Oceanography The Official Magazine of
The Oceanography Society
Volume 29 Issue 03

View Issue TOC
Volume 29, No. 3
Pages 76 - 87


Methods of Oil Detection in Response to the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

By Helen K. White , Robyn N. Conmy, Ian R. MacDonald , and Christopher M. Reddy 
Jump to
Article Abstract Citation References Copyright & Usage
Article Abstract

Detecting oil in the northern Gulf of Mexico following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill presented unique challenges due to the spatial and temporal extent of the spill and the subsequent dilution of oil in the environment. Over time, physical, chemical, and biological processes altered the composition of the oil, further complicating its detection. Reservoir fluid, containing gas and oil, released from the Macondo well was detected in surface and subsurface environments. Oil monitoring during and after the spill required a variety of technologies, including nimble adaptation of techniques developed for non-oil-related applications. The oil detection technologies employed varied in sensitivity, selectivity, strategy, cost, usability, expertise of user, and reliability. Innovative technologies ranging from remote sensing to laboratory analytical techniques were employed and produced new information relevant to oil spill detection, including the chemical characterization, the dispersion effectiveness, and the detection limits of oil. The challenge remains to transfer these new technologies to oil spill responders so that detection of oil following a spill can be improved.


White, H.K., R.N. Conmy, I.R. MacDonald, and C.M. Reddy. 2016. Methods of oil detection in response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Oceanography 29(3):76–87, https://doi.org/10.5670/oceanog.2016.72.


Aeppli, C., C.A. Carmichael, R.K. Nelson, K.L. Lemkau, W.M. Graham, M.C. Redmond, D.L. Valentine, and C.M. Reddy. 2012. Oil weathering after the Deepwater Horizon disaster led to the formation of oxygenated residues. Environmental Science & Technology 46(16):8,799–8,807, https://doi.org/10.1021/es3015138.

Aeppli, C., C.M. Reddy, R.K. Nelson, M.Y. Kellermann, and D.L. Valentine. 2013. Recurrent oil sheens at the Deepwater Horizon disaster site fingerprinted with synthetic hydrocarbon drilling fluids. Environmental Science & Technology 47(15):8,211–8,219, https://doi.org/​10.1021/es4024139.

Allan, S.E., B.W. Smith, and K.A. Anderson. 2012. Impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on bioavailable polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in Gulf of Mexico coastal waters. Environmental Science & Technology 46(4):2,033–2,039, https://doi.org/10.1021/es202942q.

Bianchi, T.S., C. Osburn, M.R. Shields, S. Yvon-Lewis, J. Young, L. Guo, and Z. Zhou. 2014. Deepwater Horizon oil in Gulf of Mexico waters after 2 years: Transformation into the dissolved organic matter pool. Environmental Science & Technology 48(16):9,288–9,297, https://doi.org/10.1021/es501547b.

Boehm, P.D., K.J. Murray, and L.L. Cook. 2016. Distribution and attenuation of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in Gulf of Mexico seawater from the Deepwater Horizon oil accident. Environmental Science & Technology 50:584–592, http://10.1021/acs.est.5b03616.

Brekke, C., and A.H.S. Solberg. 2005. Oil spill detection by satellite remote sensing. Remote Sensing of Environment 95(1):1–13, https://doi.org/10.1016/​j.rse.2004.11.015.

Camilli, R., C.M. Reddy, D.R. Yoerger, B.A. Van Mooy, M.V. Jakuba, J.C. Kinsey, C.P. McIntyre, S.P. Sylva, and J.V. Maloney. 2010. Tracking hydrocarbon plume transport and biodegradation at Deepwater Horizon. Science 330:201–204, https://doi.org/​10.1126/science.1195223.

Chanton, J.P., J. Cherrier, R.M. Wilson, J. Sarkodee-Adoo, S. Bosman, A. Mickle, and W.M. Graham. 2012. Radiocarbon evidence that carbon from the Deepwater Horizon spill entered the planktonic food web of the Gulf of Mexico. Environmental Research Letters 7(4):045303, https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/7/4/045303.

Chanton, J., T. Zhao, B.E. Rosenheim, S. Joye, S. Bosman, C. Brunner, K.M. Yeager, A.R. Diercks, and D. Hollander. 2015. Using natural abundance radiocarbon to trace the flux of petrocarbon to the seafloor following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Environmental Science & Technology 49(2):847–854, https://doi.org/​10.1021/es5046524.

Clark, R.N., G.A. Swayze, I. Leifer, K.E. Livo, R. Kokaly, T. Hoefen, S. Lundeen, M. Eastwood, R.O. Green, N. Pearson, and others. 2010. A method for quantitative mapping of thick oil spills using imaging spectroscopy. US Geological Survey Open-File Report 2010-1167, 51 pp.

