SkyTruth Board Member Darshan Karwat: Reimagining Engineering

Darshan Karwat wants to put social and environmental justice at the heart of engineering.

Darshan Karwat thinks big. Really big. Like as big as the cosmos. Or like reinventing an entire profession. So he asks a lot of questions. Questions that challenge conventional thinking. Questions that many people have never even thought about.

Darshan is an Assistant Professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, College of Global Futures at Arizona State University (ASU).  He’s also a SkyTruth board member.  At ASU, Darshan runs re-Engineered, which his website describes as “…an experiment in an interdisciplinary engineering profession that embeds social justice, peace, and ecological holism at the very heart of technical design and decision making.”

When I asked him what this means, Darshan provided an example: He said he believes that most engineers choose their profession to make a positive difference in the world. But when they leave school, job opportunities are limited, often focusing on work that makes the most money such as weapons systems or drilling and mining for big corporations. This can cause  some engineers to leave the profession and others to just take these jobs regardless, because they studied engineering and need to make a living. They might not admit that somewhere along the way they lost their passion for their work. 

“That’s not to say that some amazing work isn’t happening,” he says. But I do feel that as engineers we might be telling ourselves the work we do is making the world a better place. When it comes down to it, is that actually true?  Is it? Are we having the beneficial impact we claim that we’re having?”

Darshan notes that the world we live in has largely been created by, designed by, and built by engineers. Therefore, the world that we desire — one that is just for all people, environmentally sustainable, and peaceful — is going to have to be built as well, and engineers should be at the heart of it.

Darshan conducting combustion chemistry experiments at the University of Michigan. Photo by Scott Wagnon.

How can engineering promote these things? One way, according to Darshan, is to stop doing work that promotes weapons production and technological development that leads to violent conflict and horrible pollution.

Another way is to consider design. Darshan wants to include people who traditionally have been excluded from the design process.

I think we should ask during the engineering design process: In what ways does this design actually promote social justice and not injustice?” he says. For example, instead of designing phones or electric cars for people with a lot of money to spend, what if we design them for people of modest means?  What about electric vehicles for people who can’t afford the latest Tesla? “To what extent do we care that people in inner city Detroit have access to electric cars?” Darshan asks. “If that’s a goal, it influences how we design cars.”

Then there’s space. Darshan earned his Ph.D. in aerospace engineering and environmental ethics from the University of Michigan and has been fascinated by rockets, space, and stars since he was two years old. He is still fascinated and hopes one day to do more in aerospace engineering.  Amidst the current discussions about going to Mars he asks: “Who is that for? I do believe that what goes on beyond the earthly realms ought to be for all of us. It’s something that inspires all of us. If so, then in what ways are we designing space systems or policy for everyone rather than just as a playground for the wealthy? 

He notes that we haven’t really asked people how space matters to them, but cites the Hubble telescope as an example of aerospace engineering that likely benefited everyone. According to NASA, in the 30 years since its launch, Hubble has made more than 1.4 million observations, sent back stunning images of stars, galaxies, and other astronomical objects, and deepened humanity’s understanding of the cosmos.  In contrast, Darshan notes that many visions for the future of space travel rely on privatizing space, not on the ways in which space is for all of our imaginations. 

So how does an aerospace engineer who dreamed of space as a boy growing up in Mumbai, India lead a movement to reshape an entire profession? Darshan says he was sensitized to environmental issues early on because of the poor air quality in Mumbai. As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan he became an environmental student activist. And he became aware that a lot of what we know about what’s happening on earth comes from satellites. For his senior project, he helped design an earth imaging orbitor.

When the time came for graduate school he chose a project related to climate change; namely, the combustion chemistry of biofuels (an alternative to fossil fuels). Then, a class on the history of science and technology triggered his thinking about the values people bring to science and engineering. And so his doctoral dissertation also looked critically at engineers in the biofuel and aviation industries and their motivation, asking engineers basic questions such as:  Why are you doing this?  And how are you doing this? His work explored how engineers view climate change: It is just another  technological problem to solve? Or is it something completely new and different?

