SkyTruth 2020: What to Expect in the New Year

Oil pollution at sea, mountaintop mining, Conservation Vision and more on SkyTruth’s agenda.

SkyTruth followers know that we generated a lot of momentum in 2019, laying the groundwork for major impact in 2020. Here’s a quick list of some of our most important projects underway for the new year.

Stopping oil pollution at sea: SkyTruth has tracked oil pollution at sea for years, alerting the world to the true size of the BP oil spill, tracking the ongoing leak at the Taylor Energy site until the Coast Guard agreed to take action, and flagging bilge dumping in the oceans. Bilge dumping occurs when cargo vessels and tankers illegally dump oily wastewater stored in the bottom of ships into the ocean. International law specifies how this bilge water should be treated to protect ocean ecosystems. But SkyTruth has discovered that many ships bypass costly pollution prevention equipment by simply flushing the bilge water directly into the sea.

In 2019 SkyTruth pioneered the identification of bilge dumping and the vessels responsible for this pollution by correlating satellite imagery of oily slicks with Automatic Identification System (AIS) broadcasts from ships. For the first time, we can ID the perps of this devastating and illegal practice.

PERKASA AIS track

Figure 1. SkyTruth identified the vessel PERKASA dumping bilge water via AIS broadcast track overlain on Sentinel-1 image. 

But the Earth’s oceans are vast, and there’s only so much imagery SkyTruthers can analyze. So we’ve begun automating the detection of bilge dumping using an Artificial Intelligence (AI) technique called machine learning. With AI, SkyTruth can analyze thousands of satellite images of the world’s oceans every day –- a process we call Conservation Vision — finding tiny specks on the oceans trailing distinctive oily slicks, and then naming names, so that the authorities and the public can catch and shame those skirting pollution laws when they think no one is looking.

A heads up to polluters: SkyTruth is looking. 

We got a big boost last month when Amazon Web Services (AWS) invited SkyTruth to be one of four nonprofits featured in its AWS re:Invent Hackathon for Good, and awarded SkyTruth one of seven AWS Imagine Grants. We’ll be using the funds and expertise AWS is providing to expand our reach throughout the globe and ensure polluters have nowhere to hide.

Protecting wildlife from the bad guys: Many scientists believe the Earth currently is facing an extinction crisis, with wildlife and their habitats disappearing at unprecedented rates.   

But SkyTruth’s Conservation Vision program using satellite imagery and machine learning can help. Beginning in 2020, SkyTruth is partnering with Wildlife Conservation Society to train computers to analyze vast quantities of image data to alert rangers and wildlife managers to threats on the ground. These threats include roads being built in protected areas, logging encroaching on important habitats, mining operations growing beyond permit boundaries, and temporary shelters hiding poachers. With better information, protected area managers can direct overstretched field patrols to specific areas and catch violators in the act, rather than arriving months after the fact.  It can alert rangers before they discover a poaching camp by chance (and possibly find themselves surprised and outgunned).

To make this revolution in protected area management possible we will be building a network of technology and data partners, academic researchers, and other tech-savvy conservationists to make the algorithms, computer code, and analytical results publicly available for others to use. By publicly sharing these tools, Conservation Vision will enable others around the world to apply the same cutting-edge technologies to protecting their own areas of concern, launching a new era of wildlife and ecosystem protection. In 2020 we expect to undertake two pilot projects in different locations to develop, refine, and test Conservation Vision and ultimately transform wildlife protection around the world.

Identifying mountaintop mining companies that take the money and run. SkyTruth’s Central Appalachia Surface Mining database has been used by researchers and advocates for years to document the disastrous environmental and health impacts of mountaintop mining. Now, SkyTruth is examining how well these devastated landscapes are recovering.

Figure 2. Mountaintop mine near Wise, Virginia. Copyright Alan Gignoux; Courtesy Appalachian Voices; 2014-2.

To do this, we are generating a spectral fingerprint using satellite imagery for each identified mining area. This fingerprint will outline the characteristics of each site, including the amount of bare ground present and information about vegetation regrowth. In this way we will track changes and measure recovery by comparing the sites over time to a healthy Appalachian forest. 

