Beneath scattered clouds, streaks and ribbons of oil brightened the reflection of the Sun off the Gulf of Mexico in this photo-like satellite image from May 31, 2010. Oil is visible 355 kilometers (221 miles) southwest of the site of the damaged, leaking Deepwater Horizon well, but this oil may be natural oil seeps that have been documented in the Gulf before. The streaks of oil in the southwest corner of the image are on the order of 2 kilometers (1 mile) wide.
Photo-like satellite images are not a perfect tool for detecting oil on the surface of water. Outside of the sunglint area (the part of the satellite image where the mirror-like reflection of the Sun is blurred into a wide, washed out strip by waves), the oil may be imperceptible against the dark background of the water. Scientists and disaster responders in the Gulf are combining photo-like satellite images and aircraft and shipboard observations with weather and ocean current models to predict the spread of oil.
This image of the Gulf of Mexico was captured by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite on May 31, 2010. Twice-daily images of the Gulf of Mexico are available in a variety of formats and resolutions from the MODIS Rapid Response Project.
NASA image courtesy the MODIS Rapid Response Team. Caption by Rebecca Lindsey.