Photo of flooding aftermath in West Virginia

Come Hell & High Water: Flooding in West Virginia

In late June devastating flooding hit many communities across southern West Virginia resulting in over 20 fatalities and complete destruction of homes and businesses across the Mountain State. Because we are located in West Virginia and have been studying mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining across Appalachia, we’ve received a number of questions about what role MTR mining may have played in this recent disaster.

Depending on the amount of mining in the impacted watersheds, the quality of existing baseline data, and the number of measurements taken during and after the flood, scientists may not find a “smoking gun” directly linking the severity of this flood event with MTR mining. But let us take a look at what we do know about the relationship between flooding and MTR mining.

Drainage Sketches

 

If you are familiar with stormwater runoff issues then you have probably seen a diagram like the one above. Soil and vegetation absorb water. Impervious surfaces, like rock and pavement, do not. Since blasting off ridge tops to reach seams of buried coal strips the mountains of soil and vegetation, it seems logical that MTR mining would contribute to more intense flash floods. But even after decades of study there are a surprising number of gaps in our understanding of exactly how mining alters flooding.

Photo of flooding aftermath around Clendenin, W.Va.

Debris and mud are strewn around Clendenin, W.Va., after flood waters receded. Photo by Sam Owens, courtesy Charleston Gazette-Mail.

Research conducted so far suggests that MTR mining can contribute to greater flooding during intense rainfall events, but some studies actually found less severe flooding in watersheds with mining. Several of these studies suggested that valley-fills and underground mine workings have the ability to retain water, which may account for less severe “peaks” during moderately severe storms. If you want to dig into the details, I recommend starting with the summary of hydrological studies on MTR contained in Table 1 of this paper by Dr. Nicholas Zegre and Andrew Miller from West Virginia University.

What most of these studies have in common is that the researchers must at least know where mining occurred and how much surface area was impacted by said mining. This is where our work here at SkyTruth comes into play because we’ve been mapping the when, where, and how much of MTR mining for over forty years.

Thanks to a satellite record going back to the 1970’s, SkyTruth can look back in time to measure the footprint of mining in Appalachia. We continue to make this data freely available for research, and so far our decade-by-decade analysis has been cited in at least six peer-reviewed studies on the environmental and public health impacts of MTR. These studies investigate everything from the increased risk of birth defects and depression to impacts on biodiversity and hydrology. But clearly there are still many unanswered questions left to research.

Finally, it is worth noting that much of the rainfall (left) was concentrated on Greenbrier County, a part of the state with relatively little MTR mining. Neighboring Nicholas County, however, does have some large mines so it may be possible for hydrologists to diagnose and measure the difference in flooding between mined and unmined watersheds which received equivalent rainfall. But that will take time to decipher and analyze.

In the meantime, SkyTruth and our partners at Appalachian Voices and Duke University are working this summer  to update and refine our data about the spread of MTR mining in Appalachia. The resulting data will allow more comprehensive and more accurate research on the effects of MTR mining. Our vision is for this research and resulting studies on the impacts of MTR to lead to better decision-making about flood hazards, future mine permits, and mine reclamation.

Impact Story: BP Spill — Using Science to Hold BP and Federal Regulators Accountable

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Within a day of the April 20, 2010 explosion on BP’s Deepwater Horizon drill rig in the Gulf of Mexico, we began our high tech surveillance of the spill. Examining satellite images and aerial survey data, SkyTruth quickly became a leading source of independent, unbiased information on the size and scope of the disaster.

It was the largest oil spill in the nation’s history, releasing almost five million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. As bad as it was, it could have been even worse. Had BP continued to downplay the extent of the disaster, delaying mobilization of the appropriate response, it may have taken even longer than the 87 days it took to cap the well. Our work challenged the official story, spurred government science agencies to get off the sidelines,  and opened a public dialogue about the magnitude of the risk posed by modern offshore drilling..

Throughout the spring and into mid-summer of 2010, as BP’s disabled well continued to pump oil into the Gulf, SkyTruth president John Amos was quoted in hundreds of news reports, and his interpretation and analysis of the raw imagery helped policy makers, the press and the general public make sense of events as they unfolded.

