Strategy 1: Advance our conservation technology program, building the datasets and tools that enhance scientific and technical capacity within the environmental movement to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, halt the development of fossil fuels, and protect 30% of Earth’s lands and waters by 2030.
A Message From the CEO
2022 was a year of strong progress for SkyTruth. We found talented people to fill important new staff positions including Chief Technology Officer, Director of Impact and Partnerships, Communications Director, and Senior Software Engineer. We advanced our programs related to environmental health and justice, land and biodiversity conservation, mountaintop removal mining, watershed protection, and ocean conservation. We improved existing tools and deployed new automated approaches designed to help our conservation partners stop intentional oil pollution in the ocean, monitor natural gas flaring and other climate-harming pollution, detect harmful algal blooms, track illegal gold mining in the Amazon, and protect important habitats.
It was also a year for us to reflect on our origin and reason for existence, recognize the motivations of our growing team, recommit to our theory of change, and formulate a plan to guide the next five years of work as we execute our Conservation Vision program. I’m proud of the 2022-2027 Strategic Plan carefully crafted by our staff and Board of Directors. Going forward, our work will focus on achieving a singular goal: amplify SkyTruth’s impact in addressing the climate and biodiversity crises. These are the interwoven conservation challenges that many say pose existential threats to human life on Earth. Our global food web depends on healthy, functioning ecosystems on land and at sea. The myriad plants, animals, and microorganisms we depend on to sustain those ecosystems and produce the very air we breathe, depend in turn on a stable and hospitable atmosphere. All of this is threatened by our continued dependence on fossil fuels and unsustainable destruction of natural landscapes.
To meet our goal of amplifying SkyTruth’s impact, we will relentlessly pursue three strategies to continually build on our two-decade track record of sharing the view from space to promote conservation for people and the planet:
We’re excited by the ever-increasing potential of conservation technology to produce new approaches to solving big conservation problems. We’re energized by our ambitious new five-year plan to apply the power of this technology to the climate and biodiversity challenges. And we are optimistic that our use of this technology to make hidden environmental problems visible—and measurable—will lead to effective action that improves the lives and wellbeing of people around the world.
But our work can’t happen without your support. Please read on for details about our 2022 program accomplishments. Check out our website to learn more about the SkyTruth team. And subscribe to our blog to keep up with our progress as we follow the path outlined in our new Strategic Plan.
SkyTruth has a strong history of building tools and technology to protect ocean biodiversity. Given their leading role in building Global Fishing Watch—and in light of SkyTruth’s new AI-powered Cerulean project to automatically detect oil pollution in our world’s oceans—we’re proud to invest in such an innovative conservation technology team.
Cerulean: Stopping Oil Pollution at Sea
We made great strides toward the 2023 public launch of our flagship project Cerulean by enhancing its machine learning model and developing the foundational data necessary to reveal the impact of chronic oil pollution at sea and identify the perpetrators. Our team advanced Cerulean on four key fronts: improved oil slick detection; an offshore oil platform database; slick source identification; and integration with Google Cloud Platform.
To protect biodiversity and human well-being in the Amazon, we must find a way to effectively monitor and intervene in illegal mining.
In 2022, we publicly launched Project Inambari, an automated monitoring system for detecting mining-driven deforestation in the Peruvian Amazon. Named after a river that flows down from the Andes and through the mining region of Peru’s southeastern rainforest, Inambari uses machine learning to detect mined areas on satellite imagery and display the expansion of mining on an open map platform, freely available to the public.
Illegal mining has negative impacts on not just tropical forests, but on the communities that call those forests home. First, gold mining in the Amazon results in complete loss of forest cover and the removal of soil over a large area. This leaves ecosystems with no natural way to recover, leaving behind barren, eroding land where towering forests once stood.
Small scale gold mining also puts human communities at risk. Mercury is used to extract and concentrate gold from soil and sediment along Amazonian rivers. Once mercury enters those rivers, it enters the food chain and ends up in fish, which much of the area’s population depends on as a primary source of protein.
And finally, unregulated gold extraction is closely tied to criminal activity and labor exploitation. Some regions like Venezuela’s mining arc have fallen under the control of armed, non-state groups who are financed primarily by illegal mining, extortion, and even violence. Native people of the Amazon, including a small number of tribes in voluntary isolation, are particularly vulnerable as mining activities encroach on their lands, introduce toxic levels of mercury, and make it harder to pursue sustainable economic activities like agriculture and tourism.
Preserving the health of these ecosystems and indigenous communities requires effective monitoring and enforcement, which is why we created Inambari. The Inambari map is available on our SkyTruth Alerts platform, and provides near-real-time detections and imagery of the continued expansion of gold mining in the Amazon. And like all SkyTruth products, we make Inambari available for free, including to our on-the-ground enforcement partners in Peru, ensuring that our data and tools reach users who can turn satellite data into direct action to protect tropical forests and communities.
Tracking Floating Production Storage & Offloading Vessels (FPSOs)
Floating Production, Storage, and Offloading vessels (FPSOs and their cousins, FSOs) are specialized ships used by the oil and gas industry to produce, process, and store oil. They are poorly tracked and understood, and no comprehensive system exists to monitor their activities, risks, and environmental impacts. Recent events underline the need to track these vessels. For example, the FSO Safer is a derelict, unmaintained vessel off the coast of Yemen that threatens to spill over a million barrels of crude oil. Another, the FPSO Trinity Spirit, exploded in 2021, killing several crew members and spilling over two million gallons of oil into sensitive waters off the coast of Nigeria.
