Brendan Jarrell: Mentor for SkyTruth Interns and So Much More

Being a SkyTruth intern was intimidating at first, but Brendan found support and outstanding opportunities to grow at SkyTruth. Now he helps others find their way.

Brendan Jarrell sounds a bit like a proud papa when he talks about SkyTruth interns. As we chat about how he came to SkyTruth, he says things like, “Tatianna has been excelling in her role,” and “Matthew is asking all the right questions.”  Brendan coordinates SkyTruth’s intern program, but once upon a time he was an intern himself. Now he’s on staff as a geospatial analyst, examining environmental impacts from space such as harmful algal blooms, hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and bilge dumping. He’s also serving as a mentor to new interns as they take their first, sometimes tentative, steps into their professional life.

So how did Brendan find his way to SkyTruth? As he puts it, “I’m insanely local.” Normally, Brendan works at SkyTruth’s Shepherdstown, West Virginia headquarters (but like all SkyTruth staff he’s working remotely during the COVID pandemic.) He graduated from the county high school and attended college at Shepherd University just blocks from the SkyTruth office. There, he took a Geographic Information Systems course his junior year as part of his Environmental Engineering major – “just to get my feet wet,” he says. His professor suggested he check out SkyTruth for an internship or for work. “I was vaguely familiar with SkyTruth,” he says because he lived in Shepherdstown, and because he knew SkyTruth Office Administrator Teri Biebel’s daughter. But he brushed this possibility aside at first because he didn’t have enough confidence in his abilities.

Later, at the end of his senior year, he decided he needed some hands-on job experience before graduating. By then, he had taken several remote sensing classes and was more comfortable with the technology. He realized that a SkyTruth internship was low-hanging fruit; an opportunity right in his backyard. With new confidence and real life looming beyond graduation, Brendan took the leap and applied for an internship.

Brendan, his brother, Keegan, and mother, Monique, at a Red Sox game. Photo by anonymous.

He describes his first few weeks at SkyTruth as “tumultuous, because other people are relying on you.” But SkyTruth’s Technical Program Director Ry Covington was extremely encouraging.  “Ry is calm and mellow all the time,” says Brendan. “He’s very positive about the work you are doing [first], before then telling you what to fix…he always has good advice… I really needed that – how am I doing? How am I doing?”

One of Brendan’s first projects was building an app that would allow policymakers and citizens in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania (surrounding Pittsburgh) to examine the impacts of fracking on buildings and communities, depending on how far gas wells were placed from human structures. It was a project that could affect decision making on drilling and directly impact people’s lives. He remembers Ry telling him, ”we’re going to make an app, and you can make it.”  Brendan’s face lights up with excitement just recalling the moment. At first he felt like a deer in the headlights, he says. At one point, working on the app, a problem was so confounding that he spent a week and a half working on it. Then, at 5:25 in the afternoon one day he figured it out. “I jumped out of my seat!” he says now.  He and his team developed the app, and months later, in May 2019,  (after he was hired to join SkyTruth as a staff member), he led a webinar demonstrating how to use the app that was attended by citizens and others concerned about fracking.

 “You can do as much as you want with the internship,” Brendan says about being an intern at SkyTruth, “take it as far as you want to take it.” And Brendan decided that he wanted to take advantage of it as much as possible.

 Although he changed majors several times in college, Brendan always had a passion for environmental protection. He considers it a calling; he felt a spiritual desire to do something that would make a difference for the planet.  “There is so much that is wrong,” he notes.

Now he enjoys being a mentor to interns. “I know what it’s like to be an intern” he says, and understands how it can feel overwhelming at first.

Brendan is somewhat of a mentor to his brother as well, who is nine years younger than him. They both enjoy sports, and Brendan often takes his brother to sporting events. In fact, his brother helped Brendan connect with his significant other, Amy Emert. Brendan and Amy met playing Ultimate Frisbee, but they only really connected when his brother invited Amy over to play video games.

Brendan with Amy Emert, Outer Banks, North Carolina. Photo by Aidan Dom.