SkyTruth also played a vital watchdog role. One week after the accident, we raised concerns that the amount of oil spilling into the Gulf was likely much higher than the 1,000 barrels-a-day estimated by BP and repeated by government officials. The New York Times and other media outlets picked up the analysis published on the SkyTruth blog on April 27. The next day, government officials publicly broke ranks with BP and raised its estimate to 5,000 barrels a day, the amount we had initially calculated.

John and other independent experts kept the issue in the headlines by presenting new estimates of 20,000 and then 26,500 barrels per day as new images and data became available, leading the public to question whether BP was low-balling the spill rate. On May 4th, the company privately acknowledged the possibility that the well was likely gushing as much as 60,000 barrels of oil a day, 10 times more than the government had previously estimated.  (Later, the government’s scientific teams concluded that the higher estimate was closer to the truth; they estimated that 53,000 barrels were leaking each day immediately before the well was capped on July 15.)

image gallery

While NASA and the governments of several foreign countries made their satellite images freely available, without organizations like SkyTruth to interpret those images, the public may have never known the true impact of the spill.

Equally important, we invited people directly into the conversation. Tens of thousands visited our website, blog, Twitter and Facebook pages. During the first ten days of June, for instance, our Blog received more than 70,000 visits – 25,000 in a single day. Meanwhile, our Oil Spill Tracker site, deployed on the fly in the first days of the spill, allowed Gulf residents to act as citizen journalists posting commentary and observations, as well as photos and videos of oil awash on the beaches and petroleum-drenched wildlife.

Oceanographer Ian R. MacDonald, who collaborated with the organization during the three-month Gulf spill and an earlier one in Australia’s Timor Sea in 2009, likens SkyTruth’s mission to that of “a fire truck.”

“When there’s an emergency, SkyTruth is there,” says MacDonald, a professor at Florida State University and one of the world’s foremost experts in remote sensing of oil slicks. “From the beginning of the BP spill to the end, SkyTruth was a public source of very timely raw satellite images and interpreted products, as well as a thoughtful commentary that pulled in the views of other people.”

Oily globs close SoCal beaches – Where did they come from?

Yesterday afternoon oily globs from an unknown source began washing ashore in Southern California, prompting officials to close Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, and Redondo Beach. Reports saytar-like globs ranging from the size of golf balls to footballs began washing ashore along a six-mile stretch of coastline.” The U.S. Coast Guard has yet to identify a source, but did confirm the material was a petroleum-based product. Last week a pipeline spill of over 100,000 gallons of crude oil west of Santa Barbara dominated the headlines, so there has been some speculation that this oil came from that spill. However, thanks to satellite imagery, we believe we have found a more likely source. 

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This image was collected at 6:52 am PDT on May 26 by Sentinel 1A, a radar satellite operated by the European Space Agency. Lifeguards at Manhattan Beach first reported the “tar-balls” washing ashore around 12:30 pm PDT, approximately 30 hours later. The image appears to show an oily slick only six miles west of Manhattan Beach and covering approximately 1,000 acres of Santa Monica Bay.    

Sometimes we see bilge dumps from passing vessels (like this 90-mile spill off the coast of Angola), but this slick doesn’t appear to have any vessel associated with it and it isn’t the right shape. So we started looking for any infrastructure around Santa Monica that could be the source of this pollution event. That is when we found this map of the five-mile sewage outfall from the Hyperion Wastewater Treatment plant at Playa del Ray. Take a look at what the outfall pipe looks like on the bathymetry layer in Google Earth. 

Hyperion_Outfall_GE


To see if this pipe might have anything to do with our suspected oil slick we digitized the outline of the Hyperion 5-Mile Outfall and brought that into QGIS to lay on top of the imagery from Sentinel 1A.

Santa_Monica_Sentinel_w_Hyperion

 

The southern diffuser leg of the Hyperion 5-Mile Outfall is less than 900 meters from the northern edge of the suspected oil slick.