After completing his Ph.D., Darshan moved  to Washington, D.C., as an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Fellow. There, he worked on low-cost air sensors and climate resilience at the Environmental Protection Agency and on ocean wave energy devices at the Department of Energy before heading to ASU.

Darshan characterizes his team’s work as aspirational and nascent (he started at ASU in 2017). He established Project Confluence to work with communities and ask key questions about the challenges they face, particularly as they relate to environment, climate, and energy. Right now, his small team (a postdoctoral fellow, a graduate student, and an undergraduate) is also working collaboratively with a community group on understanding the intersection of air pollution, energy justice, and social justice in historically marginalized parts of Phoenix. Through geospatial analysis, his team is taking data that is generally inaccessible to the public, analyzing who is being burdened with environmental harms, and exploring what community assets might be mobilized to address those harms. He’s given several presentations to community stakeholders taking his team’s research directly to the people who asked for it. 

Darshan talking about the role of engineering in society during the opening of re:Engineered’s public art installation called “When Mental Walls Lead to Physical Walls.” Photo by Tanya Harrison.

His lab is also asking broader questions to understand the potential for scaling up community-based engineering. That is, how can more engineers actually do community-based, environmental and social justice work?  Darshan notes that existing programs helping engineers find this kind of work are too small. 

“Why aren’t hundreds or thousands of engineers across the US doing this kind of work?” he asks. “When you look at lead pollution or air quality around industrial facilities, fracking across Pennsylvania and elsewhere, the scale of the energy transitions required in rural and urban communities in the US…that’s the scale of the challenge, and that points to the number of engineers needing to engage. And how do we design a financially viable system of engineering and science to serve a community in Appalachia or Lubbock, Texas, or elsewhere where there’s opportunity for this?”

To that end, his team has been surveying engineers. Darshan thinks they’ve identified five primary reasons why scientists and engineers aren’t doing environmental and social justice work. Time and money are part of it. But they’ve discovered that engineers often don’t feel equipped to do this kind of work, even when they want to. They see it as outside their skill set or comfort zone. Or, they look at the world in a totally different way from the communities they would serve, making it difficult to collaborate. His team has a paper coming out soon in the journal Earth’s Future elaborating on these findings.

In addition, Darshan is a coordinator of the Constellation Prize to recognize engineers and their collaborators working for environmental protection, social justice, human rights, and peace.  (Nominations close October 31, 2020.)

Lastly, Darshan leads SkyTruth’s Opportunities Committee to help our board think creatively about how SkyTruth can engage different kinds of partners, ask different kinds of questions, and push us in new directions. One of the things that excites him about working with SkyTruth is learning how space-based data informs our ability to protect the Earth.  “Seeing that unfold is super inspiring,” he says. “Super super inspiring.  What SkyTruth is doing is really cool and needs to happen more, needs to be supported more.” 

At SkyTruth, we’re thrilled to have Darshan as part of our brain trust. We believe we are contributing to his vision by providing engineers and others the opportunity to create a greener, healthier, more just world, and innovating new approaches to using satellite data to accomplish this. Our internships give advanced undergraduate and graduate students real world professional experience and energize them to make the world a better place. But as Darshan notes, plenty of other opportunities exist —or can exist —for engineers to do good in the world. They just have to think big.

And ask a lot of questions.

SkyTruth’s Project Inambari Wins at Artisanal Mining Challenge for Rainforest Conservation

SkyTruth and partners at Wake Forest University and the Center for Amazonian Scientific Innovation win funding for a public map platform to track mining in the Amazon.

In southeastern Peru the eastern slopes of the Andes have been known as a gold producing region going back to the time of Incas. There, wild torrential rivers drop down in narrow gorges from the high Andes before feeding into the broad meandering tributaries of the Amazon. For millennia these waters have carried tiny flecks of gold which have slowly accumulated in river banks and soil.

