The Challenges of Interpreting Oil–Water Spatial and Spectral Contrasts for the Estimation of Oil Thickness: Examples From Satellite and Airborne Measurements of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

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Optical remote sensing is one of the most commonly used techniques to detect oil in the surface ocean. This is because oil has optical properties that are different from water to modulate oil-water spatial and spectral contrasts. However, understanding these contrasts is challenging because of variable results from laboratory and field experiments as well as from different observing conditions and spatial/spectral resolutions of remote sensing imagery. Here, through reviewing published oil-water spectral contrasts and analyzing remotely sensed spectra collected by several satellite and airborne sensors (MERIS, MODIS, MISR, Landsat, and AVIRIS) from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, we provide the interpretation of the spatial/spectral contrasts of various oil slicks and discuss the challenges in such interpretations. In addition to oil thickness, several other factors also affect oil-water spatial/spectral contrasts, including sun glint strength, oil emulsification state, optical properties of oil covered water, and spatial/spectral resolutions of remote sensing imagery. In the absence of high spatial- and spectral-resolution imagery, a multistep scheme may be used to classify oil type (emulsion and non-emulsion) and to estimate relative oil thickness for each type based on the known optical properties of oil, yet such a scheme requires further research to improve and validate.

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IEEE Transactions on Geoscience and Remote Sensing, v. 57, issue 5