Proactive Planning Improves Oil Spill Response in Environmentally Sensitive Areas

Written by Steve Raber, Quantum Spatial Senior Program Manager
April 20th marks the day when, seven years ago, BP’s offshore drilling rig Deepwater Horizon suffered a catastrophic failure and set off one of the largest oil spills in history. During the nearly five months until the well was declared sealed, an estimated 210 million gallons of oil spread across the Gulf of Mexico, impacting shorelines throughout Louisiana, Alabama and the Florida coast, as far south as Tampa.
Protecting beaches, wetlands and estuaries from the spreading oil took a concerted effort from multiple parties, including scientists, GIS experts and advanced technology providers, to prioritize oil clean-up team efforts to the areas that could suffer the most environmental harm. Quantum Spatial (formerly AeroMetric in 2010) was directly involved in these efforts, providing a cloud-based process in which BP could develop and manage remote sensing, aerial surveillance acquisition programs, and geospatial intelligence products and dissemination in response to the Deepwater Horizon spill. This dynamic approach to collecting, warehousing and disseminating massive amounts of geointelligence put the power of this type of solution in the hands of the government, industry and the public before the “cloud” was commonly used.
The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has a history of pursuing innovative solutions to help mitigate the impact of oil spills and other natural disasters on coastlines. These efforts date back to 1979, when an exploratory well spilled of 140 million gallons in the Gulf of Mexico. NOAA contractors scrambled to identify the most sensitive regions and prioritize areas for environmental cleanup, using hand-drawn, color-coded maps that outlined different shoreline types and their vulnerability to oil. Following the incident, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) began an Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) mapping program to provide a concise summary of at-risk coastal resources, biological resources (birds and shellfish beds), sensitive shorelines (marshes and tidal flats) and human-use resources (public beaches and parks). These maps assist responders in reducing the environmental consequences of spills and directing cleanup efforts. They are also used for proactive planning to identify vulnerable locations, establish protection priorities and identify cleanup strategies before a spill occurs.
Created using geographic information system (GIS) techniques, these maps rank and color-code shoreline resources based on their sensitivity to oiling. The format offers a consistent look and feel for every geographic area mapped, making it possible for responders from other states, or even other countries that have adopted the same system, to easily interpret the ESI maps for that region. OR&R works with state, federal and industrial agencies to create these maps. OR&R sought assistance from organizations such as Quantum Spatial to develop ESI maps as part of a large regional update for the areas impacted by Superstorm Sandy in 2012. For this complex project, we provided OR&R with unique skillsets – all housed internally within our company - combining the disciplines of GIS, remote sensing, software development, biology, coastal and marine science, and cartography.
quantum spatial esi envrionment oil spill planning map
Portion of an ESI map atlas depicting sensitive habitat areas and presence of vulnerable wildlife.
For Superstorm Sandy, OR&R wanted a new, standardized method for creating, documenting and delivering ESI Map Atlases. Quantum Spatial provided OR&R with a framework that they could apply to create these atlases in-house, making recommendations on how to better portray ESI data, delivering high-quality maps and PDF products that could be produced in a cost-effective manner.
With the success of this project and our ability to deliver a sustainable model for data collection, collation and dissemination, we hope to continue working with OR&R on other ESI mapping projects around the country.
What makes Quantum Spatial unique is our proven ability to transform raw data into actionable insights, with core capabilities that include: 
  • Aerial data acquisition, using the newest and most advanced sensor technologies, including topographic and bathymetric (topo-bathy) LiDAR, digital multispectral imaging, oblique imaging and thermal imaging

  • Expert spatial analysis and product analytics, including state-of-the-art software coding, custom algorithms and decision support tool development

  • Internal subject-matter expertise in wildlife and marine biology, coastal geology, fire science and natural resource management

  • Extensive and expandable data processing centers located across the country

OR&R currently presents ESI mapping data in various formats, including print atlases, PDFs and various view and query formats for specific GIS software programs. However, based on our success in delivering an early cloud-based solution in response to the Deepwater Horizon incident and our ESI work on the East Coast, we believe there are opportunities to leverage a host of modern advancements – including cutting-edge cloud scalability, modern GIS database modeling, data analytics and newest sensor technology, such as topo-bathy LiDAR – to provide more widespread access and deeper analysis of ESI data to the planners and responders working in these sensitive areas.