Real Time Evidence Leads Government of Belize to Reverse Decision

Large, heavy ships are slow to turn around, and so is environmental degradation once it gets going. But last week, public outcry sent a seismic survey vessel packing and halted the first nascent steps of an oil exploration program off the coast of Belize.

Armed with aerial photos and satellite-derived vessel tracks, Belizeans rallied to convince their government to suspend seismic surveying operation just one day after it began. Their protests stand on two premises. One: no environmental impact studies have been conducted. And two: in December 2015, the Government of Belize agreed to ban offshore oil exploration in the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System, the second largest barrier reef in the world and a UNESCO Heritage site.

Despite these facts, on October 12th, Oceana Belize discovered that seismic testing had been approved for offshore and was intended to take place less than one mile from the reef. Used in deep-sea oil exploration, seismic surveys shoot powerful sonic waves into the water to gauge the geological resources held in the rock layers beneath the seafloor. The shock waves are not only powerful enough to penetrate the seabed, but they travel thousands of miles through the water causing damage to whales, dolphins and manatees as well as scaring fish from important habitats and killing their eggs and larvae.

On Monday, October 17th, SeaBird exploration, the company contracted to conduct the survey, announced that their ship, the Northern Explorer, would begin seismic blast surveys in Belize waters. The Belize Coalition to Save Our Natural Heritage called for the Government to stay the decision to allow seismic testing and to open discussions with the Belizean people, more than 190,000 of whom are economically dependent on the reef’s resources.

The very next day, Oceana posted video and photos on Facebook showing the Northern Explorer off the coast of Belize with its seismic array already deployed. Jackie Savitz, Oceana’s Vice President for the US and Global Fishing Watch, also reached out to SkyTruth for assistance tracking the vessel’s activities.

SkyTruth’s analyst Bjorn Bergman verified the Northern Explorer’s track based on signals from the vessel’s Automatic Identification System. He sent Oceana images of the track as it traversed an area of ocean around the barrier reef.

Track of the Northern Explorer off the coast of Belize

Track of the Northern Explorer off the coast of Belize

In combination with photos and videos, the satellite tracks served as a powerful motivator on social media and helped galvanize opposition to the survey operation. “SkyTruth got us the real-time information, which is what we needed to make timely decisions,” Savitz says, “and to communicate with the government to make sure they understood that we knew what was happening.”

On October 20, two days after the ship began operations, the government of Belize issued a stop work order and published the following statement:

Based on multiple concerns raised by concerned citizens regarding the seismic survey currently being conducted in the deep offshore of Belize as well as the fact that extensive consultation with a wider ground of stakeholders did not occur prior the commencement of the survey, the Government of Belize (GOB) has decided that it will suspend seismic operations until such consultations can be conducted. Accordingly, the Geology and Petroleum Department will inform the ship that they are to cease seismic operations immediately.

That same day, SeaBird exploration announced that they were returning their vessel to port to prepare to leave Belize. “The fact that the Belizean government stopped the seismic blasting when the public was informed is a classic example of how transparency can actually lead to improved ocean conservation,” says Savitz.


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).

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


Photo credit: SkyTruth/Jenny Allen

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.