Watching The Global Oil Trade With Satellite Imagery

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Watching The Global Oil Trade With Satellite Imagery

The global oil market plays a large role in the geopolitical arena, and it is often in the interest of various role players to conceal the figures on production, consumption and movement of oil. This may simply to be to gain an advantage at the negotiation tables, or to skirt around international sanctions. The website [TankerTrackers] is in the business of uncovering these details, often from open source intelligence. Using satellite imagery, they are using a simple way to monitor the occupancy crude oil storage facilities around the world.

The key is in the construction of large capacity crude oil storage tanks. To prevent the flammable gasses emitted by crude oil from collecting inside partially empty tanks, they have roofs that physically float on top of the oil, moving up and down inside the steel sides as the levels change. By looking at imagery from the large number of commercial satellites that constantly photograph earth’s surface, one can determine how full the tanks are by comparing the length of a shadow inside the tank to the shadow outside the tank. Of course, you also need to know the diameter and height of a tank. Diameter is easy, just use Google Earth’s ruler tool. Height is a bit more tricky, but can often be determined by just checking the facilities’ website for ground level photos of the tanks. Of course these methods won’t give you exact numbers, but it’s good enough for rough estimates.

Another interesting detail we found perusing the [TankerTrackers] news posts (requires sign-up) is that tankers will sometimes purposefully switch off their AIS transponders, especially when heading to and from sanctioned countries such as Venezuela and Iran. Even in today’s world of omnipresent tracking technologies, it’s surprisingly easy for a massive ship to just disappear. Sometimes [TankerTrackers] will then use imagery to track down these vessels, often by just watching ports.

Thanks for the tip [Arpad Toth]!

Photo by [Terryjoyce] CC BY-SA 3.0