Working Group 4
Oil spill monitoring
by remote sensing
   Satellites    References
   Special issues
   Oil monitoring
CEARAC Projects Website on oil spill monitoring by RS HAB Reference Database Marine Environmental Watch Project Homepage Ocean Remote Sensing Portal site Cochlodinium Homepage CEARAC Projects


The ability to remotely detect and monitor oil spills at sea is becoming increasingly important due to the threat that such pollution poses to marine wildlife and the ecosystem. We are all aware of the problems associated with oil spills in the marine environment. The oil spill resulted in large scale damage to the local ecosystem, causing the death of thousands of sea birds, fish and marine animals, as well as oiling many beaches.

Oil spills occur at a much reduced scale frequently, but still cause significant damage to the local wildlife and ecosystems, the effects of oil spills upon the marine and coastal ecosystems has been well documented.

As the demand for oil based products increases, shipping routes will consequently become much busier, the likelihood of slicks occurring is increasing. If applied correctly, remote sensing can act as an important monitoring tool. It can provide early detection of slicks, provide size estimates, and help predict the movement of the slick and possibly the nature of the oil. This information will be invaluable in aiding clean up operations, and consequently help save wildlife and the balance of the local ecosystem, provide damage assessment and help to identify the polluters.

Due to the nature of an oil slick a satellite remote sensing platform is required to have the following:
  • High temporal resolution, due to the changing nature of the oil and its immediate threat to ecosystem,
  • The ability to image a given area regardless of cloud cover and prevailing weather conditions (even time of day),
  • High spatial resolution, to identify individual small oil patches (windrows),
  • Wide spectral resolution, as the position and width of the spectral band is important in distinguishing the oil from the adjacent water (Clark, 1993).
At the present, no existing remote sensing platform, in space or airborne, can meet all of the above requirements. One of the aims of this site is to assess the ways in which oil slicks can be monitored by various satellite remote sensing techniques. Using satellite platforms to monitor oil slicks is more cost effective than applying airborne monitoring techniques (Salisbury and Sabins, 1993) and therefore would be beneficial for routine pollution monitoring.

From the onset of the emergency, it is evident that the re-visit capability is crucial for repeat monitoring, and the inherent all-weather, light-independent imaging capability guaranteed image acquisition. Near-real time data processing and delivery are also important.

UNEP CEARAC Site statistics