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Oil Flow Beneath Ice in the Great Lakes: An Update

Our team is continuing its cold-weather research to discover how to protect the Great Lakes from oil spills that could potentially take place during months when ice covers the waters.

This research is a continuation of the initial report titled “Line 5: Oil spill detection, remediation, and risk perceptions in winter conditions” funded by the Michigan Applied Public Policy Research (MAPPR) program of MSU’s Institute for Public Policy and Social Research.  Both binational and interdisciplinary in nature, the project uniquely brings together social scientists, engineers -- and even a high school student – to study oil spills under ice with the goal of developing best policies and practices for remediation of under-ice oil spills.

Among research faculty members contributing to the project are Doug Bessette, assistant professor and Robert Richardson, an ecological economist and professor, both in MSU’s Department of Community Sustainability as well as Volodymyr Tarabara, professor of environmental engineering at MSU. Also on the team are Grant Gunn, assistant professor in Geography and Environmental Management and Michelle Rutty, an assistant professor of sustainable tourism in the Interdisciplinary Centre on Climate Change, both at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. MSU student Vincent Marinelli, an MSU Honors College student and Environmental Engineering major is assisting with the research as is an Okemos High School student.

Our research goal is two-fold – to probe the public’s opinion about oil spills during winter season and to understand how oil spreads under ice as it meets with the ice underbelly.

The work involves social science that tapped public opinions through IPPSR’s State of the State Survey and hands-on science requiring a 185-gallon tank be filled with water and floating ice in MSU’s College of Engineering facilities. The transparent tank is then filled with water, topped with ice and then oil is pumped into the tank to simulate an oil spill. The experiment also requires another step of adding crushed ice to the tank of icy water to simulate water conditions during spring melting. An ice sculptor is creating custom-made slabs of ice that might form in different bodies of water – like ocean waters, water in the Great Lakes and in inland lakes.

Our experimental variables include the oil release rate and the physical structure of the ice itself. We hypothesize that the shape of the oil plume as it exists under the ice -- can be predicted based on structure of the ice-water interface and oil properties. We are working with oil provided by Enbridge, a Canadian energy transportation company and owner of Line 5. Line 5 carries oil beneath the Straits of Mackinac, across our State to ports in North America, including Michigan and Sarnia, Ontario. Additional partners include the U.S. Coast Guard who have assisted ice measurement on the Great Lakes. Our preliminary findings were presented this winter at the Water Management in Cold Climates conference ( in Harbin, China. Our final findings are to be ready this year.

Additionally, in collaboration with the Northern Michigan Area Committee, using the IPPSR SOSS results, we assessed both residents and policy-makers’ risk perceptions of oil spills under ice. We presented our findings at the Energy Research and Social Science (ERSS) Conference in Tempe, Arizona and at the Society for Risk Analysis Annual Meeting in Arlington, Virginia.  We also have an article near submission-ready for the journal ERSS.

Finally, this project facilitated collaboration with researchers from Lake Superior State University, culminating in a joint proposal to the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research ( to form a working group “Oil Spills under Ice – Challenges and Solutions.” The working group would bring together researchers from academia and national laboratories, remediation practitioners from the private sector, experts from U.S. Coast Guard, and broader public representatives to continue the study of the most important waters at home in the Great Lakes states and beyond.

Volodymyr Tarabara is a professor in MSU’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. He is an award-winning researcher whose interests focus on water treatment and quality control.

Doug Bessette, MSU Assistant Professor in the Department of Community Sustainability, researches and teaches courses in sustainable energy, energy transitions and community energy development.

Robert Richardson, an ecological economist and associate professor in MSU’s Department of Community Sustainability, has interests in the study of the environment and development, particularly the contribution of ecosystem services to socioeconomic well-being.

Grant Gunn, formerly with MSU’s Department of Geography, has more recently joined the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada as an assistant professor in Geography and Environmental Management with interests relating to permafrost and ice parameters in sub-Arctic and Arctic environments.

Michelle Rutty, assistant professor in the Interdisciplinary Centre on Climate Change, University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada researches the climatic impact on tourism. She had also contributed to the project in her previous role as an MSU assistant professor of Community Sustainability.