NOAA’s Nifty Interactive Hurricane Map

NOAA has a very cool interactive map that allows you to pick a location and show the tracks of all of the known hurricanes that have come near that spot.

[Update 4 Sep 2019: The Historical Hurricanes Tracks Map has moved here.]

Let’s take a quick look at the mid-Atlantic coast.  As the politicians in Virginia and North Carolina fall all over themselves to promote the expansion of offshore oil and gas drilling to their part of the Atlantic, it’s worth pausing to think about the potential for future hurricane-related damage to the web of offshore and coastal oil-handling infrastructure that would be built to support that development, and the resulting spills that would inevitably occur:

Map showing the tracks of all known hurricanes since 1851 that have come within 65 nautical miles of Virginia Beach. Source: NOAA / Historical Hurricane Tracks.

We’ve seen spills again and again from storm-damaged infrastructure on the Gulf Coast, in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Ike, and Isaac.  Industry apologists tend to shrug their shoulders whenever these spills occur and say “Hey, whattaya gonna do?” But these so-called acts of God are entirely predictable, from the perspective that severe storm events are a regular, expected part of life along the Gulf and Atlantic seaboards.

Just spend some time with NOAA’s interactive map.  It’s an eye-opener.

95-Mile-Long Slick in the Gulf of Mexico?

This report on SkyTruth’s handy pollution Alerts system caught my eye yesterday afternoon:


That sounds like bilge-dumping from a passing vessel — an activity that is illegal in US waters (and much of the rest of the world).   Intrepid SkyTruth intern Patrick busted somebody for bilge-dumping off Angola last year using satellite radar imagery and AIS data.  The report was submitted to the Coast Guard-operated National Response Center by image analysts at NOAA.  We’re thrilled that they’ve started reporting their analyses of possible pollution incidents to the NRC, so we can easily incorporate them into our Alerts system.  (We like to think our Gulf Monitoring Consortium activity helped spur NOAA to get their experts into the game in a more public way.)

NOAA’s analysts now think it’s probably not oil; more likely it’s natural surfactant caught in the convergence zone between two water masses.  I agree; this is close to the edge of a loop current now in the northeastern part of the Gulf.  And bilge-dump slicks usually look a lot sharper than this (see a slideshow of our examples from radar imagery).

Here’s detail from a MODIS/Terra satellite image taken at 16:50 UTC on April 14, 2013, showing the apparent slick.

Location map showing detail from MODIS/Terra satellite image taken on April 14, 2013.
Detail from MODIS/Terra satellite image of slick (dark, east-west trending streak) probably caused by natural surfactants accumulating along the convergence zone between ocean currents.

And the flaring continues off Nigeria…

Looks like flaring on offshore oil and gas platforms in Africa didn’t take a holiday this year. As you can see by this MODIS Aqua 7-2-1 image from  12/23/2012, there was lots and lots of flaring activity going on off the coast of Nigeria.

MODIS Aqua 7-2-1 taken on 12/23/2012 showing multiple flaring incidents off the Nigerian coast.

And not to be outdone, this area where we’ve seen flaring before is at it again:

MODIS Aqua 7-2-1 taken on 12/23/2012 shows an area of flaring that we’ve been following for awhile now.

You can read about that spot off the Niger Delta on our blog post of December 3.We still don’t know who is operating out there, so if anyone knows, fill us in!

Fishing The Line: New Nighttime Satellite Imagery Illuminates Global Fishing Activity

We were wowed like a lot of other folks this week when NASA unveiled the newest “Earth at Night” satellite imagery at the annual AGU fall meeting in San Francisco.  They’ve compiled a bunch of cloud-free, moonless night images collected by the VIIRS sensor onboard the Suomi NPP satellite to create the stunning “Black Marble” vision of Earth at night, the complement to their daytime “Blue Marble” products:

updated 20190219, original image at:

You can explore this neat global dataset in various ways.  Check out an image gallery; play with a handy interactive map; or, my favorite, bring the data into Google Earth, where you can overlay all kinds of other useful data and information to help make sense of what you’re seeing.

So what can you see with nighttime imagery from space?  Well, the lights of cities and towns, of course.  And some other interesting things:  the flaring of natural gas in North Dakota, being treated as a waste product in the Bakken Shale oil-drilling and fracking boom there; flaring offshore too, in the Gulf of Mexico and other locations; fires burning vast areas in Siberia.