 As we wrap up our conversation, Brendan concludes, “we’ve had some awesome interns over the long term.” For example, he points to the media coverage that Lucy Meyer received for discovering bilge dumping in the ocean. And even during the current pandemic, SkyTruth interns have made major contributions and learned new skills from afar.  SkyTruth plans on continuing that tradition this fall, even as the pandemic continues. If you’re interested in a SkyTruth internship, click here to learn more. 

 “It’s a part of the future of SkyTruth that I can mold,” says Brendan.  “It’s awesome and it’s gratifying to see people grow.”

On Considering The Larger World Around Us: The SkyTruth Intern Experience

Bilge dumping and more allowed Tatianna Evanisko to think big at SkyTruth.

SkyTruth seemed like a great fit. I had always been interested in data, the inductive route, experiencing things firsthand and then exploring my assumptions. I was compelled by computation as well as the natural world. Being active in environmental protection was important to me and I had always been drawn to vocations with a larger purpose; that allowed me to be visionary and have big dreams. Growing up on the tail end of the Millennial generation, I had experienced an explosion of technology, becoming what some have coined a “screenager.” Not only that, but I had grown up in the climate change generation. In recent decades we’d seen an increase in extreme weather events, environmental atrocities, and lost species. But notably, my generation also has been active in movements that strive to address these problems such as eating less meat, using alternative energy, and living more sustainably. Even at a time of climate conspiracies and fake news, several million people globally participated in the largest climate protest in history in 2019. That’s not to say I believe all that I hear. However, over time and by paying attention to environmental events occurring all over the world, I find the evidence overwhelming: the Earth is changing, and more and more people are bearing witness to it.

When I started as an intern at SkyTruth I was asked what issues I cared about to help me decide what to work on. My reaction was: everything of course! How can you ask such a thing? To a certain extent, my options were already defined: most of the SkyTruth staff were using satellite imagery, and despite the other issues we were working on, at some point we were all looking at the ocean — the eerie, non-terrestrial world — often in search of pollution, such as oil.  My work quickly became focused on searching for streaks of oil in the middle of vast oceans. Oil can appear on radar satellite imagery as a uniform dark and linear formation, called a slick. Many of these slicks come from cargo vessels and tankers that dump their untreated oily waste from the bottom of their ship (the bilge) into the ocean, an act called bilge dumping. Our team has been developing a solution that expands the capacity of SkyTruth to automate the detection of these slicks by using machine learning, a type of artificial intelligence. In a matter of months, I helped turn an empty spreadsheet into a collection of over 330 images of oil slicks — training data that we could use to “teach” computers to recognize the slicks in our prototype of a monitoring platform named Cerulean. Wow — intelligent and creative minds at work, which will soon enable anyone globally to monitor the sea to detect oil slicks with SkyTruth! 

Ocean monitoring thus became a routine event for me, and naturally I started to notice some patterns. I learned the locations of energy infrastructure as well as the largest shipping routes and ports, and this meant I also realized when the environment changed. For example, we found oil appearing in regular areas at sea all over the world. On a weekly basis, we discovered  obvious oil slicks where the normally smooth grey (on a radar image) ocean was instead splattered with black streaks. I also tracked  some of the vessels I believed were responsible for the oily waste and they shared something in common: many were registered under flags different from their country of ownership. I wanted to know more. Why were ships dumping in the same places — what was it about those areas that was attracting them? Did those vessels have something in common? Who was responsible for making the choice to dump pollution — the crew, the vessel operator, or the vessel company? This was the catalyst for my largest project at SkyTruth, a multi-month pursuit to understand the scale, impact, intentions, and potential solutions of the dumping of this untreated oily waste. 

Compilation of training data showing the various ways oil slicks appear on radar satellite images.

Bilge dumping isn’t the first environmental issue that people think of when they think of protecting the Earth. In fact, when I started at SkyTruth I had only ever heard of accidental, large scale oil spills, such as the 2010 BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and was unaware that smaller, more frequent and intentional acts of pollution occur. Additionally, there is little information about bilge dumping  online. One of the last large-scale reports, published by the National Academies Press, was released in 2003. My quest to know more had to be thorough. I had to read prolifically and search widely in order to piece together the true scale and impact of this issue. 