We are creating the world’s first full accounting of FPSOs and their impacts, including tracking their operating locations, identifying suspicious activities using AIS ship location data, and monitoring their operations for chronic oil pollution. In 2022, we reached two important milestones as we continue to develop monitoring tools for FPSOs and FSOs, including:
Expanding & Improving SkyTruth Alerts
Our SkyTruth Alerts platform makes it easy for anyone to track environmental incidents and change. People can sign up for alerts based on their own geographical areas of interest (AOI) anywhere on the planet. When environmentally relevant events occur, such as a new drilling permit or hazardous chemical spill, Alerts automatically notifies them by email.
In 2022, we implemented dozens of user interface changes and upgrades to make the platform faster, more powerful, and easier to use. On the data side, we added free access to several important environmental data layers, including:
SkyTruth Alerts is, above all else, a monitoring tool, and in 2022 it was used to monitor climate and biodiversity related events all around the world, including:
Finally, we want Alerts users to have the best possible experience when engaging the platform, and we are continuously iterating in response to their needs and feedback. In 2022, we improved the Alerts experience in ways large and small, including:
SkyTruth continues to be an impactful partner due to their dedication to apply new and creative tech solutions to some of the world’s most pressing environmental issues at both local and global scales. As an organization, they have evolved with the latest advances in AI as we continue to face new political and climate issues as a society.
Measuring Recovery From Coal Mining
Mountaintop removal mining (MTM) remains a critical driver of ecosystem destruction and habitat loss in Central Appalachia. Over the past year, SkyTruth has continued to document this destruction, while simultaneously working to assess the legacy of harm that burdens Appalachian communities and ecosystems.
We moved beyond documenting the location of surface mining operations in the Central Appalachian region and began to explore the long-term ecological legacy of mining on Appalachian landscapes. In 2022, we published a peer reviewed article in the journal Restoration Ecology. We collaborated with scientists from the University of Nevada, University of Wyoming, Colorado State, and the advocacy group Appalachian Voices to understand the legacy of mining in Appalachia. We found that only 7.9% of land disturbed by mining activity has recovered to a level that is consistent with the unmined, forested sites across the region.
Meanwhile, we continued to produce annual updates of our mountaintop mining extent dataset, which has been cited nearly 100 times, and we also began work to extend this dataset back to 1974 using early Landsat imagery. This will improve our understanding of the impact of mining that occurred before the passage of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, and the pre-mining conditions of many areas mined after 1985. In 2022, we built a preliminary model that we will improve and deploy in 2023.
Detecting Harmful Algal Blooms
Harmful algal blooms (HABs) affect every coastal and Great Lakes state in the U.S., as well as fresh and saltwater ecosystems worldwide. Most algae are harmless, but under the right conditions, they can grow out of control and harm wildlife, ecosystems, and human health and livelihoods.
Over the past four years, SkyTruth has collaborated with Professor Joseph Ortiz’s lab at Kent State University (KSU) to use satellite imagery to automatically identify harmful algal blooms using satellite imagery in Google Earth Engine. This used to be an intensive manual process, requiring the KSU team to manually process and interpret every new satellite image over a body of water. Thanks to our new automated process, the KSU team can now simply specify an area of interest, and the pipeline will automatically begin to process satellite imagery to detect harmful algal blooms in that region.
This work has also opened the door for an automated global monitoring system for harmful algal blooms, which presents a new opportunity for the KSU and SkyTruth teams.
Verdant: Protecting Landscapes Worldwide
Verdant is SkyTruth’s project to build and deploy a free, real-time surveillance system for terrestrial landscapes around the world. We’re designing Verdant to promote protected area creation and effectiveness by providing transparency and public accountability. This will help ensure protected area integrity to preserve and restore biodiversity, as well as support and empower local and Indigenous communities.
As part of our 2022 Verdant work, we applied Dynamic World data from Google and World Resources Institute (WRI) to SkyTruth Alerts. These new, near real-time data made it possible for Alerts to detect habitat destruction by monitoring for persistent changes in land cover, such as new buildings, deforestation, desertification, and changes in surface water boundaries, at 10-meter resolution. This is a global scale product, enabling users anywhere in the world to monitor habitat loss and land cover change with a few simple steps:
- Define an area of interest
- Define the “before” and “after” time periods to be compared.
- Define the land cover type to check for change (e.g. forest, water).
Then click run, and users can see what’s changed using our SkyTruth Alerts map.
Thanks to our Alerts-Dynamic World interface, we received an invitation to present at Google’s Geo For Good Summit. In a keynote talk, Chief Technology Officer Jason Schatz explained the nuts and bolts of SkyTruth Alerts’ land-detection functionality to a lecture hall filled with experts from the field of conservation technology.
Ending Natural Gas Venting & Flaring
SkyTruth has a long history of tracking the insidious issue of natural gas (primarily methane) venting and flaring. In 2022, our robust flaring data proved valuable yet again, driving major impacts that included:
Building Capacity: Staff & Interns
At SkyTruth, we consider people the most important resource of our organization. In 2022, we brought on critical full-time staff, including Jason Schatz (Chief Technology Officer), Mitchelle De Leon (Director of Impact and Strategic Partnerships), Joel Goldberg (Communications Director), and Aemon Malone (Senior Software Engineer). Thanks to these strong additions to the SkyTruth team we now have the capacity to accelerate our innovation, enhance our product offerings, uplift our level of service, and expand our reach among industry groups, users, and the general public, ultimately generating greater positive impact for conservation.
Interns are an integral part of our technical team. In 2022 SkyTruth interns made significant contributions to several core projects, including:
Mitchelle De Leon
Board of Directors
Mary Anne HittSkyTruth
Susan Coady KemnitzerSkyTruth
Stephen J. ParadisSkyTruth
Henry “Hank” WillardSkyTruth
If you would like more information about our work, we’d love to hear from you!