The SkyTruth Story
SkyTruth has grown from one geologist working out of a home office to an international team spread across several continents. The SkyTruth team, researchers, volunteers, and partners analyze images and data, build tools to engage the public and provide scientifically credible resources to help better understand environmental issues. Looking ahead, we aim to transform “skytruthing” into a global movement where anyone, anywhere, can adopt a part of the planet that they care about, monitor it with the tools and technology we provide and be empowered to take action to protect the environment.
Throughout the 1990s, working in the private sector as a geologist who used remote sensing as an exploration tool, John Amos became increasingly concerned by the mounting evidence of human-caused changes to landscapes and ecosystems around the world. He began to think that images of habitat loss and the spread of human influence could be important, not only as a source of scientific data on environmental change but also as a powerful tool for communicating these changes to the public.
In 2001, John left the for-profit world to lay the groundwork for SkyTruth. He met with environmental groups to learn more about the state of environmental remote sensing; spoke with advocates about their communications needs and resource limitations; and presented the capabilities of satellite and aerial images to environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs), grassroots activists, and government resource managers. Early SkyTruth projects included the use of satellite and aerial imagery to study the landscape impacts of natural gas drilling on the Rocky Mountain West, reveal commercial fishing vessels “fishing the line” around marine protected areas and to show the growth of strip mining for coal and other minerals around the United States.
A Pivotal Moment
In April 2010, an offshore drilling rig called the Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 men and setting in motion the largest accidental oil spill in history. SkyTruth was the first to publicly challenge BP’s inaccurate reports of the rate of oil spilling into the Gulf. With our partners at Florida State University, we used satellite images to estimate the actual amount of oil gushing from the damaged well. Based only on the oil that appeared on the surface, we calculated the rate of flow from the gushing well was twenty-five times more than BP was reporting. As the disaster unfolded, we continued to document the spill on satellite imagery, and our images and calculations thrust SkyTruth into the spotlight.
The disaster proved pivotal for SkyTruth. Challenging BP’s estimates brought significant media attention to our mission and demonstrated the role that remote sensing has to play in understanding environmental issues. However, our long-term goal is not just to report on disasters, but to inspire a global movement where everyone can easily access the resources we use, and be motivated to protect the planet from future catastrophes.
In 2014 we launched an ambitious project called Global Fishing Watch which uses satellite tracking to detect when and where commercial fishing is happening in every ocean around the world, in near real time. Using the cutting-edge application of machine learning and big data tools, together with media and outreach impact created by project partner Oceana plus technology depth provided by project partner Google, we aimed to help save the oceans from damaging overfishing across all large commercial fishing operations in every country of the world. We believe that better data and radical transparency applied to global commercial fishing fleets will drive better policy and more effective management, protecting the world’s wild-caught fisheries from long-term collapse and environmental destruction.
In 2017, Global Fishing Watch (GFW) emerged as its own standalone nonprofit, achieving transformational success through partnerships with researchers all over the world and with governments such as Indonesia to harness the power of this previously unavailable dataset to inform policy and management of fisheries across the ocean. SkyTruth and GFW continue to partner closely on a number of important projects.
The Future: Conservation Vision
Up until now we’ve been inspiring people to take action by using satellites to show them what’s already happened to the environment, typically months or even years ago. But technology has evolved dramatically since SkyTruth was founded, and today we can show people what’s happening right now, making it possible to take action that can minimize or even stop environmental damage before it occurs. Various companies and governments are building and launching fleets of satellites that promise to multiply and diversify the stream of daily imagery, including radar satellites that operate night and day and can see through clouds, smoke and haze.
The environmental monitoring potential of all this new hardware is thrilling to our team here at SkyTruth, but it also presents a major challenge: it simply isn’t practical to hire an army of skilled analysts to look at all of these images, just to identify the manageable few that contain useful information. Artificial intelligence is the key to unlocking the conservation power of this ever-increasing torrent of imagery. This is the future of SkyTruth, and we call it Conservation Vision.