Oil Slicks Sighted Yesterday 16 Miles from BP / Deepwater Horizon Spill Site

Bonny Schumaker from On Wings of Care has been very busy flying the Gulf lately.  Yesterday she flew out over the site of the BP / Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  About 16 miles northeast of the spill site, she ran across extensive oil slicks that look to us like a lot more than the typical natural oil seep normally produces.  Check out her report with a photo gallery and video.

There is a known seep location less than 2 miles to the south.  The nearest oil platform is 8 miles to the east; the closest pipeline is >5 miles to the northeast.  MODIS satellite images taken yesterday afternoon showed nothing unusual in the area, and the most recent radar image for the site was taken back on August 26.  We’ll keep looking and let you know what we learn.

Oil slicks on August 30, 2011 about 16 miles northeast of the BP / Deepwater Horizon spill site. Photograph courtesy Bonny Schumaker / On Wings of Care.
Location of oil slicks documented by Bonny Schumaker on August 30, 2011. BP oil spill site (Deepwater Horizon wreckage) shown for reference.
Map showing August 30 flight line (pale blue), seafloor oil and gas pipelines (yellow), oil and gas platforms (orange dots), natural oil seeps (green dots), and BP oil spill site relative to slicks observed on August 30. Backdrop is shaded-relief bathymetry (seafloor “topography”).

Post-Irene Turbidity off Long Island, Cape Cod – Major Runoff Expected

This MODIS/Terra satellite image taken about two hours ago shows beautiful patterns of post-Irene turbidity (mostly suspended sand) in the waters off Long Island and Cape Cod:

Detail from MODIS/Terra satellite image taken on August 29, 2011.

But the brown plume in Raritan Bay just above the right corner of our logo shows sediment coming from runoff into the Raritan River. The Hudson River north of Manhattan is bright orange-brown, also full of sediment and other surface runoff that hasn’t quite made it to the coast yet.  This runoff can be pretty nasty stuff, laced with untreated sewage, agricultural chemicals, oil and other miscellaneous gunk.

We expect to see major plumes of runoff in the coastal waters up and down the eastern seaboard this week as the torrential rain dumped by Irene works its way to the ocean.

Coastal Turbidity from Hurricane Irene

The intense wind and wave action kicked up by Hurricane Irene left its mark along the eastern seaboard. Sand and sediment eroded from the beaches and stirred up from the seafloor created a broad belt of turbid ocean water that appears a gorgeous shade of turquoise in this MODIS / Terra satellite image shot yesterday afternoon:

Detail from MODIS/Terra satellite image taken August 28, 2011, showing the Carolina coast. Cape Hatteras is near top center. Turbid coastal waters laden with sand are bright turquoise.

Zooming in to North Carolina’s Outer Banks, we can see some brownish plumes in the water that are probably sediment runoff from the coastal rivers that were deluged with rainfall from this storm:

Detail from August 28, 2011 MODIS satellite image showing tubidity in Pamlico Sound, Albemarle Sound, and offshore along the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  Pale blue – turquoise colors offshore indicate water carrying suspended sand; brownish areas in Sound, and plumes issuing into the ocean through inlet channels in the barrier islands, indicate water carrying sediment and other onshore runoff.

Hopefully we’re not seeing a repeat of the widespread failure of hog-waste impoundments in this area that followed Hurricane Floyd back in 1999:

Detail from Landsat-7 ETM satellite image of North Carolina’s Outer Banks taken September 23, 1999 in the wake of Hurricane Floyd.
Aftermath of Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

Marsh Fire Near New Orleans – Smoke Plume Over City

A quick update – yesterday’s MODIS satellite image shows the plume of smoke from a burning marsh blowing to the south-southwest, affecting a big chunk of the city of New Orleans and parts of the Jefferson, Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes:

Detail from MODIS satellite image taken August 28, 2011 showing smoke from burning marsh drifting over eastern and southern new Orleans.

Thick smoke was drifting yesterday over the communities of Chalmette, Braithwaite, Marrero, Galliano, Chauvin, Dulan and Theriot, then heading out over the Gulf, making a visible plume that extended nearly 300 miles from the source of the fire – much longer than the smoke plume we observed while the Deepwater Horizon rig was burning last April.

Marsh Fire Near New Orleans

Serendipity: in conducting our regular daily monitoring of satellite imagery for oil pollution in the Gulf of Mexico, we noticed a huge plume of smoke coming from the east side of the city of New Orleans on this NASA/MODIS satellite image taken early Saturday afternoon:

Detail from NASA/MODIS satellite image taken August 27, 2011 showing 200-mile-long smoke plume originating on the east side of New Orleans.