Conmy, R.N., P.G. Coble, J. Farr, A.M. Wood, K. Lee, W.S. Pegau, I.D. Walsh, C.R. Koch, M.I. Abercrombie, M.S. Miles, and others. 2014. Submersible optical sensors exposed to chemically dispersed crude oil: Wave tank simulations for improved oil spill monitoring. Environmental Science & Technology 48(3):1,803–1,810, https://doi.org/​10.1021/es404206y.

Davis, C.S., and N.C. Loomis. 2014. NRDA Image Data Processing Plan—Holocam: Data Processing Methods. DWH-AR0047462.

Diercks, A.R., R.C. Highsmith, V.L. Asper, D. Joung, Z. Zhou, L. Guo, A.M. Shiller, S.B. Joye, A.P. Teske, N. Guinasso, and T.L. Wade. 2010. Characterization of subsurface polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons at the Deepwater Horizon site. Geophysical Research Letters 37, L20602, https://doi.org/​10.1029/2010GL045046.

Du, M., and J.D. Kessler. 2012. Assessment of the spatial and temporal variability of bulk hydrocarbon respiration following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Environmental Science & Technology 46(19):10,499–10,507, https://doi.org/10.1021/es301363k.

Fingas, M., and C. Brown. 2014. Review of oil spill remote sensing. Marine Pollution Bulletin 83(1):9–23, https://doi.org/10.1016/​j.marpolbul.2014.03.059.

Garcia-Pineda, O., I. MacDonald, C. Hu, J. Svejkovsky, M. Hess, D. Dukhovskoy, and S.L. Morey. 2013. Detection of floating oil anomalies from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill with synthetic aperture radar. Oceanography 26(2):124–137, https://doi.org/10.5670/oceanog.2013.38.

Graham, W.M., R.H. Condon, R.H. Carmichael, I. D’Ambra, H.K. Patterson, L.J. Linn, and F.J. Hernandez Jr. 2010. Oil carbon entered the coastal planktonic food web during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Environmental Research Letters 5(4):045301, https://doi.org/​10.1088/1748-9326/5/4/045301.

Hu, C., R.H. Weisberg, Y. Liu, L. Zheng, K.L. Daly, D.C. English, J. Zhao, and G.A. Vargo. 2011. Did the northeastern Gulf of Mexico become greener after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill? Geophysical Research Letters 38, L09601, https://doi.org/​10.1029/2011GL047184.

Joint Analysis Group, Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. 2012. Review of Subsurface Dispersed Oil and Oxygen Levels Associated with the Deepwater Horizon MC252 Spill of National Significance. NOAA Technical Report NOS OR&R 27, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, US Department of Commerce, Washington, DC, 93 pp., https://repository.library.noaa.gov/view/noaa/390.

Joye, S.B., I.R. MacDonald, I. Leifer, and V. Asper. 2011. Magnitude and oxidation potential of hydrocarbon gases released from the BP oil well blowout. Nature Geoscience 4(3):160–164, https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo1067.

Kokaly, R.F., B.R. Couvillion, J.M. Holloway, D.A. Roberts, S.L. Ustin, S.H. Peterson, S. Khanna, and S.C. Piazza. 2013. Spectroscopic remote sensing of the distribution and persistence of oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill in Barataria Bay marshes. Remote Sensing of Environment 129:210–230, https://doi.org/​10.1016/j.rse.2012.10.028.

Kroutil, R.T., S.S. Shen, P.E. Lewis, D.P. Miller, J. Cardarelli, M. Thomas, T. Curry, and P. Kudaraskus. 2010. Airborne remote sensing for Deepwater Horizon oil spill emergency response. SPIE (international society for optics and photonics) Proceedings, vol. 7812, Imaging Spectrometry XV, S.S. Shen and P.E. Lewis, eds, https://doi.org/10.1117/12.863258.

Kujawinski, E.B., M.C. Kido Soule, D.L. Valentine, A.K. Boysen, K. Longnecker, and M.C. Redmond. 2011. Fate of dispersants associated with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Environmental Science & Technology 45(4):1,298–1,306, https://doi.org/10.1021/es103838p.

Lehr, W., S. Bristol, and A. Possolo. 2010. Oil Budget Calculator: Deepwater Horizon Technical Documentation. The Federal Interagency Solutions Group, 217 pp., http://www.restorethegulf.gov/sites/default/files/documents/pdf/OilBudgetCalc_Full_HQ-Print_111110.pdf.