And the bright lights of fishing fleets operating around the world. Here’s an example that really caught our eye, in the East China Sea.  The lights from many vessels form a distinct cluster with strikingly sharp, rectilinear edges. I’ve been told this is a real pattern, not a data artifact, possibly revealing “fishing the line” behavior: fishing vessels, armed with GPS navigation systems, are cozying right up to the boundaries of areas where fishing has been restricted or put off limits.These lines don’t seem to match the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) boundaries of Japan, China or Korea. Does anyone know if these patterns we’re seeing really do match up with treaty boundaries or other fisheries agreements?

Black Marble nighttime satellite imagery showing fishing vessel activity in the East China Sea.
[UPDATE 12/07/2012 5pm ET]  A few experts weighed in today via email with some very helpful info, and agreed to let me share their comments (lightly edited).

NASA’s Jesse Allen:

…in short, what you are seeing is ‘aggressive respect for fishing boundaries,’ if I might phrase it that way.

The data we used to make the Black Marble is a composite of several moonless nights in both April and October processed by the NOAA-NGDC in Colorado.  We…mapped that data onto a background colour image and turned plain jane composite light intensity into a colourized map.  So what you are seeing are lights over several different nights in rather different times all added up together at once.
We have noticed… that in many different passes over the Yellow Sea and the general area around the Sea of Japan and the Koreas that there would be boats with lights lined up in what seemed like very unnatural patterns: linear straight lines with sharp corners and such.  If you look here, you can see a less dramatic version of this lining up (in this specific instance, the line they seem to be snuggling along is more of a curved feature).  Those features match up with various fishery boundaries and agreements about respective nation’s areas in shared fishing rights areas (so if you get GIS data for Exclusive Economic Zones, you’ll find that many of these features do not line up with those zones, though some do…)

Steve Miller at Colorado State University:

…because of the current compositing technique done for the Black Marble dataset there are considerably more ship lights than would be seen on any given night…as ships come and go, move around, from night to night you would get “new” points.  From the standpoint of improved sample density, however, it sure helps to outline the political boundaries in more striking detail than any particular night can do!

It’s just another example of how much information content exists in these measurements….and how unique they are from the standpoint of coupling human activity with the natural environment in a way that conventional visible imagery cannot do.
NOAA’s Chris Elvidge:

We have seen these EEZ boundary patterns with fishing boats for 20 years from DMSP.  So it is not surprising or new.  Fishery agencies in Japan, Korea, Peru and Thailand use DMSP data from NGDC to monitor fishing boat activity relative to EEZ boundaries.  Note that the new global cloud-free VIIRS nighttime lights product was produced at NOAA…  NASA wrapped NOAA’s product on a “black marble.”


Chevron No Longer Banned from Operating in Brazil

Remember when Chevron spilled 3,600 barrels of oil when they lost control of an exploratory well in the Frade Field off the coast of Brazil last year? Brazilian Federal Appeals Court judge Guilherme Dienthaeler has overturned the ban in what appears to be a rapid move toward a settlement.

“(Reuters) – Chevron Corp received a boost to its efforts to restart oil output in Brazil after a court overturned a ban on its operating in the country and the company agreed on a plan to improve safety procedures after an oil spill last year.” For the full story, click here.
Aerial view of oil spill in the Frade Field, Campos Basin, Brazil, on November 18, 2011. In the background is the Transocean semisubmersible drill rig operated for Chevron. Photo copyright Marcia Foletto/Agencia O Globo – All rights reserved. 
Chevron and Transocean Ltd. (yes, this Transocean) still face up to $20 billion in damages and some criminal charges, but Federal Prosecutor Eduardo Santo de Oliveria who filed the initial lawsuits is disappointed with the move toward settlement. Reuters quoted Oliveria as saying,”I’m afraid we will lose the chance to apply a giant fine and the good that will do for preventing environmental crime.”

Earlier this year, SkyTruth President John Amos travelled to Natal, Brazil to present our observations at the Brazilian Congress on Protected Areas. For more, click here if your Portuguese is up to par, if not maybe just try Google Translate.