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