West Virginia based nonprofit SkyTruth and founder John Amos analyze satellite imagery to bring you the truth big oil and the government don't want you to hear.
“Oh my God! Look at that picture over there! Here’s the Earth coming up. Wow, is that pretty.”
Frank Borman, Apollo 8 mission commander, was captivated by the view of the Earth rising over the Moon’s austere horizon on Christmas Eve 1968. The world echoed his wonder when "Earthrise" (right) was brought back home. The photo kick-started the environmental movement in the late '60s and gave us an idea of our planet’s rare and finite beauty.
SkyTruth is 21st century environmentalism from the skies. The nonprofit has been mapping man’s impact on earth as seen from the heavens since 2001 when founder John Amos left a lucrative job in the oil industry to use his satellite image analysis expertise for good. Over the past several years, SkyTruth has mapped the explosive growth of natural gas drilling in the Mountain West, charted the fishing patterns of commercial fleets in protected waters off the coast of New England, and demonstrated the devastating consequences of Mountaintop Removal Mining in West Virginia, where the nonprofit is based.
On April 27, as the satellites used by SkyTruth scanned the Gulf of Mexico, Mr. Amos made his most astounding discovery yet. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill was far more catastrophic than British Petroleum and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had admitted to the public. Using satellite images to calculate the spill’s surface area and thickness estimates provided by published reports, Amos determined the seabed leak had spewed 6 million gallons of crude into the Gulf during the week following the rig’s blowout on April 20.
“That's a spill rate of at least 840,000 gallons (20,000 barrels) per day, 20 times larger than the official Coast Guard estimate of 42,000 gallons per day,” he wrote on SkyTruth’s blog on April 28.
Amos’ estimate was conservative. It didn’t take into consideration the oil skimmed off the surface by response crews, burnt away in controlled blazes or the unknown quantity invisible from the sky — the oil propelled by powerful undersea currents, sunk by dispersants, or biodegraded by natural processes. More so, his estimate accepted a conservative measure of the oil’s thickness on the surface, a variable that could have swung the total to the extreme by a factor of 10. The Gulf spill, as he saw it from the skies a week after an explosion killed 11 workers aboard the Deepwater Horizon, could already be worse than the Exxon Valdez spill, which poured 11 million gallons of crude into Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989.
A day after he published his findings, the government upped its estimate to more closely resemble what Amos saw. According to the NOAA, the leak was releasing 210,000 gallons (5,000 barrels) per day, five times as much oil as previously reported. The federal agency did not cite SkyTruth’s findings in its updated estimate.
The science behind measuring an oil spill is inherently murky. That’s especially true for a spill that originates 5,000 feet underwater, and even more so for one that isn’t actually a “spill” at all, but a “rupture” that continuously leaks crude into the seas. The US Coast Guard initially reported no oil was leaking from the well head. On Day 5 of the spill, British Petroleum reported a flow rate of 1,000 barrels per day. Recent video captured by a remote operated submersible suggests the gash in the seabed may be leaking anywhere from 20,000 to 100,000 barrels of crude a day. Amos himself doesn’t profess to know exactly how much oil is leaking into the Gulf of Mexico, only that he has arrived at a range more reasonable than that provided by those in charge of the clean up.
If Tony Hayward, BP’s chief executive, has provided us with any real data, it’s just how bad the Deepwater spill might be. He has said the leaking reservoir contains at least 50 million barrels of oil, according to The New York Times, and that the leak could flow at a rate of 60,000 barrels per day if the damaged blowout preventer was destroyed altogether. At that flow rate and total volume, the Gulf spill would continue for 833 days before the reservoir was tapped, releasing 4.5 times more crude into the seas than was released by the 1990 Gulf War oil spill, the largest in history.
Still, some experts in the field have questioned the priority of measuring the Gulf spill. BP has repeatedly rejected offers by independent scientists to gauge the flow rate using modern measuring techniques. Bill Salvin, a BP spokesman, told NPR “there’s no way to estimate the flow coming out of the pipe accurately.” The Coast Guard has said its priorities lie in stopping the gusher, not measuring it. But Amos says you can’t stop what you don’t know. “How can the authorities know if their efforts to plug the well have been successful if they don’t know how much oil is coming out?” he said in an interview with Tonic.
Amos has got a point, and he’s continuing to do the work the government and BP refuse to do on their own. On May 1, using calculations provided by Dr. Ian MacDonald at Florida State University, SkyTruth again upped its estimate of the flow rate, this time by analyzing an overflight map provided by the Coast Guard. According to Amos, the flow rate was 1.1 million gallons (26,500 barrels) per day 11 days after the rig’s explosion. He stands by that estimate today. The NOAA and BP, meanwhile, won’t budge from previous estimates of 5,000 barrels per day.
On Monday, May 17, satellite imagery revealed the spill had taken a new shape. A 100-mile tongue of oil had been pulled away from the slick amassed off the coast of Louisiana and appears to have been sucked into the Loop Current, a warm water flow that shoots past the Florida Keys on its way into the Atlantic. As of Tuesday, the NOAA wasn’t prepared to say that the spill had in fact entered the Loop Current, only that it was “increasingly likely” to happen.
The view from the sky tells a more pressing truth.
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