Rampal Coal-Fired Power Plant Threatens Sundarbans

The Sundarbans: a near-mythic landscape of forest and swamp, byzantine river channels and tidal mud flats, one of the last strongholds of the highly endangered Bengal tiger.  Straddling the border separating India and Bangladesh, this impenetrable wilderness spans the mouths of the Ganges River as its broad delta meets the stormy Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean.  This is one of the special places on earth that is recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.  That’s why concern is mounting over the construction of a new coal-fired power plant just upstream in Bangladesh, near the town of Rampal. One of the world’s poorest countries, Bangladesh needs stable sources of electricity to improve the general standard of living. But the location of this power plant is problematic. It’s being built along the bank of a distributary channel of the Ganges, one of the world’s biggest rivers, prone to regular flooding.  It is essentially at sea level, in a region routinely thrashed by strong tropical cyclones that push massive storm surges up those channels and far inland.  As global warming pushes up sea level, and is predicted to make tropical storms more intense, these problems will only get worse. (Irony alert: much of the global warming that imperils low-lying island nations and coastal nations like Bangladesh is a due to CO2 emissions from… coal-fired power plants.)

UNESCO spells out the risks to the Sundarbans in this report. Air pollution and fly-ash deposition downwind will impact the mangrove forests and alter the chemistry of surface waters; onsite storage of coal-ash in such a flood prone area poses a significant risk of water contamination (as we’ve seen here in the US, with a massive coal-ash spill in Tennessee and currently ongoing spills caused by flooding in the wake of Hurricane Matthew); and the transport of coal by large cargo ships increases the possibility of large oil spills, as we observed when two ships collided in the Sundarbans in December 2014.

We thought we would take a look at the Rampal power plant site using Google Earth to show what’s happening as the construction progresses:


Location of the Rampal coal-fired power plant in Bangladesh, currently under construction. The remaining intact mangrove forests of The Sundarbans are dark green.


A closer look at the Rampal power plant site, on the eastern bank of a distributary channel of the Ganges River.


Detail view of the Rampal site as it appeared in 2001, prior to any construction activity.  See time-series of matching views below.


Rampal site in November 2010, prior to construction activity. Note that most of the area is flooded.


Rampal site in April 2013. Construction activity is underway. Fill material (light brown) is being used to build up the site.


Rampal site, March 2016. Fill material has been added to elevate and level the site, and levees (?) (bright strips?) are apparently being added along the perimeter.


Rampal site, March 2016. The site footprint now covers an area of 520 acres (nearly one square mile).


Nate Miller Shares his Analysis on Transshipment

A Productive Week in Shepherdstown

With team members in three continents and four U.S. states, we at SkyTruth make extensive use of Slack and video conferencing. This form of remote working saves many hours on commute time and has allowed us to build this great tool from our spots all over the world — but sometimes there’s just nothing like meeting in person. Two weeks ago a number of us working on Global Fishing Watch, including a few colleagues from Oceana and Google,  met in Shepherdstown, WV (SkyTruth’s World Headquarters), for a week-long workshop.

Global Fishing Watch is at an exciting point it its history. We just launched our public-facing website at the U.S. State Department’s Our Ocean’s Conference. Over the next year, we hope to roll out more features to the website, undertake a series of analyses to better understand fishing around the globe, and publish more of our datasets for outside researchers and advocates to use. Stay tuned for more updates. Below are some pictures from the week.

Nate Miller Shares his Analysis on Transshipment

Nate Miller shares his analysis on transshipment with the Global Fishing Watch team.

Machine Learning Engineers Alex Wilson of Google and Tim Hochberg of SkyTruth

Machine Learning Engineers Alex Wilson of Google and Tim Hochberg of SkyTruth collaborate on an improved neural network to identify fishing vessels. Christian Thomas is at his computer in the background.

David Kroodsma at the Chalkboard, Outlining the Next Global Fishing Watch Projects

David Kroodsma, at the chalkboard, outlines the next Global Fishing Watch projects.





Press roundup from the public launch of Global Fishing Watch


Last month marked a big moment for SkyTruth: the public launch of Global Fishing Watch (GFW) with our partners Google and Oceana at the State Department brought an avalanche of great press that we’re excited to share with all you skytruthers.

The UK’s Daily Mail covers Leonardo DiCaprio’s interest in and support of the project. Read Leo’s remarks and Secretary Kerry’s introduction via the State Department transcript here. Scientific American gives our algorithm some props. The New York Times’ Andrew Revkin urges readers to register and explore GFW directly. See how the Washington Post places GFW in the context of broader ocean conservation efforts. Noted enviro reporter Chris Pala gives readers a glimpse of our work with research partners. Vox highlights the potential of GFW and gives a nod to SkyTruth’s past successes using satellite mapping. Find out about the way GFW can harness market forces to encourage more responsible fishing practices from Lauren Williams at ThinkProgress. Ted Danson gives SkyTruth and GFW some love on the Rachael Ray show (second video — good stuff starts around the 2:20 mark).

