Friday, September 25, 2009

Timor Sea Drilling Spill - September 24 Images

New images from NASA's Terra and Aqua satellites keep coming in for the ongoing oil spill in the Timor Sea. At 8:45 am local time, the Terra satellite passed overhead and captured this image, showing oil slicks and sheen throughout a 9,870 square mile area (=7,455 square nautical miles). Part of the slick appears to be in contact with Cartier Island, a national marine reserve.

NASA / MODIS (Aqua) satellite image, September 24, 2009, with SkyTruth analysis.

Five hours later the Aqua satellite took this image. The wind speed had increased from 10 knots to 18 knots, creating a much rougher sea surface and breaking up or obscuring the thinner slicks and sheen. Only thicker portions of the slick are apparent in this image, adjacent to the Montara oil platform, covering about 3,940 square miles (=2,976 nautical square miles). No slicks are apparent near Cartier - a good sign on Day 34 of this continuing spill.

A team of marine researchers lead by World Wildlife Fund has set out to study the effects of this spill on ecosystems and wildlife. They should be in the area for the next couple of days. If we're lucky, we'll get satellite images that correspond with their "sea-truth" observations and photos.

See all our satellite and aerial images of the spill here.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Timor Sea Drilling Spill - Media coverage

The spill from the Montara platform blowout continues unabated since August 21, now in its 33rd day. Using the oil company's unsubstantiated estimate of 400 barrels (=16,800 gallons) per day, that means at least half a million gallons have been spilled, Australia's worst offshore oil production spill since drilling began there 40 years ago. Critics calculate the spill rate could be much higher - closer to 3,000 barrels per day - based on the flow rates of nearby oil production wells. If that's accurate then over 4 million gallons have been spilled so far, with at least three more weeks to go before the runaway well can be controlled. By either measure, this ranks as one of the worst offshore oil spills ever, and it happened at a new, state-of-the-art platform.


If you get your world news here in the United States from major TV networks or newspapers, you'd never know this was happening. This incident hasn't been mentioned by the Washington Post, despite the fact that politicians on Capitol Hill are calling for oil drilling off the beaches of Florida, the Carolinas, and Virginia, and in the salmon-rich waters of Bristol Bay in Alaska.

Kevin Hassett with Bloomberg News explores the political significance of this spill and it's relevance to the drilling debate here in the US. Some of the Florida media are making the same connection, with TV news pieces, articles and editorials that pose the question: what if it happened here? Folks in Alaska are also starting to take notice.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Timor Sea Drilling Spill - Closing In On Marine Reserve

MODIS Terra and Aqua images from September 17 have a nearly ideal sunglint pattern to reveal the oil slicks and sheen resulting from the ongoing blowout and spill from the Montara platform in the Timor Sea off Western Australia. The well has been uncontrolled now for 4 weeks.

NASA / MODIS satellite image, September 17, 2009, with SkyTruth analysis.

Patchy, discontinuous slicks and sheen, separated by patches of open water, occur across an area of 7,530 square miles (=5,680 square nautical miles). To the east, the slicks merge with areas of low wind and the edge of the sunglint region. To the west, slicks in the immediate vicinity of the platform itself are very plainly visible, and have approached within 14.5 miles (=12.5 nautical miles) of the Cartier Island Marine Reserve. Hopefully the wind, current, and ongoing response efforts will keep the oil away from that biologically rich area.

See all the latest satellite and aerial pics in our gallery. Subscribe to this blog feed to get automatic updates in your email whenever we add anything new.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Timor Sea Drilling Spill - New Air Photos

SkyTruth just got new aerial photos of the Montara platform, taken on an overflight by Environs Kimberley on September 12. The platform is still spewing crude oil into the Timor Sea and a potentially explosive fog of natural gas and gas condensate into the air. The West Triton rig is visible in one of the pics; it's begun to drill a relief well that will attempt to intercept the damaged well 8,500 feet below the seafloor, a process that will take 3-4 weeks at best.

Montara platform and West Atlas drill rig, September 12, 2009. Photo courtesy of Environs Kimberley.

Also visible: extensive oil slicks and sheen still covering the sea in the vicinity of the platform, in calm seas. This spill has been uncontrolled now for almost a full month.

Click here to go to our growing gallery of aerial photos, maps and satellite images.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Timor Sea Drilling Spill - Another Exxon Valdez?

Folks are asking us "How much oil is being spilled into the Timor Sea?" We can't answer that with the MODIS satellite images we've been getting from NASA; they just don't contain enough information to estimate how thick the oil slicks are, so we can't come up with a quantity. All we can do is measure how extensive the slicks are, and where they are.