Under federal law, mining companies are required to set aside money in bonds to make sure that funds are available to recover their sites for other uses once mining ends. But the rules are vague and vary by state. If state inspectors determine that mine sites are recovered adequately, then mining companies reclaim their bonds, even if the landscape they leave behind looks nothing like the native forest they destroyed. In some cases, old mines are safety and health hazards as well as useless eyesores, leaving communities and taxpayers to foot the bill for recovery. SkyTruth’s analysis will provide the public, and state inspectors, an objective tool for determining when sites have truly recovered and bonds should be released, or when more should be done to restore local landscapes.

Characterizing toxic algal blooms from space: Harmful algal blooms affect every coastal and Great Lakes state in the United States. Normally, algae are harmless — simple plants that form the base of aquatic food webs. But under the right conditions, algae can grow out of control causing toxic blooms that can kill wildlife and cause illness in people. 

 SkyTruth is partnering with researchers at Kent State University who have developed a sophisticated technique for detecting cyanobacteria and other harmful algae in the western basin of Lake Erie — a known hotspot of harmful algal blooms. They hope to extend this work to Lake Okeechobee in Florida. But their method has limitations: It uses infrequently collected, moderate resolution 4-band multispectral satellite imagery to identify harmful blooms and the factors that facilitate their formation. SkyTruth is working to implement the Kent State approach in the more accessible Google Earth Engine cloud platform, making it much easier to generate updates to the analysis, and offering the possibility of automating the update on a regular basis.  We anticipate that this tool eventually will enable scientists and coastal managers to quickly identify which algal blooms are toxic, and which are not, simply by analyzing their characteristics on imagery.

Revealing the extent of fossil fuel drilling on public lands in the Colorado River Basin: Modern oil and gas drilling and fracking is a threat to public health, biodiversity and the climate. For example, researchers from Johns Hopkins University used our data on oil and gas infrastructure in Pennsylvania to examine the health effects on people living near these sites and found higher premature birth rates for mothers in Pennsylvania that live near fracking sites as well as increased asthma attacks.

The Trump Administration is ramping up drilling on America’s public lands, threatening iconic places such as Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico. Chaco Canyon is  a UNESCO World Heritage Site that contains the ruins of a 1,200 year-old city that is sacred to native people. According to the Center for Western Priorities, 91% of the public lands in Northwest New Mexico surrounding the Greater Chaco region are developed for oil and gas, and local communities complain of pollution, health impacts and more.

Figure 3. Chaco Canyon Chetro Ketl great kiva plaza. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

In 2020 SkyTruth will deploy a machine learning model we developed in 2019 that identifies oil and gas drilling sites in the Rocky Mountain West with 86.3% accuracy. We will apply it to the Greater Chaco Canyon region to detect all oil and gas drilling sites on high-resolution aerial survey photography. We hope to then use these results to refine and expand the model to the wider Colorado River Basin. 

Local activists in northwestern New Mexico have fought additional drilling for the past decade. Last year, New Mexico’s congressional delegation successfully led an effort to place a one-year moratorium on drilling within a 10-mile buffer around the park. Activists view this as a first step towards permanent protection. SkyTruth’s maps will help provide them with visual tools to fight for permanent protection.

A new SkyTruth website: We’ll keep you up to date about these projects and more on a new, revamped SkyTruth website under development for release later this year. Stay tuned for a new look and more great SkyTruthing in the year ahead!

Mining to begin in downsized National Monument

Late last year, President Trump announced a massive scaling back of the boundaries of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM), part of an even larger reduction of National Monuments in Utah, including nearby Bears Ears. Now a Canadian firm has announced plans to reopen a closed mine1 within the former boundaries of the old Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument but just barely outside of the new boundaries. This appears to contradict President Trump’s declaration that this land was being returned “to the people, the people of all of the states, the people of the United States.” It also seems at odds with his recent bitterness toward Canada and his new trade war with our northern neighbor. What’s going on here?

Colt Mesa mining claim (yellow) and downsized National Monument (red area) superimposed on high-resolution imagery from Google Earth. Boundary data courtesy of The Wilderness Society.

In this image, we can see that the new Monument boundary is just 240 meters from the Colt Mesa mining claim with existing unpaved access roads only 150 meters away. The roads are marked in blue and criss-cross a dry riverbed. We expect these roads to be widened significantly and the area around the roads to be negatively impacted due to trucks and machinery. Given this proximity, the now much smaller National Monument will almost certainly be affected by heavy vehicular traffic day and night, and the attendant noise, dust, and diesel pollution.