This gold now places at risk one of our planet’s most remote and biodiverse rainforests. In the past few decades thousands of migrants have come to this once isolated region hoping to escape poverty with work in informal gold mining operations which have spread out from the muddy banks of once pristine rivers into the dense tropical forest. While gold has brought prosperity to some, the consequences for local communities have been severe. They include large scale devastation of natural habitats and contamination from the mercury used in extracting gold. This contamination now poisons fish and people who have long depended on the river for sustenance.

Drone footage of the La Pampa mining area in Madre de Dios, Peru from June 2019 following Peru’s Operation Mercury against illegal mining. Video courtesy of CINCIA.

On September 30, SkyTruth, along with its partners at Wake Forest University and the Center for Amazonian Scientific Innovation (CINCIA) were selected as a winner at the Artisanal Mining Grand Challenge for our proposal to develop a public map that tracks mining in the Amazon using satellite radar imagery. We call this effort Project Inambari after one of the rivers in the region that has been particularly devastated by illegal and unregulated gold mining.

My interest in a monitoring project in this area began in 2017, when I had a chance to travel to the city of Puerto Maldonado in Peru’s southern jungle and see for myself the devastating consequences of illegal mining. A new highway connecting Peru’s highlands and Pacific coast to Brazil had opened up the area to a flood of migrants looking for better pay in areas made newly accessible for mining and logging. Environmental devastation, crime, and forced labor attracted global attention to the area — even a visit from Pope Francis in January 2018. During my visit I was able to connect with researchers at CINCIA who were beginning to tackle the daunting question of how to restore a landscape stripped of topsoil and littered with toxic pools. 

At SkyTruth, we approached this challenge by exploring how radar satellite imagery could detect illegal mining activities in vast, remote, and often cloudy rainforest areas. SkyTruth has worked extensively with satellite radar for two marine applications: mapping offshore infrastructure and detecting slicks from vessels dumping oily bilge at sea. I was intrigued when I found a demonstration of automated land cover classification using the same satellite radar source, Sentinel-1 from the European Space Agency. I showed this to SkyTruth Geospatial Engineer Christian Thomas. Christian leads SkyTruth’s effort to map the expansion of mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia. In the Amazon, radar has the advantage of penetrating the frequent clouds that cover the forest during the rainy season and make it difficult to monitor using optical imagery. Christian was able to get promising results using the same classification methods to show the expansion of mining in the Madre de Dios region of southern Peru, where the Inambari River meets the Madre de Dios River. 

Then, in January 2020 we learned from one of our colleagues at the Wildlife Conservation Society about the Artisanal Mining Grand Challenge, an opportunity to win support for innovative technology projects addressing artisanal mining. We decided to enter our proposal for a satellite radar-based detection map. 

Watch a video of SkyTruth’s Bjorn Bergman explaining the inspiration for Project Inambari and what we hope the project can accomplish.

For the initial March 2020 ASM Grand Challenge deadline we prepared a written application detailing how our public monitoring map proposal could protect biodiversity, water quality, and human security in addition to outlining our plans for technical development, adoption, and financing. Much of our inspiration comes from the impact we have seen from the Global Fishing Watch map, which offers near real-time tracking of fishing activity around the world. And so at the core of our proposal we wanted to have a free public map showing mining activity. Software developer Dan Cogswell has produced the Project Inambari map, based on SkyTruth’s Alerts platform. Our map prototype allows you to play a timeline of detected mining, view and compare activity from one month to another, and overlay changes with satellite imagery. Future work will allow users to receive email alerts when new mining activity is detected in their areas of interest.

We were excited to learn on June 4 that, out of 90 teams, we had been selected to move on to the semi-finalist round. Each of the 26 semi-finalist teams produced a ten-minute pitch video discussing their proposal, potential users, and the impact we wanted to have. You can watch our team explain how Project Inambari will monitor for mining in SkyTruth’s pitch video below.


Then, on August 17 we were notified that we were one of 11 project teams that would compete for funding in the final round of the Artisanal Mining Challenge. 

