AAAS Analysis of Satellite Images Confirms Devastating Oil Spills Around Nigerian Town

Satellite images of a town in Nigeria’s oil-rich southern delta confirm that “significant” oil spills have contaminated nearby waterways and killed plant life across thousands of acres of tropical riparian landscape, says a report released today by AAAS.

The oil spills occurred in late 2008 and early 2009 outside of Bodo, Nigeria, a hardscrabble center of oil extraction on the Niger River delta. According to the analysis by the AAAS Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project, waterways were contaminated and vegetation killed across a zone encompassing three square kilometers.

“While reliable estimates of the exact volume of crude oil cannot be determined with the available information,” the report concluded, “the spatial extent of the affected area and the high level of destruction of plant life suggest that the amount was significant.”

The report was prepared at the request of Amnesty International-USA, which today released its own finding that the two oil spills in the Niger Delta flowed unchecked for weeks, devastating the lives of tens of thousands of people. Amnesty International and the Centre for Environment, Human Rights and Development ask that Shell oil pay $1 billion to begin to clean up the pollution.

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Close-up of vegetation death southwest of Bodo town
False-color imagery of waterways southwest of Bodo between 4 December 2006 (top) and 26 January 2009 (bottom) appear consistent with reports of an oil spill. Red areas reflect healthy vegetation; the green/black color reflects dead plants. Vegetation death concentrated primarily near the river and its tributaries, while areas further inland appear less affected.
View larger versions of these images: 2006 and 2009
2006 image © GeoEye, Inc.; 2009 image © DigitalGlobe, Inc.

Amnesty International earlier this year debuted its “Eyes on Nigeria” project, which was created with technical assistance from AAAS.

The latest AAAS update was created by using sophisticated techniques to compare satellite images of the area before the oil spills with other images captured afterward. Images captured in 2006 show that oil extraction in the area had caused only “relatively minor” environmental impact, the report says.

But by late January 2009, images showed that “large swaths of vegetation—especially in proximity to waterways—appear dead,” the report says. “A rainbow effect is visible in the main waterway leading to Bodo, and the tidal flats adjacent to the settlement… have changed from a muddy yellow to an oily grey color.”

The AAAS Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project, directed by Susan Wolfinbarger, is now in its fifth year. Funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Oak Foundation, and the Open Society Institute, it uses science and technology to support work by local and international human rights organizations. Geospatial technologies include a range of modern tools, such as satellite images, geographic information systems, and global positioning systems.

The AAAS geospatial project operates within the AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program.

View the full report, “Documentation of Petrochemical Release: Bodo, Nigeria,” by the AAAS Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project.

Learn more about the AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program.