Timor Sea Drilling Spill Covers 2,500 Square Miles

SkyTruth just obtained a full-resolution version of the NASA /MODIS satellite image taken on August 30, 2009, nine days after the blowout and spill began from the Montara offshore oil platform in the Timor Sea off Western Australia. We did some additional processing to enhance features in the ocean, and discovered that slicks and sheen extended even further to the northeast than we thought a few days ago. We’ve uploaded two new MODIS images to our growing online gallery of this event: one is simply the MODIS imagery with no annotation; the other is the same chunk of imagery with SkyTruth’s analysis.

NASA/MODIS satellite image, August 30, 2009, with SkyTruth analysis

This image shows that oil slicks and sheen from the blowout had already spread across 2,500 square miles of ocean by August 30. And it will take several weeks, possibly months, before this well can be controlled.

By the way, just how big is 2,500 square miles? Well, it’s bigger than Delaware. And for our Canadian friends, it’s as big as Banff National Park. If you know any other 2,500-square-mile things, let us know by adding a comment to this post.

Thanks to Jesse Allen at NASA and the MODIS Rapid Response Team for providing the original MODIS image.

Timor Sea Drilling Spill – More Images Online


UPDATE 9/3/09 5pm EDT: We had to temporarily take down the CSK radar images from August 28, 29 and 30. Hopefully they’ll be back online soon. Other images from August 25-30 (including TSX radar and MODIS) are still online.


We’ve just added a few new location maps and satellite images to our growing online gallery of images showing the continuing oil spill off Western Australia: the images are from the Cosmo-SkyMed (CSK) satellite, and were taken on August 28, 29 and 30:

Cosmo-SkyMed radar satellite image taken on August 28, 2009 of Montara oil spill. Oil slicks and sheen appear very dark gray to black on radar imagery.
CSK radar image © e-GEOS and ASI/Telespazio 2009, Distribution ASI/CSTARS

Now we’re working on getting more imagery as this spill is expected to continue for at least 7-8 weeks. We’re also extracting the oil slick boundaries and overlaying them on maps showing whale migration routes, coral reefs, biodiversity hotspots, and marine reserves. Keep checking in. Subscribe to the blog feed if you’d like an email alert whenever we add new stuff.

And of course, if you’d like to support what we do here at SkyTruth, please help!

Timor Sea Drilling Spill – Satellite Images Reveal Extensive Slicks

Looks like the ongoing oil spill gushing into the Timor Sea off northwest Australia may be worse than initially reported (see a slideshow of aerial photos and watch a video).

Oil slick from blowout during drilling off Australia.

Photo: Chris Twomey, courtesy of WA Today

One observer this weekend estimated that oil slicks and sheen from the blowout in the Montara field extend across 180 km of ocean and are within 20 km of the Australian coast, in an area that The Wilderness Society calls a marine life “superhighway” for migrating whales, turtles and other animals.
Location map showing site of Montara Platform blowout and spill.
TSX radar image © DLR 2009, Distribution INFOTERRA/CSTARS

SkyTruth, working with CSTARS at the University of Miami, just obtained TSX radar satellite images showing oil slicks and sheen (very thin films of floating oil) extending across more than 800 square miles:

Detail of spill on TSX radar satellite image acquired August 30, 2009.
Oil slicks and sheen (very thin films of oil) appear dark gray to black on radar imagery.
TSX radar image © DLR 2009, Distribution INFOTERRA/CSTARS

And NASA has just published yet another satellite image, taken on the same day, that shows an even larger area of slicks extending far to the east of the area shown on this radar image, across a total area of over 1800 square miles. It’s clear that the impacted area is much larger than reported last week:

Detail from NASA’s MODIS satellite image acquired August 30, 2009. Slicks and sheen extend across more than 1,800 square miles of the Timor Sea.

It will take at least several weeks before another drilling rig can get into the area to drill a relief well and control the spill. It’s worth pointing out to folks here in the US, who are considering opening new areas of our coastlines off Florida, Alaska, the Carolinas and Virginia to offshore oil and gas production, that this blowout occurred during drilling operations on a brand-new (installed in 2008) state-of-the-art platform. While these incidents have become less common, they still do happen.

UPDATE 9/3/09: We’ve created a new online photo gallery with aerial photos, satellite images, and maps of this spill. Images will be added over coming days/weeks, so keep checking in.

UPDATE 10/5/09: The company operating the West Atlas drill rig, Seadrill of Norway, has stated that the leak occurred from a previously completed well on the Montara oil platform while the West Atlas was drilling a new well on that platform. The Montara platform was built in 2008, and was installed in mid-2009 by Perth, Australia-based engineering company Clough after the original contractor, Saipem, bailed out to do a job elsewhere.

Offshore Drilling: Nobody’s Perfect

Oil slick from blowout during drilling off Australia, August 25, 2009
Photo Credit: AeroRescue Darwin / AMSA

Should we pursue offshore drilling in new areas like the Florida coast? It’s a balancing act all right – good jobs and a partial reduction in our dependence on foreign oil (dang those Canadians!) vs. the potential damage to beaches, water and air quality, and tourism- or fishing-based economies.

A few things to consider as Chambers of Commerce and politicians up and down both coasts ponder this issue:

Hypothetical 80-square-mile oil slick from a spill source ten miles off Florida’s west coast

Visuals help shed some light on the risks. Based on the Eugene Island Pipeline spill and resulting oil slick, we’ve created illustrations showing two hypothetical oil spills: one occurring from a point ten miles off the coast of Florida, and another occurring from the vicinity of Platform Irene off the coast of California (where a similar pipeline spill — the Torch spill — actually happened in 1997, oiling the beaches and killing over 700 birds). These are just illustrations that don’t take into account local wind and current, but they do accurately represent the actual size of the Eugene Island slick.

NASA Launches New Weather Satellite

GOES-14 launch – click to see a larger image

On June 27, 2009, NASA successfully launched GOES-14, the newest in a long line of workhorse weather satellites, and will soon turn over operation of the bird to NOAA. Most of the images you see on TV weather reports come from the GOES satellites. They’re low-resolution, but cover huge chunks of the planet in a single view. And since they are geostationary (the “G” in GOES) — parked at an altitude of 22,000 miles where the orbital motion of the satellite precisely keeps time with the rotation of the earth — these satellites are continuously monitoring cloud patterns and other atmospheric parameters, allowing forecasters to predict the weather and keep a close eye on severe storms.

GOES image of Hurricane Katrina, August 28, 2005

Here at SkyTruth, we use GOES images to help us track the motion of hurricanes that threaten offshore oil and gas facilities, and to evaluate the wind and rain conditions in an area when we’re acquiring satellite radar images to detect and map oil slicks. With another hurricane season upon us, we’re glad to see this perfect launch.