The Colt Mesa mine relative to the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, showing both the original Monument as designated in 1996, and the new, greatly reduced Monument.


The change in boundary illustrated by interactive slider, click here to view this in fullscreen mode.

This claim occupies 200 acres of previously protected land and, if this mining claim is developed as the company expects, we are expecting to see major changes to the area as they use increasingly destructive techniques to access the minerals beneath and dispose of the resulting “wasterock” and mine tailings.

An oblique view of the area.

The drastic downsizing of National Monument is being challenged in court by many organizations while the White House continues to insist this was about handing the power of conservation back to the state, and not about mining. The lawsuits are currently pending, so it remains to be seen if any land will be disturbed before these legal actions are resolved by the courts. In the meantime, we will be monitoring the area for signs of disturbance using Planet and other satellite imagery.

1 – The Colt Mesa mine was originally developed in the early 1970s to produce copper, silver, molybdenum, cobalt and uranium. It ceased production in 1974. It is a small mine by global standards, but these minerals are currently in high demand for use in electronics.

Lease Sale Cancellation near Chaco Culture National Historical Park

Conservation victories are often measured in terms of what did not happen. We measure them in terms of species that did not go extinct, of land clearing that did not take place, of anti-environmental legislation that did not become law.

This is another of those oblique victory stories about something that did not happen. If you’ve been following our work over the last year, you may have noticed that we’ve done some work monitoring the sale of oil and gas leases on public land in the vicinity of Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico. Most recently, we posted about a lease sale that was scheduled for March 8, 2018. Some of the proposed lease parcels included in this sale fell extremely close to the boundary of a 10 mile buffer zone around the park that had previously been established in agreement with local Native American tribes to protect the viewshed, soundscape, and visitor experience to the park, as well as the numerous Ancestral Pueblo ruins and artifacts found throughout this historically significant region. Oil and gas drilling in these parcels had the potential to impact the UNESCO World Heritage status of the park.

This map shows the 8 leases (in red) which were scheduled for auction on March 8, 2018. Lease parcels which were previously tabled for further review (in orange). The boundaries of Chaco Culture National Historical Park are displayed in green.

On March 2, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke announced that the lease sale scheduled for March 8 would be deferred, to give the agency time to “complete an ongoing analysis of more than 5,000 cultural sites in the proposed leasing area.” Zinke cited questions about the sale that had been raised by public stakeholders, stating “We’re going to defer those leases until we do some cultural consultation.” It is important to note that these leases could come up for sale again in the future, but in the meantime, it is a comfort to enjoy this sale that did not happen. The deferral of oil and gas leases near Chaco Culture National Historical Park is an important reminder that public comment and protest have a very real power to help protect our public lands.

This map, created by SkyTruth (www.skytruth.org), shows the current boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in green, and the proposed, reduced boundaries in red. Data was provided by The Wilderness Society and the Bureau of Land Management. Aerial images were provided by EcoFlight (www.ecoflight.org)

Our Shrinking National Monuments

The President announced sizeable reductions of several National Monuments earlier this week.  To help people see and understand the significance of this action, we produced an interactive map showing two of the most highly impacted Monuments, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase – Escalante, both in Utah.  Users of the map can zoom in and explore the places that the Trump administration wants to remove from protection.

Vigorous public opposition and lawsuits by companies such as Patagonia make it likely the fate of the monuments will be tied up in court for many months. In the meantime, our friends at EcoFlight tell us the reduced monuments are considered “de facto” until the courts decide the inevitable legal challenges.

Thanks to The Wilderness Society for providing the proposed new boundaries, based on maps that were leaked last week; and to EcoFlight for sharing geotagged photos from their many flyovers, to help us illustrate what’s in jeopardy.

This map, created by SkyTruth (www.skytruth.org), shows the current boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in green, and the proposed, reduced boundaries in red. Data was provided by The Wilderness Society and the Bureau of Land Management. Aerial images were provided by EcoFlight (www.ecoflight.org)

This map shows the original boundaries of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monuments in green, and the reduced boundaries announced by the President on December 4 in red. Click on the camera icons to see aerial photographs of those locations.  Data provided by The Wilderness Society and the US Bureau of Land Management. Aerial photographs provided by EcoFlight.

We’ll add more photos and info to this map as we get it.  View the map here, and please share this link with interested friends:  http://bit.ly/2AxdRrv