Satellite analysis shows steep increase in amount of land destroyed to mine a ton of coal in Appalachia

Today at 2:00 pm EST, the Open Access journal PLOS ONE published “Mapping the yearly extent of surface coal mining in Central Appalachia using Landsat and Google Earth Engine”. This paper, the product of a partnership between researchers at SkyTruth, Duke, and Appalachian Voices, provides the first comprehensive map of annual surface coal mining extent in Central Appalachia.

Mountaintop removal coal mining (MTM) is an immensely damaging practice which involves removing rock and soil which overlay coal seams using a combination of explosives and heavy machinery. The removed material is often deposited into valleys, in a practice known as valley fill. Mountaintop removal coal mining is responsible for disturbing thousands of square kilometers of land in Central Appalachia and is the region’s single largest source of land use change.

This animation shows the expansion of surface mining’s footprint (displayed in yellow) from 1985 to 2015 for a 31,000 square kilometer sub-region of the study area in West Virginia and Kentucky, and has county boundaries visible.

In addition to substantial disturbances directly visible on the surface of the land, MTM and subsequent valley fills have been shown to adversely impact stream health as seen by decreases in salamander abundance and aquatic macroinvertebrate diversity. MTM has also been associated with risks to public health in nearby communities, including higher rates of cancer and heart disease.

This study, published today, improves upon earlier SkyTruth work, and creates the first ever dataset of yearly active mining in Central Appalachia. Between 1985 and 2015 our study finds that 2,900 square kilometers (~720,000 acres) of this typically forested region has been cleared as a result of MTM. Coupling our results with our earlier work which dates back to 1976 we find that 5,900 square kilometers (~1.5 million acres) of Central Appalachian forest has been cleared. This is an area 18% larger than the state of Delaware, and roughly 3 times larger than the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

This image shows a snippet of code used to create the annual mining footprint data, which is visualized in the bottom section of the image. Older mining in this visual is red; newer mining is yellow.

In addition to determining the spatial extent of MTM in Central Appalachia, the study also examined the relationship between the area of land being mined to coal production as reported to the United States Mine Health and Safety Administration (MSHA). Over the course of this study period (1985-2015) we see a threefold increase in the amount of land cleared to extract an identical quantity of coal (from 10 square meters of land per metric ton in in the 1980’s to 30 square meters in 2015).

This dataset is freely available for the public to download, visualize, and analyze the footprint of mining in Central Appalachia. To access all the data, please visit: https://www.skytruth.org/mtr-data-files/. To explore a subset of the data via an interactive web map, please visit: http://skytruthmtr.appspot.com/.

Illegal transshipment of fish between Saly Reefer and Flipper 4 fishing vessel. (Photo courtesy of Greenpeace.)

Machine learning and satellite data provide the first global view of transshipment activity

[This post originally appeared on the Global Fishing Watch blog.]
Illegal transshipment of fish between Saly Reefer and Flipper 4 fishing vessel. (Photo courtesy of Greenpeace.)

Illegal transshipment of fish between Saly Reefer and Flipper 4 fishing vessel. (Photo courtesy of Greenpeace.)

This week marks the publication of the first-ever global assessment of transshipment in a scientific journal. Researchers at Global Fishing Watch and SkyTruth, in the journal Frontiers of Marine Science, published “Identifying Global Patterns of Transshipment Behavior.”

What is transshipment? Why does it matter? What have we learned and what remains unknown? Read on to find out.

Vessels may meet at sea for a number of reasons, such as to refuel, to exchange crew, or to deliver supplies. In the commercial fishing industry, vessels also meet to transfer catch in a process known as transshipment. Huge vessels with refrigerated holds – some large enough to hold over 100 US school buses – collect catch from multiple fishing boats at sea to carry back to port.

By enabling fishing vessels to remain on the fishing grounds, transshipment reduces fuel costs and ensures faster delivery of catch to port. As a result, many vessels that fish in the high seas or in waters far from their home ports engage in the practice. Unfortunately, it also leaves the door open for mixing illegal catch with legitimate catch, drug smuggling, forced labor and human rights abuses. Fishing vessels can remain at sea for months or even years at a time, enabling captains to keep their crew at sea indefinitely and, in some cases, resulting in de facto slavery. As a pathway for illegal catch to enter the global market (an estimated $23.5 billion worth of fish annually worldwide is illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU)), transshipment prevents an accurate measurement of the amount of marine life being taken from the sea. It obscures the seafood supply chain from hook to port and hobbles efforts to manage fisheries sustainably. Occurring far from shore and out of sight, transshipment activities have traditionally been hard to manage and relatively invisible. Data on transshipment has been virtually nonexistent, proprietary, and rarely shared publicly – until now.

