Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans

Natural oil slicks in the Gulf of Mexico visible from space


  • I. R. Macdonald,

  • N. L. Guinasso Jr.,

  • S. G. Ackleson,

  • J. F. Amos,

  • R. Duckworth,

  • R. Sassen,

  • J. M. Brooks


Natural oil seepage in the Gulf of Mexico causes persistent surface slicks that are visible from space in predictable locations. A photograph of the sun glint pattern offshore from Louisiana taken from the space shuttle Atlantis on May 5, 1989, shows at least 124 slicks in an area of about 15,000 km2; a thematic mapper (TM) image collected by the Landsat orbiter on July 31, 1991, shows at least 66 slicks in a cloud-free area of 8200 km2 that overlaps the area of the photograph. Samples and descriptions made from a surface ship, from aircraft, and from a submarine confirmed the presence of crude oil in floating slicks. The imagery data show surface slicks near eight locations where chemosynthetic communities dependent upon seeping hydrocarbons are known to occur on the seafloor. Additionally, a large surface slick above the location of an active mud volcano was evident in the TM image. In one location the combined set of observations confirmed the presence of a flourishing chemosynthetic community, active seafloor oil and gas seepage, crude oil on the sea surface, and slick features that were visible in both images. We derived an analytical expression for the formation of floating slicks based on a parameterization of seafloor flow rate, downstream movement on the surface, half-life of floating oil, and threshold thickness for detection. Applying this equation to the lengths of observed slicks suggested that the slicks in the Atlantis photograph and in the TM image represent seepage rates of 2.2–30 m3 1000 km−2 d−1 and 1.4–18 m3 1000 km−2 d−1, respectively. Generalizing to an annual rate suggests that total natural seepage in this region is of the order of at least 20,000 m3 yr−1 (120,000 barrels yr−1).