One of the most interesting aspects of the competition process has been viewing proposals from many different groups — including university researchers, nongovernmental organizations, and entrepreneurs — to tackle the diverse environmental and social issues associated with artisanal mining around the world. The innovations included fascinating recovery strategies like phytoremediation (using plants to pull heavy metals out of polluted soils) and proposals for in-depth supply chain monitoring. We were particularly interested to see the work put forward by researchers at Wake Forest University and CINCIA (based in Madre de Dios, Peru) for a database of known mining sites to use as training data for a machine learning model. In addition, CINCIA is leading efforts to find ways to recover lands devastated by mining and to monitor and evaluate these areas with drone imagery. It was clear that their proposals would complement the ideas that we had for developing a public map showing mining activity, so we decided to join forces in the finalist round.

You can see Christian and Jorge Caballero, a GIS analyst at CINCIA, discuss some new developments with the mining detection model in the video below, and the potential to integrate CINCIA’s high resolution drone imagery for training and validation.

The video also briefly discusses the development of an email alert system where authorities or local communities can receive notifications when our model picks up new mining activity in an area of interest. The map already shows some interesting changes, such as how mining activity shifted to a legal mining corridor and to more remote areas such as the Pariamunu River following the Peruvian government’s Operation Mercury, which ramped up government action against illegal mining.  

Finally, our team gathered virtually at the Conservation X Labs Innovation Summit on September 30 for a final round of live questions from the Artisanal Mining Grand Challenge judges. The next morning we had the honor of hearing from Jane Goodall. She summed up the difficult quandary posed by artisanal mining, stressing both the great threat posed by mining to ecosystems and human livelihoods but also her realization that any attempts at habitat conservation would fail unless local people could find sustainable alternatives for making a living. All the teams then waited anxiously as prizes were given out. Project Inambari was chosen as one of five winners with a $118,000 prize. 

With this support from Conservation X Labs and our new collaboration with researchers at Wake Forest University and CINCIA, we are excited to kick off the next stage of development of the Project Inambari map. It’s been inspiring to be part of the challenge competition along with so many great teams and a real honor to have Project Inambari selected as a winner. 


Protecting Biodiversity and Indigenous Lands from Space

Illegal mining is devastating parts of the Amazon rainforest. SkyTruth is figuring out how to detect new mining threats and alert conservationists on the ground.

The Amazon rainforest is one of the most biologically diverse places on Earth; a breathtaking riot of life that evolved over eons, encompassing the Amazon River and its vast system of tributaries. Those rivers hold more species of fish than any other river system in the world.  The surrounding forests are home to 25% of the world’s terrestrial species. Many are found only in the Amazon region, and some are endangered, while others undoubtedly remain unknown. Besides their intrinsic value as unique species, rainforest flora and fauna represent a barely tapped reservoir of genes, chemicals, and more that could benefit humankind.  Already, more than 25% of medicines used today trace their roots back to Amazonian species, including quinine and many cancer drugs. How many more remain hidden?

And then there’s the forest’s role in regulating climate: those 1.4 billion acres of trees covering 40% of South America hold a tremendous amount of carbon. If released, that carbon will accelerate climate change and the disruptions we already are seeing on Earth, including rising temperatures, melting glaciers, stronger storms, longer droughts, and more frequent flooding.

Photo: Jaguar by Nickbar from Pixabay.

Tragically, this carbon is in fact being released. For decades, there has been widespread concern about deforestation in the Amazon as logging, mining, agriculture, and human infrastructure penetrate forest boundaries and slash holes in otherwise intact habitat. Today, ever more remote regions are affected, including lands held by indigenous people who depend on the plants and animals of the forest to survive.  As forest life disappears, so too will ancient cultures that have lived sustainably in the forest for centuries, victims of a global economy and expanding population that demands ever more resources.

Before this year, SkyTruth’s work hadn’t focused on the world’s rainforests. Yet the fact that they are remote, dense, and threatened makes them perfect targets for exploring environmental damage from space, and our new partnership with Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has pushed SkyTruth to expand its reach in applying its tools to new parts of the world, including the Amazon.

