GroundTruth

Ground Truth: Information that is collected on location, on the ground, from a close up perspective, in fine detail. From Wikipedia: Ground Truth

Sky Truth: Information that is collected from above, with a broad vision, giving the big picture.

We at SkyTruth spend a lot of time working out how to give people an “elevated” perspective on environmental issues. Most of the time we do this by providing top-down views from satellites in space or from aircraft.

We often find the SkyTruth perspective illuminates new questions and identifies sites of interest that local environmental groups may be unaware of. Or we simply wish we had more local, first-hand knowledge contributed from folks with boots on the ground to complement and help explain our high-flying images to our global audience.

In these cases, we strive to augment our images with targeted “Ground Truth” for these sites. This may mean someone on the ground needs to go to the site with a camera and a GPS and take some pictures. Or it could mean a visit to the county courthouse to find out who owns the property, or when construction got underway.


One example is the recent work we did on habitat loss for the threatened Preble’s Meadow Jumping Mouse in Colorado. In this case we identified dozens of locations where construction and development is clearly taking place – or already existed – within designated “critical habitat” areas. For each of these sites we’d like to know if the development was already there before the mouse was officially recognized as a threatened species (1998), or if it’s been constructed since then, a very important distinction. Ground Truth could consist of recent and historic on-location photos, and documentation from the county on when construction permits were issued and approved. Concerned local citizens could provide this with fairly modest effort, if they know what to get and where to send it.

To harness this potential citizen-army of ground-truthers, SkyTruth is building a system to organize “help wanted” requests, publicize the needs, and collect and organize the responses. That, however, is keeping us very busy, and is a topic for another post…

Please share your thoughts and comments on how you think we should go about this.

SkyTruth Image Galleries

By the way, SkyTruth features an ever-growing collection of online image galleries that address issues like hardrock mining, oil and gas drilling, habitat loss, and pollution. The galleries include a variety of maps and pictures taken from public and commercial orbiting satellites, government aerial surveys, and out-the-window shots taken from low-flying aircraft (most of those aerial pics are provided by our friends at EcoFlight). And important ground-truth photos taken by ordinary folks all over the world that complement the high-flying SkyTruth perspective.

We’ve also created simulations to show what proposed developments – such as gold mines and natural-gas fields – could look like if they are built:
Browse the complete list of galleries here. Once you’re in a gallery, click on any pic to get a bigger version accompanied by a descriptive caption; click on “Medium” or “Large” to display even larger versions, and “Original” to download the highest-resolution version available.

Please contact us (info@skytruth.org) if you’d like to use any of the pictures from our site. We typically grant permission for non-profit, educational and media use.

Preble’s Meadow Jumping Mouse

Here’s an animal you’ve probably never heard of. The Preble’s Meadow Jumping Mouse is native to the eastern slope of the Rockies in Wyoming and Colorado. Unfortunately for the mouse, it lives exactly where many of us want to: nestled in the hills at the foot of those beautiful mountains. Urban sprawl is tough on this critter. Conservationists are trying to give the mouse a hand: in 1998 it was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, with “critical habitat” designated for protection in 2003. The attempts to protect the mouse and its habitat have been controversial, and in November 2007 the Fish and Wildlife Service “delisted” the mouse from protection in Wyoming, while reaffirming the protection in Colorado.

In partnership with Center for Native Ecosystems, SkyTruth decided to take a look at what’s been happening in the “critical habitat” areas in Colorado. We overlaid those areas on the high-resolution satellite imagery in Google Earth, and found 25 places where development of some kind already existed or has since occurred within the critical habitat. The Google images are probably no more than a few years old; this example shows a new subdivision obviously under construction that is encroaching on a critical-habitat zone. It certainly looks like the mouse is losing the battle.

Google Earth users can explore this for themselves using the KMZ file we created. And all are welcome to browse our online image gallery: click on any image in the gallery to see a bigger version with a descriptive caption; then click on “Large” to see an even bigger pic.

Roan Plateau, Colorado – Drill It, Too?

Lots of controversy surrounding the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s plan to allow drilling for natural gas on top of the stunning Roan Plateau in western Colorado. The governor asked for extra time to review the plan, and sportsmen’s groups have taken a stand against drilling. Even surrounding towns have adopted resolutions against drilling the Plateau.

