30+ Miles of Smoke: Satellite Photos Show Smoke Plume From Burning Oil Rig [Update: It Sunk]

happy earth day burning oil rig image

Tragedy can strike on any day, even Earth Day. It's a disaster for the workers and their families, and probably also a disaster for the environment (though we don't yet know how bad).
Update: BP Gulf Oil Spill Cheat Sheet: A Timeline of Unfortunate Events
11 Still Missing
Yesterday, we covered the tragic explosion on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. The news today isn't very good; helicopters and ships resumed the search this morning because 11 workers are still missing, and the oil rig is still burning, leaving a huge plume of smoke that is more than 30 miles long (check out the NASA photos below). [See the update about the sinking below]

Photo: U.S. Coast Guard
Update: The good news is that the fire is now extinguished. The bad news is that the oil rig sank, and this could cause all kinds of environmental problems.

The LA Times reports:

While rescuers searched for 11 missing offshore oil workers off the coast of Louisiana, the flaming, tilting rig they were on sank Thursday morning in the Gulf of Mexico, the Coast Guard said.

"All we know is that it has sunk, and the fire became extinguished after it sank," Petty Officer Tom Atkeson said. [...]

The environmental effect was only the latest question prompted by the disaster on the Deepwater Horizon rig, which could shape up to be one of the worst U.S. offshore oil accidents in a generation.

burning oil rig deepwater nasa photo

Photo: NASA

This image of the Gulf Coast and near-shore waters was captured by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA's Aqua satellite on April 21.

burning oil rig deepwater nasa photo

Photo: NASA

About 100 workers were transported by a supply ship to Port Fourchon where they saw doctors. They will stay at a hotel near New Orleans for the time being.

Authorities could not say when the flames might die out on the 400-by-250-foot rig, which is roughly twice the size of a football field, according the Transocean's website. A column of boiling black smoke rose hundreds of feet over the Gulf of Mexico as fireboats shot streams of water at the blaze. Officials said the damage to the environment appeared minimal so far. (source)

Minimal. Let's hope so.

Good thing this was an exploration rig and not a production one, because things could have been much worse. If there had been a big oil spill, it might have been hard to see on satellite images, but not impossible. The photo below was taken last August in the Timor Sea and shows a probably oil slick:


Photo: NASA

Here's one more photo taken by the U.S. Coast Guard showing the burning Deepwater Horizon rig:

burning oil rig explosion fire photo

Photo: U.S. Coast Guard

Of course, everything is relative. The smoke plume from the Deepwater Horizon rig is pretty small compared to Iceland's volcano (notice the scale in the bottom-left):


Photo: NASA
See also: BIG Oil Rig Explosion Off Louisiana Coast, 11 to 15 People Missing, Infernal Blaze
Update: Oil Leaks Caused by Sunk Exploration Rig Could Take Months to Stop, Even With Robots
Update 2: Burn It?! Coast Guard Now Considering Setting Oil Slick on Fire. What Are the Pros & Cons?

Via NASA (Thanks Ken Rother for the tip!)

More Articles on Fossil Fuels
Blending Diesel with Biomass-Based Nylon Precursor Cuts Soot by 50%
Because of Methane Leaks, Natural Gas Could be as Bad as Oil & Coal
Uganda: Anything But Gas Flaring, Please

Related Content on Treehugger.com