Given how close the slick is to the Hyperion 5-Mile Outfall, we believe this could be a source for the contaminants washing up on Manhattan, Hermosa, and Redondo Beaches. It is not impossible that tarballs from the pipeline spill at Refugio Beach State Park travelled over 100 miles to wash up en mass on these beaches, but it seems less likely than a discharge of some kind from the Hyperion Wastewater Treatment plant. 

Furthermore, we found more evidence which supports the notion that waste from the outfalls could reach shore given the right conditions. Back in 2006 the City of Los Angeles shut down Hyperion’s 5-mile outfall for inspection, diverting the wastewater to the shorter 1-mile outfall. Scientists at the Southern California Coastal Ocean Observing System (SCCOOS) tracked the waste from the shorter outflow pipe and modeled the behavior of the plume. Bear in mind that the animation below shows the behavior of a pollution plume back in Winter 2006 from a point-source four miles closer to shore, but you can see how it is possible that waste from the outfalls could turn toward shore and contaminate the beaches.

 
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See more about the Hyperion outfalls at the SCCOOS website, and let us know if you have any additional information about this pollution event or the Hyperion Wastewater Treatment Plant.

3,300 ft. Fissure in the Mexican Desert: No Locusts, But You Should Still ‘Freak Out’

Last week video emerged of a giant fissure in the Northern Mexican desert, 3,300 feet long and up to 25 feet deep. Speculation centered at first around an earthquake, but the region is not known for seismic activity. I personally checked out the USGS earthquake data because the Buena Vista Copper mine (the fourth largest in the world by output) is only about 150 miles north of the enormous crack, and earlier this month they spilled 40,000 cubic meters of sulphuric acid into two rivers during the worst spill in Mexico’s modern mining history. But I found no reports of tremors in the region and authorities were skeptical that this had anything to do with an earthquake.

Fast forward to yesterday (August 26, 2014), the Washington Post posted a story with this headline: “Why no one should freak out about the giant crack that opened in the Mexico desert.The Post reports:

The chair of the geology department at the University of Sonora, in the northern Mexican state where this “topographic accident” emerged, said that the fissure was likely caused by sucking out groundwater for irrigation to the point the surface collapsed.

“This is no cause for alarm,” Inocente Guadalupe Espinoza Maldonado said. “These are normal manifestations of the destabilization of the ground.” 

I’m sorry, no. These are not normal manifestations of natural activity, this is the result of human activity run amok. Just because Cthulhu isn’t clambering out of the breach to wreak havoc on humankind DOES NOT MEAN we shouldn’t be alarmed by the fact we’ve sucked so much water out of the ground that the surface of the earth is collapsing. 

Barely a month ago NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory warned of ‘shocking’ groundwater losses in the Colorado River basin, a major watershed to the north of Sonora with similar climate and landuse. Using gravitational data from the satellite-based Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) instrument, scientists found “the basin lost nearly 53 million acre feet (65 cubic kilometers) of freshwater. That’s almost double the volume of the nation’s largest reservoir, Nevada’s Lake Mead. More than three-quarters of the total — about 41 million acre feet (50 cubic kilometers) — was from groundwater.”


NASA’s measurements of groundwater based on gravity. Areas in red show a deficit in groundwater, blue indicates surplus.    Image Credit: NASA/JPL

The Post also reports that cotton used to be a major crop, but intrusion of saltwater from the Sea of Cortez caused some areas to become unusable for agriculture. However, there is still plenty of large-scale agriculture as evidenced by the Landsat image below.

 Image Credit: NASA/USGS via SkyTruth
(Above) Hermosillo region of Sonora, Mexico, as seen by Landsat 8, on August 17, 2014. Bright green rectangles in the middle of the desert are irrigated fields. However, around the green fields, there appear to many fields that are not being irrigated this season – seen as tan rectangles with a faint grid of roads in between parcels. The blue geometric shapes on the left appear to be salt-drying pans.  
 
Groundwater reserves can take centuries to recharge, so industrial-scale extraction of water for big agriculture in the middle of the desert cannot continue forever. In the US, water managers are facing an uphill battle to control water use in the Colorado River Basin and from the Ogallala Aquifer which stretches from Texas to South Dakota. Factor in that hydraulic fracturing is permanently removing water from the hydrological cycle in some of the most drought-stressed regions of the West, and you have a serious problem. 
 
