Every year thousands of oil spills occur as a result of accidents or natural disasters. Even deliberate spills take place during war time or to save money. Although large spills are published and known to the public, small spills such as resulting from emptying billage tanks before or after entering a port happen every day. Oil spills affect the environment, devastate natural resources and public health and disrupt the economy. To mitigate and manage oil spill impacts, satellite remote sensing has proven to be a valuable technology. Information derived from remote sensors is used to improve decision-making and rapid response. Satellite remote sensing can be applied to various modes of oil spill control, including large area surveillance, site speciﬁc monitoring and strategic assistance and emergency control.
The spatial and frequent coverage of Earth observation satellites allows to cost effectively complement cost intensive aerial surveillance by patrol aircrafts. Satellite remote sensing is used to detect and monitor size, extent and location of oil spills, as well as providing information on wind, current and waves to predict oil movement.
A crew attempts to skim oil from the surface of the waters of Prince William Sound following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. Credit: Chris Wilkins/AFP/Getty images
Remote sensing radars transmit pulsed microwave (radio wave) beams which are bounced off and altered by objects and surfaces they encounter. The origin and strength of this backscatter is received by satellite sensors and provides information on for example unusual texture which may be due to spilt oil. Identification of oil spills requires in general high resolution sensors, although wide area coverage is very important for initial monitoring and detection. Currently there exist various satellite remote devices including optical, SAR and laser fluorosensors. Laser fluorosensors very accurately detect oil spills on shores, ice and snow and are capable of identifying what type of oil has been spilled. They require however relatively cloud free conditions. SAR sensors do not depend on weather conditions or day/night cycle.
Depending on the type of oil spill various types of satellite sensors can be applied. Non-accidental oil discharges such as incidental losses from vessels due to hull or equipment leaks, as well as oil discharged intentionally during de-ballasting and tank-cleaning activities are smaller than accidental spills. They are however very frequent and contribute much more to the overall introduction of oil to the marine environment than accidental spills. Non-accidental spills are therefore of increasing international regulatory concern. Accidental spills are much less frequent, but involve much larger releases of oil and require rapid and effective emergency response.
Radarsat 1 image of oil spill off the south coast of Cyprus, Credit: CSA/MDA/EMSA 2007
To mitigate ship sourced pollution there has been established a European wide system for oil slick detection based on Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) images from satellites. This service is called CleanSeaNet (CSN) and uses information provided by satellites such as RADARSAT-1 and RADARSAT-2. ENVISAT ASAR has also been used until it was no longer available and continuity of service will be guaranteed with data from TerraSAR-X (DLR) and CosmoSkyMed (ASI) and the currently developed Sentinel-1. CleanSeaNet offers a near real time marine oil spill detection service free of charge to all EU Member States, Candidate countries and EFTA Coastal States In case of oil slick detection, an alert message is sent to end users and final verification of possible oil slicks and the polluter is then carried out by surveillance patrol vessels. SAR imagery is also used for vessel detection. The integration of vessel tracking data, vessel detection and auxiliary Earth Observation products allows for aggregated maritime information and greatly contributes to the reduction of illegal oil spills at sea and the prosecution of illegal activities.
Globally there are a number of organizations and programs involved to mitigate the impact of oil spills. In the case of a major oil spill disaster in European and adjacent waters, EMSA, conducting the CleanSeaNet service, together with the International Charter (Space and major disasters) will provide rapid access to satellite derived information about the areas affected by or at risk of serious pollution. The International Charter consists of multiple agencies such as ESA, CNES, NOAA and USGS and aims to provide a unified system of space data acquisition and delivery to those affected by natural or man-made disasters. More examples of organizations and programs involved in oil spill monitoring and management involve OSPAR, IMO, UNEP, FAO and EEA.
Article on BP oil spill
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Website - Oil pollution; a global environmental challenge
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Kongsberg Satellite Services
Research paper on how SAR and GIS technologies can significantly improve identification or even classification of oil spills allowing making the final product - oil spill distribution maps.
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Research paper highligting that SAR onboard the Envisat satellite is an excellent tool for studying oil seeps through observation oil slicks floating on the sea surface
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Article describing the world's largest oil spills
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Research paper focusing on a subset of these applications, namely aquaculture detection, coastline mapping, ship surveillance and oil spill monitoring.
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Conference Presentation showcasing the German surveillance system
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Research Paper: Remote Sensing of the Environment (2005), Review of Methods and state of the art.
Brekke and Solberg,
Faculty of Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation
Research paper - preliminary results of oil spill detection in the East Sea using the ALOS PALSAR data
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International Federation of Surveyors, FIG
Roger Clarke, Gregg Swayze et al, USGS 2010
Research paper (need to purchase to view full text)
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Article on Oil Spill monitoring and ship detection service
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Rearch paper - From national towards pan european multi user services
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Asian Association on Remote Sensing
Case study - highlights the potential of wide-swath synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imagery for the regional oil pollution monitoring
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Cite Seer beta
Presentation on sea oil pollution using ERS and ENVISAT data
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Oil spill; pollution, SEA, SAR, CEO, user requirements
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U.S. - MMS , Statoil, Dickens Assoc Ltd.
Presentation on advances in SAR oceanography from ENVISAT and ERS missions
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Study proposes an example of ESI guideline containing fishery data around Abashiri city facing the Sea of Okhotsk.
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Research Centre for Social Management Systems
Article on oil spill with RADARSAT images
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Canadian Space Agency
Article on oil spill with links to related ESA articles
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