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Monitoring Environmental Destruction From the Sky

SkyTruth uses satellite imagery and data-crunching to track fracking, mountaintop removal, and oil spills around the world

The twenty-first century has been dubbed the "surveillance society," a culture where police departments increasingly deploy drones to spy from above, smart phones precisely track their owners' locations, and government agencies routinely record our emails and phone calls. In this new milieu, environmentalists have started to do some watch-dogging of their own, documenting industry's misdeeds by adapting newly available technology and tactics to fit their needs. 

Jonah Field, WyomingPhoto by John AmosWellpads, access roads, pipeline corridors and other natural-gas infrastructure in western Wyoming’s Jonah Field. High-altitude imagery allows SkyTruth to reveal the sheer scope of development as well as changes over time.

Leading the pack is a small outfit, SkyTruth, run by four staffers and a handful of volunteers and interns from a single-story building tucked behind a small craft store in Sheperdstown, West Virginia (population 1,700). From this small-town setting, SkyTruth does big-data work, aggregating massive amounts of open source information about some of the world's most damaging and polluting industries.

SkyTruth was the first organization to fully map the mountains in Appalachia decimated by mountaintop removal, showing that over 2,700 ridgetops had been flattened across five states. This work, accomplished by comparing satellite images from the 1970s to 2009 and using digital elevation information to isolate mountaintop removal from other strip mining, helped prove that one out of every five streams in West Virginia had been harmed by mountaintop removal.

SkyTruth's operations extend far beyond Appalachia, reaching into the supply chains of some of the world's most globalized industries, such as deep-sea fishing in international waters. In the Kermadecs, an island chain more than 600 miles off the northeast coast of New Zealand labeled one of “last pristine sites left in the ocean” by National Geographic Society and Census Marine Life in 2010, fishing is strictly regulated. While most boats use beacons that transmit their location as part of a system to prevent ship collisions, illegal fishers often do not participate in this warning system or disable their beacons when they near protected waters. SkyTruth tracks ships to the edges of protected areas like the Kermadecs, then uses satellite radar to find fishing boats that have attempted to conceal their entry into the exclusion zone. They've also discovered fleets of boats from Spain, Ukraine, and China trawling the perimeter of the zone, creating a floating picket fence confronting migratory fish on their way in and out.

What makes SkyTruth truly distinct is not just its ability to use high-tech satellite data for public good, it is also the clever ways the organization has found to analyze huge quantities of information. For example, SkyTruth is giving new meaning to crowd sourcing by taking publicly available images and then recruiting and training volunteers to help with the painstaking work of mapping natural gas drilling and fracking sites. In Pennsylvania, SkyTruth's FrackFinder project completed an 80,000-image analysis in just two-and-a-half weeks, far less than the many months it would have taken their team on its own. With regulators overwhelmed by the drilling rush, state records can lack vital information about what's happening at a given well pad — but satellite images can help independent watchdogs fill in those gaps. Researchers from Johns Hopkins will use SkyTruth's maps to study the health impacts associated with certain extraction activities: Do people near flaring report headaches, respiratory distress or hospitalizations? Does living near an open pit used to store wastewater correlate with higher rates of neonatal disorders?

"It gives people something to do other than write a check, send a letter or maybe go to a protest," said David Manthos, communications director at SkyTruth. "They can sit in their house and learn more about an issue." 

At root, the genius of this organization is its ability to take advantage of readily available public resources that many activists have tended to overlook. Often, SkyTruth uses the same data used by powerful industries — satellite maps of remote areas, measurements of the depth of coal deposits or Department of Agriculture aerial photography — to turn a spotlight onto those industries themselves, showing the difference between what a region looked like before and after the industry's arrival.

By far, SkyTruth's most prominent moment came during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, when they challenged the figures published by the Obama administration and twice forced both BP and the federal government to admit they had understated the amount of crude billowing into the Gulf of Mexico. 

photoname Photo by John Amos This satellite image, taken in July of 2010, shows oil slicks and sheen that are likely attributable
to the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.