To be clear, the southwestern US and western Mexico are not necessarily about to fall in on themselves all at once, but they are struggling to support large-scale agriculture, enormous demand for water from a revitalized onshore oil and gas industry, and a growing population. Maybe this chasm in the desert doesn’t herald the coming of Judgement Day, but perhaps we should be ‘freaking out’ about our poor judgement.

Fatal Landslide in Washington State

Sad news from Washington State this weekend, after a major landslide killed several people near the town of Oso. We’re hoping the missing are soon accounted for and are alive and well.  

Geologically speaking, landslides are commonplace throughout the Pacific Northwest which mostly sits on a thick pile of unstable layers of volcanic ash, tuff, and debris flows that are regularly shaken by earthquakes.  

But when we looked at imagery of this area, we were a bit surprised there were clear warning signs:  this same area has slid before, quite dramatically, just a few years ago in January 2006. That 2006 slide temporarily dammed the river and posed a serious threat of flooding, just like this weekend’s tragic repeat.  Looking at this time-series of high resolution aerial images in Google Earth, and the low-altitude air photo of the slide, it seems clear that this is dangerous terrain to build around. But as they say, hindsight is 20-20:

Site of fatal landslide as it looked in 2005. Steelhead Drive, where several homes were hit by the flow of mud and rock, is marked for comparison to this annotated air photo of the slide area.
Same area in 2006, after a slide that occurred in January 2006. Bright area is bare rock and soil exposed by the slide, which temporarily dammed the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River.
Same area in 2007. Vegetation is beginning to cover the landslide debris, and the river is adjusting to the new channel.  Hydraulic pressure from the river is maximized along the outside edge of a meander bend, tending to undercut the landslide debris on the north bank of the river.
Same area in 2013. New growth covers most of the 2006 landslide, but the headwall escarpment (bright area of bare rock) remains unstabilized and prone to failure.

[Updated] Are Anomalous Fires on N. Sentinel Island Associated with Flight MH 370?

Update – 6:00 pm June, 5, 2014: The answer to the titular question is apparently “No.” The search has been narrowed to the southern Indian Ocean, far from the Bay of Bengal. While the fires are clearly not associated with MH370, the observations described here are peculiar and possibly caused by other human activity such as illegal logging. See also our cautionary post on all the satellite images of “debris” that eventually turned up nothing.
 
Update – 12:00 pm March 17, 2014: Clarification on nighttime fire detections. There have been a few nighttime fire detections from the island by the VIIRS instrument on March 6th and in late January. According to our review, there have been no MODIS detections of fires from this island prior to March 10th.
 
Update – 4:38 pm March 17, 2014: Added animation from the World Wide Lightning Location Network (WWLLN) eliminating the possibility that the fires were started by natural causes. 
 
We’ve already done several posts on the mysterious disappearance of Flight MH370, mainly pointing out how many gaps there are in our observation of Planet Earth. (see John’s quote in the Washington Post). But thanks to the keen eyes of a skytruther named Emily, we have a lead on something very interesting in the Bay of Bengal that has peculiar correlation to the timeline of MH370’s disappearance.

 

from Wikimedia Commons

On March 8th, sometime between 12 and 15 hours after the Boeing 777 disappeared from secondary radar, a very distinct plume of smoke appeared on MODIS imagery from the north side of North Sentinel Island (part of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Union Territories of India). The island is solely occupied by an indigenous people known as the Sentinelese who have categorically rejected almost all contact with the outside world. Except for a series of friendly visits in the 1990’s from Dr. Trilokinath Pandit of the Anthropological Survey of India, they have greeted all outsiders with a hail of arrows. In 1981 they forced a hasty evacuation from a grounded cargo vessel still visible in Google Maps, (click the link and look on the NW corner of the island) and spurned a helicopter checking to see if they survived the 2004 Tsunami. Scanning the island, it is clear the island shows no evidence of agriculture, only sand beaches and dense tropical forest canopy. Anthropologists report they are technically a stone age tribe (though they use repurposed bits of metal from shipwrecks) and while they posses fire, did not know how to make it.

