Gulf Oil Spill – Bigger Than Exxon Valdez

Just five months ago, SkyTruth’s President testified to Congress about the risks posed by offshore drilling. Now we’re seeing a catastrophic spill in the Gulf that could soon surpass the sorry benchmark set 20 years ago by the 11-million-gallon Exxon Valdez spill.

SkyTruth is beginning to get radar satellite images showing the oil slick from the Deepwater horizon blowout and spill in the Gulf of Mexico. These images, from a variety of non-US satellites (don’t get us started on that), cut right through clouds and haze to show the “texture” of the ocean surface. Oil flattens the ocean out (that’s why they call it a “slick”); flat water looks black on radar images. This image, acquired by the European Space Agency’s Envisat satellite, clearly shows the sprawling slick at about noon local time on April 26:

Satellite radar image taken April 26 clearly shows oil slick (lower right) from Deepwater Horizon spill. Source: European Space Agency.

This, and other radar images that SkyTruth is getting, confirm what we’ve seen on the NASA/MODIS images so far, and support our conservative calculations showing that in the first week of this spill at least 6 million gallons have entered the Gulf. That’s a spill rate of at least 850,000 gallons (20,000 barrels) per day, 20 times larger than the official Goast Guard estimate of 42,000 gallons per day.

The Australia blowout and spill took 10 weeks to control.

The Exxon Valdez tanker spill totaled 11 million gallons. We could exceed that in just a few days, if we haven’t already.

UPDATE 4/28/10 9:30 pm – A NASA/MODIS satellite image taken this afternoon has clouds, jet contrails and haze that obscure much of the oil slick, but shows the western edge of the slick is within 10 miles of shore.

5 replies
  1. maria rita says:

    I also would like to thank you – I run a no drilling campaign in Italy (there are plans to drill 5km out of the Venice lagoon, of all places!) and have used your web site to educate the people over there about this spill, but also Montara a few months ago. Thanks also for testifying in Congress about why drilling our oceans is such a bad idea. Sincerely, Maria

  2. sidewalk says:

    20,000 bopd? Where do you come up with that figure? 20,000 bopd is a decent field (multiple wells) Can you site one single well in existence that produces that much?

    Seriously 20,000 bopd would probable be the highest producing oil well in the history of man kind.

  3. Ian says:

    Measure and model the rise trajectory of oil escaping the well
    Response to the ongoing spill from the uncontrolled well in Mississippi Canyon 252 should employ optimal oceanographic data collection, reporting, analysis and modeling capabilities. The responders presently face severe challenges because the oil is being released at 5000 ft water depth. As it rises through the water column until it reaches the surface it is pushed by ocean currents. The rise rate will be fairly slow, so that it may take 4 hours or more to reach the surface. This means that the oil drops could drift several miles away from the release point before they become visible. For optimal response, the skimmers should be positioned as close as possible to the surfacing point. This is light oil and it spreads rapidly. Once the oil has spread into a thin layer, the skimmers face an increasingly difficult struggle in collecting it. If skimmers could intercept the oil as soon as it reaches the ocean surface, they would have a much better chance to recover or possibly burn the oil in place. The following plan of action has been developed in consultation with concerned oceanographers experienced in the Gulf of Mexico.
    1. Make continuous, real-time measurements of the currents not just at the surface but over the entire water column. This can be done with acoustic current profilers (called ADCPs) presently available. At a minimum, two ADCPs should be deployed; one at the surface looking down and profiling the currents down to about 1000 ft and one on the bottom looking up and measuring the bottom currents. They would report their measurements near real time so that responders could continually update their models and shift their response. Information on surface and bottom currents would also be crucial as responders attempt to lower a cap on to the well hole.
    a) Upper ADCP: This instrument can be mounted on a surface buoy equipped with satellite communications that would automatically update the responders at regular intervals. The Texas Automated Buoy System, run by Texas A&M University, has long experience with this type of deployment and has previous experience in spill response. There is an available buoy at the University of Mississippi and the buoy could be deployed in a matter of days.
    b) Lower ADCP: This instrument could be mounted on the top of one the on-site ROVs presently operating at the well hole. It would send its data up the umbilical cable to the surface where it could be integrated into the overall response information. There are several ADCPs in the Gulf of Mexico region that could be made available. Technicians could helicopter out to the accident site and install the instruments on the ROVs.
    2. Model the trajectory of oil rising from the bottom to predict where it will surface: This has been done with a model called SLIKTRAK that was originally developed at Texas A&M University. SLIKTRAK has been used by oil companies and by the US Naval Research Lab for previous studies of oil rising from the bottom. SLIKTRAK can be run on a laptop computer and can integrate the output of ADCP profiles. The model could be adjusted based or the observed rise speed of the oil once it leaves the turbulent jets at the leak point. Fine-tuning based on ship and aerial observations would improve accuracy over time.
    For further information on ADCP and SLIKTRAK response, please contact:
    Norman Guinasso, Ph.D. (ADCP buoy & ROV deployment)
    Director of the Texas Automated Buoy System,
    Texas A&M University
    979-862-2323 x114
    Ian MacDonald, Ph.D. (SLIKTRAK)
    Professor of Oceanography
    Florida State University

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