And so far there have been no confirmed measurements of the flow rate from the uncontrolled well (it's too dangerous to approach). The Australian Greens, in an article published August 29, made this estimate:
...based on information available on average flowrates for similar wells in the region and the company's own data we estimate conservatively that at least 3000 barrels of oil per day are being released from the well.
Back in 2002, the Montara-3 appraisal well flowed at a rate of 5,000 barrels of oil per day. And other offshore wells in the same basin have tested at nearly 8,000 barrels per day. So this estimate seems defensible.

At 42 gallons per barrel, that's 126,000 gallons of oil per day. The U.S. Coast Guard defines anything over 100,000 gallons as a "major" spill.

The well blew out on August 21, so as of today (9/11) it's been spilling oil for 21 days (click here for a web-counter tracking this spill). That would mean 2,646,000 gallons have been spilled so far.

The West Triton drill rig is now on the scene after a long trip from Singapore, and is preparing to drill a relief well that will intercept the damaged well so they can fill it with mud to staunch the flow. If all goes well, it will take at least 4 weeks to complete the relief well. That means an additional 3,528,000 gallons will be spilled, for a grand total of 6,174,000 gallons. Six million gallons is more than halfway to an Exxon Valdez-sized spill.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Timor Sea Drilling Spill - On The Move

It's been 20 days now since a well blew out on the Montara oil platform in the Timor Sea; the platform was immediately evacuated and the uncontrolled well has been continuously spewing oil into the ocean ever since. MODIS images taken about three hours apart on September 10 show an area of patchy slicks and sheen about 3,600 square miles (=2,700 nautical square miles) in size, north of the Montara platform and extending well beyond Australia's territorial waters:

NASA/MODIS satellite image, September 10, 2009, with SkyTruth analysis

Check out all the satellite images and aerial photos in our gallery.

For you armchair image analysts, here's a little MODIS Interpretation 101: MODIS is a relatively low-resolution imaging sensor (250 meter detail) carried onboard two NASA satellites called Terra and Aqua. It reveals oil slicks most effectively when those slicks fall within the area of sunglint - where sunlight is almost directly reflected off the ocean's surface to the satellite, making clean ocean water appear medium-gray wherever the wind is blowing. The wind kicks up ripples on the ocean's surface; those ripples look "glittery" and the combined effect is to make the ocean surface fairly bright. Any area of smooth, calm water will appear dark. Oil slicks tend to dampen those little ripples and make the surface smooth. Of course, if the wind is very calm and no ripples are generated, the entire area will look dark whether there's an oil slick present or not.

When Terra orbited overhead on the 10th, the Montara platform was in the middle of a large calm area. Three hours later when Aqua took a look, the Montara platform was just outside the region of sunglint. That means we're not able to detect any slicks in the immediate vicinity of the platform itself on the 10th, even though the well is continuing to leak and there are almost certainly slicks around the platform. Hopefully we'll get better imagery in coming days.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Timor Sea Drilling Spill Covers 5,800 Square Miles

SkyTruth just downloaded and processed a MODIS satellite image from NASA that was taken on September 3, 2009. It shows the area in the Timor Sea affected by oil slicks and sheen from the Montara / West Atlas blowout and oil spill that began on August 21 is now over 5,800 square miles in size. That's more than double what it was just four days earlier, on August 30. And it's as big as Connecticut and Rhode Island put together:

NASA/MODIS satellite image, September 3, 2009, with SkyTruth analysis

Heads up, Jakarta: the northern parts of this slick complex now appear to extend into Indonesia's Exclusive Economic Zone.

Here is the September 3 image with our analysis. And here is the image alone, with no annotation.

Keep checking in for more information and updates to our online gallery.

UPDATE 9/10/09: The West Triton drill rig is expected to arrive on the scene today, and will be set up to begin drilling a relief well, a procedure expected to take four weeks. An Australian official reported yesterday that there had "been a reduction in the number and size of slick patches being observed."

Timor Sea Drilling Spill - What If?

Since the US Congress and the Florida Legislature are debating the merits of allowing drilling for oil and gas much closer to Florida's coast, we thought it would be interesting to illustrate what could happen if a Montara-style blowout occurred in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. We outlined the area in the Timor Sea where slicks and sheen were detected across 2,500 square miles on a satellite image, and overlaid that area along the Florida coast. One illustration shows the slicks originating from a point about 50 miles off Pensacola, in the vicinity of the Destin Dome drilling prospect. The other shows slicks resulting from a hypothetical blowout 80 miles offshore from Tampa Bay:

Hypothetical Montara-sized spill off Tampa Bay, Florida

These are just illustrations, not quantitative models, and they don't take into account local currents or wind. But they are based on the ongoing reality of the Montara blowout and spill.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Timor Sea Drilling Spill Covers 2,500 Square Miles

SkyTruth just obtained a full-resolution version of the NASA /MODIS satellite image taken on August 30, 2009, nine days after the blowout and spill began from the Montara offshore oil platform in the Timor Sea off Western Australia. We did some additional processing to enhance features in the ocean, and discovered that slicks and sheen extended even further to the northeast than we thought a few days ago. We've uploaded two new MODIS images to our growing online gallery of this event: one is simply the MODIS imagery with no annotation; the other is the same chunk of imagery with SkyTruth's analysis.

