11 Jan 2016: Report

Eyes in the Sky: Green Groups
Are Harnessing Data from Space

An increasing number of nonprofit organizations are relying on satellite imagery to monitor environmental degradation. Chief among them is SkyTruth, which has used this data to expose the extent of the BP oil spill, uncover mining damage, and track illegal fishing worldwide.

by jacques leslie

When Brian Schwartz, a Johns Hopkins University epidemiologist researching the public health impacts of hydraulic fracturing, read about an environmental group that uses satellite imagery and aerial photography to track environmental degradation, he was intrigued.

It was the summer of 2013, and the group, SkyTruth, had just launched a crowdsourcing project on its website to map fracking activity in

View Gallery

SkyTruth/Global Fishing Watch
This image, based upon transponder data sent to satellites, shows locations of fishing vessels across the globe.
Pennsylvania. The site provided volunteers with U.S. government aerial images from across the state and a brief tutorial on how to identify fracking locations. Within a month, more than 200 volunteers sorted through 9,000 images to pinpoint 2,724 fracking wellpads. Schwartz ended up using this data in a study published last October in the journal Epidemiology, showing that women living near hydraulic fracturing sites in 40 Pennsylvania counties faced a significantly elevated risk of giving birth prematurely.

That’s precisely the sort of result that John Amos, SkyTruth’s president, envisioned when he founded the group in 2001. He has since become part data analyst, part environmental advocate, and part satellite-imagery proselytizer as he looks for ways to use remote sensing to call attention to little-noticed environmental damage. This month, SkyTruth’s website is displaying a map showing the global prevalence of flaring, the wasteful and carbon-spewing oil industry practice of burning natural gas and other drilling byproducts. Through most of December, SkyTruth and another satellite-focused nonprofit, Moscow-based Transparent World,
SkyTruth's motto, displayed on its website, is, ‘If you can see it, you can change it.’
displayed images of a burning oil platform and a 2,300-barrel oil slick in the Caspian Sea. The platform’s owner, Azerbaijan’s state-owned oil company, SOCAR, denied that any spill had occurred.

SkyTruth’s defining moment came in 2010, when Amos — analyzing satellite photographs — sounded the alarm that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was far larger than the petroleum company, BP, and the U.S. government were acknowledging.

“If you can see it,” says SkyTruth’s motto, displayed at the top of its website, “you can change it.”

One indication of SkyTruth’s influence is a cautionary headline that appeared after SkyTruth formed a partnership with Google and the nonprofit Oceana in November 2014 to launch a system called Global Fishing Watch, which uses the satellite transponders found aboard most large fishing vessels to track the activities of the world’s fishing fleets. “Big Brother is watching,” warned World Fishing & Aquaculture, a trade journal.

That admonition could be extended to all the extractive industries — oil and gas, mining, logging, and fishing — whose operations can be tracked by remote sensing. A growing number of governments now conduct environmental observation by satellite, including Brazil, which monitors deforestation in the Amazon. And environmental groups now commonly use remote sensing tools. One prominent example is Global Forest Watch, a system launched two years by Washington-based World Resources Institute to monitor logging and fires in the world’s forests. Russia-based Transparent World employs satellite imagery for many purposes, including monitoring of protected areas and observing the impacts of dam construction.

Amos, 52, says he considered himself an environmentalist even while he spent a decade working for oil and gas companies as a satellite imagery analyst looking for drilling sites. He quit in 2000 to start a non-profit that would apply his skills to environmental protection. For years he ran SkyTruth from the basement of his Shepherdstown, West Virginia home on an annual budget of less than $100,000, and he still speaks of “begging”
SkyTruth has benefited from the explosion in satellite imagery and other digital technologies in the last 15 years.
satellite images from commercial providers.

Although SkyTruth has expanded in recent years to eight employees supported by a $600,000 budget, it is still tiny, particularly compared to the U.S. government’s massive satellite resources. Nevertheless, SkyTruth has delved into realms that the government has avoided. One reason, Amos says, is that satellite imagery analysis is so unfamiliar that “nobody has known what to ask for” — thus, one of SkyTruth’s missions is to show what’s possible. Its usual method is to release a trove of environment-related data, then invite researchers and crowdsource amateurs to analyze it.

SkyTruth has benefited enormously from the explosion in the last 15 years in satellite imagery and other digital technologies. When Amos started SkyTruth, a single Landsat satellite image cost $4,400; now the entire U.S. government collection— more than 4.7 million images and growing daily— is available free of charge. Not only have satellites and satellite imagery become cheap, but the capacity to analyze, duplicate, send, and store satellite data has expanded by orders of magnitude. In fact, satellite technology is now considered a subset of a larger field, geospatial intelligence, which has tens of thousands of practitioners around the world employing an array of optical, thermal, radar, and radiometric remote sensing tools.