"With our partners at Florida State University, we used satellite images to estimate the actual amount of oil gushing from the damaged well," SkyTruth explained on its website. "Based only on the oil that appeared on the surface, we calculated the rate of flow from the gushing well was between five and twenty-five times more than BP was reporting." 

Even as the Deepwater Horizon still spewed oil into the Gulf, SkyTruth's work revealed that, unbeknownst to federal regulators, other drilling platforms damaged seven years earlier by Hurricane Ivan were also leaking oil into the Gulf. 

"Radar satellite are actually very good at detecting oil spills," explained Manthos. "The oil smoothes out the water a little bit, so spills stand out. So do ships." 

Using that same process, SkyTruth has been able to track illegal oil-dumping by ships in the middle of the oceans’ vast expanse, catching a refrigerated tanker that dumped its oily bilge water off the coast of Angola in 2012. "It was the first time someone had used only space-based data to identify dumping on the high seas," Manthos said. The amount of oil routinely discharged by ships dwarfs headline-making oil spills, amounting every year to more than eight times the amount spilled by the Exxon Valdez, according to estimates by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.  SkyTruth's ability to pin-point individual lawbreakers from above could help to deter dumping even when ships are far from coastal authorities.

"We're hoping to eventually make this similar to FrackFinder, to enlist help with identifying various issues at sea," Manthos added.

Far more than an activist's guide to Google Earth, SkyTruth provides intel that other organizations have used to great effect, backing up their satellite images with data-crunching and a sharp sense of how business operates.

Using SkyTruth's data, Appalachian environmentalists created "What's My Connection?", a website that lets people across the US see if their electricity comes from mountaintop removal mining, and if so, which mountain the coal likely came from. SkyTruth also helped create a map of mountains most at risk of mining, using coal thickness data and historical information to predict which peaks could be next in the mining industry's crosshairs. And they helped Appalachian Voices and the Natural Resources Defense Council refute claims from the mining industry that the level, buildable land formed by valley fills — where mining companies dump rubble from the removed mountaintops — provided much-needed space for economic development by demonstrating that 89 percent remained unused.

They've also collaborated with LightHawk, a network of conservationist pilots who donate free flights to decision-makers, scientists, conservation groups, and the media, helping pilots chose the best targets for flyovers. LightHawk pilots also collect more images from above during their flights. "We identify places to go," explained Manthos, "and if we can get up in the air with them, that's great."

SkyTruth gets much of their satellite imagery for free, drawing from archives previously only available to major institutions. "When I started my career really the only people who could afford this stuff were oil and mining companies and big government agencies," John Amos, the founder of SkyTruth, told bloggers at True to me Too, a website about unique careers. "Now you can get every single Landsat satellite image, you can download them all for free if you have the time, there’s 3.8 million of them in the archives since 1972."

And that high-altitude imagery allows SkyTruth to tackle two problems people face in comprehending the scale of environmental destruction. Their birds-eye view images reveal the sheer scope of sprawling development. At ground level, oil and gas drilling often involves less than 5 acres per well pad, and especially once the 150-foot high drilling and fracking rigs are gone, these sites become harder to spot at ground level. But from above, the systematic nature of shale drilling's "manufacturing model," in which well pads are uniformly spaced across thousands of acres, becomes apparent. In 2007, SkyTruth used Google Earth to let users navigate a growing "spider-web" of hundreds of natural gas well pads, roads and pipelines stretching across Wyoming’s Upper Green River Valley, near Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. 

They're also able to show changes over time, including impacts that collect slowly over the course of decades. By showing viewers how much a landscape has been altered over the course of a year, a decade, or since the beginning of the satellite era, SkyTruth can help people see industry's cumulative effects that might go little noticed by locals because of the gradual pace of changes. 

SkyTruth’s motto sums up the idea: "If you can see it, you can change it."

Sharon Kelly
Sharon Kelly is a Philadelphia-based lawyer and freelance writer. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Legal Intelligencer.

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