Oil Spill Causes Shipping Backup in Gulf of Mexico

The 168,000-gallon fuel oil spill that happened Saturday near Galveston, Texas caused the Coast Guard to temporarily close the Houston Ship Channel.  That’s a very busy, narrow waterway connecting the Port of Houston with the Gulf of Mexico and overseas ports.  In addition to the environmental consequences of this heavy oil spill, including the threat to shorebirds at the peak of their spring migration, this closure has caused a big-time backup of shipping traffic.

Here at SkyTruth we track vessels with satellite imagery, and also with other satellite-collected data.  Here’s a view of the situation using satellite Automated Information System (AIS) data, radio-frequency tracking information that vessels continually broadcast so they can avoid running into each other at sea:

AIS map on March 24, 2014 showing ship traffic backed up as a result of an oil spill in the Houston Ship Channel. Colored triangles mark the locations of vessels of different types. Port of Houston is at upper left. Image Credit © exactEarth
Detail from above, showing large offshore holding area where dozens of cargo ships and tankers lie at anchor, awaiting clearance to enter the ship channel (marked by dashed pink line). Image Credit © exactEarth

This shows a large “waiting room” in the Gulf just outside the entrance to the channel where dozens of vessels — mostly oil tankers and cargo ships — are anchored, waiting for clearance to proceed into port.  There are also quite a few vessels bottled up in port, waiting to get out, including a few large cruise ships.

You can see some of the AIS data yourself, and query individual vessels, at the cool Marine Traffic ship-tracking site.

Fatal Landslide in Washington State

Sad news from Washington State this weekend, after a major landslide killed several people near the town of Oso. We’re hoping the missing are soon accounted for and are alive and well.

Geologically speaking, landslides are commonplace throughout the Pacific Northwest which mostly sits on a thick pile of unstable layers of volcanic ash, tuff, and debris flows that are regularly shaken by earthquakes.

But when we looked at imagery of this area, we were a bit surprised there were clear warning signs:  this same area has slid before, quite dramatically, just a few years ago in January 2006. That 2006 slide temporarily dammed the river and posed a serious threat of flooding, just like this weekend’s tragic repeat.  Looking at this time-series of high resolution aerial images in Google Earth, and the low-altitude air photo of the slide, it seems clear that this is dangerous terrain to build around. But as they say, hindsight is 20-20:


Site of fatal landslide as it looked in 2005. Steelhead Drive, where several homes were hit by the flow of mud and rock, is marked for comparison to this annotated air photo of the slide area.


Same area in 2006, after a slide that occurred in January 2006. Bright area is bare rock and soil exposed by the slide, which temporarily dammed the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River.


Same area in 2007. Vegetation is beginning to cover the landslide debris, and the river is adjusting to the new channel.  Hydraulic pressure from the river is maximized along the outside edge of a meander bend, tending to undercut the landslide debris on the north bank of the river.


Same area in 2013. New growth covers most of the 2006 landslide, but the headwall escarpment (bright area of bare rock) remains unstabilized and prone to failure.

It’s Better Together – Host a FrackFinder Event to Help Map Fracking

As you may know, we’ve been working on Project FrackFinder–a multi-phase effort to map drilling and hydraulic fracturing using collaborative image analysis by citizen scientists like you. 

Not sure you want to sort through FrackFinder tasks on your own? Enlist some friends and host a FrackFinder-A-Thon! On February 28th, the Shepherd University Environmental Organization participated in the first ever FrackFinder-A-Thon.  They threw a pizza party and in only 2.5 hours, 15 people powered through 10,000 tasks!  

The following week, a group of University of San Francisco students were visiting Appalachia on a spring break immersion trip.  These Bay area students spent the day with us, FrackFinding and learning about skytruthing mining, drilling and other extractive industries.  Take a listen to this WV Public Radio piece to learn more about their experience.

California Students Learn About Natural Gas, Coal Industries

We need your help to finish the last 14% of tasks for Project Dart Frog. The sooner we do, the sooner Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School can start crunching numbers on their study of public health as it relates to fracking. Over 200 folks have contributed to the FrackFinder project so far, but we still need your help to keep things moving.

Need help in figuring out how to host your own FrackFinder-A-Thon at your school or in your community?  Let us know– kristy@skytruth.org!  We’d love to help you set one up.

Once Project Dart Frog concludes, we’ll embark on a new phase of group image analysis based upon YOUR findings.

[Updated] Are Anomalous Fires on N. Sentinel Island Associated with Flight MH 370?

Update – 6:00 pm June, 5, 2014: The answer to the titular question is apparently “No.” The search has been narrowed to the southern Indian Ocean, far from the Bay of Bengal. While the fires are clearly not associated with MH370, the observations described here are peculiar and possibly caused by other human activity such as illegal logging. See also our cautionary post on all the satellite images of “debris” that eventually turned up nothing.

Update – 12:00 pm March 17, 2014: Clarification on nighttime fire detections. There have been a few nighttime fire detections from the island by the VIIRS instrument on March 6th and in late January. According to our review, there have been no MODIS detections of fires from this island prior to March 10th.

Update – 4:38 pm March 17, 2014: Added animation from the World Wide Lightning Location Network (WWLLN) eliminating the possibility that the fires were started by natural causes.