“It’s evolved from a problem of getting imagery to deciding which image do I want to pluck out of this massive cloud,” Amos told me.

The finding by Schwartz, the Johns Hopkins epidemiologist, on premature births suggests a correlation between fracking and poor human health; but because the chemical trigger wasn’t identified, the link isn’t regarded as causal. From more than 1,000 available chemicals, fracking operators select a dozen or so that fit the geological challenges of a particular site. People living near the site typically can’t find out whether their wells and aquifers have been contaminated because the cost of testing for all 1,000 chemicals is prohibitive, and operators treat each site’s chemical recipe as a trade secret.

The quandary led Amos to venture beyond satellite imagery into the larger field of geospatial data. Along with several better-known environmental groups, SkyTruth argued for disclosure of the recipe used at each fracking
Prodded by SkyTruth, government scientists concluded that the oil spill rate was 62 times BP’s initial estimate.
site. Two industry lobbying groups, the American Petroleum Institute and America’s Natural Gas Alliance, defused mounting Congressional pressure for mandatory disclosure by launching a website, FracFocus, where operators could post their recipes voluntarily. But soon after the site’s launch in 2011, users found that information posted on it was entered in the wrong field, misspelled chemical trade names, or omitted key facts deemed proprietary. The site thwarted researchers by requiring postings in a format that computers couldn’t read. Although 23 states require fracking companies to use FracFocus to disclose their chemical use, a 2013 Harvard Law School report concluded that FracFocus’ “fails as a regulatory compliance tool.”

SkyTruth’s lead programmer, Paul Woods, devised a way around some of FracFocus’ barriers by writing software that “scraped” all the chemical data from the tens of thousands of reports posted on the site. Then he posted it in a database on SkyTruth’s website. In addition, under pressure from SkyTruth, other environmental groups, and an Energy Department advisory board, FracFocus agreed to make its data available in machine-readable form beginning in May 2015. These developments have yielded more and more information for researchers, such as Schwartz, who are investigating fracking’s health impact.

“This is a very wonky issue that makes people’s eyes glaze over,” Amos said. “But it’s where the rubber meets the road in terms of understanding if fracking is bad for you.”

The first time that SkyTruth attracted national attention was in April 2010, when Amos received a Google alert that an oil platform called Deepwater Horizon, 50 miles off the Louisiana coast, had exploded and burned. Amos knew explosions like this one were uncommon and usually led to spills.

He began searching for satellite photos, but the first ones he found were obscured by clouds. Meanwhile, BP, which leased the rig, and the Coast Guard, echoing BP, maintained that the ruptured well beneath the rig was leaking oil at a rate of 1,000 barrels a day— a major spill but perhaps not a catastrophic one. The number was vital, for it would help determine the scale and strategy of the leak containment effort, the eventual cost to BP in fines and damages, and the scope of preparations for the next spill.

It took Amos six days to acquire clear images. His first thought, he says, was: “Oh my God! This is much bigger than anybody realizes.” He calculated that the slick was 50 miles long and covered 817 square miles. He outlined the slick, along with his calculations, and posted both on SkyTruth’s website.

Within a day, Ian MacDonald, a Florida State University oceanographer and oil slick authority, notified Amos that the leak’s flow rate was much bigger than a thousand barrels a day. Using Amos’ calculations of the
SkyTruth devised a technique for mapping mountaintop removal mining sites in West Virginia.
slick’s size and conservative assumptions about its thickness, MacDonald concluded that it was “not unreasonable” that the leak was 20 times BP’s initial estimate. Undermined by SkyTruth’s numbers, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration conceded the next day that BP’s initial estimate was too low: over BP’s public objections, NOAA revised the government estimate to 5,000 barrels a day. Two months later, — prodded, in part, by SkyTruth — government scientists concluded that the initial flow rate was 62,000 barrels a day, 62 times BP’s initial estimate.

SkyTruth has also affected the course of mountaintop removal coal mining. Appalachian states have issued hundreds of permits for mountaintop removal mines, but they’ve rarely checked to see whether the mines have stayed within the permitted boundaries. Permits are supposed to be issued only after assessing impacts on downstream waterways, and a study of ten West Virginia counties published in 2004 by the state’s environmental protection department found that nearly 40 percent of mines in ten counties were situated outside permitted locations.

