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And then there were pipelines

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A pipeline is a series of connected pipes that are used to carry fluids such as oil, gas, water, or sewage. They are used for transport on land, but they can also be laid on the seabed. In the latter case the infrastructure can be referred to as an offshore, marine, submarine or subsea pipeline.

As is often the case with human activity, pipelines can be extremely useful and dangerous at the same time. They convey oil or gas from subsea wells to platforms or from platforms to shore, but there might be spills or leaks that could pose huge risks to marine ecosystems.

While their threats to the marine environment are a cause of concern, the science behind pipelines remains quite fascinating. Not everybody knows that pipelines’ dimensions depend almost entirely on the type of fluid transported, on hydrodynamic forces, static water pression, corrosion, and tectonic activity. These conditions also determine whether a pipeline needs to be buried in a trench, protected by a concrete mattress or block, or can just be laid on the seabed. Besides natural hazards, the industry pays special attention to avoiding damages from other human activities; ship anchors, fishing vessels and military activities might also damage a pipeline.

The most common type of submarine pipeline is made of steel and usually transport gas, hydrocarbons, or oil. There are also “composite” pipelines, which are smaller than steel pipelines and are generally laid in shallow waters.

Pipeline Laying

Pipelaying barge.But nothing is more fascinating than the methods used for laying a pipeline. Imagine you have to lay a 10-km pipeline on the seabed. One way could be to assemble the whole pipeline onshore, tow it to where it has to be installed and then let it sink (under controlled conditions) in to position. But this may not be possible for several reasons (length, flexibility, currents, waves, seabed topography, etc.). A pipeline can also be assembled on board a special barge; the pipeline leaves the barge at the stern and gently sinks to the seabed as the vessels moves on. As it continues toward the seabed, the pipe inevitably bends, taking the shape of an S (S-lay system) or a J (J-lay system). The choice between these two systems mostly depends on water depth.

The Data

EMODnet Human Activities was launched in 2013, and it took more than four years to create a dataset on offshore pipelines, since in many EU countries GIS data on pipelines cannot be made publicly available for security reasons. However, EMODnet managed to collect data from a few sources, so as to cover at least some countries. The new dataset covers pipelines in Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Russia and Spain (Andalucía). Each pipeline has the following harmonized attributes (where available): status, country, code, name, year, medium (fluid), operator, from and to locality or facility, length and size.

Pipelines seabedAlbeit incomplete, the team is very proud of this dataset, as it shows the true potential of EMODnet. If you work in the industry and need to install a pipeline, a very complex task is the pipeline route selection. You would need to have information on seabed topography (EMODnet Bathymetry), obstructions, debris, existing structures, other human activities, existing pipeline/cable crossing (EMODnet Human Activities). You might also want information on water salinity, waves, currents (EMODnet Physics), etc. Before EMODnet, sourcing this information used to be a painful and time-consuming exercise. True, you would still need in-situ measurements and inspections, but at least now a great part of the initial information needed to commence work is just a few clicks away, and is available for free!


Data Submission

This is why, if you like the new dataset, we invite you to let us know of any other sources that we could use to complete it. There are several commercial providers that provide detailed information on offshore pipelines, but of course it comes at a cost and it cannot be shared. So, if you’re aware of any other source, please let us know, or even better, if you have your own data, contribute to making EMODnet better.


The information and views set out in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Commission. Neither the European Commission nor any person acting on the European Commission's behalf may be held responsible for the use which may be made of the information therein.

January 25th, 2018 | Written by

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