Experts from Strathclyde are providing vital data modelling after a huge oil spillage off the coast of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean.

The Prime Minister of Mauritius, Pravind Jugnauth, declared a state of emergency after the MV Wakashio cargo ship, believed to have been carrying 4,000 tonnes of fuel oil, ran aground on a coral reef on 25 July.

A race against time operation was carried out to remove the oil from the ship. The Mauritian authorities confirmed this weekend that the Japanese-owned vessel had split in two.

Forecast spillage

Mechanical Engineer Dr Kamila Nieradzinska and Environmental scientist Dr Kieran Tierney from the University of Strathclyde, have been carrying out oil spill modelling in a bid to forecast the oil spillage directions in the surrounding waters and identify the zones most impacted.

The data has been used by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers in Mauritius who have been directing the response efforts and who shared the information with NGOs on the ground there. 

The experts, who have experience in marine contaminant modelling, created simulations on the dispersion and also on salvaging the ship. They also advised how ‘boom barriers’ of human hair in nylon could be employed to absorb the oil from the shore and clean the beaches on Mauritius, which is home to world-renowned coral reefs.

Local coastlines

Their ‘worst case scenario’ simulations, where no heavy fuel oil was able to be removed from the stranded ship and with a relatively high rate of fuel leaking, showed that the forecast currents and winds would distribute the oil along long stretches of the local coastlines to the west around the Point d’Esny and Blue Bay, a known sanctuary for rare wildlife. The area also contains wetlands designated as a site of international importance by the Ramsar convention on wetlands.

The island’s north west (Mahebourg) and north at Bois des Amourettes, with southern coastline of Ile Aux Aigrettes would also be impacted in the scenario.

The data-driven simulation project was initiated to help organisations, hoteliers, local businesses and volunteers to forecast the oil spillage directions and the experts were called in by Dr Amar Seeam, the Academic Director for Middlesex University Mauritius.

Dr Tierney, who has experience using similar types of data to model the dispersion and ecological impacts of discharged radioactive waste, said: “Dr Nieradzinska has collaborated with Dr Seeam in the past on similar projects, and when the vessel started leaking oil, he contacted us to help with oil dispersion predictions, salvaging the vessel and cleaning the oil spill.  

“Our model has accurately captured the initial dispersion of leaked oil and has been helpful to those on the ground providing the immediate response, as well in the days after.”

Although the experts predicted the boom barriers would play a crucial role in containing the flow of the crude oil, they advised the contained oil should be pumped out as quickly as possible.

Dr Nieradzinska said: “Our research also showed that it was essential for the vessel to be stabilised and for the remainder of the diesel and fuel to be pumped out as soon as possible to avoid an even larger spill and increased pollution of the coastline.”

Stabilising vessel

They advised that stabilising the vessel might require extensive operations, as a near empty tank combined with the wave motions would accentuate the rolling of the vessel in a free surface effect.

Since then, the Prime Minister has confirmed that most of the fuel has been transferred to shore by helicopter and to another ship owned by the same Japanese firm, Nagashiki Shipping.

He said more than 3,000 of the 4,000 tonnes of oil from the ship’s fuel reservoirs had been pumped out, while a small amount remained on board elsewhere.

France sent a military aircraft with pollution-control equipment from its nearby island of Réunion, while six-member team from Japan assisted the French efforts.

Volunteers have also been collecting straw from fields and filling sacks to make barriers against the oil.

Human hair

Dr Nieradzinska said: “Sea booms containing human hair in nylon socks can absorb oil spills as human hair is biosorbent. It is an easy but powerful solution that can help specialised communities to protect the fauna and flora closer to the beach.”

Dr Seeam said: “The team from Strathclyde have been very helpful with the continuous predictive modelling and generating scenarios as the situation unfolded.

“These have been quickly shared amongst Mauritius disaster groups on social media to aid the clean-up effort.

“We are looking forward towards further collaboration to help us assess the impact for the years to come, and are most grateful for the assistance.”

Neecharl Ramprosand, Chair of Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers in Mauritius, said:  “We gathered onsite data from various reliable sources in order to track the spillage from the wreck in order to update our simulations.”