[SouthWings] Best Practices in Aerial Observation of Oil Spills in Open Water

 

In the five years since BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank in April of 2010 — killing 11 people and leading to an uncontrolled 87-day oil gusher that covered vast areas of the Gulf of Mexico in oil — SouthWings and our partners in the Gulf Monitoring Consortium have learned much about effective citizen reporting of pollution, especially related to oil spills in water. Thanks to the work of SkyTruth, we have also learned that there are oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico on an almost daily basis. While it certainly takes some practice to train your eyes to spot oil on water at a distance while flying, here are a few tips and some resources to get you started:

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The basics:

  • When to fly: fly during a time of low-angle light (early morning works well) for the best visibility of oil sheen on water. Pick a clear day with low wind and seas (waves break up spills and make them harder to spot).
  • Tips: we find that polarized sunglasses can make oil sheen harder to spot. Some people also recommend wearing non-reflective colors (black), especially if you’ll need to take photographs through plexiglass.
  • Photos: be sure to note altitude and direction photos are taken. If possible, include oil platforms, boats, etc. in photos for scale. Note color of oil sheen, as well as approximate dimensions and direction it seems to be moving. Noting coordinates of each spill is critical. Some cameras automatically GPS tag photos, but, if yours does not, a lower-tech option is to snap a photo of the coordinates on an external GPS unit; there are many higher-tech options that will geotag your photos with a bit of post-flight processing (details on a free option here). Document anything you see about a potential source of the problem and any information about a suspected responsible party.
  • Reporting spills: call the National Response Center (NRC), operated by the US Coast Guard, at 1-800-424-8802. It’s important to file NRC reports for spills of oil or potentially hazardous materials you notice (whether you find them on flights or otherwise), as this is the only way to ensure that the spill is included in the public, official government record.

Details and additional resources:

  • Training manual: before you fly, be sure to download and read Open Water Oil Identification Job Aid for Aerial Observation from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). It has great examples of what to look for and will help you avoid common false positives, such as seaweed clumps and cloud shadows.
  • Checklist: printable oil observation checklist from NOAA here.
  • Estimating spill volume: the color of the oil sheen varies with thickness of the oil spill. Gray sheen is the thinnest, followed by rainbow sheen and then metallic sheen. A thicker oil spill will have a darker color closer to “true” oil color. There are a variety of standards for making oil spill volume estimates based on visual assessments, so always state which standard you’re using if you make a volume estimate. The Bonn Agreement Oil Appearance Code is a scientifically rigorous and straightforward option.

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Here are a few great examples of Gulf Monitoring Consortium collaboration on aerial monitoring from Gulf Restoration Network, Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper, and Louisiana Bucket Brigade.

If you’re a pilot and would be interested in volunteering to fly with Gulf Monitoring Consortium members, please contact David Moore at SouthWings: david@southwings.org.

Photos: Jeffrey Dubinsky for Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper (top of page); Jonathan Henderson for Gulf Restoration Network (bottom of page). Flights provided by SouthWings.

Gulf Restoration Network & Louisiana Bucket Brigade Join GMC

GMC.Feature.ImageThe Gulf Monitoring Consortium (GMC) welcomes the Gulf Restoration Network and Louisiana Bucket Brigade as the newest partners in a collaborative effort to detect and respond to oil and petrochemical pollution in and around the Gulf of Mexico. Both the Gulf Restoration Network (GRN) and Louisiana Bucket Brigade (LABB) have been working with the Consortium for some time and we are pleased to announce their official membership in our cooperative effort.

GRN and LABB bring substantial local knowledge, resources, and reputation to the Consortium, improving the GMC’s connection to local communities and strengthening our objective voice in the Gulf on pollution issues. The Gulf Restoration Network is committed to uniting and empowering people to protect and restore the vital but imperiled natural resources of the Gulf Region. Louisiana Bucket Brigade’s mission is to support communities using grassroots action (such as air quality sampling with EPA-approved “buckets”) to create informed, sustainable neighborhoods free from industrial pollution.

The GMC is an innovative partnership combining remote sensing technologies, aerial observation, and photography; and resources on-the-ground and in-the-water to detect, document, and respond to pollution. Each member contributes their expertise to this integrated approach – SkyTruth provides guidance on areas of concern based on image analysis and digital mapping, SouthWings coordinates volunteer pilots to get GMC members in the air to monitor for and document pollution incidents, and Gulf Restoration Network, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, and Waterkeeper Alliance members such as the Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper provide both local knowledge of on-going issues and resources on the surface to “groundtruth” what we observe from the sky.

Read more about the leaks and spills GRN documented on a routine monitoring flight in March with Southwings, and explore LABB’s iWitness Pollution map powered by SkyTruth Alerts.