With generous support from the Walton Family Foundation, Global Fishing Watch and SkyTruth are applying machine learning and satellite data to study global transshipment patterns and shine a light on what has historically been an opaque practice. Previously, no public, global database of transshipment vessels existed. So, as a first step to understand global transshipment activity, we developed one, combining data from vessel registries, hard-nosed internet investigations, and applying machine learning techniques to identify potential transshipment vessels. This first public, carrier vessel database includes roughly 680 vessels, predominated by large vessels operating within Russian waters or the high seas tuna/squid fleets.

In the Indian Ocean, off the remote Saya de Malha bank, the refrigerated cargo vessel (reefer) Leelawadee was seen with two unidentified likely fishing vessels tied alongside. Image Captured by DigitalGlobe on Nov. 30, 2016. Credit: DigitalGlobe © 2017. Image by DigitalGlobe via SkyTruth.

In the Indian Ocean, off the remote Saya de Malha bank, the refrigerated cargo vessel (reefer) Leelawadee was seen with two unidentified likely fishing vessels tied alongside. Image Captured by DigitalGlobe on Nov. 30, 2016. Credit: DigitalGlobe © 2017. Image by DigitalGlobe via SkyTruth.

With databases of fishing and transshipment vessels sorted, the next challenge was to identify where these vessels met at sea. To do this, the team analyzed over 30 billion vessel tracking signals (Automatic Identification System (AIS) messages) to identify potential transshipment encounters. AIS is a collision avoidance system that transmits a vessel’s location at sea and these transmissions are collected by land and satellite-based receivers and delivered to Global Fishing Watch for automated processing. Nearly all large transshipment vessels carry AIS making it possible to identify all locations where they loiter at sea long enough to receive a transshipment, or locations where two vessels (a transshipment vessel and a fishing vessel) are in close proximity long enough to transfer catch, crew or supplies.

Applying these two methods, we have presented the first open-source and global view of transshipment. We found that over half of transshipment behavior identified using AIS may occur in the high seas and these are generally associated with regions of reduced management and oversight. This lax oversight extends to the vessels involved in potential transshipments, with nearly half of the transshipment vessels we have identified registered to flags of convenience (countries with reduced oversight and limited connection to the vessel, if you’re interested this blog post has more details). As regulations for transshipment vary widely, the data alone do not suggest illegality, but reveal patterns and hotspots of activity, the vessels involved, and provides a new perspective which can further investigations around specific incidents and inform general policy discussions.

Global Fishing Watch’s new encounters layer reveals for the first time where and when thousands of vessels are involved in close encounters at sea. 

We are only just beginning to see the true impact of this unprecedented dataset, but already it has been used to identify vessels potentially involved in catching sharks that were illegally transported through the Galapagos (described here) and in an upcoming scientific paper by research collaborators at Dalhousie University, identifying those fisheries that most heavily utilize transshipment. Our partner, Oceana also analyzed the data in their report that identified patterns of likely transshipping, top ports visited by these vessels and vessels at sea for more than 500 days. Additionally, our models have been incorporated into recent efforts to estimate the costs and profitability of high seas fishing (described here), a set of potential transshipments have been incorporated as a layer within the Global Fishing Watch public map (here) and our work has supported investigations into human right abuses within fishing fleets (Greenpeace, 2018).

Our next steps involve extending these analyses to include “bunker” vessels which provide fuel to fishing vessels at sea, which along with transshipment vessels, play a critical role in supporting high seas, distant water fishing. Combining bunkering (refueling) and transshipment events, with vessel identities (owners/operators and flag states) and additional vessel events including port visits, we will identify the social network at sea. With generous support from the Walmart Foundation, over the coming years we will also explore transshipment in tuna fisheries, analysing and mapping activities that enable global tuna fleets to stay at sea for long periods without oversight. We hope this work will help global efforts to combat illegal and unsustainable tuna fishing.