And this is just a sampling. All in all we had over 200 unique hits in press outlets around the world, creating a surge of interest not just in SkyTruth and in Global Fishing Watch but moreover in the power of sharing technology with the public to solve big environmental problems. Our team worked hard with our partners to make this moment possible. We will be growing and improving Global Fishing Watch in the months to come. In the meantime, we’ll be chewing on the question: what’s the Next Big Thing? Stay tuned.


Marking 50 Years of Landsat

It’s hard for us to care about problems we can’t see.

It’s hard for us to manage problems we can’t measure.

That’s why I started SkyTruth – to make environmental changes visible to everyone.

And that’s why I was so moved by a recent encounter. Last week, after the Our Ocean conference had wrapped up, I found myself having dinner in the lovely home of a new friend of SkyTruth. Our little party included Tom Udall, senator from New Mexico.   When he heard about SkyTruth, he asked me if we used Landsat images.  I told him I thought the Landsat satellite program was one of NASA’s most important success stories; and that we use Landsat images on a daily basis at SkyTruth for environmental monitoring.

His eyes lit up and he told me something I hadn’t realized: his father, Stewart Udall, former Secretary of the Interior, was one of the key drivers in the origin story of the Landsat program. In the mid-1960s the head of the US Geological Survey, William Pecora, convinced Secretary Udall that the nation should launch a fleet of earth-observing satellites. In 1966, Udall announced the program – a politically savvy move that prompted NASA to get involved and take charge of the design, construction, launch and operation of the satellites.  In late 1971, the first Landsat satellite was launched, ushering in the era of space-based remote sensing that is thriving today.  Landsat satellites have been operating continuously since Landsat-1, with Landsat-7 and Landsat-8 currently carrying the torch.

More than 4 million Landsat images of the earth have been collected, with hundreds of new images added to that tremendous archive every day.  This provides a priceless dataset for measuring – and showing – how landscapes and ecosystems have changed over the past 45 years, a time of skyrocketing population growth and human-caused disruption of interconnected natural processes and systems that we’re racing to fully understand.  Landsat imagery provides a critical tool for investigating and understanding the many ways we’re impacting our own life support systems.

Just a few examples:

  • The outstanding Global Forest Watch program, a partnership of World Resources Institute and Google, powered by analytical algorithms developed at the University of Maryland, uses Landsat to make a complete global map of forest cover every year. Users can sign up to get automatic alerts whenever a deforestation event is detected in their area of interest. Companies that use wood products are pledging to get illegal logging out of their supply chains, and are using Global Forest Watch to verify their progress. Governments are monitoring logging concessions and protected areas to ensure companies are complying with regulations. This project has provided plenty of inspiration for our own Global Fishing Watch project with Oceana and Google.
  • Our project — in partnership with Appalachian Voices, Duke University, and Google — to map the “footprint” of mountaintop removal mining for coal in Appalachia is systematically analyzing Landsat images to generate a geospatial database of mining-disrupted land. We’re taking advantage of the fact that Google is hosting the entire archive of Landsat images and is giving us free access to this massive cloud storage through a powerful cloud-computing tool called Earth Engine. This data has already resulted in more than half a dozen peer-reviewed scientific studies quantifying the human health and environmental consequences of mountaintop mining, and has moved the policy needle in a major way.  It’s our hope that the annually updated map will serve as a focal point for envisioning what we want Appalachia to look like in the future, and tool for planning how we’re going to get there from here.
  • TIMElapse, a collaboration between TIME and Google, lets you see 30 years of change – everywhere on the planet – at the click of a mouse. Give it a try, and be amazed. And in some cases, alarmed.

September 21 marked the 50th anniversary of Stewart Udall’s announcement that launched the Landsat program.  His son Tom was guest of honor, and should be very proud of this piece of his father’s impressive legacy.  We certainly are grateful for his vision: “a program aimed at gathering facts about the natural resources of the earth from earth-orbiting satellites.”  This is an example of something government can do well: investing in infrastructure that broadly benefits society, and provides a stable platform for the development of businesses and economic activity.  Landsat is the data equivalent of the interstate highway system, a public good that has spawned a thriving for-profit remote sensing industry in the US and beyond.

We’re looking forward to the uninterrupted continuation of the Landsat program and (at least) another 50 years of systematic Earth observation, because it’s needed now more than ever.


Global Fishing Watch Goes Live

SkyTruth is helping make the world’s oceans a little less mysterious and a great deal more transparent with the public beta release of Global Fishing Watch, announced today at the Our Ocean Conference in Washington, DC. Actor and ocean advocate Leonardo DiCaprio announced in his remarks to the conference that Global Fishing Watch is now free and open to the public, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry personally received a demonstration of the tool from the Oceana, SkyTruth, and Google team.