It’s not as if Colorado is unfriendly to drilling: the foot of the Plateau is busy with rigs, as is private land up on top. This area, known to geologists as the Piceance Basin, is one of the most active natural-gas plays in the nation. Check out the SkyTruth image gallery to see the scope of drilling impacts on the landscape here. Lots of satellite images showing the spread of drilling over time, and great aerial shots with more detail taken by our friends at EcoFlight.

Oil Spill Season

Wow, what the heck is goin’ on in our oceans?

This has been an awful two months for oil spills, starting in late October with the Pemex oil platform accident and continuing crude-oil spill in the southern Gulf of Mexico; a huge oil tanker spill in the Black Sea; the comparatively small, yet still quite damaging, Cosco Busan fuel-oil spill in San Francisco Bay; a major spill, the worst ever in South Korea, that’s destroyed shellfishing grounds and coated beaches; and now, a 1-million-plus-gallon crude-oil spill by Statoil, the state oil company of Norway, in the North Sea.

Cumulatively these spills represent more than 6 million gallons of oil. What a mess. As a California state official noted, the ecological effects of these spills continues for years, even decades, long after our attention has drifted elsewhere…

Hurricane Katrina – Gulf of Mexico Oil Spills

Speaking of oil spills, SkyTruth images revealed significant spills covering a large area of the northern Gulf of Mexico in the wake of Hurricane Katrina back in 2005. At the time, nobody was talking about what had happened to the 4,000 offshore oil platforms – and 34,000 miles of pipeline on the seafloor – when Katrina ripped through the Gulf as a Cat 5 storm, followed a few weeks later by Hurricane Rita. Attention was rightly focused on the unfolding human tragedy, as well as the 7-9 million gallons of oil spilled from damaged pipelines, refineries and storage tanks onshore.

But for months after the storms, officials from government and industry repeatedly claimed that there were no “significant” spills in the Gulf. That line is still heard even now. Yet in May 2006, the U.S. Minerals Management Service published their offshore damage assessment: 113 platforms totally destroyed, and – more importantly – 457 pipelines damaged, 101 of those major lines with 10″ or larger diameter. At least 741,000 gallons were spilled from 124 reported sources (the Coast Guard calls anything over 100,000 gallons a “major” spill).

 

Wells and platforms were shut down before the storm, so leakage from those facilities was minimal. Pipelines were shut down too. But what the officials failed to mention is they don’t require industry to “purge” pipelines before a severe storm – so they were probably still loaded with oil, gas or liquid gas condensate. Any section of pipeline that was breached leaked all of that product into the Gulf within hours of the storm. That’s what we think accounts for the widespread slicks seen on the imagery from September 1 and 2, covering hundreds of square miles and obviously emanating from many points of origin. These slicks dispersed after several days of high winds offshore, as shown by our followup imagery taken on September 12, but a few problems remained as evidenced by ongoing leaks from wrecked platforms.

 

This report from MMS details the pipeline damage that occurred.

San Francisco Bay – Cosco Busan Oil Spill

On November 7 a transoceanic container ship called the Cosco Busan hit one of the supports for the SF – Oakland Bay Bridge, tearing a big gash in the side of the vessel and spilling 58,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil into the Bay. At first the Coast Guard seriously underestimated the size of the spill, and it took a couple of hours before containment and cleanup crews were on the scene. By then the oil had spread, and over the following week it traveled throughout much of the Bay and even out into the Pacific Ocean, washing up on beaches over a wide area.

We had a radar imaging satellite (named, appropriately enough, “Radarsat“) take a picture as it orbited over the San Francisco Bay five days later. Defenders of Wildlife, Ocean Conservancy and San Francisco Baykeeper helped pay for the image, which showed numerous slicks in the Bay and beyond the Golden Gate. Check out our gallery and the press release from Ocean Conservancy, and this video showing why the failure to contain the spill promptly lead to a much more widespread impact.

For you Google Earth users (and there are more of you every day!), we also produced this KMZ file. The story told by the imagery is summed up well by Warner Chabot at Ocean Conservancy: “…containing the oil in the first two hours is 100 times more important than chasing it all over the San Francisco Bay for the next two weeks.” Two Bay-area stations used our images in their November 20 broadcasts – CBS 5 news at noon (watch the story), and ABC 7 news at 5pm.

UPDATE 7/17/2009: The skipper of the Cosco Busan, John Cota, was just given a 10-month jail sentence for negligence leading to the illegal discharge of 53,000 gallons of oil into the Bay.