NASA/MODIS satellite image, August 30, 2009, with SkyTruth analysis

This image shows that oil slicks and sheen from the blowout had already spread across 2,500 square miles of ocean by August 30. And it will take several weeks, possibly months, before this well can be controlled.

By the way, just how big is 2,500 square miles? Well, it's bigger than Delaware. And for our Canadian friends, it's as big as Banff National Park. If you know any other 2,500-square-mile things, let us know by adding a comment to this post.

Thanks to Jesse Allen at NASA and the MODIS Rapid Response Team for providing the original MODIS image.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Timor Sea Drilling Spill - More Images Online

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UPDATE 9/3/09 5pm EDT: We had to temporarily take down the CSK radar images from August 28, 29 and 30. Hopefully they'll be back online soon. Other images from August 25-30 (including TSX radar and MODIS) are still online.
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We've just added a few new location maps and satellite images to our growing online gallery of images showing the continuing oil spill off Western Australia: the images are from the Cosmo-SkyMed (CSK) satellite, and were taken on August 28, 29 and 30:

Cosmo-SkyMed radar satellite image taken on August 28, 2009 of Montara oil spill. Oil slicks and sheen appear very dark gray to black on radar imagery.
CSK radar image © e-GEOS and ASI/Telespazio 2009, Distribution ASI/CSTARS

Now we're working on getting more imagery as this spill is expected to continue for at least 7-8 weeks. We're also extracting the oil slick boundaries and overlaying them on maps showing whale migration routes, coral reefs, biodiversity hotspots, and marine reserves. Keep checking in. Subscribe to the blog feed if you'd like an email alert whenever we add new stuff.

And of course, if you'd like to support what we do here at SkyTruth, please help!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Timor Sea Drilling Spill - Satellite Images Reveal Extensive Slicks

Looks like the ongoing oil spill gushing into the Timor Sea off northwest Australia may be worse than initially reported (see a slideshow of aerial photos and watch a video).

Oil slick from blowout during drilling off Australia.
Photo: Chris Twomey, courtesy of WA Today

One observer this weekend estimated that oil slicks and sheen from the blowout in the Montara field extend across 180 km of ocean and are within 20 km of the Australian coast, in an area that The Wilderness Society calls a marine life "superhighway" for migrating whales, turtles and other animals.

Location map showing site of Montara Platform blowout and spill.
TSX radar image © DLR 2009, Distribution INFOTERRA/CSTARS

SkyTruth, working with CSTARS at the University of Miami, just obtained TSX radar satellite images showing oil slicks and sheen (very thin films of floating oil) extending across more than 800 square miles:

Detail of spill on TSX radar satellite image acquired August 30, 2009.
Oil slicks and sheen (very thin films of oil) appear dark gray to black on radar imagery.
TSX radar image © DLR 2009, Distribution INFOTERRA/CSTARS

And NASA has just published yet another satellite image, taken on the same day, that shows an even larger area of slicks extending far to the east of the area shown on this radar image, across a total area of over 1800 square miles. It's clear that the impacted area is much larger than reported last week:

Detail from NASA's MODIS satellite image acquired August 30, 2009. Slicks and sheen extend across more than 1,800 square miles of the Timor Sea.

It will take at least several weeks before another drilling rig can get into the area to drill a relief well and control the spill. It's worth pointing out to folks here in the US, who are considering opening new areas of our coastlines off Florida, Alaska, the Carolinas and Virginia to offshore oil and gas production, that this blowout occurred during drilling operations on a brand-new (installed in 2008) state-of-the-art platform. While these incidents have become less common, they still do happen.

UPDATE 9/3/09: We've created a new online photo gallery with aerial photos, satellite images, and maps of this spill. Images will be added over coming days/weeks, so keep checking in.

UPDATE 10/5/09: The company operating the West Atlas drill rig, Seadrill of Norway, has stated that the leak occurred from a previously completed well on the Montara oil platform while the West Atlas was drilling a new well on that platform. The Montara platform was built in 2008, and was installed in mid-2009 by Perth, Australia-based engineering company Clough after the original contractor, Saipem, bailed out to do a job elsewhere.