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
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.
OFFSHORE OIL SPILLS
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 2010” included 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.
MOUNTAIN TOP REMOVAL MINING
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.
HYDRAULIC FRACTURING (FRACKING)
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.
Depending on the amount of mining in the impacted watersheds, the quality of existing baseline data, and the number of measurements taken during and after the flood, scientists may not find a “smoking gun” directly linking the severity of this flood event with MTR mining. But let us take a look at what we do know about the relationship between flooding and MTR mining.
If you are familiar with stormwater runoff issues then you have probably seen a diagram like the one above. Soil and vegetation absorb water. Impervious surfaces, like rock and pavement, do not. Since blasting off ridge tops to reach seams of buried coal strips the mountains of soil and vegetation, it seems logical that MTR mining would contribute to more intense flash floods. But even after decades of study there are a surprising number of gaps in our understanding of exactly how mining alters flooding.
Research conducted so far suggests that MTR mining can contribute to greater flooding during intense rainfall events, but some studies actually found less severe flooding in watersheds with mining. Several of these studies suggested that valley-fills and underground mine workings have the ability to retain water, which may account for less severe “peaks” during moderately severe storms. If you want to dig into the details, I recommend starting with the summary of hydrological studies on MTR contained in Table 1 of this paper by Dr. Nicholas Zegre and Andrew Miller from West Virginia University.
What most of these studies have in common is that the researchers must at least know where mining occurred and how much surface area was impacted by said mining. This is where our work here at SkyTruth comes into play because we’ve been mapping the when, where, and how much of MTR mining for over forty years.
Thanks to a satellite record going back to the 1970’s, SkyTruth can look back in time to measure the footprint of mining in Appalachia. We continue to make this data freely available for research, and so far our decade-by-decade analysis has been cited in at least six peer-reviewed studies on the environmental and public health impacts of MTR. These studies investigate everything from the increased risk of birth defects and depression to impacts on biodiversity and hydrology. But clearly there are still many unanswered questions left to research.
Finally, it is worth noting that much of the rainfall (left) was concentrated on Greenbrier County, a part of the state with relatively little MTR mining. Neighboring Nicholas County, however, does have some large mines so it may be possible for hydrologists to diagnose and measure the difference in flooding between mined and unmined watersheds which received equivalent rainfall. But that will take time to decipher and analyze.
In the meantime, SkyTruth and our partners at Appalachian Voices and Duke University are working this summer to update and refine our data about the spread of MTR mining in Appalachia. The resulting data will allow more comprehensive and more accurate research on the effects of MTR mining. Our vision is for this research and resulting studies on the impacts of MTR to lead to better decision-making about flood hazards, future mine permits, and mine reclamation.
On dry land, ecologists and conservationists can map our human footprints on the landscape. We can see deforestation, mountaintop removal, river damming and development, and it is relatively easy to recognize our impacts on an ecosystem and the plants and animals that live there.
In the ocean, our impacts are less tangible. Water covers more than 70 percent of the surface of the globe and its resources are exploited as vigorously as those on land. Yet our footprints are lost to the ripples and waves. The effects of our exploits lie beneath the surface in a three-dimensional, liquid “landscape” that remains out of sight and far from reach.
Satellite tracking technology and big-data processing are helping solve that problem by allowing us to see and record the tracks of ships on the ocean. This week, a new study released in the journal PLoS ONE brings finer resolution to our newly developing view of how humans are using the seas. Researchers from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia have developed distinct methods for identifying the activity of vessels fishing with three different types of gear.
Commercial fishing vessels regularly broadcast their positions to satellites via an Automatic Identification System (AIS). By plotting these signals on a map of the ocean we can recreate their tracks and identify movement or behavior consistent with fishing. Until now, remote sensing methods have provided only a broad or incomplete view of fishing behavior.
The broad view, which tries to capture all fishing activity without considering the type of gear being used, is somewhat like trying to quantify land-based farming for a given area without distinguishing between livestock, row-crops or orchard farming.
There has also been work to develop more fine-scale views that focus in on a specific type of fishing. Previous studies have looked at trawling, for instance. While this work is significant, it doesn’t allow for a comprehensive view of fishing activity. Again, to take an analogy from the land, analyzing wheat farms doesn’t allow us to make conclusions about land use relative to all farming.
