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CSTARS Offers Historic Bird's Eye View of Oil Spill Using Satellite Imagery

An explosion on April 20, 2010 caused the Deepwater Horizon oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico to catch fire at approximately 22:00 EDT and claiming the lives of 11 people before it sank two days later. This incident started one of the largest oil spills not only in the Gulf of Mexico, but in the entire world in the ocean. Several attempts to cap the leaks (3) have failed. Oil continues to pour into the Gulf from the blown-out undersea well at a rate of ~210,000 gpd or 5,000 bpd (very conservative estimate provided by NOAA).

On April 29, 2010 the Center for Southeastern Tropical Advanced Remote Sensing (CSTARS) at the University of Miami began to coordinate with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) a systematic satellite image data collection of the oil spill for the U.S. Government (USG). This massive data collection effort from space utilizing CSTARS extensive license agreements for more than 15 satellite sensors was unprecedented for such a catastrophic event. Daily coverage from space of the fast spreading and rapidly growing oil plume spanned the Gulf area from Texas to Florida. This event marked the first-ever use of extensive, sustained (unclassified) space-based remote sensing data to cover an environmental and ecological disaster of this magnitude. 

Figure 1: Imagery covered coastline from eastern Texas to northwestern Florida. A typical set consisted of the following satellites: Envisat – 2 passes, ERS-2 – 2  passes, RadarSat-2 – 1 pass, Cosmo-SkyMed-2 – 2 passes, Cosmo-SkyMed-1 – 2 passes, and SPOT-5 – 5 frames.

In daily teleconferencing CSTARS finalized collection plans with NGA and other USG analysts and produced Daily Briefs with annotated images and derived products for strategic planning of the response and resource allocation. Furthermore, within typically 1 hour after downlinking the satellite images to CSTARS’ ground station in southern Miami-Dade County and the processed, full resolution satellite data was placed on a password-protected ftp site for internal use by federal, state, and local responders. Initially the data was narrowly licensed in its use and CSTARS rapidly arranged for a license extension to include all Federal Civilian Agencies (e.g., USCG, DHS, USGS, NOAA, EPA, DOT) and State and Local agencies in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Texas.

A lower resolution of the data was also made quickly available to the scientific community to enhance and complement modeling studies. The CSTARS website became a very reliable resource for the public of the latest images of the oil spill within 24 hours. Dr. Hans C. Graber, Executive Director of CSTARS and professor at UM’s Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science shared images from CSTARS with the media, helping these outlets explain the magnitude of this environmental catastrophe.   

The all weather, day and night satellite radar images provided a very quick overview of the extent of the oil spill and could easily monitor the spreading of the oil towards ecologically sensitive wetlands and coastal population centers. Dr. Graber was the first to use these satellite images to tell the public and media that the spill has tripled in size by May 1 and was then 3,850 sq miles (9,900 sq km) in size. This is the equivalent of twice the State of Delaware or larger than the island of Puerto Rico.

By May 9, the Florida Congressional staff of Senator Bill Nelson, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart became recipient of a Daily Brief describing the current situation of the oil spill and projecting its possible evolution.

The following satellite sensors are downlinked/received and processed at CSTARS:

  • Cosmo-SkyMed constellation of 3 synthetic aperture radars from eGeos, Italy
  • TerraSAR-X synthetic aperture radar from InfoTerra, Germany
  • RadarSat-1 & RadarSat-2 synthetic aperture radars from MDA, Canada
  • Spot-4 & Spot-5 multi-spectral optical sensors from SpotImage, France
  • MODIS on Aqua & Terra multi-spectral optical sensors from NASA, USA
  • ALOS/PALSAR synthetic aperture radar from JAXA, Japan
  • ENVISAT ASAR & MERIS co-located synthetic aperture radar and multi-spectral optical sensor from ESA, European Union
  • ERS-2 synthetic aperture radar from ESA, European Union
  • FormoSat-2 multi-spectral optical sensor from NSPO, Taiwan
  • EROS-B panchromatic optical sensor from ImageSat, Israel
  • RapidEye constellation of 5 multi-spectral optical sensors from RapidEye, Germany

The satellite sensors were well staggered within a 24 hour period with the synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites covering the oil spill during the dawn and dusk hours, the sun-synchronous optical sensors between mid-morning to mid-afternoon and the co-located optical sensors and SAR around noon and midnight. These satellite collections were downlinked and automatically processed daily at CSTARS seven days a week including weekends and holidays and distributed in near real time to the U.S. Government. By the end of the oil spill, CSTARS collected nearly 700 image strips which were the equivalent of nearly 1,200 image scenes (Table 1).  A typical 24 hour image coverage is presented in Figure 1.

Satellite

Count

Success

Failed

Received

Rejected

ALOS

47

45

2

0

0

Aqua

7

7

0

0

0

CSK1

100

85

1

2

12

CSK2

109

86

4

2

17

CSK3

114

79

3

2

30

Envisat

97

95

0

0

2

ERS2

56

54

0

0

2

Formosat2

7

7

0

0

0

MODIS

10

10

0

0

0

RSAT1

74

69

2

0

3

RSAT2

69

65

1

1

2

SPOT4

8

8

0

0

0

SPOT5

6

6

0

0

0

TSX

94

77

3

0

12

Total

798

693

16

7

80

Table 1: Statistics of image collection for the different satellite sensor.

One of the products produced by CSTARS was an oil spill map as shown in Figure 2. The combined Envisat ASAR and RadarSat-2 images about 9 hours apart provide a good overview of the oil spill. The estimated size of this part of the oil spill is 10,661 sq mi which is larger than the State of Maryland.

Figure 2: SAR images were used to trace the areal extent of the oil spill and then calculate and estimate of its size.

A second product was an oil spill impact map that showed how close the oil has spread towards beach and environmentally sensitive wetlands. Figure 3 shows a color-coded coastline where red indicates that oil has either reached the shore or is within 10 miles and blue that oil is still 10 miles or more offshore. For this date about 300 miles of coastline saw either oil wash up on its shores or would be impacted shortly.

 

Red:        Oil reached the shore  - 300 miles.

              Blue:       Oil further away than 10 miles  - 327 miles.

Figure 3: Oil Spill impact map derived from ENVISAT ASAR image on 2 July 2010 at 15:57 GMT. The center of the image shows a large thunderstorm approaching the Deepwater Horizon site.

Finally, Figure 4 a color-coded map of how many days oil was detect at a given location over a 70 day period. This map also shows how far the oil had spread and the extensive impact of beaches and wetlands along the coastline of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

Figure 4: Persistence map of how many days oil was detected by space-borne sensors during the Deepwater Horizon crisis.

For more information on CSTARS’ involvement in monitoring the oil spill, please see our timeline.  For image use, contact Raymond Turner at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .  For general information on CSTARS capabilities, contact Dr. Hans C. Graber at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . For media inquiries, contact Barbra Gonzalez (305-984-7107) at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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