New Research Speculates on Pipeline Failure in Mackinac Straits
Posted on: May 10, 2016

It’s been speculated for some time that a breach in Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline, which runs through the Straits of Mackinac, could have disastrous effects for the Great Lakes. Amidst the chatter and concern, hydrodynamics expert Dave Schwab sought to find out what a spill might look like.

A little over a month ago, the InfoSuperior Team shared a documentary made by Motherboard on Line 5. Motherboard’s Spencer Chumbly spoke with Schwab, a researcher at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor. At the time of filming, Schwab demonstrated with computer projection a rough estimate of what an oil spill might look like with the currents running between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. This research, showing only where the water currents might flow, was first released in July 2014.

Schwab has continued his research with funding from the National Wildlife Federation, and recently released an updated version of his simulations. The aim was to give people more detail about how oil would be carried in these currents.Screen-Shot-2016-03-29-at-10.41.53-AM-1024x523

He spoke to Michigan Radio in late March 2016 about the new simulations. “Where we were actually looking at real oil, and not just the currents, and do many, many cases to answer the question of how far, how fast, and where oil might go from a leak in the pipeline,” Schwab told Michigan Radio. Because the conditions in Mackinac Strait change from day to day, Schwab factored the possible changes into his projection. The result shows how a light crude oil spill might travel in 840 different situations – all different weather and water conditions.

This is one of six recent case studies from Schwab. All six can be found on youtube if you click here.

Schwab’s projections show that to 152 miles of coastline could be affected in Lakes Huron and Michigan by a single oil spill from Line 5. If the simulation plots all 840 different scenarios, 720 miles are risk on both the Canadian and U.S. shores.

There are a few things Schwab’s research doesn’t take into account. These models look at what happens only if the oil is untouched – they do not account for clean up efforts on part of Enbridge, government, community, etc. However, a Detroit Free Press article brought up that harsh weather conditions may prevent response from being timely, therefore limiting its effectiveness.

The models also do not account for how oil would move if the lakes were ice-covered. While Enbridge says that ice would act as a boom for the oil, researchers respond that there is no way to know how oil might move under the ice.

To see the full Michigan Radio interview with Schwab, including Enbridge’s response, click here.




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