This new work allows researchers to take a comprehensive look at how fishers use the oceans by combining fine-scale analyses of three of the most common types of fishing, trawling, longlining and purse seining. It also allows them to see the amount of time spent actually fishing as opposed to something else such as transiting or hanging at anchor.
“We’re very much aware of the differences of the gear types, and we’ve tailor made our algorithms for that so we can really tell what is happening out there,” says Kristina Boerder, one of our academic partners and an author on the paper. “Because all three algorithms were developed in one place to fit into the same framework, it is the first opportunity to run these analyses all together.”
According to Elizabeth Madin, researcher from Macquarie University in New South Wales Australia, this work helps to fill critical gaps in the scientific understanding of how and where fishing is occurring on the high seas. “It’s something that’s been notoriously difficult to quantify over large scales with any accuracy in the past,” she says. “Perhaps equally importantly, this study improves our ability to harness the full power of the vast dataset of fishing patterns globally that has emerged through the use of satellite AIS technology. Marine scientists and ocean resource managers will find this incredibly valuable.
To develop their tools, Kristina and her team analyzed satellite-based AIS tracks from 2011 to Oct 2015. They looked at characteristics such as speed, changes in direction, how a vessel moves, and how long it engages in certain types of movement. Some characteristics were more important than others in identifying each type of gear. So in order to automate the identification process, they had to take a different approach for each fishing method.
For trawlers, they applied a machine learning approach. They fed a computer thousands of examples of trawling vessel tracks (millions of individual AIS signals) and asked the computer to identify patterns among those tracks. Having established the set of rules to define trawler patterns, the computer could then apply those rules to unidentified tracks and pick out trawling behavior.
Purse seiner behavior is distinct in that vessels move very quickly in a circle around a school of fish to set the net, then move very slowly for a period of time, drifting as they haul up their nets. For these vessels, the researchers applied a filtering process by which, step-by-step, the computer eliminated behavior that did not fit with the behavior of pulling up the net. By re-evaluating after each filter, and applying the next level of elimination, the algorithm narrowed in on purse seine fishing events with 97 percent accuracy.
Longliners posed a slightly different challenge because speed was not as relevant to longlining as it was to the other two gear types. In this case, the researchers used a data mining technique and applied methodology from land-based ecologists who study animal movements. Other work has shown that human fishing activity resembles that of animals searching for and hunting prey. “If an animal spends a lot of time in one confined area,” Kristina says, “there has to be something of interest there—they could be sleeping, or foraging, or hiding.” Longliners offer the same clues by spending a lot of time traveling back and forth over the same territory as they set and retrieve their lines and hooks.
Kristina says the team fed AIS signals into their computer and asked the computer to mine the data and pull out tracks that met a certain set of expectations for what longliner fishing behavior over time and space looked like. Evaluating each vessel track, the computer took note when a vessel began to behave according to the expectations given. It then applied the next level of expectations, highlighting tracks that met those, and re-evaluated again. This is the first time an automated process has been developed to identify fishing activity of longliners.
The new Dalhousie algorithms can be a game changer for fisheries management and conservation, especially in combination with Global Fishing Watch’s list of individual fishing vessels, which helps identify the species of fish being harvested. Knowing where and when a given species is being taken from the ocean allows for a much better assessment of fisheries management on a global scale.
Researchers will be able to study more precisely how human activity overlaps with such things as migration patterns of tuna, nursery areas for sharks, or ecosystems surrounding marine protected areas. “It is a tailor-made approach that can be used to search and evaluate fishing effort for any fleet anywhere in the world,” says Kristina. “We hope that other researchers and ocean managers will use our tools to further their work. It opens the door to a whole host of research questions that couldn’t be asked before.”
Global Fishing Watch is the product of a technology partnership between SkyTruth, Oceana, and Google, designed to enable anyone to see and understand apparent fishing effort worldwide. This, in turn, will help reduce overfishing and illegal fishing and help restore the ocean to sustainability and abundance.
The story of Global Fishing Watch is really the story of a team coming together over the vision of what might be possible with satellite data on a global scale.
More than a decade after its founding, SkyTruth had become known as the small nonprofit with a big-picture view of the world. Environmental organizations had been coming to us for help solving challenging problems with remote sensing. We had become a trusted source for unbiased analysis and indisputable imagery that revealed what was once invisible. So when we were asked to turn our analysis to the issue of commercial fishing far out at sea, it was a natural fit.
