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How satellites could help to contain oil spills in the Arabian Gulf

There’s a lot of oil in the Arabian Gulf. Not only is about a quarter of the world’s oil produced by countries surrounding our backyard body of water, it also has about 800 offshore oil and gas platforms and 25 major oil terminals that drill and gather oil.

All that oil is not without risk. Over the past few years, there have been up to eight major oil spills a year in the region.

Oil spills are dangerous, harmful and costly accidents. They can cause long-term damage to the marine ecosystem and force desalination plants to shut down, depriving the UAE of a critical source of clean water.

If they close the beaches and waterways they can cost the economy millions of dirhams in lost tourism revenue.

It is important then to detect spills when they happen and act promptly to limit their impact.

Satellites help greatly, allowing continuous monitoring of sea surface conditions. The Masdar Institute’s Coastal and Environmental Remote Sensing research group has already developed a satellite surveillance programme that focuses on the Arabian Gulf and the Sea of Oman, and issues early warnings when oil spills happen.

We are now working to develop a decision support system that will not only detect oil spills quickly, but also generate valuable information to help plan the response effectively.

We are working on a system to track oil slicks and predict their trajectories. It will integrate advanced satellite-based monitoring with cutting-edge observation and modelling techniques to thoroughly assess ocean currents and weather conditions in the Arabian Gulf, which are the two main drivers of oil slicks in the sea.

This integrated approach will help us determine the source of a spill, allowing us to make better decisions about how we should repond.

To achieve this, we first rely on a real-time satellite surveillance system that uses images obtained from the Masdar-based satellite receiving station to detect the oil spill and provide insight on the possible effects of the spill on coastal resources in the short term and the long term.

Once we have determined the extent of the oil pollution from the satellite images, we look at the data we have on sea currents to predict how they will affect the spill’s movement.

Third, we look at the weather in the spill area. Weather conditions are the primary drivers of sea circulation and therefore oil slick movement.

Our oil tracking system then merges all this information to predict the spill’s likely trajectory.

And lastly, we disseminate this information, issuing hazard forecasts to government and operators of critical coastal infrastructure in the UAE.

Our team recently published a peer-reviewed article, co-authored by Dr Jun Zhao and Dr Hosni Ghedira, on oil spill detection techniques in the Arabian Gulf region using satellite data.

The publication analysed the potential of using satellite sensors to detect oil pollution.

We hope this tool will help end-users to act quickly and efficiently when there is an oil spill, allowing them to determine its sources, track the spill and accurately predict where it might hit land.

It is worth noting that the satellite-based system can also be used to track spills onshore, which also present environmental and economic risks.

With this system in place, we can help the UAE to better look after the environmental health and well-being of the Arabian Gulf and the lives that depend on it.

It will help to protect the marine environment from oil spill pollution, reduce economic losses in tourism and fishing, and minimise obstruction to desalinated water production.

Dr Marouane Temimi is an associate professor of water and environmental engineering at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology.

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