Oil that entered the environment from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill site represents a threat to coastal and pelagic ecosystems of the Gulf of Mexico region. Repeated and frequent mapping of surface and subsurface oil plumes over this large region was required for monitoring, forecasting and mitigation efforts. This two-year Collaborative Project organized experts from the region to conduct research under Category 1, i.e. to determine the distribution and extent of oil and dispersants. The approach built on the team's infrastructure, long history of time series research of the oceanography of the Gulf, and strong multidisciplinary academic education programs to also contribute to Categories 2 (baseline studies) and 3 (contribute to an integrated observing system).
The project combines satellite and airborne observations collected by the remote sensing team with habitat and contaminant measurements from ships and other platforms to characterize oil and dispersant distribution and their environmental impacts. The team uses extensive connections in the fisheries, oil and other industries, and establish robust collaborative linkages with other biogeochemical, ecological, and modeling efforts to combine observations and minimize uncertainties in the identification and characterization of surface and subsurface oil. Synoptic assessments are developed by combining real-time satellite images (SeaWiFS, MODIS, MERIS, AVHRR visible and infrared, and synthetic aperture radar), detailed maps of coastal habitats impacted by the contaminants derived using airborne hyperspectral imagers, large-scale maps of the subsurface circulation obtained from sensors launched from NOAA hurricane hunter aircraft crossing the Gulf, and meticulous shipboard observations of oil presence and composition collected by other teams. The synoptic assessments have helped target coastal areas for high spatial resolution digital imaging and mapping conducted using the airborne cameras after oil contamination. Our ongoing historical satellite time series (1993-present) studies provide a context for assessing change.
The information will be synthesized in written reports to support other studies, numerical forecasting efforts, and mitigation plans. The reports build on products we generated during the blowout incident and which were made available openly to decision makers and the general public. From a scientific and technical point of view, the project evaluates the various strategies used by different experts for manual image interpretation, and will lead to strategies for automated image thematic classification. The project will help understand the impact of the contaminants along the coasts of U.S. Gulf, over spatial scales ranging from centimeters to over a thousand kilometers. This work is conducted by experts from the University of South Florida, the University of Miami, the Florida Institute of Technology, VODA LLC, Inc., and the University of Southern Mississippi. We collaborate with other institutions engaged in collecting baseline and monitoring observations.