One growing problem in particular has caught our attention: small-scale, artisanal mining for gold in Peru and Brazil along tributaries of the Amazon such as the Inambari River. These aren’t the huge gold mines of the Northern Hemisphere, but rather individual miners or groups of miners who work along the edges of rivers, dredging their banks and beds with toxic mercury to separate out small flecks of gold. In the process, miners cut down trees and destroy riverside habitat with their dredges, pits, and sluices. Their mercury poisons the water, fish, birds, and people who rely on these rivers. Although it’s called “small-scale,” the actions of an estimated 40,000 miners add up: as of 2018 such mining had destroyed 170,000 acres of virgin forest in southeast Peru alone. It’s illegal there, and in other protected areas throughout the region, yet it often occurs unchecked. Government agencies in the region, and our partners at WCS and other NGOs, have struggled with identifying new mining activity in such remote regions; if they don’t know where mining is occurring, they can’t take action to stop it.

Radar satellite imagery from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1 satellite can help. This radar penetrates the rainforest’s frequent cloud cover and reveals activities on the ground underneath. Using this imagery, SkyTruth has begun developing an open mapping platform to identify areas on the ground that have been deforested because of mining, and illustrate trends over time to reveal new mining activity. While radar imagery is able to see through clouds, it lacks the spectral data provided by optical (color-infrared) satellite sensors. To compensate for this, our model includes a processing step that cleans and enhances each image. Then, the images are analyzed using a random forest classifier that we’ve trained to identify land cover types, including mining.

You can see the output of our model in Figure 1 for the Madre de Dios region in southern Peru. Areas in red are classified as likely mines, while areas in yellow correspond to cleared forest, those in green are intact forest, and those in blue are water.  

Figure 1. Recent mining in Madre de Dios, Peru.

So far, we’ve successfully detected recent mining operations in the Madre de Dios region (as well as in the lands of the Munduruku tribe in Brazil, shown in Figure 2) The Munduruku have been struggling for years to demarcate their sovereign lands to protect their indigenous culture and stop continued encroachment from mining.  

Figure 2. Mining activity in Munduruku land along the Cabruá and Das Tropas Rivers in Brazil’s Para state.

This past week, SkyTruth submitted its pitch highlighting this progress as a semi-finalist in the Artisanal Mining Challenge, a competition sponsored by Conservation X Labs to address the adverse impacts of artisanal mining around the world. We made the first cut this spring (from 90 applicants down to 26), and are hopeful that our proposed Project Inambari will be promoted by the judges through this next round of the competition, and we’ll become one of 10 finalists. That would put us in position to be chosen as one of the winners, and to receive significant funding to scale-up this vitally important initiative. We’ll keep you posted.

Alice Foster’s Internship Triggered New Excitement About Her Career Possibilities

Before her internship, Alice felt burnt out at school. After applying new skills and technologies to environmental projects at SkyTruth, she’s looking forward to her remaining classes and a fulfilling career.

As I wrap up my four-month internship at SkyTruth, I would like to share some highlights and takeaways from my experience. During my internship I explored the field of geospatial technology for the first time, which allowed me to learn new skills and gave me insight into my career goals. I learned about global environmental issues that I hadn’t known existed. And I got to work with a kind, dedicated, creative group of people. I contributed to SkyTruth’s mountaintop mining research and Project Inambari, which will create an early alert system for tropical forest mining. I also spent time identifying oil and gas well pads, collecting images of oil slicks, and creating annotated maps in QGIS, a geographic information system application that can be used to analyze and visualize geospatial data such as satellite imagery or a ship’s track across the ocean.

On just my first day of orientation at SkyTruth, the high level of support and guidance I received from the staff surprised me. My advisers Brendan Jarrell and Christian Thomas spent lots of time introducing me to concepts and technologies (like Google Earth Engine and QGIS) that I would use in my work. One of the first skills I learned was recognizing oil slicks on satellite imagery — most likely from vessels dumping oily bilge water at sea — and creating an annotated map to reveal the slicks to the public. Brendan patiently guided me through the steps to making a map twice. The team congratulated me when I found my first slick, even though I did not think it merited attention. This encouragement made me feel welcomed and excited about my work. 

