As Earth Day Approaches, Nighttime Images of the Gulf of Mexico Recall the Deepwater Horizon Disaster

April 20, 2012 | 1:16 pm
Francesca Grifo
Former contributor

Today marks the second anniversary of the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, the world’s largest accidental release of oil in marine waters. And an interactive—and amazing—nighttime satellite image developed with U.S. government data should remind us of the extent to which we are invested in infrastructure in and around the Gulf of Mexico.

We all remember the horrible images from that tragedy. After an explosion of the BP-owned Deepwater Horizon rig on April 20, 2010, oil flowed into the Gulf of Mexico for nearly three months, releasing more than 4.9 million barrels of crude oil. The disaster has continued to have detrimental effects on marine ecosystems and wildlife, as well as devastating economic impacts on the fishing and tourism industries in the Gulf States.

Well, we’re still out there, and you can see it from space, at night:

 Image of the entire Gulf of Mexico at night

If you look closely off the south coast of the United States in these images, you can see small areas of light from oil rigs and other manmade structures in the gulf:

Check out the Blue Marble interactive night lights map, developed by scientists in Germany using NOAA data, to explore this and other regions of the world as viewed at night. (And as my colleague Michael shared previously on this blog, NASA’s Suomi project data offer fantastic daytime imagery of our planet).

As we celebrate Earth Day this Sunday, the nighttime images shed light (literally!) on the vast impact humans have had on the planet. In addition to the light pollution, we can also consider the broader implications of this energy use for issues such as energy security and climate change. Many coastal regions, particularly the fragile ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico, are vulnerable to climate-related disasters including stronger storms, flooding and sea level rise.

The biologist in me looks at this map and sees habitat loss where the lights are the brightest and probably elsewhere as well. I immediately think about how many species survived previous warming periods by moving north or south or up the slopes of mountains in search of suitable temperatures. But historically the habitat was continuous allowing species’ to move over time. Sadly this image tells me those corridors are gone, dooming many unique species to extinction.

As we make choices in our daily lives about consumption of resources, we should remember how climate change is reducing species diversity, with significant consequences for human health and the environment–and how important it is to invest in solutions to slow this loss.