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In response to the May 19 oil spill off the Santa Barbara coast, NASA deployed an aircraft carrying a specialized instrument to test the ability of imaging spectroscopy to map tar on area beaches. The work is attempting to advance the ability to respond to future oil spills.

What’s the Problem?

July 2, 2015 – NASA’s Airborne Visible Infrared Imaging Spectrometer, Next Generation (AVIRIS-NG) instrument uses spectroscopic measurement of energy reflected off the Earth to analyze surface properties. In this case, AVIRIS-NG attempted to map the presence of tarballs on California beaches using direct, on-the-ground observations to verify the data.

Prior to the flights, a research team led by Ira Leifer of Bubbleology Research International collected tarballs on one of the affected beaches and looked at them in a government laboratory. The analysis confirmed the presence of unique petroleum hydrocarbon spectral features that would allow diagnostic tar mapping from space.

To support AVIRIS-NG, researchers deployed to a beach coated with oil from the spill to map tar and collect surface spectra. They mapped a 220 foot section of the beach, noting locations and tar dispersal. AVIRIS-NG then flew over the beach and successfully detected tar in the spectral data, validating the accuracy of the technique. The map was then forwarded to the Incident Command for the Refugio Oil Spill, and was incorporated into the Shoreline Cleanup and Assessment Technique (SCAT).

Using remote sensing technology in response to oil spills could potentially transform shoreline cleanup techniques by providing highly accurate maps at a resolution and quality not currently available. These maps could guide stakeholders in assessing impacts to beaches and in cleaning up damaged ecosystems and environmental habitats.

“NASA is keenly interested in fostering development of new operational remote sensing technologies that improve disaster response for application by federal responders,” said David Green, NASA Disasters Program manager. “The AVIRIS-NG deployment is an example of the proactive disaster response efforts NASA supports, including oil spills within the FOSTERRS {Federal Oil Spill Team for Emergency Response Remote Sensing} interagency working group.”

The new approach is based on a NASA campaign used during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. In that case, AVIRIS imagery provided the first-ever maps of oil sheen thickness on the ocean. The current effort seeks to leverage the improved performance of AVIRIS-NG to map oil as tar on beaches and coastlines.

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