Monday, April 30, 2012

BP Oil Spill 2 Years Later: For Dauphin Island, Cure Worse Than Disease?

There's been plenty of ink the past couple of weeks about the lingering impacts of the BP / Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  Two years ago here at SkyTruth we were just beginning to raise the alarm that the spill was actually much larger than we were being told by BP and government officials, and that the nation's previous worst oil spill -- the Exxon Valdez disaster -- had already been surpassed.  Months of agony and economic loss followed for folks in the Gulf region and beyond. Recovery has come in fits and starts, with mixed news for offshore drilling and tourism (generally up), and for fishing and the environment (generally down).

We recently learned about another long-term casualty of the oil spill: Dauphin Island, Alabama, a beautiful stretch of barrier island at the mouth of Mobile Bay. In this case most of the damage was done not by the oil spill itself, but by a panicky and ill-conceived response effort during the spill ("we had to destroy this village, in order to save it").  Large quantities of sand were excavated from a series of pits on the Mississippi Sound side of the island to build a berm along the Gulf side, a move designed to keep oil from washing up over the beach in case of a storm:

Sand berm being piled up along Gulf side of Dauphin Island during 2010 BP / Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Photo courtesy The Washington Post.
The berm was never needed. Possibly it would have helped if a hurricane came along during the spill, but it's not clear such a flimsy barrier would survive long under those conditions.  What has become apparent is how rapidly and dramatically this action is altering Dauphin Island.  22 pits were dug into the Sound side of the island to excavate the necessary sand. These pits quickly became ponds of standing water. The ponds are steadily eroding and growing to the point where some are now open to the sea, and subject to further erosion by waves and tide. Satellite imagery and aerial survey clearly show how this has progressed, threatening properties on this developed part of the island:

West end of Dauphin Island in May 2010.  Excavation of sand to build a berm along south (Gulf) side of island is underway; sand is being removed from pits on the north (Sound) side. One pit has already filled with water (dark rectilinear shape at right center).
Same area in January 2012. Sand-excavation pits are now ponds filed with water; some have eroded to the point that they are open to the Sound.  One coastal engineering scientist thinks the eroding sand-excavation ponds are now a weak spot in Dauphin Island that could become the next breach when a major storm hits.
This area full of houses now looks strikingly similar to how an undeveloped stretch of the island a few miles to the west appeared before it was breached by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  Called the Katrina Cut, the mile-long breach had grown to nearly 1.4 miles wide by June 2010, when the Army Corps of Engineers began piling up a barrier of rock and sand to close off the gap and block BP's spilled oil from entering the Sound.  This barrier ended up costing $17 million, and didn't fully close the Cut until January 2011 -- four months after BP's runaway Macondo well had been plugged, and just five months before the whole danged thing was supposed to be removed, according to the original construction permit.  The State of Alabama is asking for permission to keep the structure in place, although one scientist thinks that's not a good idea.  

What's more, the sand berm was apparently piled on top of water and sewer lines servicing the island, causing potential problems and additional expense for future maintenance work.  In this case, it looks like the actions taken to minimize damage from the oil spill might actually cause worse impacts down the road.  Will we be making the same dubious decisions when the next major oil spill comes around?

View a slideshow of our time-series images of Dauphin Island, or check them out one at a time in our Flickr image gallery

Thursday, April 26, 2012

In Florida, old fires out, new fires burning

In this MODIS/Aqua image taken yesterday, you can see a wildfire burning northwest of Carrabelle, Florida. This fire has to be burning extremely hot for it to be visible in this band 7-2-1 infrared composite.
MODIS/Aqua 721 satellite image - April 25, 2012

In the MODIS/Terra true color image from the same day, you can clearly see the smoke plume blowing to the northeast from the fire.

MODIS/Terra true color satellite image - April 25, 2012

No sign of smoke in today's MODIS/Terra image of the area, so it looks like this fire has been extinguished.  In this cool graphic from Active Fire Mapping, you can see where this fire was located, along with many other fires burning. You can also see the location of last week's County Line fire.