The search for oil slicks allowed me to virtually explore oceans and coastlines across the globe. With time, it revealed to me more than how to use geospatial technology, but how little geography I knew. I would toggle past a country or island and wonder what it was like there, realizing I did not even know its name. And so I started exploring a geography trivia website in my free time to teach myself the countries of the world. I am now learning capital cities in Europe, which I tend to forget.

After getting practice with Google Earth Engine — a tool for analyzing and mapping satellite imagery and change around the world —  during my first couple of weeks at SkyTruth, I became involved in some mining-related projects. In one project, I adapted code from SkyTruth’s mountaintop mining research to incorporate satellite imagery from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-2 satellite. This imagery provides us additional data, which could improve our ability to detect surface mining throughout Central Appalachia. Working with the code in Earth Engine allowed me to better understand SkyTruth’s process for identifying mines. First, we produce a greenest pixel composite image from a collection of images. Making a composite in Earth Engine means combining multiple overlapping images to create a single image. Images can be combined in different ways; in this case, the greenest pixel composite selects pixels with the highest Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) values compared with corresponding pixels in the image collection. NDVI is an indicator of plant health in a given area. To provide a more concrete example, suppose we want to make a greenest pixel composite from three images, all showing a part of West Virginia at different times of summer. Say we look at one pixel in one of the images, which covers a small square of forest. We then compare this pixel with the pixels covering the same bit of forest in the other two images, and we choose the greenest of the three (or, the pixel with the highest NDVI value). If we repeat this process for every pixel in the image, we get one image with all the greenest pixels selected from the collection. 

A second script uses the greenest pixel composite to approximate the lowest NDVI value for each county, producing a threshold image. Again, say we have the greenest pixel composite of West Virginia that we just made. Now we look at forested areas within one county and find the pixels that are least green, or have the lowest NDVI values, and then take the average of these NDVI values. This is the threshold for that county; if a pixel is less green than the threshold, it is likely a mine. Our output image contains these values for every county. As a final step, we compare the greenest pixels with the NDVI thresholds to determine likely mine areas. 

Figure 1. Mining data overlying a Sentinel-2 greenest composite image. The image covers counties in West Virginia, Virginia, and Kentucky.

SkyTruth’s surface mining expert, Christian Thomas, also had me experiment with two different techniques for masking clouds in Sentinel-2 imagery. Clouds obstruct necessary data in images, so clearing them out improves analyses. The standard approach uses a built-in “cloud mask” band. The other approach is an adapted “FMasking” method. This takes advantage of the  arrangement of sensors on Sentinel-2 satellites, which creates a displacement effect in the imagery that is more pronounced for objects at altitude. The FMask uses this effect to distinguish low altitude clouds from human-made infrastructure on land. Though the two methods had similar results, the FMask seemed slightly more accurate.

Working on technical projects like this, I learned how much I enjoy using imagery and geospatial data. I had found analyzing data interesting in the past, but something about being able to visualize the information on a map was even more appealing. I loved how a satellite image could be reduced to numbers and assessed quantitatively, or understood visually, almost as a piece of art. 

In another project, I had the opportunity to develop my writing skills by contributing to an  application for the Artisanal Mining Grand Challenge, a global competition to provide solutions for small-scale, low-tech, and/or informal mining. Researching artisanal gold mining was illuminating, as I knew almost nothing about the subject beforehand. I learned that illegal gold mining in Venezuela and Peru has often involved brutal violence and exploitation. In recent decades, labor and sex trafficking have plagued remote mining regions like Madre de Dios. Small-scale mining practices are also particularly damaging to the biodiverse Amazon ecosystem. To extract a small amount of gold, miners must dig up massive amounts of sediment, denuding the landscape in the process. The use of mercury in artisanal gold mining is incredibly detrimental to water quality and human health.