So back to the modern era. At 4:30 GMT, NASA’s Terra satellite recorded, as always, a quiet, smokeless image of the remote island. But a mere 3 hours later, when Aqua passed overhead at 7:35 GMT, the satellite captured this image of a distinct smoke plume.

The following day, Landsat 8 acquired an image of the island, and while no smoke was visible, a roughly 40 hectare (over 123 acre) burn scar cuts into the dense interior canopy of the island. Below you can scroll between a reference image from February 5th (on the right) and the Landsat 8 image acquired on March 9 (on the left). Click here to open a larger image with the burn scars outlined.

This is a false-color (Bands 7-5-1) contrast-enhanced image, which exaggerates the reflectance of light in the near-infrared wavelengths so that healthy vegetation appears exceptionally green, while burn scars and bare earth or sand appear reddish-orange. 

Finally, infrared sensors aboard the MODIS satellites and NOAA’s Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) instrument on the Suomi NPP satellite detected fires on the north side of this island from March 8-10. We reviewed the past three months and March 2013, and found no other fires on North Sentinel Island detected by MODIS. However, there was a VIIRS nighttime fire detections on the north side of the island on March 6th, as well as a few in late January which are consistent with the coastal burn scars visible in the Landsat image from February.

So what is going on? Well there are a few possibilities, but nothing concrete…

Could this be connected to the disappearance of MH370?  Indian Naval officials dismissed earlier reports of the smoke from the island, saying it was just the natives burning grassland. Except as far as we can see on the recent Landsat imagery, and the 2011high-resolution DigitalGlobe satellite imagery of the island in Google Maps/Earth, there is no grassland on the island. 

Could this isolated tribe have recently reached the anthropological milestone of experimenting with slash-and-burn agriculture? There is no obvious sign of intentional land clearing on the high-resolution imagery of the island from December 2011.

Perhaps the fires were accidental, set off by out-of-control campfire. But this appears to be dense tropical jungle without any obvious historical burn scars.

We’re looking into this, including trying to access a global lightning strike database so we can determine if the fire was associated with a brief but intense weather event.  But please let us know what you think in the comments below. 

[March 17, 2014 – 4:00] Since lightning is the most logical explanation for the cause of these fires, we turned to the experts who track lightning strikes around the world. Dr. Robert Holzworth, director of the World Wide Lightning Location Network (WWLLN) at the University of Washington provided the image below, writing, “it is clear that the lightning pattern at this time involves a band of convective clouds off the west coast of Sumatra extending across the Indian Ocean at that latitude. Therefore, I can say with high confidence that there was no evidence of any lightning within 200 km of N. Sentinel Island.”


Dr. Holzworth looked as far back as March 1, but found no evidence of lightning strikes within 200 km of the island in the week preceding the fire. While he noted that no network can detect every single lightning stroke, there are no significant weather systems in the Bay of Bengal at the time in question. You can read more about the accuracy of their system in the Journal of Oceanic and Atmospheric Technology and see a visualization of the last 30 minutes of lighting strike data at – http://wwlln.net/new/map/.

Don’t forget, you can check out the same imagery we use from the USGS, NASA, and NOAA, and if you are in a position to pass this along to anyone involved in the search effort who might find it interesting, please do so!

Latitude/Longitude Coordinates for North Sentinel Island: 11.563285, 92.236034

The Search for Flight MH370: Nighttime Satellite Imagery

Still no sign of Flight MH370.  

It’s a bracing reminder that the 21st century information-and-technology blanket we’ve wrapped ourselves in still has a few gaping holes.  High-resolution satellite imagery isn’t yet continuous and ubiquitous – not even close.  We’re still too often in response mode when something like this occurs, scrambling to deploy the information-gathering tools long after the event occurred and the evidence has faded. If somebody didn’t have the awesome foresight to program an imaging satellite, days in advance, so it was ready to snap that critical picture in exactly the right place at exactly the right time, that image never comes into existence. 

