Satellite technology has changed but SkyTruth remains true to its core principles, with an impressive track record of holding industries and governments accountable.
As 2021 draws to a close, SkyTruth is celebrating its 20th anniversary as an environmental tech nonprofit. It’s hard for us to believe how far SkyTruth — and technology — have come in those 20 years, and how much we have accomplished. When founder John Amos started SkyTruth in the basement of his home near Washington, D.C. in 2001, he wanted to level the playing field between extractive industries — who were using satellite imagery routinely — and conservation groups, who largely remained unaware of these tools and their potential. He founded SkyTruth on two core principles: (1) provide fact-based information and analyses to conservationists and the public for free, and (2) share the tools and technologies that enable such analyses with others, so they can monitor the places they care about on their own and hold industries and governments accountable.
Since then, SkyTruth has grown to almost a dozen people around the world with a headquarters in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. And the tools we use have grown as well. Back in the basement days, John was sorting through boxes of compact discs from the U.S. Geological Survey, and analyzing the satellite data they contained one-by-one on a desktop computer. To share his most compelling findings, he often would print out large images and maps of mining sites, oil fields, and more to share with the folks fighting fracking (hydraulic fracturing), coal bed methane extraction, oil drilling and more; small citizens’ groups who would use these impressive visuals in public hearings and elsewhere to argue against further destruction. Fast forward to today and our team is using machine learning and cloud computing to analyze thousands of images a day and monitoring more and more of the Earth.
In 2022 we’re poised to grow even more; doubling the size of the SkyTruth team and magnifying our ability to use technology to promote conservation for people and the planet. Read on to join us on our journey from very humble beginnings to high-tech innovators.
Drilling in the West: See for Yourself
Some of SkyTruth’s first work mobilized conservation groups to address the rapid spread of fracking in the Rocky Mountain West. This first SkyTruth step was a natural outgrowth of John’s work in the late 1990’s at a small, high-end consulting firm advising energy companies on where to focus their fracking operations. In doing that work, he became appalled at what he saw on satellite imagery; namely, rapid, intensive destruction of (often) public lands where companies drilled. He wondered whether people in the environmental community even knew this stuff was happening. He soon learned. Through his networking while establishing SkyTruth in 2000 and 2001, John was invited to attend LightHawk’s annual fly-in. LightHawk is a nonprofit that relies on volunteer pilots to allow conservationists and others to see environmental impacts from the air, inspiring and supporting change. SkyTruth had a similar mission but kicked up a notch: sharing the view from space to promote conservation.
At the 2001 fly-in, John shared his dramatic satellite images of fracking in the West, which illustrated the vast and growing footprint of drilling sites smothering landscapes important for wildlife, ranching, and recreation. Several conservationists and LightHawk leaders saw the potential in these visuals to bring about change. They asked John if they could use his posters at an upcoming meeting with charitable foundations about supporting conservation. Absolutely! This was exactly what SkyTruth was about. The result was substantial funding to national and local conservation groups to form a coalition to fight fracking throughout the Rocky Mountain region. This coalition was able to engage more conservative voices — such as hunting and fishing groups, as well as some ranchers — in their fight, demonstrating bipartisan support for protecting the region’s unique natural landscapes.
Mountaintop Mining in Appalachia: Just How Bad is It?
SkyTruth’s mountaintop mining work began soon after John moved the office to West Virginia, where mining companies were blowing the tops off of the Mountain State’s forested hillsides to expose the coal seams underneath. Despite decades of mountaintop mining, nobody — not even the government agencies charged with overseeing the industry — had a reliable map of where mining was occurring and how many mountains had already been leveled. In fact, West Virginia officials acknowledged a significant mismatch between the mining permits they had issued and actual mining activity in the state. Landsat satellite images and aerial survey photographs were publicly available, but interpreting the data required expertise that conservationists and community activists did not have. So, the nonprofit group Appalachian Voices called on SkyTruth for help.