We’ve already done several posts on the mysterious disappearance of Flight MH370, mainly pointing out how many gaps there are in our observation of Planet Earth. (see John’s quote in the Washington Post). But thanks to the keen eyes of a skytruther named Emily, we have a lead on something very interesting in the Bay of Bengal that has peculiar correlation to the timeline of MH370’s disappearance.

from Wikimedia Commons

On March 8th, sometime between 12 and 15 hours after the Boeing 777 disappeared from secondary radar, a very distinct plume of smoke appeared on MODIS imagery from the north side of North Sentinel Island (part of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Union Territories of India). The island is solely occupied by an indigenous people known as the Sentinelese who have categorically rejected almost all contact with the outside world. Except for a series of friendly visits in the 1990’s from Dr. Trilokinath Pandit of the Anthropological Survey of India, they have greeted all outsiders with a hail of arrows. In 1981 they forced a hasty evacuation from a grounded cargo vessel still visible in Google Maps, (click the link and look on the NW corner of the island) and spurned a helicopter checking to see if they survived the 2004 Tsunami. Scanning the island, it is clear the island shows no evidence of agriculture, only sand beaches and dense tropical forest canopy. Anthropologists report they are technically a stone age tribe (though they use repurposed bits of metal from shipwrecks) and while they posses fire, did not know how to make it.

So back to the modern era. At 4:30 GMT, NASA’s Terra satellite recorded, as always, a quiet, smokeless image of the remote island. But a mere 3 hours later, when Aqua passed overhead at 7:35 GMT, the satellite captured this image of a distinct smoke plume.

The following day, Landsat 8 acquired an image of the island, and while no smoke was visible, a roughly 40 hectare (over 123 acre) burn scar cuts into the dense interior canopy of the island. Below you can scroll between a reference image from February 5th (on the right) and the Landsat 8 image acquired on March 9 (on the left). Click here to open a larger image with the burn scars outlined.

This is a false-color (Bands 7-5-1) contrast-enhanced image, which exaggerates the reflectance of light in the near-infrared wavelengths so that healthy vegetation appears exceptionally green, while burn scars and bare earth or sand appear reddish-orange.

Finally, infrared sensors aboard the MODIS satellites and NOAA’s Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) instrument on the Suomi NPP satellite detected fires on the north side of this island from March 8-10. We reviewed the past three months and March 2013, and found no other fires on North Sentinel Island detected by MODIS. However, there was a VIIRS nighttime fire detections on the north side of the island on March 6th, as well as a few in late January which are consistent with the coastal burn scars visible in the Landsat image from February.

So what is going on? Well there are a few possibilities, but nothing concrete…

  • Could this be connected to the disappearance of MH370?  Indian Naval officials dismissed earlier reports of the smoke from the island, saying it was just the natives burning grassland. Except as far as we can see on the recent Landsat imagery, and the 2011high-resolution DigitalGlobe satellite imagery of the island in Google Maps/Earth, there is no grassland on the island.
  • Could this isolated tribe have recently reached the anthropological milestone of experimenting with slash-and-burn agriculture? There is no obvious sign of intentional land clearing on the high-resolution imagery of the island from December 2011.
  • Perhaps the fires were accidental, set off by out-of-control campfire. But this appears to be dense tropical jungle without any obvious historical burn scars.

We’re looking into this, including trying to access a global lightning strike database so we can determine if the fire was associated with a brief but intense weather event.  But please let us know what you think in the comments below.

[March 17, 2014 – 4:00] Since lightning is the most logical explanation for the cause of these fires, we turned to the experts who track lightning strikes around the world. Dr. Robert Holzworth, director of the World Wide Lightning Location Network (WWLLN) at the University of Washington provided the image below, writing, “it is clear that the lightning pattern at this time involves a band of convective clouds off the west coast of Sumatra extending across the Indian Ocean at that latitude. Therefore, I can say with high confidence that there was no evidence of any lightning within 200 km of N. Sentinel Island.”

Dr. Holzworth looked as far back as March 1, but found no evidence of lightning strikes within 200 km of the island in the week preceding the fire. While he noted that no network can detect every single lightning stroke, there are no significant weather systems in the Bay of Bengal at the time in question. You can read more about the accuracy of their system in the Journal of Oceanic and Atmospheric Technology and see a visualization of the last 30 minutes of lighting strike data at – http://wwlln.net/new/map/.

Don’t forget, you can check out the same imagery we use from the USGS, NASA, and NOAA, and if you are in a position to pass this along to anyone involved in the search effort who might find it interesting, please do so!

Latitude/Longitude Coordinates for North Sentinel Island: 11.563285, 92.236034

The Rush is On: BP, and Deepwater Drilling, in the Gulf of Mexico

Nearly four years after the BP / Deepwater Horizon oil and gas disaster in the Gulf of Mexico — an event that blew away the record books for the nation’s worst accidental oil spill — BP is fully back in business, and drilling is booming in the Gulf of Mexico.  Last week the US Environmental Protection Agency lifted the ban that prevented BP from engaging in any contracts with the federal government, paving the way for BP to resume bidding on leases for oil and gas development on public lands and waters, including the Gulf.  BP already holds more than 600 lease blocks, more than any other operator in the Gulf; and they currently have 10  rigs working to drill new deepwater wells, like the Macondo well that failed in 2010.

But they’re not the only game in town. There are dozens of other operators working in the Gulf, in deep water and shallow.  One of our fans just tipped us off to a nifty dataset that shows just how busy things are offshore here and around the world:  the locations of active Mobile Offshore Drilling Units (MODUs).  Not to be confused with the thousands of fixed offshore oil and gas production platforms, MODUs are the rigs that get towed from place to place to drill new wells, and do maintenance operations on existing wells.  They range from the relatively small and simple jack-up rigs that work in shallow water, to the huge and complex semisubmersible rigs, like the Deepwater Horizon, that handle the technically challenging deepwater work.

Here’s a look at the MODUs working right now in the Gulf of Mexico:

Active drill rigs (MODUs) working in the Gulf of Mexico as of March 14, 2014.