Eye in the sky: NOAA satellite program aids oil spill response

An experimental satellite imagery program has been helping officials battle the slick in the Gulf of Mexico

Federal officials have been using an experimental program from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that uses advanced satellite imagery to analyze the massive oil slick seeping in the Gulf of Mexico.

Although NOAA officials have done satellite analysis for decades, the new program is unique because it uses high resolution data from satellites from a variety of countries and it’s designed for situations such as oil spills, said Chris Warren, a physical scientist at NOAA and a co-developer of the program.

In the program, the NOAA’s satellite team makes imagery available from a range of satellites to NOAA’s Ocean Service's Emergency Response Division, as well as other federal, state, and local organizations involved in the response effort. NOAA personnel elsewhere in the agency use the data to create advanced models for the how the spill will spread.

“Because the satellites are continuously circling and taking imagery, we were able to provide continuous locations of where the slick was, even when [planes and ships] were not able to be out there” because of recent bad weather, Warren said.

Warren also said the program improves the ability of responders to understand the boundaries of the spill.

“Because of the extent of the spill, the sheer size of it, it’s very difficult for planes and ships to be able to cover the whole area to see where it is every single day, with satellites we’re able to get a much broader view of it and for the most part capture the entire slick in one image,” he said. “That’s been the biggest thing: knowing where it is because [responders] can’t physically go back and forth and scan it with planes and ships just because how big it is.”

Warren said the program was started in response to a request from NOAA’s ocean service's division. Warren said although the program has proven successful in helping with the oil spill in Gulf, it’s still probably about a year or two away from being fully ready.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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