I was also able to be involved in the technical side of this project, building a tool to detect mines in the Peruvian Amazon. I created a mask that removes water from satellite images so that water areas could not be mistaken for mine areas or vice versa. Mines are often near water or can look like water in imagery. To make the mask, I used the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre global surface water dataset. This dataset contains information about where and when surface water occurred around the world over the past thirty years. In Google Earth Engine, the data is stored in an image with bands representing different measures of surface water. I used the “occurrence,” “seasonality,” and “recurrence” bands to create the mask. “Occurrence” refers to how often water was present at a location; “seasonality” means the number of months during which water was present; and “recurrence” is the frequency with which water returned from one year to the next. I tried to find a combination of band values that would do the best job getting rid of water without masking mines or forest. For example, using an occurrence value of twenty, (that is, masking pixels where water was present twenty percent or more of the time), ended up masking mine areas as well. Christian also suggested using a buffer, which meant that pixels adjacent to a masked pixel also got masked. Since the mask often did not capture all of the pixels in a body of water, the buffer filled in the gaps. Masked pixels dotting a river became a continuous thread. The buffer also helped eliminate river banks, which look similar to mines. We applied the finished water mask to the area of interest in Madre de Dios, Peru.

Figure 2: Water mask in the Madre de Dios region of Peru. White pixels have value 1, while black pixels (water) have value 0. When the mask is applied to a satellite image, all pixels in the black areas appear transparent and are not included in analyses. When identifying potential mines in the image, the masked areas are ignored.

Researching issues related to artisanal gold mining left me unsure of how countermeasures can fully promote the welfare of mine workers and others involved in the long term. The problem of illegal gold mining seems entrenched in broader economic and social issues and therefore cannot be addressed simply by identifying and eradicating mines. Nevertheless, understanding the great damage that this type of mining can do to humans and their environment made clear to me the importance of the project. 

Not only did working at SkyTruth teach me a variety of technical and professional skills, it also helped reveal to me what I want to learn about and pursue in the future. In school last fall, I felt burnt out to the point that I just wanted to get through my remaining semesters and be done. Now I feel the excitement about academics I had as a freshman, motivated and informed by my experience at SkyTruth. With my interest in geology and climate issues renewed, I feel like there is barely enough time left to take all the classes I want to. I hope to improve on skills like writing and computer programming so that I can contribute my best work in the future. Being part of an amazing team has motivated me in that way. I also know that I would like to use the geospatial technologies and approaches I learned at SkyTruth moving forward. I feel excited about future career possibilities; before my internship, I felt confused.

I want to give a huge thank you to Bruce and Carolyn Thomas for hosting me in Shepherdstown. I want to thank Christian for introducing me to SkyTruth and for including me in his Dungeons and Dragons game! And I want to thank everyone on the SkyTruth team for their guidance and for being wonderful.

Figure 3: Team Hike, Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Photo by Amy Emert.

SkyTruth Board Member Mary Anne Hitt: Activist Extraordinaire

Mary Anne Hitt has led Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign to extraordinary national success. But she honed her skills in Appalachia, with a little help from SkyTruth.

You might say Mary Anne Hitt has Appalachian activism in her blood. When she was growing up in Gatlinburg, Tennessee (where she attended Dolly Parton’s former high school), her father was Chief Scientist at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Back then, acid rain was decimating high elevation forests in the East, fueled by pollution from coal-fired power plants. Her father watched as iconic places in the park turned into forests of skeleton trees. He knew the science pointed to nearby power plants run by the Tennessee Valley Authority, and wanted to stop the pollution. But his warnings triggered some resistance from those who didn’t want to rock the boat. “So right from the start,” says Mary Anne, she was “immersed in the beauty and the threats” of protecting Appalachian forests. And she knew the costs of speaking out.

Those costs have never stopped her. Mary Anne graduated from the University of Tennessee, creating her own environmental studies major and forming a student environmental group that continues today. Later, she obtained a graduate degree in advocacy at the University of Montana. Now, she leads the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign; a national effort to retire all coal plants in the United States, moving towards 100% renewable energy by 2030, while supporting economic opportunities in communities affected by plant closures.