In partnership with Oceana and Google, Global Fishing Watch was designed, developed, and tested by SkyTruth to enable users to map and analyze all of the world’s trackable commercial fishing activity. Global Fishing Watch is the world’s first dynamic, global, near real-time measure of fishing activity.

SkyTruth is proud to make this tool available to the public, enabling researchers, advocates, regulators, consumers, and industry to shine a light on fishing activity and pierce the fog of uncertainty surrounding global seafood supply chains.


Above: With Global Fishing Watch, users will easily be able to visualize when and where fishing activity occurs. This visualization depicts six months of fishing activity by three of the world’s most prolific fleets – fishing vessels flagged to China, Japan, and Spain.

Our oceans are under pressure from overfishing, and recent stories about crime on the high seas have riveted the public’s attention. Global Fishing Watch gives legal operators a way to show the world they’re playing by the rules and that they deserve access to premium seafood markets. Global Fishing Watch provides regulators with an easy way to visualize their own data, and GFW will empower citizens and indigenous peoples to hold regulators accountable for enforcing the rules.

Oceana, SkyTruth, and Google unveiled the prototype in November 2014 at the IUCN World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia. Today, Global Fishing Watch unlocks the power of machine-learning, mapping, and a near real-time feed of satellite data to anyone with a modern computer and decent internet connection.

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When Vessels Report False Locations

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The red tracks show the broadcast position of the Lu Yan Yuan Yu 10 apparently transiting across Antarctica (inset). The yellow tracks show its true location along the coast of South America passing through the Strait of Magellan and into port at Lima, Peru.

Occasionally, the AIS messages transmitted from a ship provide a location that makes no sense, say, in the middle of the Antarctic or over a mountain range. In such cases, either the AIS transponder has malfunctioned, the data got scrambled in transmission, or the system has been tampered with in a deliberate attempt to disguise the vessel’s location. Read more

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Advancing the Science and Technology of “Sky Truthing”: SkyTruth in the scientific literature

It has been almost 15 years since we first launched SkyTruth with the belief that sharing images of habitat loss and environmental change would not only contribute to public awareness of the human footprint on our earth, but would become a valuable resource for scientific research and discussion. As a scientist who comes from a family of scientists, SkyTruth President John Amos is driven by a deep-rooted interest in seeking evidence-based truth. Whether that evidence unveils nefarious behavior by commercial interests and colluding government entities, or debunks myths of over-eager watchdogs crying wolf, our job is to put it out there for public scrutiny.

So, it is immensely gratifying when our work is used to advance scientific knowledge of the health and environmental ramifications of human activity. Our data and analysis has contributed to a variety of studies and been cited in numerous research papers on issues ranging from mountaintop removal (MTR) mining, offshore oil spills, the effects of fracking and commercial fisheries.

“I’m incredibly proud that what we produce is helping scientists do meaningful work,” says John, “and that it’s resulted in the kind of impact it has and the kind of outcomes we’ve seen.”

Here’s a sampling of some of the scientific and academic publications to which our work has contributed.


Through the Global Fishing Watch Research program, our analysts work directly with world renowned experts and academic researchers, applying our data to some of the most pressing issues facing global fishing and ocean sustainability.

Among the first fruits of those partnerships is the article “Ending Hide and Seek in the Oceans” published in Science magazine in April, 2016. Co-authored by Doug McCauley of University of California, Santa Barbara, our chief technology officer, Paul Woods, our data analyst Bjorn Bergman and other collaborators.

Two months later, that article was cited in a paper published in PLoS ONE titled “Improving Fishing Pattern Detection from Satellite AIS Using Data Mining and Machine Learning.” Authored by our research partners from Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Kristina Boerder, Boris Worm and colleagues, the paper outlines work that is directly contributing to and being built up by our Global Fishing Watch computer models.


Having been responsible for revealing the extent of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, SkyTruth’s analysis of the volume of the slick and the daily rate of flow has made its way into the general scientific literature on analysis of the spill and its impacts.

Our direct contributions to the literature includes an article co-authored by SkyTruth president John Amos along with Elliot Norse, president of Marine Conservation Biology International. Titled “Impacts, Perception, and Policy Implications of the BP/Deepwater Horizon Oil and Gas Disaster,” the article was published in the November 2010 issue of Environmental Law Reporter’s News & Analysis.

That article was later adapted into the article “Deepwater Horizon Revisited” and published in Earth Imaging Journal.

Examples of outside research papers that included our data and analysis include:

A paper by Ian MacDonald of Florida State University in the journal Significance titled Deepwater Disaster: how the oil spill estimates got it wrong.”

