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Kulluk: Were there signs of stormy seas ahead for Shell's stranded oil rig?

Craig MedredAlaska Dispatch

Shell’s oil rig Kulluk remains stranded at Sitkalidak Island, near the larger Kodiak Island in the Gulf of Alaska, for the fifth straight day, after an attempt to head back to Seattle was upset by stormy seas. Shell states that weather models indicated favorable conditions during their late December travel dates, but the Seattle Times reports that one model forecasted the low-pressure system that brought stormy weather to the area, and subsequently caused the Kulluk to run aground.

On Thursday, Shell spokesman Curtis Smith told Alaska Dispatch that the “two-week window of good weather (leaving Dec. 21)” was what mattered most to Shell in choosing their departure date. “Had it not been favorable, we would not have departed from Dutch Harbor.”

But the Global Forecast System model, an important tool used by the National Weather Service, indicated a “serious” low-pressure system would move into the area, Cliff Mass, University of Washington professor of atmospheric sciences, told the Seattle Times. As the days went by, the model became more clear, showing the system moving into the northern Gulf of Alaska.

National Weather Service meteorologist Andy Haner told the Seattle Times that agency forecasts are created using multiple models. However, the Global Forecast System Model is an important one, he said.

"That is one of the top two or three models that we used to develop NWS forecasts," Haner told the Seattle Times.

Smith said that Shell used ImpactWeather, a company specializing in early-weather forecasting for specific sites, for their weather reports.

"Obviously, weather, especially in the Gulf of Alaska, is dynamic and unpredictable but you use the best information you have," Smith said in a written statement.

The Seattle Times was unable to obtain copies of long-range marine forecasts for the Gulf of Alaska in late December from a National Weather Service meteorologist in Anchorage.

Shell has provided mixed answers in terms of another possible motivation for leaving the area: money. Smith wrote in a Dec. 27 email to the Dutch Harbor Fisherman "it's fair to say the current tax structure related to vessels of this type influenced the timing of our departure.”

At a New Year’s Day press conference, Sean Churchfield, Incident Commander and Operations Manager for Shell Alaska, said the taxes had not influenced departure timing.

Efforts to recover the Kulluk continue. On Friday, 14 vessels were mobilized to assist in the response. Salvage crews that boarded the ship Wednesday and Thursday returned on Friday to gather “critical information in support of development of a final recovery plan,” The Coast Guard told Alaska Dispatch.

Unified Command’s Saturday update stated that they plan to hook a main tow line to the vessel to test its capabilities to prepare for recovery operations of the Kulluk.

Read more from the Seattle Times, and vessel recovery updates at Alaska Dispatch