In the mid-2000s SkyTruth used satellite data to map the historical occurrence of mountaintop removal mining over a 30-year period. The resulting map showed its spread across a 59-county area in Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Virginia. It revealed that the amount of landscape directly impacted by mountaintop removal increased by 3.5 times, from a total of 77,000 acres in 1985 to more than 272,000 acres in 2005. The size of individual mines also increased, some to more than 15 square miles. In all, the satellites showed that more than 2,700 ridge tops were impacted.
This was the first time anyone had measured how widespread and where this practice occurred, and academic researchers jumped on the new information. Using SkyTruth’s data in a 2011 study, Dr. Melissa Ahern at Washington State University, Dr. Michael Hendryx at West Virginia University, and their colleagues found “significantly higher” rates of birth defects in communities near mountaintop mining operations. Similarly, Dr. Emily Bernhardt, a biologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and her team used SkyTruth’s data along with studies of water quality and invertebrate biodiversity collected by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to demonstrate conclusively that mountaintop removal mining was directly linked to downstream water pollution and related environmental destruction. The study, which was featured in the August 9, 2010 issue of the journal Nature and later published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science and Technology, raised serious doubts about the industry’s claim that there is no need for tighter water-quality standards to protect communities downstream of the mines.
When asked by Nature about the significance of the new study, officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a statement calling the findings “generally consistent” with its own research. Bernhardt’s work, made possible by SkyTruth’s data, underpins EPA’s controversial decision to revoke a mining permit that had already been issued by the Army Corps of Engineers. It was only the second time in EPA’s history that they have exercised this authority under the Clean Water Act, and though it was challenged all the way up to the Supreme Court, the EPA’s authority to overrule the Army Corps of Engineers was reaffirmed in federal court in 2014.
A more recent paper by SkyTruth Geospatial Engineer Christian Thomas and colleagues at Defenders of Wildlife, found that toxicity thresholds for aquatic life were exceeded thousands of times at thousands of monitoring stations over a 30 year period in mined areas throughout West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia, reinforcing what Dr. Bernhardt and her team determined more than a decade ago. More than 50 aquatic species on the federal endangered species list are found in this region.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is required by law to protect species listed under the Endangered Species Act. We hope they will use this new information going forward to start meaningful protection of these species and their ecosystems.
BP’s Deepwater Horizon Disaster: Speaking Truth to Power
The April 20, 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was a turning point for SkyTruth. Ultimately recognized as the largest accidental oil spill in world history, it dominated headlines for almost three months as engineers tried to contain the oil gushing from a blown-out wellhead at the bottom of the ocean. At SkyTruth, John took action immediately, examining and publishing satellite imagery of the Gulf to track the spread of the huge slick. His past experience in consulting firms became fundamental to his analysis: he had analyzed oil slicks on imagery for industry clients for years, identifying sources of natural oil seeps bubbling up from the seafloor, and estimating just how much oil reached the surface.
BP and the U.S. Coast Guard — the players responsible for capping the gushing wellhead — were claiming that 1,000 barrels of oil per day were gushing into the Gulf. But when Florida State University oceanographer Dr. Ian MacDonald, a colleague of John’s from his consulting days, saw the images and measurements John was posting, he realized the well was gushing far more than 1,000 barrels of oil each day. He reached out to John, and together they began analyzing the images and posting their estimates on social media. John and Ian first estimated the spill was more likely to be 5,000 barrels per day. Soon after SkyTruth posted that estimate, the New York Times and other media outlets reported their figure. John and Ian continued examining images every day, rapidly revising their estimate; first to 20,000 then 26,000 barrels of oil entering the Gulf ecosystem every day.
With constant national media coverage of SkyTruth’s estimates challenging the official claims, BP and the Coast Guard began revising their estimates as well. Eventually, a federal interagency task force examined the evidence more comprehensively and estimated that 53,000 barrels — 2.2 million gallons — were leaking each day immediately before the well was capped on July 15, 2010. This figure helped form the basis for restoration funds BP was required to pay communities affected by the spill.