Acting on a request from Appalachian Voices, a North Carolina-based nonprofit that opposes mountaintop removal mining, SkyTruth devised a technique for identifying the mines from satellite images, then mapped their growth over three decades and posted the results on its website in 2009. The information was used in six peer-reviewed academic articles, including a Duke University study that found that once five percent of a watershed is mined, water quality in its rivers and streams usually fails to meet state standards. That study in turn provided empirical backing for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 2011 revocation of a mine permit in West Virginia that had been issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The decision marked the first time the EPA had ever reversed a coal mine’s permit under the Clean Water Act.

In search of images that tell environmental stories, SkyTruth pays close attention to news reports, but occasionally it finds stories of its own. One

MORE FROM YALE e360

Unsustainable Seafood: A New
Crackdown on Illegal Fishing

“unsustainable
A recent study shows that a surprisingly large amount of the seafood sold in U.S. markets is caught illegally. In a series of actions over the last few months, governments and international regulators have started taking aim at stopping this illicit trade in contraband fish.
READ MORE
example is what is probably the Gulf of Mexico’s longest-running commercial oil spill, at the site of a rig destroyed by an underwater mudslide during Hurricane Ivan in 2004. The slide buried 28 wells on the sea floor under 100 feet of mud, which made sealing them extremely difficult. The rig’s owner, Taylor Energy Company, went bankrupt trying. Amos discovered the leaks in 2010 while studying Hurricane Katrina’s impacts, and has been sounding an alarm ever since. The leaks have trickled steadily into the Gulf’s waters since 2004 at a rate Amos estimates at between one and 20 barrels a day, creating a slick that is sometimes 20 miles long. The wells are ten miles offshore in federally managed water, but no federal agency has tried to seal the leak.

Given the controversial issues SkyTruth has been involved with, the group has attracted surprisingly little criticism, perhaps because so much of its work is grounded in visual data— for SkyTruth, seeing really is believing. A notable exception occurred in 2009 when Amos testified at a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing on the under-appreciated risks of deepwater oil drilling. Senator Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, attacked Amos for overlooking the oil industry’s safety record and economic benefits. “You do a great disservice by not telling the American people the truth about drilling and putting it in the perspective it deserves,” Landrieu told Amos.

Landrieu didn’t give Amos a chance to respond, but, as it turned out, he didn’t have to. The BP spill occurred five months later.



POSTED ON 11 Jan 2016 IN Business & Innovation Forests Oceans Oceans Science & Technology Science & Technology Asia 

POST A COMMENT

Comments are moderated and will be reviewed before they are posted to ensure they are on topic, relevant, and not abusive. They may be edited for length and clarity. By filling out this form, you give Yale Environment 360 permission to publish this comment.

Name 
Email address 
Comment 
 
Please type the text shown in the graphic.


jacques leslieABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jacques Leslie writes narrative nonfiction about global environmental issues. His book on dams, Deep Water: The Epic Struggle Over Dams, Displaced People, and the Environment, won the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award. He recently published an ebook, A Deluge of Consequences, that portrays a project in Bhutan to counter the effects of climate change. Previously for e360, Leslie reported on an innovative project that uses flooded rice fields to farm salmon and how falling oil prices could help stop the Keystone project.
MORE BY THIS AUTHOR

 
 

RELATED ARTICLES


How Nations Are Chipping
Away at Their Protected Lands

Winning protected status for key natural areas and habitat has long been seen as the gold standard of conservation. But these gains are increasingly being compromised as governments redraw park boundaries to accommodate mining, logging, and other development.
READ MORE

From Mass Coral Bleaching,
A Scientist Looks for Lessons

For climate scientist Kim Cobb, this year’s massive bleaching of coral reefs is providing sobering insights into the impacts of global warming. Yale Environment 360 talked with Cobb about the bleaching events and the push to make reefs more resilient to rising temperatures.
READ MORE

Trouble in Paradise: A Blight
Threatens Key Hawaiian Tree

The ʻohiʻa is Hawaii’s iconic tree, a keystone species that maintains healthy watersheds and provides habitat for numerous endangered birds. But a virulent fungal disease, possibly related to a warmer, drier climate, is now felling the island’s cherished 'ohi'a forests.
READ MORE

How Satellites and Big Data
Can Help to Save the Oceans

With new marine protected areas and an emerging U.N. treaty, global ocean conservation efforts are on the verge of a major advance. But to enforce these ambitious initiatives, new satellite-based technologies and newly available online data must be harnessed.
READ MORE

On Fuel Economy Efforts,
U.S. Faces an Elusive Target

One of President Obama’s signature achievements on climate has been strict standards aimed at improving auto fuel efficiency to nearly 55 miles per gallon by 2025. But credits and loopholes, coupled with low gas prices, may mean the U.S. will fall well short of this ambitious goal.
READ MORE

 

