SkyTruth 2020: What to Expect in the New Year

Oil pollution at sea, mountaintop mining, Conservation Vision and more on SkyTruth’s agenda.

SkyTruth followers know that we generated a lot of momentum in 2019, laying the groundwork for major impact in 2020. Here’s a quick list of some of our most important projects underway for the new year.

Stopping oil pollution at sea: SkyTruth has tracked oil pollution at sea for years, alerting the world to the true size of the BP oil spill, tracking the ongoing leak at the Taylor Energy site until the Coast Guard agreed to take action, and flagging bilge dumping in the oceans. Bilge dumping occurs when cargo vessels and tankers illegally dump oily wastewater stored in the bottom of ships into the ocean. International law specifies how this bilge water should be treated to protect ocean ecosystems. But SkyTruth has discovered that many ships bypass costly pollution prevention equipment by simply flushing the bilge water directly into the sea.

In 2019 SkyTruth pioneered the identification of bilge dumping and the vessels responsible for this pollution by correlating satellite imagery of oily slicks with Automatic Identification System (AIS) broadcasts from ships. For the first time, we can ID the perps of this devastating and illegal practice.

PERKASA AIS track

Figure 1. SkyTruth identified the vessel PERKASA dumping bilge water via AIS broadcast track overlain on Sentinel-1 image. 

But the Earth’s oceans are vast, and there’s only so much imagery SkyTruthers can analyze. So we’ve begun automating the detection of bilge dumping using an Artificial Intelligence (AI) technique called machine learning. With AI, SkyTruth can analyze thousands of satellite images of the world’s oceans every day –- a process we call Conservation Vision — finding tiny specks on the oceans trailing distinctive oily slicks, and then naming names, so that the authorities and the public can catch and shame those skirting pollution laws when they think no one is looking.

A heads up to polluters: SkyTruth is looking. 

We got a big boost last month when Amazon Web Services (AWS) invited SkyTruth to be one of four nonprofits featured in its AWS re:Invent Hackathon for Good, and awarded SkyTruth one of seven AWS Imagine Grants. We’ll be using the funds and expertise AWS is providing to expand our reach throughout the globe and ensure polluters have nowhere to hide.

Protecting wildlife from the bad guys: Many scientists believe the Earth currently is facing an extinction crisis, with wildlife and their habitats disappearing at unprecedented rates.   

But SkyTruth’s Conservation Vision program using satellite imagery and machine learning can help. Beginning in 2020, SkyTruth is partnering with Wildlife Conservation Society to train computers to analyze vast quantities of image data to alert rangers and wildlife managers to threats on the ground. These threats include roads being built in protected areas, logging encroaching on important habitats, mining operations growing beyond permit boundaries, and temporary shelters hiding poachers. With better information, protected area managers can direct overstretched field patrols to specific areas and catch violators in the act, rather than arriving months after the fact.  It can alert rangers before they discover a poaching camp by chance (and possibly find themselves surprised and outgunned).

To make this revolution in protected area management possible we will be building a network of technology and data partners, academic researchers, and other tech-savvy conservationists to make the algorithms, computer code, and analytical results publicly available for others to use. By publicly sharing these tools, Conservation Vision will enable others around the world to apply the same cutting-edge technologies to protecting their own areas of concern, launching a new era of wildlife and ecosystem protection. In 2020 we expect to undertake two pilot projects in different locations to develop, refine, and test Conservation Vision and ultimately transform wildlife protection around the world.

Identifying mountaintop mining companies that take the money and run. SkyTruth’s Central Appalachia Surface Mining database has been used by researchers and advocates for years to document the disastrous environmental and health impacts of mountaintop mining. Now, SkyTruth is examining how well these devastated landscapes are recovering.

Figure 2. Mountaintop mine near Wise, Virginia. Copyright Alan Gignoux; Courtesy Appalachian Voices; 2014-2.

To do this, we are generating a spectral fingerprint using satellite imagery for each identified mining area. This fingerprint will outline the characteristics of each site, including the amount of bare ground present and information about vegetation regrowth. In this way we will track changes and measure recovery by comparing the sites over time to a healthy Appalachian forest. 

Under federal law, mining companies are required to set aside money in bonds to make sure that funds are available to recover their sites for other uses once mining ends. But the rules are vague and vary by state. If state inspectors determine that mine sites are recovered adequately, then mining companies reclaim their bonds, even if the landscape they leave behind looks nothing like the native forest they destroyed. In some cases, old mines are safety and health hazards as well as useless eyesores, leaving communities and taxpayers to foot the bill for recovery. SkyTruth’s analysis will provide the public, and state inspectors, an objective tool for determining when sites have truly recovered and bonds should be released, or when more should be done to restore local landscapes.

Characterizing toxic algal blooms from space: Harmful algal blooms affect every coastal and Great Lakes state in the United States. Normally, algae are harmless — simple plants that form the base of aquatic food webs. But under the right conditions, algae can grow out of control causing toxic blooms that can kill wildlife and cause illness in people. 

