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Space-based Detection of Oil Spills on Earth

LOOKNorth researcher Dr. Bahram Salehi awarded NSERC Discovery Grant to develop EO-based methods of detecting terrestrial oil/waste-water spills and monitoring their impact on the environment

Canada is home to the world’s third largest proven oil reserves and is the world’s fifth largest oil producing country.  Approximately two-thirds of production is exported, 99% to the United States; the rest satisfies domestic demand. In addition to the more than three million barrels that are exported to the US each day, almost one million barrels cross the border in the other direction. Within, out of and into Canada, some five million barrels of oil move daily through pipelines and in railway tankers.

Public concern about the potential impact of accidents associated with oil shipment by pipelines and rail is at an unprecedented level and is effectively limiting expanded production, with a corresponding effect on Canada's economy. Concerns include human health and safety as well as the potential impact on ecologically important systems – rivers, lakes, wetlands and vegetation areas. There is an immediate need to develop methods for early detection of spills, delineation of impacted areas, and remediation monitoring; these techniques would enhance the operational safety of oil transportation, help mitigate impact in the event of an accident and provide transparency for the public about any occurrences. Remote sensing is a rapid and cost-effective technology that can meet these needs.

Above right: Aerial view of waste-water spill site over which the satellite imagery will be aquired

While Earth observation (EO) data has been widely used for monitoring maritime spills, it has been less used for monitoring land-based events - partially because of the perceived limitations of EO data and techniques for terrestrial spill mapping.  LOOKNorth researcher Dr. Bahram Salehi has been awarded a Natural Sciences and Engineering (NSERC) Discovery Grant to develop effective EO-based methods of detecting terrestrial oil/waste-water spills and monitoring their impact on the environment. The program will investigate use of time-series (before and after) EO data, including high-resolution optical and polarimetric synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellite imagery and ground-based electromagnetic survey measurements.  This research builds on earlier work investigating object-based image analysis of EO data from multiple sources. 

The project is a part of a remote sensing program of land-based application and algorithm development conducted by Dr. Salehi and his team of five graduate students.  Conducted over four years, it will use SAR data (provided by Canadian Space Agency (CSA) through the Science and Operational Application Research (SOAR) program) acquired over a known spill site in northern Alberta.   The primary goal of the project is to create an EO-based framework through which to address information needs related to land-based oil spill detection and impact monitoring; however, the techniques developed could also be applied in industrial pollution monitoring and response, environmental baseline and change mapping, environmental remediation, and forestry and agriculture. It will also demonstrate the utility of CSA-supported SAR missions such as RADARSAT-2 and the upcoming RADARSAT Constellation Mission (RCM) combined with space-based optical EO missions such as the European Space Agency’s upcoming Sentinel-2 and help prepare for the immediate impact of these programs.