MORE IN Reports


As Drought Grips South Africa,
A Conflict Over Water and Coal

by keith schneider
Facing one of the worst droughts in memory, South Africa’s leaders have doubled down on their support of the water-intensive coal industry. But clean energy advocates say the smartest move would be to back the country’s burgeoning wind and solar power sectors.
READ MORE

Saving Amphibians: The Quest
To Protect Threatened Species

by jim robbins
The decline of the world’s amphibians continues, with causes ranging from fungal diseases to warmer and drier climates. Now, researchers are looking at ways to intervene with triage measures that could help save the most vulnerable populations.
READ MORE

How Rising CO2 Levels May
Contribute to Die-Off of Bees

by lisa palmer
As they investigate the factors behind the decline of bee populations, scientists are now eyeing a new culprit — soaring levels of carbon dioxide, which alter plant physiology and significantly reduce protein in important sources of pollen.
READ MORE

Can Uber-Style Buses Help
Relieve India's Air Pollution?

by jason overdorf
India’s megacities have some the deadliest air and worst traffic congestion in the world. But Indian startups are now launching initiatives that link smart-phone apps and private shuttle buses and could help keep cars and other motorized vehicles off the roads.
READ MORE

Trouble in Paradise: A Blight
Threatens Key Hawaiian Tree

by richard schiffman
The ʻohiʻa is Hawaii’s iconic tree, a keystone species that maintains healthy watersheds and provides habitat for numerous endangered birds. But a virulent fungal disease, possibly related to a warmer, drier climate, is now felling the island’s cherished 'ohi'a forests.
READ MORE

Climate Change Adds Urgency
To Push to Save World’s Seeds

by virginia gewin
In the face of rising temperatures and worsening drought, the world’s repositories of agricultural seeds may hold the key to growing food under increasingly harsh conditions. But keeping these gene banks safe and viable is a complicated and expensive challenge.
READ MORE

As World Warms, How Do We
Decide When a Plant is Native?

by janet marinelli
The fate of a tree planted at poet Emily Dickinson's home raises questions about whether gardeners can — or should — play a role in helping plant species migrate in the face of rising temperatures and swiftly changing botanical zones.
READ MORE

With New Tools, A Focus
On Urban Methane Leaks

by judith lewis mernit
Until recently, little was known about the extent of methane leaking from urban gas distribution pipes and its impact on global warming. But recent advances in detecting this potent greenhouse gas are pushing U.S. states to begin addressing this long-neglected problem.
READ MORE

Is Climate Change Putting
World's Microbiomes at Risk?

by jim robbins
Researchers are only beginning to understand the complexities of the microbes in the earth’s soil and the role they play in fostering healthy ecosystems. Now, climate change is threatening to disrupt these microbes and the key functions they provide.
READ MORE

As Electric Cars Stall, A Move
To Greener Trucks and Buses

by cheryl katz
Low gasoline prices and continuing performance issues have slowed the growth of electric car sales. But that has not stymied progress in electrifying larger vehicles, including garbage trucks, city buses, and medium-sized trucks used by freight giants like FedEx.
READ MORE


e360 digest
Yale
Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies
.

SEARCH e360



Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter


CONNECT


ABOUT

About e360
Contact
Submission Guidelines
Reprints

E360 en Español

Universia partnership
Yale Environment 360 articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia, the online educational network.
Visit the site.


DEPARTMENTS

Opinion
Reports
Analysis
Interviews
Forums
e360 Digest
Podcasts
Video Reports

TOPICS

Biodiversity
Business & Innovation
Climate
Energy
Forests
Oceans
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology
Sustainability
Urbanization
Water

REGIONS

Antarctica and the Arctic
Africa
Asia
Australia
Central & South America
Europe
Middle East
North America

e360 VIDEO

“video
Tribal people and ranchers join together to stop a project that would haul coal across their Montana land.
Watch the video.

e360 MOBILE

Mobile
The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.

e360 PHOTO ESSAY

“Alaska
An aerial view of why Europe’s per capita carbon emissions are less than 50 percent of those in the U.S.
View the photos.

e360 VIDEO

“Battle
The 2015 Yale e360 Video Contest winner documents a Northeastern town's bitter battle over a wind farm.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Food waste
An e360 video series looks at the staggering amount of food wasted in the U.S. – a problem with major human and environmental costs.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Colorado wildfires
An e360 video goes onto the front lines with Colorado firefighters confronting deadly blazes fueled by a hotter, drier climate.
Watch the video.

e360 SPECIAL REPORT

“Tainted
A three-part series Tainted Harvest looks at the soil pollution crisis in China, the threat it poses to the food supply, and the complexity of any cleanup.
Read the series.

OF INTEREST



Yale