SkyTruth’s watchdog role in the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster was likely the first time satellite imagery was used to publicly hold a giant corporation and the U.S. government accountable for an environmental disaster. It showed the world what SkyTruth, and satellite imagery, could do. And it placed SkyTruth on an international stage. The SkyTruth team began to grow.
Taylor Energy: Exposing Hidden Threats
While scanning the waters of the Gulf of Mexico during the BP disaster, SkyTruth discovered another, persistent oil slick nearby that appeared day after day, but was receiving no attention at all. This slick was leaking from the site of a drilling platform owned by a local company, Taylor Energy. The platform had been destroyed by a hurricane in 2004, six years earlier, and the damaged wells on the seafloor had been leaking oil into the Gulf continuously ever since. Over the following years SkyTruth analyzed and published dozens of satellite images of the Taylor slick, built a public archive by collecting and curating thousands of official oil-pollution reports, and wrote numerous blog posts to raise the alarm and credibly challenge the story being told by Taylor and the federal government; namely, that the site was leaking only a few gallons per day.
Using very conservative assumptions, and Taylor’s own pollution reports, SkyTruth calculated a much higher rate. Then, SkyTruth worked with researchers at Florida State University to independently assess the rate by measuring the size of the slick on satellite images, yielding an even higher estimate and revealing systematic and severe under-reporting of this spill.
SkyTruth also teamed up with partners in the region, including Southwings and Waterkeeper Alliance to form the Gulf Monitoring Consortium. Gulf-area citizens groups, notably the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, and Gulf Restoration Network (now called Healthy Gulf) soon joined. This partnership gave SkyTruth the ability to monitor, investigate, and systematically document the Taylor spill from space, from small aircraft, and on the water. Alerted by this work, researchers from Florida State University conducted their own independent sampling and measurements, bringing a higher level of scientific expertise to the growing public scrutiny of this continuous pollution event.
It worked. The Department of Justice accepted this analysis when it brought legal action against Taylor Energy. The analysis suggested that, cumulatively, over the many years of the leak, the total amount of oil leaked into the Gulf was approaching the size of the BP spill. This data and analysis also helped prompt — and inform — a lawsuit by Waterkeeper Alliance against Taylor Energy and the Coast Guard. Their successful suit brought many documents to light that had previously been hidden from the public.
SkyTruth also worked with journalists to help them understand the significance of this unchecked spill. Reporters reached out to SkyTruth for comments and expert insights whenever new information or developments in the Taylor saga came to light. These relationships resulted in dozens of articles in major media markets over the years, helping to maintain public attention and interest, and a steady drumbeat of public criticism.
Ultimately, an hour-long interview with Washington Post reporter Darryl Fears resulted in the article that triggered the Coast Guard to order the company to clean up the spill and threaten Taylor Energy with fines for every day the spill continues. Since then, SkyTruth has continued to monitor the Taylor Energy leak to ensure that effective action is taken.
Fracking Spreads to the East: Crowdsourcing and Hacking Data for Good
Soon after the fracking boom in the West took off, it expanded into the East onto the Marcellus and Utica Shale formations covering parts of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, and New York. The main issue in these states wasn’t destruction of public lands, but rather the proximity to people: drilling occurred shockingly close to homes, schools, and entire communities.
But SkyTruth has data and programming skills. In 2012 “we hacked FracFocus,” as John describes it now. “We took this unusable data, and made it usable and free,” by scraping nearly 30,000 chemical disclosure reports from the FracFocus servers, extracting data from the PDFs, and building a user-friendly SkyTruth database that allowed for analysis. It was, as John and SkyTruth board member Paul Woods who helped in the effort call it, a “data jailbreak.”