Image courtesy of Active Fire Mapping
And as follow-up to the Florida wildfires we blogged about last week, in the MODIS/Aqua 721 image below you can see the scorched earth left from the County Line fire which burned over 36,000 acres of forest. Read more about last week's fire on NASA's Earth Observatory site.
Modis/Aqua satellite image - April 25, 2012

And the under-reporting continues...

On 4/20, SkyTruth Alerts received a report from the NRC that was apparently submitted by Taylor Energy. They reported a spill of 4.72 gallons, with a slick 400 feet by 6.2 miles. Our SkyTruth calculations assuming a minimum average thickness of 1/1000th of a millimeter suggest that this slick held closer to 321 gallons. And the MODIS satellite image for that day shows a slick coming from that location that measured not 6.2 miles long but just over 19 miles long:

MODIS/Terra image - April 20, 2012

April 20 MODIS/Terra image with slick measurement

On 4/25 the SkyTruth Alerts received another report from the NRC apparently submitted by Taylor Energy. This time the reported spill amount was listed as 5.64 gallons, with a slick of 500 feet by 4.8 miles. Our SkyTruth calculations suggest that this slick holds about 311 gallons. And in that MODIS image, the slick appears to be 19.04 miles long:

MODIS/Terra image - April 25, 2012

April 25 MODIS/Terra image with slick measurement

The report from the 25th was taken at 9:00 a.m. and the MODIS image that shows the slick was taken about 2 hours later.  We don't think it's likely that the slick could have grown from 4.8 miles long to over 19 miles long between the time the report was called in and the time the image was taken.  It's possible that under the right conditions satellite imagery is a better tool for detecting and measuring the full extent of a slick than direct observation from aircraft or on the water.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Another Slick Near Shell Platform in Gulf of Mexico

Check out the MODIS/Aqua image from 4/19. The wide shot shows the position of Shell's Mars and Ursa platforms, south of the Mississippi Delta, while the close up shows what appears to be a slick of at least 5.5 miles that seems to originate from the location of the Mars platform. Wind was blowing from the north-northwest when this image was taken. There were no NRC pollution reports (red dots on the image below) on 4/19 for the Mars platform, for Shell or for Mississippi Canyon 763 where the Mars platform is located.

Detail from MODIS/Aqua image taken 4/19/2012. Red dots indicate locations of recent NRC oil and hazardous materials spill reports.  23051 Site marks the location of a known chronic leak from Hurricane Ivan-damaged wells.
Zoomed-in detail from MODIS/Aqua image taken 4/19/2012

We've been keeping an eye on these two platforms since we reported last week on Shell's report of a 10-mile long slick between the Mars and Ursa platforms. It's unclear if slicks in this area are from human-caused leaks and spills or natural oil seeps that are known to be in the vicinity.

Flaring Operation in Iraq Since at Least 2009

MODIS/Terra visible satellite image of Kuwait - 4/17/2012

In this image from NASA's Earth Observatory taken Tuesday, there was a big smoke plume from a fire in Kuwait coming from a dump that holds 5 million old tires. John asked me to see if I saw any continuing smoke on MODIS images taken the next day. I did not see anything in the area he suggested I look, but what I did find was even more interesting. I saw what looked like a long line of fires burning in Iraq. I looked back a few days at MODIS images for this area in Iraq and kept seeing the same line of fires. Then I looked back a few weeks, then a few months and finally, I looked back to January 2009. And in every image I found for that location, I found the same line of fires. After some research, I found that the fires are a result of a tremendous flaring operation along a major oil pipeline in Iraq, close to Basra. (We have flaring happening here in the US too, especially in the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota and Montana.) Many of these flares are located in the Rumaila oil fields.  These very hot flares aren't obvious on the normal "visible" MODIS images, but show up as bright orange spots on the infrared 7-2-1 composites:

MODIS/Aqua 7-2-1, 1/8/2009

MODIS/Terra 7-2-1, 4/17/2012

If you take a look at the map below, courtesy of Gulf States Newsletter, you'll see the area circled in pink where this line of flaring is occurring:

Call it another case of image serendipity.  Once you start looking carefully at satellite images, you never know what you might find!

Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline - Alternative Route Through Nebraska

TransCanada just published their "preferred alternative" routing of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline through Nebraska.  They went back to the drawing board after a barrage of complaints that the pipeline would cut through the visually striking and ecologically distinctive Sand Hills region, and run across the economically vital Ogallala Aquifer.  We've created a series of maps showing this new route, superimposed in Google Earth.

Overview showing TransCanada's April 18, 2012 "preferred alternative" route for the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline in Nebraska. Preferred alternative in green. Map overlain in Google Earth.

National Wildlife Federation and others aren't exactly thrilled with this proposed alternative route either, claiming it still intersects those sensitive areas.  And if you'd like to see the "business end" of this controversial pipeline, check out our maps and images of the vast tar sands mining and extraction operation up in Alberta.  Take a quick video tour to see just how big this already is.

1 of 7 detail maps of the pipeline route. See the others in our gallery.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Florida Wildfires

Florida's burning. All over. But one fire in particular can be seen in this Modis image from yesterday. The smoke coming from the fire burning in the upper right hand corner is from the County-line fire, which started from a lightning strike on April 5. Currently, there are 30,000+ acres burning in this fire.

Modis/Aqua satellite image taken April 12, 2012

According to this article from OPB News, over 1400 wildfires have burned in Florida in 2012 and the wildfire season isn't even at its peak yet. As you can see from this really cool graphic from the Florida Forest Service, there are fires burning in almost every area of Florida in all directions with the exception of the area south of Palm Beach.
One image that I saw from yesterday, however, shows what looks to be a fire burning on the little piece of land called St. Vincent Island, just southeast of Panama City, FL. I haven't seen anything about this on the news and maybe it's just an anomaly in the image, but it looks like something's burning there. Anyone have any info on this one?

Modis/Aqua 7-2-1 satellite image taken April 12, 2012

Bad News for Pollution Monitoring - US Needs a Radar Satellite, Stat!

It appears that we've lost one of the most important tools in the field of Earth observation:  on April 8, the Envisat satellite stopped communicating with its handlers at the European Space Agency.  While this is not happy news, the satellite was a real workhorse well beyond its expected lifespan and was an outstanding success for ESA's program.

We routinely used radar satellite images collected by Envisat's ASAR sensor, and low-resolution optical-infrared images from the MERIS instrument, to monitor places around the world for oil pollution related to offshore oil and gas development and shipping.  As a tool for tracking vessels throughout the ocean, ASAR was also useful for monitoring fishing. 

Here's a recent example of our work using ASAR, illustrating and measuring Shell's major oil spill off the coast of Nigeria last December: 

Envisat ASAR image capturing Shell oil spill off Nigeria in December 2011. Image courtesy European Space Agency.

There are other options, none quite as good as ASAR for its combination of coverage, capability and availability, and cost.  We've used radar satellite images from the TerraSAR-X and Cosmo-SkyMed systems, operated by Germany and Italy, for various oil spills including the BP / Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010 and the Montara blowout and spill off Australia in 2009.  Canada's commercially operated Radarsat is an excellent system comparable to Envisat's ASAR, although the data cost makes large-area monitoring a very expensive endeavor.  And the European Space Agency is planning to launch Sentinel as a followup to the Envisat program, although that launch is not expected for at least a year. 

Which brings me to my #1 complaint about the US space program:  why doesn't the US have its own civilian radar imaging system?  We once led the world in this technology with the incredible success of SeaSAT way, way back in the day (remember 1978? we WERE the champions!) and we haven't launched a civilian radar satellite since.

This is a big mistake.  Radar imaging satellites are the #1 tool for conducting cost-effective, routine monitoring of large, remote ocean areas to detect and track vessels and pollution.  Other countries are using imagery hand-in-hand with their enforcement agencies to clamp down on pollution, illegal fishing activity and smuggling.  The U.S. has vast, far-flung ocean spaces to manage, amounting to half of our total territory.  Maritime monitoring has evolved into a national security issue far too important for the U.S. to continue being dependent on foreign- and commercial-operated radar satellites.  Congress, let's get on the ball and fix this glaring security gap.   

