For the first time, all of the underwater video taken during the Gulf oil spill will be available, online, to the public. Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana is hoping those videos will help experts be better prepared for future disasters.
On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig platform exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 crew members. In the months that followed, millions of gallons of crude oil gushed from the ruptured well at the bottom of the sea floor, creating one of the biggest environmental disasters in U.S. history. A unique aspect of the event was the way in which efforts to cap the well could be followed - in real time - via one of 14 remotely-operated underwater cameras.
In the early stages of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Purdue University mechanical engineering professor Steve Wereley watched the low-quality videos of the oil spill released by British Petroleum.
"I was one of the first people to make volume flow estimates based on that video," he says. Those volume flow figures greatly contradicted the estimates of the amount of oil gushing from the ruptured well put out by both BP and the U.S. government. "The calculations said that it was approximately 10 times greater than the amount being reported at the time."
Wereley's revelation attracted the attention of government officials. As the crisis unfolded, he was invited to join the Flow Rate Technical Group, where scientists and engineers worked to provide the government with a clearer picture of just how much oil was spilling into the Gulf.
"I think the inevitability that oil would continue flowing into the Gulf was unprecedented," he says. "It's a disaster in progress, and it displayed 24/7 by the spill cam."
In a sign of how far technology has advanced, Wereley was able to make his volume flow estimates without ever setting foot near the disaster.
From low-quality footage to later high-definition video, all of what engineers know about the spill came from one of 14 underwater submersibles equipped with video cameras.
They gathered footage of the well through most of the ordeal. Not only did the video show the oil spill, but also different angles of the well and the crippled Deepwater Horizon sunk to the bottom of the sea floor.
Wereley is now working to collect and preserve that footage - more than 30, 000 hours of it - in a massive online archive at Purdue.
Oilspillhub.org is the home for the videos, and is accessible to the general public. It includes much of the iconic imagery from the disaster, and never-before-seen footage.
Wereley thinks the archive will help the public and government officials gather a complete understanding of the scope and long-term effects of the disaster.
"Right now the U.S. government is preparing the Natural Resources Damage Assessment to assess how bad the impact of the oil spill was in the Gulf, and one of the primary questions is how much oil came out, and what was the size of the droplets of oil issued into the Gulf," he says. "But there are lots of other questions that could be answered by these videos, for instance, what operation was conducted on what day?"
Wereley estimates it could take a decade or more to understand the true benefit of putting all the footage in one place, online. He points to the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989. Scientists are still learning more about the effects of that disaster.
Wereley, who serves as lead researcher for oilspillhb.org, hopes the site provides information that helps prevent a similar incident, avoiding the sense of helplessness created by the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
"I think it humbles us to see that this accident is happening and not to be able to do anything about it. It very much humbles us before the power of nature."
According to Wereley, the complete time record of the event - 88 days - will eventually be available online, in many cases with video images clearer and more detailed than anything seen before.