In 2012, Pew Charitable Trust’s Global Ocean Legacy program was encouraging conservation in the rich and diverse waters of Easter Island Province, a remote territory of Chile located in the southeastern Pacific Ocean, about 2,500 west of the mainland. Hoping to demonstrate the need for protection and the feasibility of monitoring, they looked to us for a solution.
Satellite photographs of illegal fishing in the area would have easily made the point, but such photos don’t exist. Contrary to common belief, no one is actually taking high resolution, fine-scale images of the entire world at all times. So we had to come up with a new method of looking at fishing behavior far over the horizon.
Using low-resolution satellite radar images, we detected the presence of ships in the water based on the radar reflectivity of their metal hulls. Then we learned to work with radio signals broadcast via the Automatic Identification System (AIS) used by many ships to avoid collisions at sea. Combining the data, our analysis showed that fishing was occurring in the open ocean right up to the edge of Chile’s territorial waters. It also revealed that not all fishing vessels were broadcasting their presence with AIS. That was enough to demonstrate that Chilean waters could be vulnerable to unscrupulous fishing behavior, and the Chilean government subsequently stationed a long-range reconnaissance airplane on Easter Island to monitor activity in the area. With that project, we quickly realized the power of AIS data to identify and track fishing activity over the horizon and out of sight. And that’s where the vision began.
2011 turned out to be both a banner year for Brazilian oil exploration and a big eye-opener for the people of Brazil. Fueled by the discovery of 19 new oil and gas reserves and hungry for the spoils, big multi-national companies poured billions of new investment dollars into the South American nation.
Most Brazilians expressed little concern over the potential safety risks of the offshore boom. But then SkyTruth president John Amos noticed an inconspicuous report of a seemingly insignificant oil leak buried in the daily cycle of business news.
On November 8, 2011, Reuters reported that Brazil’s oil regulator, the National Petroleum Agency (ANP), was investigating an offshore oil leak near Chevron’s Frade field, 230 miles from the coast of Rio de Janeiro. According to the report, Chevron was checking to see if oil was leaking from a crack in the seafloor.
When John reviewed satellite photos of the area, he saw a slick originating near an exploratory drilling site that extended for 35 miles and covered about 180 square kilometers. By his estimates the sheen on the water represented about 47,000 gallons of oil.
Three days later it had grown to 56 miles in length, and Chevron had declared it a natural seep unrelated to their drilling activities. “It is possible, but call us skeptical,” John posted on our blog. “From my previous years working as an exploration geologist I know there are natural seeps off Brazil. But I’ve never seen a natural seep create a slick this large on a satellite image.” What’s more, comparisons with historical satellite photos showed the slick had not been there before.
Over the following days we watched the spread of oil on the water’s surface. While Chevron maintained that it was natural and estimated a leak rate of 8,400 to 13,860 gallons (200 -330 barrels) per day, John posted satellite images that hinted at a much bigger problem. By his analysis the spill was leaking 157,000 gallons (3,700 barrels) per day. That was more than ten times the official estimate.
John’s reports and the indisputable images he posted gained international media attention, spurred a vigorous discussion on our site, and led to a public outcry in Brazil.
Unable to hide the true nature of the spill, Chevron came under scrutiny from Brazilian legislators and state agencies, and the tone of their official story began to shift.
Under pressure for more transparency, the oil and gas giant eventually conceded they had lost control of a well. They claimed the pressure of the reservoir had exceeded their expectations and forced oil up through fissures in the seafloor.
Kerick Leite who was working for ANP in offshore inspections at the time reflects on the situation this way: “In my opinion, if were not for SkyTruth’s independent assessment of the spill existence and size, I believe the Chevron Spill would have been dismissed as a minor one,” says Leite, “maybe even a natural seep, as initially reported, and remain mostly unknown by the public even today.”
According to the New York Times, Brazil’s former environment minister, Marina Silva, said “This event is a three-dimensional alert to the problems that may occur.” She told the Times that the spill served as a warning just as Brazil was preparing to expand its oil production and exploit its tremendously rich presalt reserves—an extremely complicated process because the presalt lies in 10,000 feet of water beneath thick layers of sand, salt and rock.
As a result of the spill and Chevron’s misleading response, the ANP banned the company from all drilling activities in Brazil onshore and off, pending a full investigation. After lengthy court battles, the company ended up paying 24 violations, and the company paying $17 million in fines to the ANP, more than $18 million to the Brazilian Ministry of the Environment, and $42 million to settle civil lawsuits.
