Two researchers at the university -- Clinton Dawson and Gordon Wells -- are working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Marine Pollution Surveillance team to help forecast the spill's movement and location, Wells said in an interview.
Specifically, researchers are adapting a model developed in the 1980s to map hurricane storm surges, called the Advanced Circulation Model, to track the spill in the Gulf. It's the first time the model has been used in this way, Wells, a research associate, said in an interview.
Researchers at the University of North Carolina and Notre Dame University -- where the creator of the Advanced Circulation Model, Joannes Westerink, is a professor -- also are taking part in the effort.
There are several advantages to using the Advanced Circulation Model over existing models used to track spills, Wells said.
He said that models currently used are merely two dimensional and represent only surface ocean currents, whereas the Advanced Circulation Model factors in more geophysical parameters, such as wind and wave components, and estuary and river flows.
It's also a more spatially detailed model that provides more definition of the impact region of the spill, he said.
A host of government agencies, including NASA and the Department of Homeland Security, have contributed technology to help in the spill's clean-up efforts, which are in their fifth week.
Some estimate that as much as 22 million gallons of oil have spilled into the Gulf of Mexico since April 20 when the oil rig Deepwater Horizon, which gas giant BP was leasing, exploded and sank, killing 11 people. Experts are calling the spill the worst in U.S. history. The spill recently reached the lower delta of the Mississippi River, which is where Wells said researchers are currently tracking it.
He said the modeling project has funding for at least the next several months and could last until the end of the year.