A Message from the President
When 2020 began, SkyTruth was preparing for the 10-year anniversary of the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history: the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. SkyTruth had played a central role in revealing to the world the true scope of this disaster as it was unfolding, tracking the oil’s spread across the Gulf with satellite imagery. We demonstrated that the amount of oil spewing into the Gulf was more than 20 times greater than what BP and the U.S. Coast Guard initially claimed. And our findings drew national and international media attention, creating pressure on the federal government to measure the actual size of the spill more accurately. The government’s revised measurements ultimately formed the basis for the restoration and recovery fees that BP owed to the American people.
Our goal at the spill’s 10th anniversary was to remind policymakers and the public that such a disaster could happen again, that oil and gas extraction practices in U.S. waters had not improved sufficiently, and that the Gulf of Mexico remains particularly vulnerable to such disasters. To emphasize the importance of our message, we had scheduled a live news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to attract major media outlets.
Then COVID-19 hit the nation hard.
Our team quickly pivoted to an online event, seamlessly coordinating presentations from four outside experts (plus me) to highlight the technical, geological, biological, and policy issues that keep us vulnerable to future disasters. Our event drew more than 35 journalists and others, and triggered news stories that appeared in more than 80 outlets. I’m proud of how our technical, communications, and management teams pulled together on such short notice to successfully raise public awareness.
But that was just the beginning of a remarkable year.
Our April event set the stage for continued successes throughout 2020 despite the global pandemic. When we temporarily shuttered our main office in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, in mid-March, virtually all staff and interns worked remotely for the rest of the year. But SkyTruth is a conservation technology organization: we are well-positioned to stay connected and productive by working remotely while communicating regularly.
The proof is in our accomplishments. Many of those accomplishments advance our Conservation Vision program; that is, our effort to apply machine learning to the growing quantities of satellite data available and automatically detect environmental changes on Earth. Those accomplishments include major progress detecting oil pollution at sea and drilling activities on land. They include expanding our mountaintop mining work to examine recovery of mined sites and identifying harmful algal blooms from space. And they include winning an international award that will allow us to reveal illegal mining in the Amazon rainforest — a biodiversity hotspot essential for protecting global climate. I hope you enjoy learning more about each of our projects below and, as always, please feel free to reach out if you have any questions.
- Advanced our machine learning model Cerulean to automate the detection of oily bilge slicks in the ocean — a first step to holding polluters accountable and stopping oil pollution at sea.
- Completed our project with researchers at Kent State University to detect harmful algal blooms from space, making their model more accessible to other researchers, easier to update and modify, and able to run on entire collections of satellite imagery, vastly expanding the model’s capabilities.
- Developed models to automate the detection of oil and gas drilling by applying machine learning to satellite imagery in remote, culturally and biologically important areas, such as Chaco Culture National Historical Park and the Patagonian steppes of Argentina.
- Expanded our monitoring of coal mining in Central Appalachia to begin examining the recovery and reclamation of these dangerous and degraded sites.
- Began our new Project Inambari to detect illegal and unregulated mining in the Amazon rainforest, to protect Indigenous communities and biodiversity.
- Updated our signature SkyTruth Alerts program to allow users to detect even more environmental impacts in new places, and to support projects Cerulean and Project Inambari.