Meanwhile, SkyTruth launched a program to gather additional information on where fracking was actually occurring near communities in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. Called FrackFinder, this effort relied on thousands of citizen scientists who volunteered their time to review high-resolution aerial imagery provided by SkyTruth and map what was happening on the ground. This crowdsourcing ensured accuracy by requiring at least ten volunteers to analyze each image. With access to FrackFinder’s reliable data on the locations of open pits holding drilling and fracking fluids, public health researchers at Johns Hopkins University, such as Dr. Brian Schwartz, used the data to find higher premature birth rates for mothers in Pennsylvania who live near fracking sites. And Hopkins researcher Sara Rasmussen found that Pennsylvania residents living near fracking sites are up to four times more likely to suffer asthma attacks. New studies like these added pressure on policymakers to take action. In Maryland, lawmakers cited the Johns Hopkins studies in passing a bill to ban fracking permanently in the state. In April 2017, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan signed the bill into law, keeping fracking out of the state entirely.
Overfishing and Illegal Fishing on the High Seas: Making the Invisible, Visible
The creation of Global Fishing Watch (GFW) was our first success in applying machine learning to big data to create powerful new information, illustrating the tremendous potential for new technologies to illuminate environmental impacts globally. SkyTruth developed GFW in conjunction with Google and the marine conservation group Oceana to reveal the true extent of fishing around the world. It combines ship-tracking data collected by satellites and land-based receivers with a unique algorithm that recognizes when a vessel is actively fishing, based on its pattern of movement. The tracking data allows GFW users to identify vessels by name, see exactly when and where they are fishing, and flag suspicious activities. Governments around the world are using GFW to bring data transparency, public accountability, and better management to the fishing in their waters. And managers of marine protected areas rely on GFW to keep them informed about ocean conditions and human activity in and around these important sanctuaries for habitat and biodiversity.
GFW is such a great success that in 2017 SkyTruth and the founding partners agreed to incorporate GFW as an independent nonprofit organization. It has grown remarkably since then, with a worldwide team of dozens of programmers and engineers, analysts, data scientists, policy experts, and other talented staff working to constantly improve and expand the capabilities of the system, demonstrate its many uses, provide direct assistance to fisheries managers and other users, and promote GFW as a public, free, and uniquely valuable tool for achieving sustainability and restoring abundance to the ocean.
The Next 20 Years: More Data and Powerful Technologies
Today, hundreds of satellites launched by scores of governments and private companies beam back thousands of images of the Earth every day to the cloud — far more than a single person, or even a team of hundreds — could possibly examine. By applying the latest in computing technology to this deluge of satellite data, SkyTruth is helping tackle the world’s biggest environmental challenges — climate change and the extinction crisis — with cloud computing and artificial intelligence techniques such as machine learning.
As SkyTruth moves forward we are applying these new technologies to projects that continue to expose the many threats posed by fossil fuels as well as ongoing habitat loss in remote wildlands and protected areas. For example, our project Cerulean uses machine learning and cloud computing to process more than a thousand images of the ocean every day, scan for oil slicks from vessels illegally dumping their oily wastewater into the sea, and identify the perpetrators. Our mountaintop mining work has expanded to monitor recovery of mined areas — habitat essential to 50 species listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, among others. Project Inambari exposes unauthorized gold mining in the Amazon rainforest. And we are developing our newest project, Verdant, to track vegetation trends in key areas to help land managers understand ecosystem changes and act to protect and restore important habitats.
It will take all of us around the world to protect our planet from the global threats it now faces. At SkyTruth, it’s always been about creating and sharing tools that allow anyone with an internet connection, anywhere, to monitor the places they care about. We’re honored to be able to help our partners in conservation groups, universities, communities, and elsewhere increase pressure on governments, industries, and consumers to move away from harmful fossil fuels by exposing their myriad threats. And our view from space provides an essential perspective for protecting often remote ecosystems and biodiversity facing unprecedented pressures from human activities and climate change. We will continue to innovate going forward, taking advantage of the latest computing technology and emerging global datasets to find new ways of tackling these enormous challenges. We hope you’ll join us for the next 20 years.
(Note: Some of the language in this blog post is pulled from previous posts.)