And she serves on SkyTruth’s board of directors. Her entre to SkyTruth is also steeped in Appalachian advocacy. In the early aughts, Mary Anne was Executive Director of Appalachian Voices, a nonprofit conservation group dedicated to fighting mountaintop mining, fracked-gas pipelines and other harmful activities in Appalachia, while advancing energy and economic alternatives that allow Appalachian communities to thrive. Appalachian Voices is one of SkyTruth’s conservation partners; a relationship that began under Mary Anne’s leadership.

As Mary Anne tells it, Appalachian Voices was fighting mountaintop mining and construction of a new coal plant in southwest Virginia. While fighting the plant, they discovered that 200 new power plants were planned across the country. In other words, a whole new generation of power plants was on the books to replace aging plants. A coalition of grassroots groups and local citizens, organized with help from the Sierra Club, worked to stop them, fighting permits at every stage, slowing the process down and making financial backers nervous.

Figure 1. Mary Anne Hitt

Appalachian Voices contacted SkyTruth to help them convey the vast extent of mountaintop mining in Appalachia as part of their work. In response, SkyTruth developed the first scientifically credible database on the extent of mountaintop mining in the region. (You can read more about this collaboration and what we found here.) SkyTruth continues to update this database every year, providing scientists and others valuable information that supports research on the ecological and human health effects of mountaintop mining.

SkyTruth’s database helped support the broader advocacy work Appalachian Voices was spearheading to fight coal mining and power plants in the region. Collectively, environmental, legal, and grassroots groups nationwide stopped almost all of the proposed power plants, according to Mary Anne. (Ironically, the one in southwest Virginia actually did get built.) “If these plants had been built it would have been doom for our climate,” Mary Anne says now. “There would have been no room for renewables…Grassroots people working in their communities made it happen. That’s what makes me most proud.”

Mary Anne took her successful experience fighting power plants in Appalachia and brought it to the Sierra Club as Deputy Director of the Beyond Coal Campaign in 2008, later becoming Director. The Sierra Club has built on those early lessons and applied them to shutting down all coal plants in the United States. Today, 312 of 530 plants that existed in 2010 have retired or announced their retirement. And according to Mary Anne, the United States reached a promising benchmark a year ago: last April marked the first time we obtained more energy from renewables than from coal. In fact, in 2019 the US consumed more power from renewable energy than from coal for the first time in 130 years. “Most of our arguments now are economic,” says Mary Anne. “The power from a coal plant is more expensive than renewable energy, so people don’t want it. People will keep demanding renewables.”

In April of this year, Mary Anne took on an even bigger responsibility at Sierra Club – the National Director of Campaigns, a new position in the organization where she oversees all the organization’s campaign work. It’s a big job, on top of being a mother to her ten-year old daughter. So why did she agree to join the SkyTruth Board? “Ever since my daughter was born,” says Mary Anne, “I had a policy of not being on any boards because I have a demanding job and serving on boards was more time away from her. But I really believe that SkyTruth’s work is foundational for the environmental movement. I think the ability to see for yourself what’s going on, especially in this age of misinformation, where people don’t know what to believe… the ability to show people with their own eyes what’s going on, I think is more important than ever.”

She also knows from her years in advocacy that having access to technical resources and expertise is challenging for nonprofits, especially small ones. “To provide this to groups in a way that’s technically sophisticated, but they can use it, is a real service,” she says. And SkyTruth has had significant impact on key issues, she notes, particularly given its small size. “To the extent that I can help, I want to do that. And I love that they are based in West Virginia and Shepherdstown – it’s a cool part of SkyTruth’s story.”

But a professional life of activism involves a lot of conflict, Mary Anne acknowledges. To balance it out, she and her husband Than Hitt, a stream ecologist, sing and play guitar at local fundraisers and other community events. Than is a 10th generation West Virginian and they live in Shepherdstown, where SkyTruth is based. The local singing is all for fun she says.

“It’s a way to connect with people you wouldn’t otherwise… And having a creative outlet helps keep me whole.” With activism, “you’re living in your head a lot. Music is in your heart. We all need that.”