What did I find? I learned how vast the world’s ocean is (encompassing various oceans, composed of bodies of water such as seas and straits) and how little the ocean is regulated (legal authority depends on nearby countries). Promising international treaties don’t necessarily lead to legislation that allows for enforcement or meaningful measures to prosecute polluters. Vessels’ operators should know that polluting the oceans is wrong, but have little incentive to protect marine waters, especially when penalties are rare. I learned that some vessel operators choose to pollute the ocean — to harm coastal birds, dolphins, and coral reefs, to adversely impact human health, to harm the livelihoods of coastal businesses, and to leave beaches stained and tarred — all just to save money.  

But my research didn’t just uncover bad news. A lot of stakeholders are interested in initiatives supporting more sustainable seas. Not only citizen activists, non-profits, and coastal communities, but investors and technology providers.  Several indexes score vessels on how well they manage waste and emissions, and some international sustainable shipping partnerships have pledged to support and invest in cleaner ships. Additionally, support systems for whistleblowers allow them to share their stories in confidence, so that authorities can punish the operators of vessels that  are polluting at sea with large fines and probations. And groups like SkyTruth are out there fighting for a cleaner world.  You can access my findings in my series of blog posts here

Likely bilge dumping events identified by SkyTruth in 2020

In general, my time at SkyTruth taught me how to use powerful technology to solve complex issues and how to use data to tell stories. I was encouraged to ask as many questions as I answered, to differentiate between what was certain or just an assumption, to be fair in my reporting (using words such as “likely” or “suspected” instead of assuming blame) and to seek evidence-based truths. I was included on esoteric programming projects that I couldn’t quite understand and was pushed to grow from those challenges; I learned faster this way. I was given the autonomy to do my own investigative research, and was provided  a platform to report on — an overwhelming transition from positions I had previously held. The SkyTruth team had confidence in me, and valued my feedback. I will take my experiences from SkyTruth out into my next venture with the same enthusiasm to do work with an important mission. 

When I started writing my  series on global bilge dumping I was inspired by a quote SkyTruth’s Writer-Editor Amy Mathews introduced to me: “Don’t just share your data, share your awe,” which she attributed to former National Public Radio correspondent Christopher Joyce. True fulfillment comes from making a difference and being motivated by what matters most to us. Nonprofit organizations like SkyTruth have the ability to engage in both local and exotic pursuits, to consider personal stories, and tackle the challenges of society for reasons beyond mere profit. They think big — really big — and look into the future; this is awe-inspiring work. They pursue concerns we may not know we have, matters that elude us in our day-to-day lives, but that have true impact. Working for a cause you care about is fulfilling. You never have to doubt the importance of your work. It was humbling to be a changemaker in the weekday hours. 

As I wrap up my ten months at SkyTruth, every day I still feel a profound sense of how small I am. SkyTruth, through the constant engagement with global imagery, made me recognize the interconnectedness of the world and amplified the numerous opportunities to advocate for change. I’ve learned that the more informed you are, the more you can make good decisions about your life and future. I’ve learned to seek a deeper understanding of issues beyond what appears on the surface. And I’ve learned to question everything, observe the environment, appreciate it, and protect it. 


Photo: Tatianna at work during COVID-19 quarantine. Photo credit: Tatianna Evanisko

Protecting Biodiversity and Indigenous Lands from Space

Illegal mining is devastating parts of the Amazon rainforest. SkyTruth is figuring out how to detect new mining threats and alert conservationists on the ground.

The Amazon rainforest is one of the most biologically diverse places on Earth; a breathtaking riot of life that evolved over eons, encompassing the Amazon River and its vast system of tributaries. Those rivers hold more species of fish than any other river system in the world.  The surrounding forests are home to 25% of the world’s terrestrial species. Many are found only in the Amazon region, and some are endangered, while others undoubtedly remain unknown. Besides their intrinsic value as unique species, rainforest flora and fauna represent a barely tapped reservoir of genes, chemicals, and more that could benefit humankind.  Already, more than 25% of medicines used today trace their roots back to Amazonian species, including quinine and many cancer drugs. How many more remain hidden?

