Timor Sea Drilling Spill – On The Move

It’s been 20 days now since a well blew out on the Montara oil platform in the Timor Sea; the platform was immediately evacuated and the uncontrolled well has been continuously spewing oil into the ocean ever since. MODIS images taken about three hours apart on September 10 show an area of patchy slicks and sheen about 3,600 square miles (=2,700 nautical square miles) in size, north of the Montara platform and extending well beyond Australia’s territorial waters:

NASA/MODIS satellite image, September 10, 2009, with SkyTruth analysis

Check out all the satellite images and aerial photos in our gallery.

For you armchair image analysts, here’s a little MODIS Interpretation 101: MODIS is a relatively low-resolution imaging sensor (250 meter detail) carried onboard two NASA satellites called Terra and Aqua. It reveals oil slicks most effectively when those slicks fall within the area of sunglint – where sunlight is almost directly reflected off the ocean’s surface to the satellite, making clean ocean water appear medium-gray wherever the wind is blowing. The wind kicks up ripples on the ocean’s surface; those ripples look “glittery” and the combined effect is to make the ocean surface fairly bright. Any area of smooth, calm water will appear dark. Oil slicks tend to dampen those little ripples and make the surface smooth. Of course, if the wind is very calm and no ripples are generated, the entire area will look dark whether there’s an oil slick present or not.

When Terra orbited overhead on the 10th, the Montara platform was in the middle of a large calm area. Three hours later when Aqua took a look, the Montara platform was just outside the region of sunglint. That means we’re not able to detect any slicks in the immediate vicinity of the platform itself on the 10th, even though the well is continuing to leak and there are almost certainly slicks around the platform. Hopefully we’ll get better imagery in coming days.

Timor Sea Drilling Spill Covers 5,800 Square Miles

SkyTruth just downloaded and processed a MODIS satellite image from NASA that was taken on September 3, 2009. It shows the area in the Timor Sea affected by oil slicks and sheen from the Montara / West Atlas blowout and oil spill that began on August 21 is now over 5,800 square miles in size. That’s more than double what it was just four days earlier, on August 30. And it’s as big as Connecticut and Rhode Island put together:

NASA/MODIS satellite image, September 3, 2009, with SkyTruth analysis

Heads up, Jakarta: the northern parts of this slick complex now appear to extend into Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone.

Here is the September 3 image with our analysis. And here is the image alone, with no annotation.

Keep checking in for more information and updates to our online gallery.

UPDATE 9/10/09: The West Triton drill rig is expected to arrive on the scene today, and will be set up to begin drilling a relief well, a procedure expected to take four weeks. An Australian official reported yesterday that there had “been a reduction in the number and size of slick patches being observed.”

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.