Satellite captures oil spills, bringing calls for more hi-tech surveillance

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 August, 2007, 12:00am

The government should make use of more advanced technology to detect and monitor oil spills in the seas around Hong Kong, a scientist at Chinese University has advised.

The call came after researchers from the university's Institute of Space and Earth Information Science identified three oil slicks south of Lamma Island and east of Hong Kong from satellite images.

Taken on June 5, the images also showed two large patches that resembled oil slicks further out to sea.

The slicks were picked up by new remote-sensing satellite technology that can receive microwave images from satellites passing over Hong Kong almost as they are taken.

Unlike infra-red and optical images, which face problems during cloud cover, microwave images are a better way to detect oil on water.

Institute director Lin Hui said traditional monitoring via verbal reports could delay remedial action.

'Our research is just a reminder to the government that they can actually use more advanced technology to monitor oil spills and protect our coastal marine environment,' Professor Lin said.

He said the rapid development of ports in the southern areas of the mainland attracted thousands more ships to the region on a daily basis and this posed an ever greater danger of oil spills.

'The heavy traffic will greatly increase the chance of collisions, resulting in oil leakage and even deliberate release of oil from fuel tanks into the seas,' he said.

A Marine Department spokeswoman said it would consider exploring the institute's new method, but said the present system for monitoring oil spills - through reports from ships and aircraft - was effective.

'After receiving reports, we'll ask ships nearby to check it out. In some cases, the Government Flying Service will send aircraft to monitor it too,' she said.

She added that the department did not receive any reports of oil spills south of Lamma on June 5 as suggested by the satellite image, saying it could have been 'too small' to be noticed.

It is estimated that 48 per cent of the oil pollution in the oceans is caused by fuels and 29 per cent by crude oil, both a result of actions such as illegal tank cleaning, according to the institute.

Incidents with tankers contribute to about 5 per cent of all pollution at sea. The amount of oil spilled annually worldwide is estimated at 4.5 millions tonnes, equivalent to one full-tanker disaster every week.