IEEE Journal of Selected Topics in Applied Earth Observations and Remote Sensing (Jan 2020)

Can Mineral Oil Slicks Be Distinguished From Newly Formed Sea Ice Using Synthetic Aperture Radar?

  • A. Malin Johansson,
  • Martine M. Espeseth,
  • Camilla Brekke,
  • Benjamin Holt

Journal volume & issue
Vol. 13
pp. 4996 – 5010


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In this feasibility study discriminating oil slicks and newly formed sea ice using synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imagery is investigated, using imagery from the L-band high-resolution uninhabited aerial vehicle synthetic aperture radar (UAVSAR) airborne and the satellite C-band RADARSAT-2 (RS-2) systems. To determine the separability of these two varying but similar appearing low backscatter ocean surfaces, multipolarization features are utilized from both SAR datasets. The discrimination is evaluated using the Kolmogorov-Smirnov separability test. All imagery was obtained during several sea ice campaigns in the Arctic Ocean and separate oil spill campaigns in Norway and the Gulf of Mexico, with each campaign collecting in situ observations. We observe that the polarization difference (VV-HH) reliably separates the mineral oil slicks and newly formed sea ice areas using UAVSAR images, due to the low noise floor and subsequent high signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) radiometric performance of the airborne system. The comparably higher noise floor and related lower SNR hampers the separability in the RS-2 images. Simulated noise floors were generated by adding white Gaussian noise to the UAVSAR data, which show that discrimination between the two low backscatter phenomena using multipolarization features is possible, provided that both datasets are still well above the noise floor. The pixel resolution has a limited effect on the separability. The results of this study provide an approach to distinguish oil slicks from newly formed sea ice, which might be of special interest should an oil spill occur within the marginal ice zone.