Satellite monitoring for oil spills: overview

Helping to keep Canada’s coastal waters clean

Canada's coastal waters have active wildlife habitats and are used for many commercial activities such as fishing, transportation and offshore oil and gas production. Canada's coastal shipping activity has also increased steadily in recent decades--and with it the potential for ship-source marine pollution. Spillage of oil in our waters may have a severe impact on the natural resources and the economic health of the area.

© Transport Canada

To assist with the environmental monitoring of our coastal waters, the Canadian Ice Service has a team of experts trained in satellite imagery analysis to detect oil spills. Since 2006, satellite imagery are analysed daily to detect, then report on illegal and accidental oil pollution in our marine environment. The reports of potential oil pollution are used by Government of Canada enforcement and clean up agencies in dealing with identified spills. The analyses are also used for monitoring on-going spill events and for monitoring grounded ships (ships stuck in shallow water) that are at risk of causing pollution.

The satellite technology we use is called space-borne synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imagery. Environment Canada's participation in the Integrated Satellite Tracking of Pollution (ISTOP) program uses a variety of satellite imagery to monitor the waters and improve the response to the pollution. Marine oil pollution is measured in terms of areal extent and frequency of releases.

The ISTOP program is an important tool in encouraging compliance with Canada’s laws and International Conventions that seek to minimize oil pollution, and minimize impacts on the economic prosperity of Canadians as well as marine birds, mammals and the ecosystems on which they depend. 

For further information on the ISTOP program or to request an analysis service please contact the Canadian Ice Service.

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