 SkyTruth is partnering with researchers at Kent State University who have developed a sophisticated technique for detecting cyanobacteria and other harmful algae in the western basin of Lake Erie — a known hotspot of harmful algal blooms. They hope to extend this work to Lake Okeechobee in Florida. But their method has limitations: It uses infrequently collected, moderate resolution 4-band multispectral satellite imagery to identify harmful blooms and the factors that facilitate their formation. SkyTruth is working to implement the Kent State approach in the more accessible Google Earth Engine cloud platform, making it much easier to generate updates to the analysis, and offering the possibility of automating the update on a regular basis.  We anticipate that this tool eventually will enable scientists and coastal managers to quickly identify which algal blooms are toxic, and which are not, simply by analyzing their characteristics on imagery.

Revealing the extent of fossil fuel drilling on public lands in the Colorado River Basin: Modern oil and gas drilling and fracking is a threat to public health, biodiversity and the climate. For example, researchers from Johns Hopkins University used our data on oil and gas infrastructure in Pennsylvania to examine the health effects on people living near these sites and found higher premature birth rates for mothers in Pennsylvania that live near fracking sites as well as increased asthma attacks.

The Trump Administration is ramping up drilling on America’s public lands, threatening iconic places such as Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico. Chaco Canyon is  a UNESCO World Heritage Site that contains the ruins of a 1,200 year-old city that is sacred to native people. According to the Center for Western Priorities, 91% of the public lands in Northwest New Mexico surrounding the Greater Chaco region are developed for oil and gas, and local communities complain of pollution, health impacts and more.

Figure 3. Chaco Canyon Chetro Ketl great kiva plaza. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

In 2020 SkyTruth will deploy a machine learning model we developed in 2019 that identifies oil and gas drilling sites in the Rocky Mountain West with 86.3% accuracy. We will apply it to the Greater Chaco Canyon region to detect all oil and gas drilling sites on high-resolution aerial survey photography. We hope to then use these results to refine and expand the model to the wider Colorado River Basin. 

Local activists in northwestern New Mexico have fought additional drilling for the past decade. Last year, New Mexico’s congressional delegation successfully led an effort to place a one-year moratorium on drilling within a 10-mile buffer around the park. Activists view this as a first step towards permanent protection. SkyTruth’s maps will help provide them with visual tools to fight for permanent protection.

A new SkyTruth website: We’ll keep you up to date about these projects and more on a new, revamped SkyTruth website under development for release later this year. Stay tuned for a new look and more great SkyTruthing in the year ahead!

Johnna Armstrong “Slid Sideways into Tech”

A would-be diplomat discovered she could help others with technology.

Johnna Armstrong had, what she calls, a sheltered upbringing in a rural community in Upstate New York. The oldest of six children, she often had to care for her younger siblings. So when it came time for college she was anxious to learn about other cultures and find out “who I was, separate from my family,” as she puts it. She had no idea when she headed off to the State University of New York at Albany (now called the University at Albany) that ultimately she would end up in the computer field. Now, she serves as SkyTruth’s systems administrator, keeping our systems humming, the website running, and managing the rapidly evolving SkyTruth Alerts system.

Instead, in her college days, Johnna was interested in diplomacy and studied German and political science. She spent her junior and senior years in Germany and almost stayed there: After working in a German vineyard during a school break, Johnna was offered an apprenticeship when she finished school. She wanted to accept the offer but her father wouldn’t permit it. He sent her a plane ticket home and told her “you’ll be on it.”

Johnna in Germany during college.

After a temporary gig with a trade association in Washington, D.C., Johnna landed at the Bureau of National Affairs (BNA) – a company that publishes legal and accounting information. She worked in the research department, fielding questions from clients about where they could get answers to various legal questions. Many of the same questions popped up repeatedly and so she made lists of the most common questions and answers. “I got very efficient,” she says, and loved the job because of the research component.

But there was no chance for advancement in her BNA position and she wanted to make a difference, ideally in the nonprofit world. So she began asking colleagues out to lunch to pick their brains about her next steps. 

“What I took away from [those discussions] was that I would need either a law degree or a business degree,” she says. So she enrolled in the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Arizona (which has campuses around the world). She completed a fast-track program for an International MBA with a capstone project on nonprofit management for Catholic Charities. The program required her to take tech courses one semester, which is where she first discovered she excelled at tech. The next semester she became a teaching assistant, helping students with technology problems. She loved it, noting “I slid sideways into tech. The whole idea of helping people really jazzes me.”

After graduation, Johnna headed to Poland with her boyfriend. It was 1991 and the Berlin Wall had just come down. “Half the school was headed to eastern Europe,” she says. “The whole culture and economy –  everything was changing at a rapid pace; it was a very exciting time.” She stayed there for nine months, got two job offers that both fell through and returned to the U.S. when she ran out of money.