Leifer, I., W.J. Lehr, D. Simecek-Beatty, E. Bradley, R. Clark, P. Dennison, Y. Hu, S. Matheson, C.E. Jones, B. Holt, and M. Reif. 2012. State of the art satellite and airborne marine oil spill remote sensing: Application to the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Remote Sensing of Environment 124:185–209, https://doi.org/​10.1016/j.rse.2012.03.024.

Liu, Z., J. Liu, Q. Zhu, and W. Wu. 2012. The weathering of oil after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill: Insights from the chemical composition of the oil from the sea surface, salt marshes and sediments. Environmental Research Letters 7(3):035302, https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/7/3/035302.

Loomis, N. 2011. Computational Imaging and Automated Identification for Aqueous Environments. PhD Thesis, MIT/WHOI Joint Program.

Loomis, N., J. Dominguez-Caballero, W. Li, C. Hu, C. Davis, J. Milgram, and G. Barbastathis. 2007. A compact, low-power digital holographic imaging system for automated plankton taxonomical classification. Paper presented at the Fourth International Zooplankton Production Symposium–Human and Climate Forcing of Zooplankton Populations, May 28–June 1, 2007, Hiroshima, Japan.

Lunel, T. 1993. Dispersion: Oil droplet size measurements at sea. Pp. 794–795 in Report of the 1993 International Oil Spill Conference: Prevention, Preparedness, Response, https://doi.org/10.7901/2169-3358-1993-1-794.

Mabile, N.J. 2013. Considerations for the application of controlled in-situ burning. Oil and Gas Facilities 2(02):72–84, https://doi.org/​10.2118/157602-PA.

MacDonald, I.R. 2010. Deepwater disaster: How the oil spill estimates got it wrong. Significance 7(4):149–154, https://doi.org/​10.1111/j.1740-9713.2010.00449.x.

MacDonald, I.R., O. Garcia-Pineda, A. Beet, S. Daneshgar Asl, L. Feng, G. Graettinger, D. French-McCay, J. Holmes, C. Hu, F. Huffer, and others. 2015. Natural and unnatural oil slicks in the Gulf of Mexico. Journal of Geophysical Research 120:8,364–8,380, https://doi.org/​10.1002/2015JC011062

Mahmoudi, N., T.M. Porter, A.R. Zimmerman, R.R. Fulthorpe, G.N. Kasozi, B.R. Silliman, and G.F. Slater. 2013. Rapid degradation of Deepwater Horizon spilled oil by indigenous microbial communities in Louisiana saltmarsh sediments. Environmental Science & Technology 47(23):13,303–13,312, https://doi.org/10.1021/es4036072.

McKenna, A.M., R.K. Nelson, C.M. Reddy, J.J. Savory, N.K. Kaiser, J.E. Fitzsimmons, A.G. Marshall, and R.P. Rodgers. 2013. Expansion of the analytical window for oil spill characterization by ultrahigh resolution mass spectrometry: Beyond gas chromatography. Environmental Science & Technology 47(13):7,530–7,539, https://doi.org/​10.1021/es305284t.

Mendelssohn, I.A., G.L. Andersen, D.M. Baltz, R.H. Caffey, K.R. Carman, J.W. Fleeger, S.B. Joye, Q. Lin, E. Maltby, E.B. Overton, and L.P. Rozas. 2012. Oil impacts on coastal wetlands: Implications for the Mississippi River Delta ecosystem after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. BioScience 62(6):562–574, https://doi.org/​10.1525/bio.2012.62.6.7.

Minchew, B., C.E. Jones, and B. Holt. 2012. Polarimetric analysis of backscatter from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill using L-band synthetic aperture radar. IEEE Transactions on Geoscience and Remote Sensing 50(10):3,812–3,830, https://doi.org/10.1109/TGRS.2012.2185804.

Montagna, P.A., J.G. Baguley, C. Cooksey, I. Hartwell, L.J. Hyde, J.L. Hyland, R.D. Kalke, L.M. Kracker, M. Reuscher, and A.C. Rhodes. 2013. Deep-sea benthic footprint of the Deepwater Horizon blowout. PloS ONE 8:e70540, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0070540.

Murray, J.A., L.C. Sander, S.A. Wise, and C.M. Reddy. 2016. Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative 2014/2015 Hydrocarbon Intercalibration Experiment: Description and Results for SRM 2779 Gulf of Mexico Crude Oil and Candidate SRM 2777 Weathered Gulf of Mexico Crude Oil. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Interagency/Internal Report 8123, 331 pp., https://doi.org/10.6028/NIST.IR.8123.

