Northern Ireland

Tracking the oil: Belfast weather station aims to follow the spills

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Media captionThe weather station in Belfast Harbour could prove vital in the event of an oil spill

Accidental oil spills in Europe have led to growing concerns about how prepared authorities are to respond.

Emergency procedures are already in place in Northern Ireland to handle spillages, but the difficulty lies in predicting which direction they will take.

Now, a new project involving a weather station in Belfast Harbour aims to forecast how oil spills will move.

A variety of on-board instruments measure the speed of wind and its direction, the temperature and what way the tide is moving.

This data is then used to run computer simulations aimed at predicting the likelihood of the direction in which the oil spill will travel.

"The government agencies in the harbour will respond to any incident," said Dr Adam Mellor from the Agri-food and Biosciences Institute.

"This station helps to maintain a model that will predict both the transport of the oil and the impacts of it, if there was an incident of that nature".

The instruments being used are the only ones of their kind in Ireland.

Planning for oil spills is nothing new - it is something that has been happening for decades. But, the institute says, planning for them in high risk areas so close to shore such as in Belfast Lough is a more recent development.

The port handles about 70% of Northern Ireland's sea-borne trade - and about 20% of all of Ireland's trade.

And with almost half a million freight vehicles using the ferry terminals in 2014, those in charge have to plan for any possible collision that could result in an oil spill.

"If we have a pollution event, we're in a position to provide real-time information into the model," said Belfast harbour master Captain Kevin Allen.

"This will then best tell us where to deploy our equipment to reduce the impact on the environment."

Using the forecast data, authorities can then deploy oil booms to capture the spillage.

The project is up and running because of temporary funding, but its future is by no means certain.

Those behind the project hope that grants will be made available to maintain the equipment on an annual basis.

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