We tweeted about this at 7:14pm eastern, and in the wee hours this morning @dmyersloyola replied that we’d identified a large wildfire burning in a marsh on the edge of town.  (Are you following us on Twitter yet?)  Here’s a video report on the fire. It’s extremely smokey, a serious air-quality problem and public health concern for nearby residents.  It was possibly triggered by lightning.

Earthquakes, Earthquakes! And Drilling?

We had some action here in the mid-Atlantic yesterday that would make the folks in California yawn, but is pretty unusual around these parts – a magnitude 5.8 earthquake centered in Virginia, that was felt far and wide. There have even been a couple of small aftershocks. Paul and Teri report that the shaking was obvious in Shepherdstown, and my wife Amy said it seemed to last for a long time:

I was terrified – I thought a tree was coming down and would hit the house, or a truck was running into the house.  I ran to the open door to try to figure things out. Then I thought it was a military aircraft.  But it went on for a long time time (or so it seemed) and I figured it was an earthquake.

And just a day earlier, there was a similarly moderate quake (5.3) that struck along the Colorado-New Mexico state line near Trinidad.  There has been a swarm of small, shallow earthquakes in this area in recent years; because this swarm sits right in the middle of a very active coalbed methane drilling play (known as the Raton Basin, including drilling on the nearby Vermejo Park Ranch property owned by Ted Turner), there is some speculation that these earthquakes are actually being triggered by either the withdrawal of natural gas from the rocks, or the injection of water produced from the CBM wells back into the ground for disposal.

Epicenter (red star) of magnitude 5.3 earthquake that struck the Raton Basin natural-gas field near Trinidad, Colorado on August 22, 2011. Quake was 4 km deep. White spots are recently drilled natural gas (coalbed methane) wells in this 2006 image. CBM wells produce large volumes of water, which is disposed of here by injecting it deep into the ground.

It’s not as wacky as it sounds.  Disposal of fracking fluids by deep injection was implicated in an unusual earthquake swarm in Arkansas earlier this year; and similar quakes in 2005 happened here in the Raton Basin. This USGS report on a 2001 earthquake swarm also raises the possibility of seismic activity induced by the injection of fluids for disposal (note: fluid disposal by deep injection is NOT the same thing as fracking; but it is a consequence of natural-gas production in some places).

Everything Old is New Again

We’ve been following the recent media reports about oil leaking at the Deepwater Horizon site, and we have received a lot of inquiries about whether we could corroborate these reports. Well John has been out of the office dealing with some family medical issues (don’t worry – he’s fine and he’ll be back soon), so the rest of the team has been soldiering on without him, though we are sorely missing his expertise with the imagery.

Several media reports last week indicated that a BP submersible working in the Green Canyon area had observed an undersea leak at one of their abandoned wells (which was not the Macondo well, former site of the Deepwater Horizon), and also that a sheen was observed on the surface. The initial media reports may have stemmed from this NRC Report from August 14, which we reported on last week..

Subsequently BP denied that there was any oil coming from any of their wells, and it is certainly possible that the oil observed on the surface came from a different source, or even from one of the several natural oil seeps that are within a few miles of that location. We are investigating the possibility that one of the “natural” seeps observed consistently over time in that area on radar satellite imagery by our colleagues at Florida State may in fact be an abandoned well, but so far we have no evidence to support this.

Then, on Friday, August 19, rather than speculate from afar, Jonathan Henderson and Tarik Zawia of Gulf Restoration Network and Bonny Schumaker of On Wings of Care did us all a great service and flew out over the Gulf to have a first-hand, close up look. In addition to posting all the great pictures they took, Bonny was also kind enough to post the GPS log from the flight so that we could see exactly where they went and match that up with our own observations.

From that flight, there were 4 areas of specific interest where oil was definitely observed on the water surface. These were: Site 23051, Taylor Energy’s chronically leaking abandoned well cleanup; the former site of the Deepwater Horizon; a mystery sheen observed out in open water; and a sheen coming from a platform operated by Texas Petroleum. Unfortunately, there was no radar imagery available to us (at least not quickly) for that day, and conditions were not good for seeing these slicks in visible light, so we can’t say anything definitive based on our own imagery. For this analysis we are working solely from the images shot by the flight crew.

Site 23051

Flight Waypoint: 9110
Flight Observations: Schumaker: “…strange-looking oily spherical globules.”

Photo from On Wings of Care overflight Aug 19, 2011 showing an oil sheen trailing from a vessel near Site 23051

Our analysis: We’re surprised that they didn’t see more oil here. We are routinely seeing 10 mile long slicks at that location in our satellite image monitoring. See our Site 23051 Chronology page for more on the sorry history of this site. From the photos it looks like what they saw is some minor leakage of oil or diesel fuel, possibly from the work boat on the scene.

