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WATCH: Latest video on detecting oil spills using state-of-the-art satellite technology

19 June 2024

New video summarises research at Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML) that is helping to detect oil spills across the global ocean using satellite technology.
Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill - Gulf of Mexico by Kris Krug CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill - Gulf of Mexico by Kris Krug CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

The global demand for crude oil continues to increase and in 2023, this demand amounted to over 100 million barrels per day, which is an increase of 11 million barrels per day since 2003.

Beyond the impact of this fossil fuel on the Earth’s climate, other risks associated with the demand for oil are also increasing. One such risk is oil spills, with 1000s of spills occurring globally each year, totaling an approximate 700 million gallons of oil entering our ocean annually.

Oil slicks can occur naturally but most spills, and certainly large spills (over 700 tons), are due to human activities, such as oil extraction processes and shipping. Although data shows that the number of large oil spills have significantly reduced since the 70s, dropping from over 20 down to under 2 on average per year, smaller oils spills continue at an alarming rate and many go unreported due to their remote location.

The impact of an oil spill can vary greatly and usually depends on the physical and biological properties of the location. Generally though, oil spills are detrimental in two main ways:

Fouling or oiling: This occurs when oil harms a plant or animal physically, such as when oil coats a bird’s wings so they are unable to fly, or strip away the insulating properties of a sea otter’s fur. The degree of oiling often impacts the chance of survival for the animal.

Oil toxicity: Oil consists many different toxic compounds that when ingested, can cause severe health problems, such as heart damage, stunted growth, immune system effects, and even death.

Both of these impacts can also cause long-term harm at wider scales by changing food webs and altering species populations for years to come. Sensitive habitats, such as mangroves, coral reefs and seagrass meadows, and the vital services they provide in coastal protection and refuge, are also at high risk and could take decades to fully recover.

Along with their environmental impact, oil spills that reach the coastal zone can often affect human health and the economies of surrounding communities. Tourism, fishing and aquaculture are all especially vulnerable to the potentially devastating impacts of oil spills.

Overall the consequences of oil spills are multifaceted, making them a grave problem that demands immediate attention and comprehensive solutions. However, due to the vastness and dynamic nature of the ocean, monitoring for oil spills has been challenging, if not near impossible, especially in regions that lack the resources to undertake appropriate monitoring.

In good news, rapidly advancing technologies are paving the way for better, faster, more cost-effective and user-friendly monitoring approaches. Plymouth Marine Laboratory has taken full advantage of these new technologies and fostered an impressive track record in the development of satellite monitoring and advanced techniques to help detect and address oil spill occurrence across the world, which include:
  • Leading the development of a service for observing illegal oil discharge from commercial vessels in the Malacca strait.
  • The most comprehensive analysis at 10m spatial resolution of patterns in oil spill occurrence over time.
  • Designing a system that allows sub-daily detection of oil spill dispersal in the nearshore environment.
  • Active support of spill response and clean-up efforts for 2 spills in Malaysia and Mauritius.  
Read more about PML’s oil spill detection research and development work >>

The PML team also contributed to a multi-country policy report on state of the coast for West Africa, with a focus on oil spills. Dr Moussa Sall, who worked with PML on this policy report and other oil spill detection research, as part of his role as the Coordinator of the regional unit of the West African Coast Observation Mission, said:

“The detection of oil spills on the West African coast is of great importance in the fight against marine pollution, especially in a context where the exploitation of oil will develop with new discoveries of deposits in certain countries and also with the densification of maritime traffic.”

“The technical support provided by the Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML), under EO4SD-Marine & Coastal Resource Management, in the use of satellite images for this purpose, is capitalized through capacity building sessions for the network of experts in the sub-region. The forthcoming establishment of the regional observatory and national observatories will, in the medium and long term, make it possible to tackle the issue in a sustainable manner at the local level. Provision of marine pollution indicators can thus be retained in the monitoring program of the regional observatory.”

“The information produced will be made available at the level of the regional observatory platform and will also be capitalized upon in the regional alert network.”

“All this will contribute to improving knowledge on coastal risks and help in decision-making in the management of the West African marine and coastal area”.

PML’s most recent activities in the area of oil spill detection are:
  • Developing a novel satellite-based oil slick detection algorithm for very high resolution imagery, working with commercial satellite data provider, Capella Space. The data collection stage has been completed, generating over 60 images from three target study locations.
  • The development of a machine learning model that can provide accurate sub-daily detections of oil dispersal is nearing completion.
  • Spill detection outputs for the Gulf of Guinea are being shared with a hydrodynamic modelling group at the University of Ghana, for integration into the Coastal Ocean Environment Summer School in Nigeria and Ghana.

capella_sapce_horizontal_full_logo_coppper-1-640x234.pngMack Koepke, Vice President of Global Sales at Capella Space, commented:

“We are pleased to provide the high-resolution, high-cadence SAR imagery the experts at PML need to develop advanced analytic tools for oil slick detection. Capella Space has long been dedicated to providing actionable information to better understand our changing world and quickly respond to change. We look forward to continuing our work with organizations like PML to tackle some of the biggest environmental challenges of our day".

In summary, oil spills have severe impacts on ecosystems, wildlife and economies. Satellite monitoring, such as PML's oil spill detection service, plays a crucial role in detecting and monitoring oil spills to help support clean-up efforts. These technologies and methods are essential for preventing and mitigating the devastating effects of oil spills, helping to ensure a cleaner ocean for now and the generations to come.

Related information

Watch PML's video on detecting oil spills across the global ocean using satellites
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