And then there’s the forest’s role in regulating climate: those 1.4 billion acres of trees covering 40% of South America hold a tremendous amount of carbon. If released, that carbon will accelerate climate change and the disruptions we already are seeing on Earth, including rising temperatures, melting glaciers, stronger storms, longer droughts, and more frequent flooding.

Photo: Jaguar by Nickbar from Pixabay.

Tragically, this carbon is in fact being released. For decades, there has been widespread concern about deforestation in the Amazon as logging, mining, agriculture, and human infrastructure penetrate forest boundaries and slash holes in otherwise intact habitat. Today, ever more remote regions are affected, including lands held by indigenous people who depend on the plants and animals of the forest to survive.  As forest life disappears, so too will ancient cultures that have lived sustainably in the forest for centuries, victims of a global economy and expanding population that demands ever more resources.

Before this year, SkyTruth’s work hadn’t focused on the world’s rainforests. Yet the fact that they are remote, dense, and threatened makes them perfect targets for exploring environmental damage from space, and our new partnership with Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has pushed SkyTruth to expand its reach in applying its tools to new parts of the world, including the Amazon.

One growing problem in particular has caught our attention: small-scale, artisanal mining for gold in Peru and Brazil along tributaries of the Amazon such as the Inambari River. These aren’t the huge gold mines of the Northern Hemisphere, but rather individual miners or groups of miners who work along the edges of rivers, dredging their banks and beds with toxic mercury to separate out small flecks of gold. In the process, miners cut down trees and destroy riverside habitat with their dredges, pits, and sluices. Their mercury poisons the water, fish, birds, and people who rely on these rivers. Although it’s called “small-scale,” the actions of an estimated 40,000 miners add up: as of 2018 such mining had destroyed 170,000 acres of virgin forest in southeast Peru alone. It’s illegal there, and in other protected areas throughout the region, yet it often occurs unchecked. Government agencies in the region, and our partners at WCS and other NGOs, have struggled with identifying new mining activity in such remote regions; if they don’t know where mining is occurring, they can’t take action to stop it.

Radar satellite imagery from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1 satellite can help. This radar penetrates the rainforest’s frequent cloud cover and reveals activities on the ground underneath. Using this imagery, SkyTruth has begun developing an open mapping platform to identify areas on the ground that have been deforested because of mining, and illustrate trends over time to reveal new mining activity. While radar imagery is able to see through clouds, it lacks the spectral data provided by optical (color-infrared) satellite sensors. To compensate for this, our model includes a processing step that cleans and enhances each image. Then, the images are analyzed using a random forest classifier that we’ve trained to identify land cover types, including mining.

You can see the output of our model in Figure 1 for the Madre de Dios region in southern Peru. Areas in red are classified as likely mines, while areas in yellow correspond to cleared forest, those in green are intact forest, and those in blue are water.  

Figure 1. Recent mining in Madre de Dios, Peru.

So far, we’ve successfully detected recent mining operations in the Madre de Dios region (as well as in the lands of the Munduruku tribe in Brazil, shown in Figure 2) The Munduruku have been struggling for years to demarcate their sovereign lands to protect their indigenous culture and stop continued encroachment from mining.  

Figure 2. Mining activity in Munduruku land along the Cabruá and Das Tropas Rivers in Brazil’s Para state.

This past week, SkyTruth submitted its pitch highlighting this progress as a semi-finalist in the Artisanal Mining Challenge, a competition sponsored by Conservation X Labs to address the adverse impacts of artisanal mining around the world. We made the first cut this spring (from 90 applicants down to 26), and are hopeful that our proposed Project Inambari will be promoted by the judges through this next round of the competition, and we’ll become one of 10 finalists. That would put us in position to be chosen as one of the winners, and to receive significant funding to scale-up this vitally important initiative. We’ll keep you posted.