Tracking oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico from space

Today …. using satellites to get the big picture of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. We spoke with Michael Goodman. He manages the Natural Disasters Program for NASA, which tracked the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010.

Michael Goodman: NASA satellites were able to monitor the progression of the oil spill, from the initial blowout on April 20, and throughout the summer months, May-June-July, as the oil slick grew and spread, and impacted the coastal ecosystems along the Gulf coast.

Goodman said that NASA’s Aqua and Terra satellites in space joined with research aircraft to give a big picture view of Gulf waters and coasts threatened by the oil spill.

Michael Goodman: That information was also provided to the emergency responders that were to help direct the authorities to where to place the oil booms, and direct the oil skimmers to help clean up the effort. To get a sense of the sheer size and the magnitude of the oil slick, that was best conveyed to the public through the large-scale satellite images.

Over 180 million gallons of crude oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico before the ruptured underwater well was capped in July of 2010. Goodman said satellites continue to monitor the coastal marshes, beaches, and open water.

Michael Goodman: Just viewing the area over a three-four month period doesn’t really get the complete annual growth cycle of the sea grasses and the marshes. So we have to go back and monitor the area over the longer time period.

Goodman said they used instruments on aircraft to distinguish areas where there were high concentrations of oil, versus the thinner oil sheen that has a much lower impact on the Gulf ecosystems.

Michael Goodman: When I say oil sheen, we’ve all seen a puddle of oil on the roadside, and you see that rainbow veil of oil that’s in the oil stain. That oil sheen spreads out far and wide. But in this case it’s much less damaging than the thick globs and ribbons and streams of emulsified oil and water mixture. That’s what was seen coating either the animals or the vegetation. So it’s important to identify and distinguish the breadth and distribution of the oil sheen versus the thicker oil.

Goodman said that using satellites to monitor our environment is invaluable for detecting change.

Michael Goodman : And that’s what we’re dealing with here. We’re looking at change from the impact of the oil. So whether it’s short-term events like the Gulf oil spill, or even longer term events like climate change scenarios, it’s very important to have those sentinels in space, those satellites, that provide that global scale view of our planet.

Our thanks today to NASA’s Aqua Mission, improving our knowledge of our home planet through satellite observations.

November 8, 2010

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