But we do have some pretty cool tools nonetheless.  Thanks to the helpful suggestion of a SkyTruth fan (let us know if you don’t mind us sharing your name!), we’ve been looking at the “Nightfire” nightly fire-detection product coming from data collected by the VIIRS instrument on the Suomi-NPP satellite operated by NOAA. That’s a lot of capital letters, but you’ve seen this stuff before if you’ve been following our blog. These data indicate sources of combustion, and measure the temperature of those fires.  Our assumption is, if the flight went down shortly after air traffic control’s last contact at 17:30 GMT on Friday, March 7, we might see an isolated fire from that wreck site for a short period of time.  Maybe one or two days if it crashed over land; less than a day if it hit the water (and didn’t immediately sink).  So we looked for short-term, isolated fire-detections that were in remote areas over land, or on the water, within 20 miles of the expected flight path and the western deviation implied by some inconclusive Malaysian military radar data.

Some caveats and disclaimers: 1) Our work with the VIIRS data is by no means exhaustive or comprehensive. So feel free to take a crack at it yourself.  2)  The VIIRS Nightfire product is still experimental, and fires can be obscured by clouds and go undetected. And this is a pretty cloudy part of the world.  3)  There are lots of fires in this area: gas flaring from the many offshore oil platforms in the Gulf of Thailand, intentional fires set to clear land for farming, and wildfires.  

Anyway, we’ve found a few interesting things during our cursory look at the Nightfire detections. Please share this with anyone who might be in a position to actually use this information.

Overview showing all Nightfire detections on March 8, 2014. Bold orange line shows our approximation of the expected flight path from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.  Bold red line shows our approximation of the deviation from that flight path that was suggested by eyewitness reports of a jet flying low over Kota Bharu, and Malaysian military radar contact of an unidentified aircraft near Pulau Perak Island. Other points of interest marked and explained in a previous blog post





Gulf of Thailand — we only found one combustion source we can’t confidently explain, although it’s in the general vicinity of offshore oil platforms that are flaring gas on a regular basis, and Landsat-8 imagery indicates there may be a platform at this location:

Detail showing all Nightfire detections for March 5 – March 11 over Gulf of Thailand. All but one of these sources (see below) is persistent, occurring on multiple days; they are probably gas flares at offshore oil platforms.
Location and temperature information for the only single-night combustion source detected in the Gulf of Thailand near the expected flight path. Fire detected by VIIRS on March 8 at 18:36 GMT, 21 hours after last ATC contact with the flight.  A persistent multi-night combustion source 11 nautical miles north-northwest of this location is probably a large manned oil platform.

Western Deviation — we found three single-night combustion events detected by VIIRS in very rugged, remote, forested areas along our approximation (red line) of the supposed western deviation from the flight path:

Nightfire detections of combustion sources along the supposed western deviation (approximated by red line) from the flight path. Dark green shows large areas of thick forest.

Isolated, single-night combustion source on a remote peak in rugged forested terrain of western Malaysia, detected by VIIRS on March 8 at 18:36 GMT.  See below for location.
Location and temperature information for combustion source shown above.
A second isolated, single-night combustion source in rugged forested terrain of western Malaysia, detected by VIIRS on March 9 at 18:18 GMT.  See below for location.
Location and temperature information for second combustion source, shown above.
A third single-night combustion source on a peak in rugged forested terrain of western Malaysia, detected by VIIRS on March 9 at 18:18 GMT.  See below for location.
Location and temperature information for third combustion source, shown above.


Cambodia — if Flight MH370 actually crossed the Gulf of Thailand and came down on land somewhere along the expected flight path to Beijing, there are large, remote blocks of dense forest where it could have “disappeared.”  We found several single-night combustion sources in Cambodia that meet these conditions, and show one of these below (to repeat, we have not done an exhaustive analysis, and are providing this work only as an example of what can be done with publicly available satellite data — and what we hope is being done, in a rigorous and systematic way, by the authorities conducting the search):

Nightfire detections for March 5 – March 11 along expected path of Flight MH370 (approximated by orange line) as it traveled from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Heavily forested areas are dark green.
Location and temperature information for a combustion source detected by VIIRS on March 8 at 18:34 GMT, on a densely forested, isolated ridge in north-central Cambodia, shown above.