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Shell Reports 10-Mile-Long Slick in Deepwater Gulf of Mexico

Yesterday evening Shell reported sighting a 10-mile by 1-mile oil slick between two of their major deepwater oil production platforms, Ursa and Mars. (Here's what Mars looked like after getting walloped by Hurricane Katrina back in 2005.) Actually, federal employees with BSEE who happened to be out there noticed the slick and helpfully pointed it out to Shell, who then mobilized a nearby cleanup vessel and some ROVs to do seafloor inspections.So far Shell claims the slick is not caused by any of their operations, and they note the presence of known natural oil seeps nearby. 

This is located in the Mississippi Canyon area of the Gulf, 130 miles south of New Orleans and about 60 miles beyond the tip of the Mississippi Delta, in water about 3,200' deep. 

Yesterday's low resolution MODIS/Terra satellite image of the area, shot at 16:50 UTC (10:50 am local time) shows what appears to be a narrow, 17-mile-long slick in the vicinity of the two platforms.  We often see slicks from known natural oil seeps that are about this size; some in the Green Canyon area to the west show up well on this same image.  Low clouds and their shadows are scattered across the lower half of this view:

Here is the same scene; we've traced the slick in yellow:

 And here is the same scene again. We've added the locations of known oil and gas platforms (orange dots) and seafloor pipelines (orange lines).  Green dots indicate the locations of known natural oil seeps, based on data provided by Florida State University. Sea-surface wind data collected from the Mars platform show that the wind was blowing from the west or northwest for most of the day on April 11, so we think this slick should originate from a source near the west (left) end.  We don't see any obvious candidates near that end of the slick, so at this time we're not sure what to make of this:

Our friend in the air, Bonny Schumaker, flew out over this site today and reported seeing a thin patchy slick of rainbow sheen but no obvious source.  She'll post photos and video to her site soon.  In the meantime, check out the report, videos and photos from her Gulf overflight on April 6, documenting continuing chronic leakage from the Taylor Energy / 23051 site and a few other surprises - some good, some not so much.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Gas Pipeline Explosion and Fire - Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana

Apologies for John's bungled bayou geography - the incident he blogged about yesterday occurred in Terrebonne Parish, NOT in Vermilion Parish as originally posted.  The blog post has been corrected.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Second Chronic Leak Found Off Coast of Nigeria - Natural Seep?

Two large slicks were spotted on the same image of the Nigerian coast (5.75°N, 4.45°W) (5.75°N, 4.45°E).  One slick (we're calling it SkyTruth Unknown 001, or ST_UNK 001) was featured in a March 27th blog post that compiled a time-series of images of the constant leak three miles off the Coast of Molume. Thirty miles farther from the coast, a larger slick has since captured our attention, and has been named ST_UNK 002:

In this image, courtesy of the European Space Agency, a long ribbon of surfactant stretches 40 miles parallel with the coast. This apparent oil slick seems to be coming from multiple sources concentrated near one small area, a typical feature of natural seeps.

This offshore slick was also observed on images taken on later dates (from January 12, 2012 to March 31, 2012), indicating that the oil or oily substance may be coming from a continuous leak. like a natural seep on the seafloor. The closest permanent structure is three miles south of the apparent source.

But it's also possible that this chronic slick is caused by a damaged or corroded pipeline with multiple leaks; we just don't have any data showing where the offshore pipelines are in Nigeria.  So if anyone is aware of this area's history, further information would be appreciated!

Gas Pipeline Explosion and Fire - Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana

Our SkyTruth Alerts system gave us a heads up that there was an explosion and fire around noon yesterday in the marshes of Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana.  One caller to the National Response Center noted flames shooting 150' into the air; another caller, perhaps a bit more excited, claimed 800'

At about the same time, a caller from Texas Gas Transmission Co. detected a huge drop in pressure in one of their gas pipelines, while noting a fireball in the marsh in the vicinity of the pipeline.  So far we've seen no mainstream news coverage of what must have been - and maybe still is - a spectacular pipeline failure.  This area can only be accessed by boat, perhaps explaining the lack of coverage.

The fire was burning so hot that it shows up as a fuzzy red spot in this low-resolution MODIS/Terra band 7-2-1 satellite image, taken yesterday at 1pm local time, about an hour after the fire was reported to the NRC:

MODIS/Terra 721 satellite image, April 9, 2012 showing fire from inferred gas pipeline rupture in Louisiana. Orange dots are offshore oil and gas platforms in federal waters; orange lines are some of the seafloor oil and gas pipelines.
 Hopefully the line was shut off and quickly burned out but we'll let you know if we see this fire on today's satellite images as well. 