What’s more, it emphasized how small the playing field is in the deepwater oil and gas drilling industry. As we learned through our Twitter followers, the drilling contractor on the job had been Transocean—the same company involved in the disastrous BP / Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico just a year earlier. Brazil dodged a bullet with this accident, but the new understanding of how bad it might have been made Brazilians pay attention.
“It was a wake-up call,” said John. “These are multi-national organizations. The same contractors are working for most of the major name-brand oil companies. This kind of thing can happen anywhere.” Chevron’s reluctance to claim culpability and their delayed response to the spill drove home the need for diligence in regulation and enforcement by Brazilian authorities.
Leite said the spill has led to increased public awareness and concern over safety in the oil and gas industry in Brazil that persists today. “I believe the issue of offshore safety now has more priority than before the chevron spill,” he says. “Back when I still worked at the ANP sector dedicated to environmental issues and operational safety, it had around 16 to 18 servants. Today there are around 40 servants dedicated to it.”
It was a full year before Chevron was allowed to resume doing business Brazil. During that time, a significant portion of the company’s global investments remained inaccessible to them. We hope the loss of profits, over and above the fines levied by Brazilian authorities, will provide incentives for Chevron to do a better job and will send a message to other oil and gas companies. Accidents can no longer be hidden or brushed aside. Chevron’s Frade field spill demonstrated that a satellite image can be worth a thousand words — and in this case, millions of dollars.
Within a day of the April 20, 2010 explosion on BP’s Deepwater Horizon drill rig in the Gulf of Mexico, we began our high tech surveillance of the spill. Examining satellite images and aerial survey data, SkyTruth quickly became a leading source of independent, unbiased information on the size and scope of the disaster.
It was the largest oil spill in the nation’s history, releasing almost five million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. As bad as it was, it could have been even worse. Had BP continued to downplay the extent of the disaster, delaying mobilization of the appropriate response, it may have taken even longer than the 87 days it took to cap the well. Our work challenged the official story, spurred government science agencies to get off the sidelines, and opened a public dialogue about the magnitude of the risk posed by modern offshore drilling..
Throughout the spring and into mid-summer of 2010, as BP’s disabled well continued to pump oil into the Gulf, SkyTruth president John Amos was quoted in hundreds of news reports, and his interpretation and analysis of the raw imagery helped policy makers, the press and the general public make sense of events as they unfolded.
SkyTruth also played a vital watchdog role. One week after the accident, we raised concerns that the amount of oil spilling into the Gulf was likely much higher than the 1,000 barrels-a-day estimated by BP and repeated by government officials. The New York Times and other media outlets picked up the analysis published on the SkyTruth blog on April 27. The next day, government officials publicly broke ranks with BP and raised its estimate to 5,000 barrels a day, the amount we had initially calculated.
John and other independent experts kept the issue in the headlines by presenting new estimates of 20,000 and then 26,500 barrels per day as new images and data became available, leading the public to question whether BP was low-balling the spill rate. On May 4th, the company privately acknowledged the possibility that the well was likely gushing as much as 60,000 barrels of oil a day, 10 times more than the government had previously estimated. (Later, the government’s scientific teams concluded that the higher estimate was closer to the truth; they estimated that 53,000 barrels were leaking each day immediately before the well was capped on July 15.)
While NASA and the governments of several foreign countries made their satellite images freely available, without organizations like SkyTruth to interpret those images, the public may have never known the true impact of the spill.
Equally important, we invited people directly into the conversation. Tens of thousands visited our website, blog, Twitter and Facebook pages. During the first ten days of June, for instance, our Blog received more than 70,000 visits – 25,000 in a single day. Meanwhile, our Oil Spill Tracker site, deployed on the fly in the first days of the spill, allowed Gulf residents to act as citizen journalists posting commentary and observations, as well as photos and videos of oil awash on the beaches and petroleum-drenched wildlife.
Oceanographer Ian R. MacDonald, who collaborated with the organization during the three-month Gulf spill and an earlier one in Australia’s Timor Sea in 2009, likens SkyTruth’s mission to that of “a fire truck.”
“When there’s an emergency, SkyTruth is there,” says MacDonald, a professor at Florida State University and one of the world’s foremost experts in remote sensing of oil slicks. “From the beginning of the BP spill to the end, SkyTruth was a public source of very timely raw satellite images and interpreted products, as well as a thoughtful commentary that pulled in the views of other people.”