Satellite Images Capture Sheer Scale Of Trinidad And Tobago Oil Spill

Nearly two weeks ago, a barge ran aground and capsized off the coast of the island of Tobago and, in the aftermath, began leaking oil into the surrounding Caribbean Sea. Now, the European Space Agency (ESA) has released satellite images showing just how far the oil spill stretches.

The images, taken by the Copernicus Sentinel-1 mission, show clear waters on February 6. Only eight days later, the story was completely different; the next two images show how oil from the barge had spread onto the Tobago coastline and more than 160 kilometers (99 miles) westward. 

The extent of the Tobago oil spill.
Image credit: Copernicus Sentinel data, processed by ESA (CC-BY-SA-NC-3.0-IGO)

As well as conducting surveys using aircraft, the use of satellites to find the source of and track oil spills is commonplace. “Satellite radar is particularly useful for monitoring the progression of oil spills because the presence of oil on the sea surface dampens down wave motion,” according to the ESA. “Since radar basically measures surface texture, oil slicks show up well – as black smears on a grey background.”

Monitoring has continued beyond when the satellite images were taken. As of last Friday, the Tobago Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) updated the ESA’s figure to 150 nautical miles (278 kilometers), with the spill heading into the territorial waters of Grenada and potentially spreading out toward Venezuela. Officials have declared the incident as a national emergency.

Though it’s not yet hit the coastlines of those countries, coming back down to Earth, the extent of the oil spill is clear to see on many of Tobago’s beaches. Stretches of sand have been coated black, with some of those in resorts forced to close. 

“The natural beauty of Tobago is a significant attraction for tourism, and this oil spill is a direct threat to that beauty,” said Alexcia Best, a campaign associate for ocean conservation organization Oceana, in a statement sent to IFLScience.

There are also concerns for wildlife in the area. Oil can affect marine life in numerous ways; if coated in it, oil can prevent fur from being insulating and feathers from being water-repellent. It can also be inhaled or ingested, with consequences such as suffocation or poisoning. The Deepwater Horizon incident, for example, had wide-ranging and devastating effects on wildlife.

Thankfully, a major cleanup operation is underway. As reported by Reuters, TEMA said that around 2,000 barrels of oil have been collected so far, with significant improvements already seen on some beaches.

There’s still much work to be done, however. “The vessel is, as of now, still stuck on the reef at Cove and continues to pose a major threat as it continues to foul the coastline and surrounding seas,” said Prime Minister Keith Rowley, speaking to Parliament on Friday.

With cleanup efforts continuing, plugging the leak is going to be the next major step. 

Leave a Comment