Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) Mapping
Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) maps are used to identify sensitive shoreline resources prior to an oil spill event in order to set priorities for protection and plan cleanup strategies. By planning spill response ahead of time, the impact on the environment can be minimized or prevented. Environmental sensitivity index maps are basically comprised of information within the following three categories: shoreline type, and biological and human-use resources.
Shoreline type is classified by rank depending on how easy the oil would be to cleanup, how long the oil would persist, and how sensitive the shoreline is. The floating oil slicks put the shoreline at particular risk when they eventually come ashore, covering the substrate with oil. The differing substrates between shoreline types vary in their response to oiling, and influence the type of cleanup that will be required to effectively decontaminate the shoreline. In 1995, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration extended ESI maps to lakes, rivers, and estuary shoreline types. The exposure the shoreline has to wave energy and tides, substrate type, and slope of the shoreline are also taken into account – in addition to biological productivity and sensitivity. The productivity of the shoreline habitat is also taken into account when determining ESI ranking. Mangroves and marshes tend to have higher ESI rankings due to the potentially long-lasting and damaging effects of both the oil contamination and cleanup actions. Impermeable and exposed surfaces with high wave action are ranked lower due to the reflecting waves keeping oil from coming onshore, and the speed at which natural processes will remove the oil.
Habitats of plants and animals that may be at risk from oil spills are referred to as “elements” and are divided by functional group. Further classification divides each element into species groups with similar life histories and behaviors relative to their vulnerability to oil spills. There are eight element groups: Birds, Reptiles and Amphibians, Fish, Invertebrates, Habitats and Plants, Wetlands, and Marine Mammals and Terrestrial Mammals. Element groups are further divided into sub-groups, for example, the ‘marine mammals’ element group is divided into dolphins, manatees, pinnipeds (seals, sea lions & walruses), polar bears, sea otters and whales. Issues taken into consideration when ranking biological resources include the observance of a large number of individuals in a small area, whether special life stages occur ashore (nesting or molting), and whether there are species present that are threatened, endangered or rare.
Human use resources are divided into four major classifications; archaeological importance or cultural resource site, high-use recreational areas or shoreline access points, important protected management areas, or resource origins. Some examples include airports, diving sites, popular beach sites, marinas, natural reserves or marine sanctuaries.
Source: Wikipedia (All text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License)
For more information (background, pictures, experiments and references): Oil Spills: K-12 Experiments & Background Information