She landed back at BNA. But this time she had tech skills and the digital revolution had begun. She got a permanent position in BNA’s tax department, morphing print publications onto CD-roms and eventually moving them online. Her manager Pam Brophy was her mentor – and also a visionary: Pam saw the digital era on the horizon and told Johnna this is coming; this will all be on the web. Tell me what you need [to move materials online] and I will get it for you. Johnna learned programming on the job to make BNA’s materials accessible electronically. “It was a blast,” she says, looking back now.

And, during this period, she met her husband Paul Woods. Paul worked on the same floor. Johnna liked what she saw and asked Paul out. In typical Johnna and Paul fashion, after they got married they spent a year traveling around the world.

When they returned to reality, Johnna and Paul settled in Takoma Park – a DC suburb that kept them close to Paul’s father and Johnna’s mentor Pam, both of whom were struggling with cancer. When Pam lost her battle, “my heart went out of BNA,” Johnna says. She and Paul had started their own business, called BTS, working on web apps, web development and programming  — much of it for nonprofits. And they moved to Shepherdstown, West Virginia where SkyTruth is now headquartered.

Why Shepherdstown? “I had a list,” Johnna says. Their new town had to have an independent bookstore (Shepherdstown has Four Seasons books); an independent coffee shop (Shepherdstown has had several over the years, the funkiest being the Lost Dog), and a small college or university (Shepherd University provides SkyTruth a steady stream of interns). Johnna saw these as indicators of a vibrant, diverse community. She and Paul have remained here since arriving in 2001.

Johnna with Beth O’Leary, a Global Fishing Watch research partner, in the Galapagos Islands in November 2019. Photo by Paul Woods.

Johnna first met SkyTruth President John Amos when he gave a local talk in Shepherdstown in 2004. She and Paul later got to know John better through a local group interested in promoting tech jobs in the area. Although the group eventually disbanded, John and Paul hit it off. At the time, John was SkyTruth’s only employee and he welcomed Paul’s management and tech skills. He invited Paul to join SkyTruth’s board.

During Paul’s board tenure, BP’s Deepwater Horizon drill rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers and coating seabirds, marine life, and shorelines with deadly oil. John, along with SkyTruth partner Ian McDonald (a professor of oceanography at Florida State University), used satellite imagery to demonstrate that BP and government estimates of the amount of oil spewing into the Gulf were more than an order of magnitude too low. Constant news coverage propelled SkyTruth into the national spotlight and put pressure on the federal government to determine the true amount of oil damaging the Gulf ecosystem.  

Johnna was impressed. She already liked SkyTruth’s origin story – how John had left an industry consulting career to bring satellite imagery to the nonprofit environmental world. With the BP disaster, she saw how SkyTruth had solved a major problem. “It was very easy to determine how much oil was really there,” she says now. “Yet the Coast Guard wasn’t doing it. That [realization] was a very powerful moment for me.” She remembers helping John with one of his many interviews during this time. “It was an interview with Al Jazeera and they wanted to do it by Skype,” she says. “But John wasn’t set up with Skype at that time, so we brought him over to our place and set him up for the interview.”

With new-found fame, SkyTruth obtained the resources to start hiring additional staff. Paul decided that instead of serving on the board, it would be more fun to work for SkyTruth. As Chief Technology Officer, Paul helped create and launch the SkyTruth, Oceana, and Google partnership Global Fishing Watch (GFW), which tracks fishing vessels around the world. Johnna also worked on the GFW launch as a contractor. When GFW became an independent organization, Paul left SkyTruth’s staff and joined GFW as its Chief Innovation Officer (he now serves on SkyTruth’s board once again). Johnna had been doing contract work for SkyTruth already and, with Paul moving on, Johnna saw an opportunity to do more work with SkyTruth.

In particular, after running BTS on her own for a while, Johnna wanted more interaction with people. She enjoyed working with some high profile clients (such as Claire’s Stores in New York, Johns Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute, and the University of California at Davis) as well as small nonprofits (including local arts groups such as the American Conservation Film Festival and the Contemporary American Theater Festival). But she was starting to feel like the only time she actually talked to people at work was when they had an emergency or problem. She really liked the people at SkyTruth and liked SkyTruth’s mission. “SkyTruth was fabulous in what it was trying to do,” she says, “putting information out there to do good, keeping data free and allowing other people to confirm or deny it.” She particularly likes SkyTruth’s environmental focus. So she approached John and SkyTruth Chief Operating Officer Jenny Allen about joining the team. They jumped at the chance.  

“Johnna brings a delightfully unique set of skills and experiences to our team,” says Jenny. “She fixes pretty much anything that breaks in our systems and always has a novel work-around in her back pocket. Plus, she can knit you a pair of socks while you’re checking your mail at the post office. She’s everyone’s hero.”

And the world needs all the heroes it can get. “It’s pretty depressing out there,” Johnna notes, contemplating the global environment. “So it feels good to be doing something to help.”