tracking massive internal waves that begin on the ocean floor and gather strength as they rise to the surface.

Internal waves can reach heights of 300 feet and often contain enough energy to move pollutants, debris and even boats long distances. Despite their size, internal waves are difficult to detect because they move invisibly below the surface.

"Tracking internal waves is important to the fishing industry and for understanding ocean pollution," said Margot Gerritsen, an assistant professor of petroleum engineering. "If you accidentally drop some pollutants into a coastal region, you'll want to be able to predict how quickly they mix."

Gerritsen and Stanford colleagues Robert Street and Oliver Fringer are spearheading SUNTANS - a federally funded research project to develop a computer code that can identify internal waves and forecast when they will reach the shore.

"What we're trying to do is simulate a coastal region precisely enough to find internal waves with our computer code and predict where they will break. Currently, there is no code that can do this accurately," Gerritsen said. She and her colleagues were scheduled to discuss the SUNTANS proj
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Contact: Mark Shwartz
mshwartz@stanford.edu
650-723-9296
Stanford University
9-Dec-2002


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