Stopping oil pollution at sea

Credit: bridgehead/Pond5


SkyTruth is using artificial intelligence to analyze thousands of radar satellite images every day, scanning the world’s oceans for the tell-tale signs of an oil slick. We call this project Cerulean. As we ramp up the automation process—and as satellites increasingly survey the remotest seas—Cerulean will detect oil slicks from vessels, offshore oil platforms, and other sources, creating a global map of oil pollution and identifying polluters around the world.

This map displays results from the first six months of operation of Cerulean. White dots are the locations of more than 1,000 oil slicks caused by ships at sea, automatically detected on Sentinel-1 satellite images. Red highlights indicate pollution hotspots in the ocean based on this data.

A strong start

Based on our progress in 2020, we know we can build the technology to do this. Our model development is well underway and we’ve made major progress in other key areas as well.

  • Solid start-up

    Thanks to Amazon Web Services (AWS) and other funders, SkyTruth has initial funding and cloud computing resources to demonstrate not only proof of concept, but to generate real data that reveals the widespread nature of oil pollution at sea from vessels. Our initial results show that oily wastewater discharge from vessels is a pervasive problem. Learn more in this blog post.

A clear need

SkyTruth is reaching out to dozens of groups interested in tracking oil pollution at sea, holding conversations with those who care about climate change, coastal economies, and marine life. Here are some of the things these groups want to do with Cerulean:

  • Stop offshore oil drilling to protect the climate and the world’s oceans
  • Visually illustrate commercial shipping’s climate impact
  • Hold polluters accountable
  • Clean up commercial shipping practices
  • Stop "mystery" oil spills from sullying coastal communities
  • Stop oil pollution from harming fisheries, marine life, and tourism

Based on our conversations we know that there is a growing demand for this information right now.

Cerulean will enable regulators and anyone concerned about the health of our oceans to identify releases of oil from ships, drilling platforms and other sources. This will put important information into the hands of the public who can advocate for stronger regulation and enforcement of existing laws to hold polluters accountable. SkyTruth’s new tool should help protect our oceans and coastal environments from the devastating impacts of oil spills.

An opportunity for growth

Cerulean currently detects oily slicks from vessels that dump their bilge wastewater into the sea. We are actively building the capacity to monitor oil spills from offshore oil platforms. And we envision Cerulean will become more comprehensive with additional support, painting a fuller picture of the problem with fossil fuels and the ocean. Moving forward, SkyTruth plans to add:

  • Flaring from offshore platforms

    Many offshore platforms routinely burn off methane as a byproduct of oil production. This burning generates additional CO2 beyond the pollution that the oil itself will produce.

  • Methane venting

    Offshore platforms may be releasing unburned methane directly into the air. Methane is an even more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2—more than 80 times as potent.

  • Seismic surveys

    Marine mammalogists have long worried about the impacts on dolphins and whales of offshore seismic surveys that use powerful blasts of sound to detect potential oil and gas fields. SkyTruth, as a founding partner of Global Fishing Watch, can track hundreds of thousands of vessels around the world every day and identify the exact time and place where seismic survey vessels are working. This data can help researchers and conservationists link cetacean beachings, injuries, and death with offshore exploration activity.

  • Collateral vessel traffic

    Oil platforms can sometimes seem like small cities, requiring substantial vessel traffic to support the crew and operations. This vessel traffic produces its own air and water pollution, as well as climate footprint.

A record of success

This isn’t our first rodeo.

SkyTruth is a founding partner of Global Fishing Watch. Powered by satellite technology and machine learning, Global Fishing Watch merges multiple types of vessel tracking data to provide a daily view of fishing activity throughout the ocean. Global Fishing Watch is now a thriving independent organization with dozens of staff working to illuminate fishing activity around the world.

SkyTruth knows what it takes to develop and transform innovative technology into a powerful program that makes previously invisible activities on the ocean visible for the entire world to see. This kind of transparency is game-changing. Cerulean will leave polluters and others harming the world’s oceans and climate nowhere to hide.

The Surfrider Foundation has relied on SkyTruth’s expertise to raise public awareness and compel decision makers to take action on ocean pollution issues for years. We are eagerly looking forward to the public launch of SkyTruth’s new project, Cerulean. Our members can use this information to hold Big Oil accountable for polluting our coasts and harming our climate. As a grassroots organization that engages citizens in environmental advocacy, Surfrider believes that the work of SkyTruth is an important and necessary complement to our collective efforts to protect clean water and stop oil and gas development.