Extreme Bilge Dumping, Angola

UPDATE: We figured out who the culprit was! Read all about how we identified the guilty party- FROM SPACE:

Original Story: We've been collecting quite a number of images showing the ongoing problem of bilge dumping across the globe and here is one that really catches the eye. This image, courtesy of the European Space Agency, was captured off the coast of Angola on April 6. It shows what appears to be an oily bilge dump approximately 92 miles long. The bottom image shows that you can clearly see the vessel that is probably responsible, circled in red:

 Radar satellite image showing a 92 mile long bilge-dump slick, taken on April 6, 2012. Envisat ASAR image courtesy European Space Agency.

You can be sure that we look at images such as this everyday and when we see 'em, you'll see 'em. Eyes everywhere.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Gas Well Blowout in the North Sea - Small Slick on April 4

The out-of-control well owned by French company Total in the central North Sea's Elgin field is still spewing natural gas into the air.  The good news is a crew was able to visit the rig yesterday, raising hopes that a top-kill can be conducted by pumping mud into the well from the rig itself, which would stop this blowout a lot faster than Plan B - drilling a relief well to perform a bottom-kill.  Also encouraging: the rate of gas flow seems to be decreasing.

We noted a small slick at this site on a radar satellite image taken March 27.  Another image, taken on April 4, also shows a somewhat smaller slick (see image below).  This is probably caused by natural-gas condensate, a volatile and toxic hydrocarbon liquid that evaporates relatively quickly.  We don't see any reason to expect this incident to morph into a significant oil spill.

But this is yet another close call for the global oil industry since the disastrous Gulf blowout in 2010.  If this well had been tapping a high-pressure oil reservoir, like most of the new deepwater wells being drilled around the world, the outcome could have been a BP / Deepwater Horizon repeat. Ugh.  We're not ready to see that mess again any time soon.

Radar satellite image showing small slick at North Sea blowout site, taken on April 4, 2012 at 9:29 pm local time. Envisat ASAR image courtesy European Space Agency. (When are we going to launch a radar satellite here in the US?)

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Cuba Offshore Drilling Rig Spotted on Radar - Small Slick Reported

We've found it.

The big semisubmersible drill rig, built in China and now drilling a deepwater oil well for the Spanish company Repsol in the Florida Straits off Cuba (hey, it is a global industry), has finally made an appearance on a radar satellite image.

This Envisat ASAR image, shot at 11:43 pm local time on March 30, shows a trio of very bright spots about 17 miles north-northwest of Havana.  We think the largest of these spots, with an interesting cross-shaped "ringing" pattern often seen on radar images of big, boxy metal objects, is the Scarabeo-9 rig.  The other two spots may be crew vessels or workboats:

Detail from Envisat AASAR satellite radar image of Florida Straits, taken on March 30. 2012. We infer the large bright spot is the Scarabeo-9 semisubmersible drill rig.  Image courtesy European Space Agency.
The location marked in orange is a report we just got through the SkyTruth Alerts that a small possible oil slick was sighted nearby during a US Coast Guard overflight yesterday morning. We don't think this is anything alarming; it's probably just some of the typical oily crud you'll get from an active drilling operation at sea, that we observe on a regular basis in the Gulf of Mexico with our Gulf Monitoring Consortium partners. 

For those who want to know, here is our analysis of the location of the Scarabeo-9 drill rig based on this radar image.  If anyone can confirm this is indeed the location of the rig, please let us know:

 23.374496° North latitude / 82.492283° West longitude

Here's a zoomed-out look, showing the coastline of Cuba and the city of Havana:

Envisat ASAR radar satellite image courtesy European Space Agency.
   And here's the big picture, showing Cuba, Key West and the rig location:

We'll keep watching this area.  Many people are concerned about the potential of a major spill from this site affecting the east coast of Florida and the southeastern US, and the lack of oil spill response coordination and cooperation between Cuba and the United Sates.