Nelson, R.K., C. Aeppli, J.S. Arey, H. Chen, A.H. de Oliveira, C. Eiserbeck, G.S. Frysinger, R.B. Gaines, K. Grice, J. Gros, and others. 2016. Applications of comprehensive two-dimensional gas chromatography (GC×GC) in studying the source, transport, and fate of petroleum hydrocarbons in the environment. EPFL-CHAPTER-210439 in Standard Handbook of Oil Spill Environmental Forensics. S.A. Stout and Z. Wang, eds, Elsevier. 

Nixon, Z., S. Zengel, M. Baker, M. Steinhoff, G. Fricano, S. Rouhani, and J. Michel. 2016. Shoreline oiling from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Marine Pollution Bulletin 107:170–178, https://doi.org/​10.1016/j.marpolbul.2016.04.003.

NOAA Hazmat. 2012. Open water oil identification job aid for aerial observation. Office of Response and Restoration Job Aid. Version 2, http://response.restoration.noaa.gov/sites/default/files/OWJA_2012.pdf.

Overton, E.B., M.S. Miles, B.M. Meyer, H. Gao, and R.E. Turner. 2014. Oil source fingerprinting in heavily weathered residues and coastal marsh samples. Pp. 2,074–2,082 in International Oil Spill Conference Proceedings, vol. 2014, https://doi.org/10.7901/2169-3358-2014.1.2074.

Passow, U., and K. Ziervogel. 2016. Marine snow sedimented oil released during the Deepwater Horizon spill. Oceanography 29(3):118–125, https://doi.org/10.5670/oceanog.2016.76.

Pendergraft, M.A., Z. Dincer, J.L. Sericano, T.L. Wade, J. Kolasinski, and B.E. Rosenheim. 2013. Linking ramped pyrolysis isotope data to oil content through PAH analysis. Environmental Research Letters 8(4):044038, https://doi.org/​10.1088/1748-9326/8/4/044038.

Radović, J.R., C. Aeppli, R.K. Nelson, N. Jimenez, C.M. Reddy, J.M. Bayona, and J. Albaigés. 2014. Assessment of photochemical processes in marine oil spill fingerprinting. Marine Pollution Bulletin 79(1):268–277, https://doi.org/10.1016/​j.marpolbul.2013.11.029.

Ramseur, J.L. 2010. Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: The Fate of the Oil. Congressional Research Service 7-5700, R41531, 20 pp.

Reddy, C.M., J.S. Arey, J.S. Seewald, S.P. Sylva, K.L. Lemkau, R.K. Nelson, C.A. Carmichael, C.P. McIntyre, J. Fenwick, G.T. Ventura, and B.A. Van Mooy. 2012. Composition and fate of gas and oil released to the water column during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 109(50):20,229–20,234, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1101242108.

Ruddy, B.M., M. Huettel, J.E. Kostka, V.V. Lobodin, B.J. Bythell, A.M. McKenna, C. Aeppli, C.M. Reddy, R.K. Nelson, A.G. Marshall, and R.P. Rodgers. 2014. Targeted petroleomics: Analytical investigation of Macondo well oil oxidation products from Pensacola Beach. Energy & Fuels 28(6):4,043–4,050, https://doi.org/10.1021/ef500427n.

Ryerson, T.B., K.C. Aikin, W.M. Angevine, E.L. Atlas, D.R. Blake, C.A. Brock, F.C. Fehsenfeld, R.S. Gao, J.A. de Gouw, D.W. Fahey, and J.S. Holloway. 2011. Atmospheric emissions from the Deepwater Horizon spill constrain air-water partitioning, hydrocarbon fate, and leak rate. Geophysical Research Letters 38, L07803, https://doi.org/​10.1029/2011GL046726.

Ryerson, T.B., R. Camilli, J.D. Kessler, E.B. Kujawinski, C.M. Reddy, D.L. Valentine, E. Atlas, D.R. Blake, J. de Gouw, S. Meinardi, and D.D. Parrish. 2012. Chemical data quantify Deepwater Horizon hydrocarbon flow rate and environmental distribution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 109(50):20,246–20,253, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1110564109.

SMART. 2006. Special Monitoring of Applied Response Technologies Protocol Report. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, US Coast Guard, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 43 pp., http://response.restoration.noaa.gov/sites/default/files/SMART_protocol.pdf.

Socolofsky, S.A., E.E. Adams, M.C. Boufadel, Z.M. Aman, Ø. Johansen, W.J. Konkel, D. Lindo, M.N. Madsen, E.W. North, C.B. Paris, and D. Rasmussen. 2015. Intercomparison of oil spill prediction models for accidental blowout scenarios with and without subsea chemical dispersant injection. Marine Pollution Bulletin 96:110–126, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpolbul.2015.05.039.

