BP / Gulf Oil Spill – Moving Toward Florida Straits (??)

We just finished analyzing the MODIS / Aqua satellite image shot the afternoon of May 27. It again clearly shows the main body of the oil slick (solid orange line) around the site of the leaking Macondo well, and also shows deep entrainment in the Loop Current. Disturbingly, we see signs of thin surfactant – possibly oil from this spill – in the Loop Current where it moves past the Dry Tortugas and toward the Florida Straits (dashed orange line):

MODIS / Aqua satellite image, May 27, 2010

There are natural processes that generate thin layers of oily surfactant, so this does not necessarily show that oil from the spill is moving into the Straits yet. But the spill has clearly been interacting with the Loop current since May 17, and at a speed of 1 to 2 knots (see below), ten days is enough time for some of that oil to have moved 240 to 480 nautical miles (276-552 miles). Although it’s 510 miles as the crow flies from the leaking well site to Florida Straits, the convoluted path taken by the Loop Current adds up to a total distance of about 900 miles, so we may not be there yet. Consider this a possibility, not a definitive conclusion.

Systematic water sampling in the eastern Gulf sure would be helpful to pin this down – is anyone doing that?

Sea-Surface Velocity (SSV) map derived from satellite radar altimeter data, May 27, 2010. Location of the Loop Current is indicated by green to red band of relatively high velocity at the ocean surface. Source: Colorado Center for Astrodynamics Research.

BP is currently trying out the “top kill” procedure to plug the leaking well. The success of this attempt is still uncertain, but at least the blowout preventer appears to be hanging together under the increased strain. Live video feed shows what appears to be a strong plume of oil and drilling mud coming from one of the leaks in the busted-up riser pipe. Keep your fingers crossed – this really needs to work.

8 replies
  1. phosemann says:

    Thank you John, for your untiring attempt to provide a scientific basis of the documentation of the surface imagery. I understand the challenges of gathering this data in the presence of continually changing weather patterns.

    Are you aware if there is a government agency collecting similar information?

    And has there been attempt to integrate the ongoing interpretation of the snapshots to better constrain the limits of total sheen coverage versus the thicker extents of the spill?

    Phil Hosemann
    12534 Westerley
    Houston, Texas, 77077-2418


  2. QuizMasterChris says:

    Thanks again for the great work. Every day I check this site and theoildrum.com , the latter being a site in which pros in the drilling industry usually discuss Peak Oil issues, but lately try and figure out what BP is doing and if it'll work.

    The only thing most think WILL work is a relief well in… this boggles the mind – August or September.

  3. John says:

    Chris – The Oil Drum is a great resource.

    Phil – NOAA is getting multiple images daily from a variety of civilian and foreign-government-operated radar and visible to infrared satellite systems; they may also be getting data from national assets ("spy satellites"). NOAA is also flying aerial photography surveys, and they are using some NASA airborne sensors to get more direct measures of oil thickness: the official Flow Rate Technical Group made their spill rate estimate a few days ago partly based on a transect of AVIRIS hyperspectral data flown on May 17. They extrapolated that profile to the entire slick that day, then (with no explanation) assumed that 50% of the oil spilled since April 20 was observable in that slick on May 17, and 50% was not (still underwater, evaporated, biodegraded, skimmed, burned, etc.).

    Maybe some day we'll get access to this growing mountain of remote-sensing data, which can help tell the story of the surface impacts of this spill. The 800-pound gorilla in the room: how much oil is underwater, out of sight? Where is it going, and what is it doing? We need a full-on science, engineering, and political press to get the research underway ASAP to figure that out.

    Joe – sadly, I think this could get even worse if we lose the wellhead and blowout preventer from the runaway Macondo well. So I'll hold your label in reserve, should that unhappy event come to pass. But then I'll call it the BP Oil Volcano to indicate exactly who owns this fatal and tragic mess.

  4. John says:

    Mac – in that same vein, I'd like to see someone put the BP leak video to music. I propose Jimi Hendrix — Purple Haze or maybe Stone Free.

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