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    Did a Blogger Just Discover an Unreported Arctic Oil Spill on Google Satellite?

    Written by

    Brian Merchant

    Senior Editor

    Image: Google Maps

    Michael Cote is an environmental consultant who runs a popular Tumblr, Climate Adaptation. And he may have just discovered an oil spill in the Arctic. On Google Maps. Before we proceed, bear in mind that there have been no reported oil spills in the Arctic as of late—a Google News search for 'Conocophillips oil spill 2013' turns up nothing.

    Now, to the images. The one you see above is an overhead shot of the vast, permafrost-streaked expanse of Alaska's North Slope. The infrastructure you can make out up left belongs to Conoco-Philips. It's a private airport, an oil well, and a harbor.

    Over the course of three images, Cote zooms in, eventually revealing what appears to be a small oil spill. 

    Cote observes that the "third image zooms in a bit more ... On the right, you can see a flare at the top of a well. Top right, you can see the containment booms stretched into the river and a dark stream of oil leaking into the river.

    He continues: "The forth screenshot is blurry. But, you can clearly see oil containment booms anchored on the river banks and dark stream of oil in the water."

    Cote notes that the watermark of the Google satellite image is 2013, so the spill would have to have happened within the last couple of months. Remember, there's been nothing in the news about any such spill in Alaska. And the United Steelworker's Union, which keeps tabs on all reported spill events, has no record of an Alaskan spill, either. 

    Now, the nature of this spill—and whether it is in fact an actual oil spill—still remains unclear. But Cote's Google sleuthing makes for a powerful reminder regardless: oil spills happen all the time. And they happen far out of sight, and we rarely hear about the vast majority of them. Places like the Arctic are still largely pristine environments, and spills even as slight as this can devastate them.

    Finally, most major oil companies are already planning on ramping up their Arctic drilling activity—this hitherto unreported spill is fine example of how difficult it's going to be to make sure those companies aren't staying mum about accidents and spills when they finally do flock to the north. The media can't keep tabs on all the far-flung Arctic activity, after all. So we may endup relying more on digital tools to keep tabs on potential polluters than ever before. 

    In other words, the only thing that may keep oil--and beef--companies honest in their Arctic adventures are satellites, bloggers, and Google.