Estimated Volume: Too small to estimate

Deepwater Horizon Site

Flight Waypoint: 9111
Flight Observations: Schumaker: “…lines of those strange-looking globules in what was otherwise smooth blue water”. Jonathan Henderson filed this NRC Report in the same location which reports a sheen of half a mile long by 30 feet wide.

Photo from On Wings of Care overflight Aug 19, 2011 showing oil sheen near the Deepwater Horizon site

Our Analysis: Looks like a small amount of oil coming to the surface in droplets, not surprising given how much oil was spilled there last year. If there is a submersible working down there, it could easily be stirring things up, and in any event, there is a massive drill rig, 5000′ of oily riser pipe, a room-sized containment dome that was filled with oil and methane hydrate, and a whole bunch of other oily junk on the bottom that will be slowly leaking drops of residual oil for many years to come. We have seen much more oil coming from the destroyed wells at site 23051, and we are not surprised to see residual oil here. Also note that we have the original site of the Deepwater Horizon over 2 miles to the east of the location where the oil was sighted.

Map showing August 19 flight path, the former site of the Deepwater Horizon, and text of the NRC report filed by GRN

Estimated Volume: Going from the photo, we’d say this is too small to estimate. From Henderson’s NRC report, assuming there was a continuous sheen of those dimensions, the volume would be about 2 gallons. However it appears the report is describing an area that is only partially covered by smaller circular oil formations, so in that case the volume will be significantly less.

Mystery Sheen

Flight Waypoint: 9124
Flight Observations: Schumaker: “This sheen extended at least a mile north-to-south — but there were no rigs or platforms nearby”

Photo from On Wings of Care overflight Aug 19, 2011 showing oil sheen from an unknown source near  29.219114 N, 88.641157 W

Our Analysis: There is no matching NRC report for this spill, so whoever caused it has not ‘fessed up’. There are plenty of pipelines in the vicinity, but we don’t show one at that precise location. The nearest one is connected to a platform that is about 1.75 miles to the north west. We don’t know of any natural seeps in this location either, though our seep database is limited primarily to deep water locations, and this site is in relatively shallow water. What we can say is that so far just this month, there have been 313 “unknown sheen” reports to the NRC. Of those, 35 were reports of sheen a mile or more in length. Sadly, this sort of thing happens literally every day.

Map showing known pipeline locations in yellow with the flight path in blue, site of the observed sheen marked with a blue flag.

Estimated Volume: From the flight report we don’t have an estimate for the width of the sheen, but at 1 mile long by 50 feet wide with a rainbow sheen, the volume of this slick would be about six or seven gallons

Platform Leak

Flight Waypoint: 9125
Flight Observations: Schumaker: “…observed another surface sheen, about 2 miles long… And just to the northeast of that … we saw some very serious surface rainbow sheen, at least two miles long and joining the previous one.”

PPhoto from On Wings of Care overflight Aug 19, 2011 showing oil sheen trailing from a platform near  29.542594 N, 89.130472 W

Our Analysis: The flight team definitely documented a leak from a platform here, and they did a very nice job of verifying the independent report submitted by the polluters themselves the same day. At 2:30 pm that day, Texas Petroleum reported to the NRC that due to an equipment failure at their platform, they spilled crude oil into the gulf creating a sheen 150 feet wide and half a mile long, which almost certainly was the same sheen that the team saw several hours later, which by that time was longer and thinner – 3 miles long by 6 feet wide as recorded in the NRC Report at the same location that we presume was filed by one of the team.

Map showing August 19 flight path in blue, with text and location of NRC report filed by GRN
Map showing August 19 flight path in blue, with text and location of NRC report filed by Texas Petroleum on the same day

Also, about 2 miles to the north west, there were two other significant spills reported by Texas Petroleum one on the 18th and one on the 19th at the same platform, so the second sheen that was observed could easily have been coming from that platform.

Map showing August 19 flight path in blue, with text and location of nearby NRC report filed by Texas Petroleum the same day.

Estimated Volume: Texas Petroleum reported 3 spills in the area:

The observations by the flight crew are consistent with those reports.


It’s a sad fact that no matter where you look in the oil-producing areas of the Gulf, you will find oil on the surface of the water — some from natural seeps, some from accidental leaks and spills, a sorry state of affairs for sure. But we’re still not convinced that BP’s plugged Macondo well is leaking. We should expect to see a small amount of oil coming to the surface in that area for a long time to come, just like at the site of the USS Arizona, which sank in Pearl Harbor 70 years ago, and still produces a visible sheen on the surface from oil slowly leaking from its submerged tanks.