Sun, S., C. Hu, L. Feng, G. Swayze, J. Holmes, G. Graettinger, I. MacDonald, O. Garcia, and I. Leifer. 2015. Oil slick morphology derived from AVIRIS measurements of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill: Implications for spatial resolution requirements of remote sensors. Marine Pollution Bulletin 103:276–285, https://doi.org/10.1016/​j.marpolbul.2015.12.003.

Tarr, M.A., P. Zito, E.B. Overton, G.M. Olson, P.L. Adhikari, and C.M. Reddy. 2016. Weathering of oil spilled in the marine environment. Oceanography 29(3):126–135, https://doi.org/10.5670/oceanog.2016.77.

Thessen, A.E., S. McGinnis, and E.W. North. 2016. Lessons learned while building the Deepwater Horizon database: Toward improved data sharing in coastal science. Computers & Geosciences 87:84–90, https://doi.org/10.1016/​j.cageo.2015.12.001.

US Coast Guard. 2006. Incident Management Handbook. US Department of Homeland Security, COMDTPUB P3120.17A, 372 pp., http://www.uscg.mil/hq/nsfweb/docs/FinalIMH18AUG2006.pdf.

US Coast Guard. 2011. On Scene Coordinator Report Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. Submitted to the National Response Team, 222 pp., http://www.uscg.mil/foia/docs/dwh/fosc_dwh_report.pdf.

Valentine, D.L., G.B. Fisher, S.C. Bagby, R.K. Nelson, C.M. Reddy, S.P. Sylva, and M.A. Woo. 2014. Fallout plume of submerged oil from Deepwater Horizon. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 111(45):15,906–15,911, https://doi.org/​10.1073/pnas.1414873111.

Wade, T.L., J.L. Sericano, S.T. Sweet, A.H. Knap, and N.L. Guinasso Jr. 2016. Spatial and temporal distribution of water column total polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and total petroleum hydrocarbons (TPH) from the Deepwater Horizon (Macondo) incident. Marine Pollution Bulletin 103:286–293, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpolbul.2015.12.002.

Wade, T.L., S.T. Sweet, J.L. Sericano, N.L. Guinasso, A.R. Diercks, R.C. Highsmith, V.L. Asper, D. Joung, A.M. Shiller, S.E. Lohrenz, and S.B. Joye. 2011. Analyses of water samples from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill: Documentation of the subsurface plume. Pp. 77–82 in Monitoring and Modeling the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: A Record-Breaking Enterprise. Y. Liu, A. Macfadyen, Z.-G. Ji, and R.H. Weisberg, eds, Geophysical Monograph Series, American Geophysical Union, Washington, DC, https://doi.org/10.1029/2011GM001103.

Weber, T.C., A. De Robertis, S.F. Greenaway, S. Smith, L. Mayer, and G. Rice. 2012. Estimating oil concentration and flow rate with calibrated vessel-mounted acoustic echo sounders. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 109(50):20,240–20,245, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1108771108.

White, H.K., P.Y. Hsing, W. Cho, T.M. Shank, E.E. Cordes, A.M. Quattrini, R.K. Nelson, R. Camilli, A.W. Demopoulos, C.R. German, and others. 2012. Impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on a deep-water coral community in the Gulf of Mexico. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 109(50):20,303–20,308, https://doi.org/​10.1073/pnas.1118029109.

White, H.K., C.M. Reddy, and T.I. Eglinton. 2008. Radiocarbon-based assessment of fossil fuel-derived contaminant associations in sediments. Environmental Science & Technology 42(15):5,428–5,434, https://doi.org/10.1021/es800478x.

Wilson, R.M., J. Cherrier, J. Sarkodee-Adoo, S. Bosman, A. Mickle, and J.P. Chanton. 2015. Tracing the intrusion of fossil carbon into coastal Louisiana macrofauna using natural 14C and 13C abundances. Deep Sea Research Part II 129:89–95, https://doi.org/10.1016/​j.dsr2.2015.05.014.

Zhou, Z., L. Guo, A.M. Shiller, S.E. Lohrenz, V.L. Asper, and C.L. Osburn. 2013. Characterization of oil components from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico using fluorescence EEM and PARAFAC techniques. Marine Chemistry 148:10–21, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marchem.2012.10.003.

Copyright & Usage

This is an open access article made available under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution, and reproduction in any medium or format as long as users cite the materials appropriately, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate the changes that were made to the original content. Images, animations, videos, or other third-party material used in articles are included in the Creative Commons license unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If the material is not included in the article’s Creative Commons license, users will need to obtain permission directly from the license holder to reproduce the material.