The publication of this unprecedented dataset provide the first view of the global patterns of transshipment and is the first step towards greater transparency in a previously difficult to track activity. By making the underlying data freely available it can be used by governments, NGOs and academia to support both regional and global efforts to strengthen monitoring and enforcement to eliminate IUU fishing.

Sediment or Oil?

You may recall we posted about a slick emerging from an unidentified platform off the coast of the Democratic Republic of the Congo on June 4th. At the time, we noted that the slick was most likely directed by the strong currents from the nearby entrance to the Congo River as it wasn’t in line with the wind direction. In this image from June 28, we now see a second slick alongside the first.

Sentinel 1 imagery showing the slicks visible with Synthetic Aperture Radar.

This could be a sign of new construction in the area. We also noticed a slick closer to shore which led us to check Sentinel 2 imagery which allows us to see in the visual spectrum. In the inset image, from June 8th, we can see that there are long, brown trails coming from the platforms, usually a sign of sediment being kicked up by wake turbulence from strong currents hitting the structures.

Detailed view of one of the trails in Sentinel 2 imagery.

This raises the possibility that the slicks we are seeing on the radar images are not from oil but from sediment plumes. Turbidity and sediment in the water can dampen wind-driven wavelets, just like an oil slick, making a dark slick on a radar image. The fact that the wind was very low in these images, between 0-5 knots, could possibly emphasize the sediment plumes against the slack water, making them more visible than usual.

The original slick we reported on in June.

However, the way that these slicks remain coherent over 50km lends weight to them being comprised of an oily substance, especially the feathering pattern seen in the middle. This is consistent with what we expect from wind and currents pulling an oily slick in different directions.  So another possibility is that we’re seeing the intentional discharge of drilling fluids and/or “produced water” that includes residual amounts of oil.

In the end, we cannot say with certainty what we are seeing in these images. There is evidence supporting chronic leaking or discharge from the platforms, but there is also support for these being trails of sediment, kicked up by the strong currents coming from the Congo River. It’s times like this that we need some ground truth to help solve the mystery.

Mining to begin in downsized National Monument

Late last year, President Trump announced a massive scaling back of the boundaries of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM), part of an even larger reduction of National Monuments in Utah, including nearby Bears Ears. Now a Canadian firm has announced plans to reopen a closed mine1 within the former boundaries of the old Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument but just barely outside of the new boundaries. This appears to contradict President Trump’s declaration that this land was being returned “to the people, the people of all of the states, the people of the United States.” It also seems at odds with his recent bitterness toward Canada and his new trade war with our northern neighbor. What’s going on here?

Colt Mesa mining claim (yellow) and downsized National Monument (red area) superimposed on high-resolution imagery from Google Earth. Boundary data courtesy of The Wilderness Society.

In this image, we can see that the new Monument boundary is just 240 meters from the Colt Mesa mining claim with existing unpaved access roads only 150 meters away. The roads are marked in blue and criss-cross a dry riverbed. We expect these roads to be widened significantly and the area around the roads to be negatively impacted due to trucks and machinery. Given this proximity, the now much smaller National Monument will almost certainly be affected by heavy vehicular traffic day and night, and the attendant noise, dust, and diesel pollution.

The Colt Mesa mine relative to the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, showing both the original Monument as designated in 1996, and the new, greatly reduced Monument.


The change in boundary illustrated by interactive slider, click here to view this in fullscreen mode.

This claim occupies 200 acres of previously protected land and, if this mining claim is developed as the company expects, we are expecting to see major changes to the area as they use increasingly destructive techniques to access the minerals beneath and dispose of the resulting “wasterock” and mine tailings.

An oblique view of the area.

The drastic downsizing of National Monument is being challenged in court by many organizations while the White House continues to insist this was about handing the power of conservation back to the state, and not about mining. The lawsuits are currently pending, so it remains to be seen if any land will be disturbed before these legal actions are resolved by the courts. In the meantime, we will be monitoring the area for signs of disturbance using Planet and other satellite imagery.

1 – The Colt Mesa mine was originally developed in the early 1970s to produce copper, silver, molybdenum, cobalt and uranium. It ceased production in 1974. It is a small mine by global standards, but these minerals are currently in high demand for use in electronics.