A paper in the January 2013 issue of the journal Sustainable Engineering authored by researcher Konstantin A. Korotenko of the Russian Academy of Sciences P.P.Shirshov Institute of Oceanology and his colleagues. The paper titled “Modeling 3-D Transport and Dispersal of Oil Plume Released During BP/Horizon Accident in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010included a cumulative slick footprint of the spill created by overlaying all of the oil slicks mapped by SkyTruth on satellite images taken between April 25 and July 16, 2010.

Shortly after the BP disaster, in April of 2011, we led the formation of The Gulf Monitoring Consortium, an alliance of non-profits that collects, analyzes and publishes images and other information to investigate and expose pollution incidents that occur in the Gulf of Mexico and Gulf Coast region.

We released a summary of our findings over the first six months, Report on Activities from April 2011 to October 2011, that documented under reporting and lack of reporting of oil spill by responsible parties and inconsistencies in collection and publication of oil spill reports by National Response Center.

That report has been cited in numerous research papers including, most recently, an article in the January 16 issue of the journal Nature authored by Louisiana State University department of entomology researcher Claudia Husseneder and colleagues titled “Impact of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill on Population Size And Genetic Structure of Horse Flies in Louisiana Marshes.”

In August 2013, we issued another report titled Lessons from Hurricane Isaac: Gulf Coast Coal and Petrochemical Facilities still not Storm Ready.


Independent academics have used SkyTruth’s mountaintop removal (MTR) dataset to produce groundbreaking studies that have fundamentally changed the debate about the societal costs and benefits of MTR. We are especially gratified by the contribution our work has made in this arena.

In 2013, John co-authored a paper in the Journal BioScience titled “The overlooked terrestrial impacts of mountaintop mining.”

Among work by outside researchers, two studies in particular were cited by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in their decision to overturn a permit that had been issued by the Army Corps of Engineers to expand the Spruce #1 mine in Logan County, WV. It is only the second time in EPA’s history that they have exercised this authority under the Clean Water Act.

The studies cited are:

How Many Mountains Can We Mine?” published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. The research by Dr. Emily Bernhardt, a biologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, provided the first conclusive evidence of a direct link between mountaintop removal mining to downstream water pollution and related environmental destruction.

The association between mountaintop mining and birth defects among live births in central Appalachia, 1996–2003” in the journal Environmental Science. Authors Melissa Ahern a health economist at Washington State University, Michael Hendryx an epidemiologist at West Virginia University, and their colleagues, found significantly higher birth defects in communities near MTR operations.

In addition, our MTR analysis has been used in many other studies including:

Michael Hendryx and Kestrel Innes-Wimsatt of West Virginia University published study in the Journal Ecophsycology titled “Increased Risk of Depression for People Living in Coal Mining Areas of Central Appalachia.”

Researchers at EPA, USGS, WVU and SkyTruth authored a study published in BioOne titled “The Overlooked Terrestrial Impacts of Mountaintop Mining,” which calculated cumulative loss of topographic complexity, forests, soil, carbon sequestration capacity, biodiversity, and human health due to MTR.

Nicholas Zegre and Andrew Miller at West Virginia University authored a paper aggregating existing knowledge on the hydrological implications of MTR mining and highlighting areas for future. The paper, titled “Mountaintop Removal Mining and Catchment Hydrology,” was published in the journal Water.

Researchers Nathaniel “Than” Hitt and Douglas Chambers from USGS conducted a study to determine the impact of MTR mining on fish populations and biodiversity downstream from mining sites at select watersheds in southern West Virginia. Their paper, “Temporal changes in taxonomic and functional diversity of fish assemblages downstream from mountaintop mining” was published in the journal Freshwater Science.


A paper in the December 2013 issue of the journal Endocrinology, used our tabulation and mapping of Colorado Oil and Gas Commission data on wells active as of June 2008. The paper by Christopher D. Kassotis of the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Women’s Health and Division of Biological Sciences at the University of Missouri, and colleagues is titled “Estrogen and androgen receptor activities of hydraulic fracturing chemicals and surface and ground water in a drilling-dense region.”

Other recent works that have cited our fracking data or analysis include the following two books by CRC Press:

Hydraulic Fracturing Impacts and Technology published June 2015. Authored by Venki Uddameri, Professor and director of water resources Center at Texas Tech University and colleagues.

Wastewater and Shale Formation Development: Risks, Mitigation, and Regulation published June 24, 2015. Authored by Sheila Olmstead, associate professor of public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

In January 2016, our work on fracking and mountaintop removal was referenced multiple times in a chapter of the book Risk Analysis of Natural Hazards: Interdisciplinary Challenges and Integrated Solutions. Published by Springer, the book is the 19th volume in the series Risk, Governance and Society, begun in 1986 titled.