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.

SkyTruth’s West Virginia FrackFinder Datasets Updated

Oil and gas drilling activity in West Virginia continues to expand.

For more than a decade, SkyTruth has been tracking the footprint of oil and gas development in the Marcellus and Utica shale basins in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio through our FrackFinder project. Initially, our FrackFinder project relied on volunteers to help us identify activity on the ground (thank you to all you SkyTruthers out there!). Since then, we’ve continued to update this database with help from SkyTruth interns and staff. Today, we’re excited to announce our latest updates to our West Virginia FrackFinder datasets. The updated data now include drilling sites and impoundments that appeared on the landscape through 2015–2016 (our 2016 update) and through 2017–2018 (our 2018 update). In 2016, 49 new drilling sites and 17 new impoundments appeared on the landscape. In 2018, 60 additional drilling sites and 20 new impoundments appeared; an 18% and 15% jump, respectively, from 2016.

With these additions, our West Virginia datasets track the footprint of oil and gas development in the state for more than decade, stretching from 2007 to 2018. 

Image 1. New drilling sites in Tyler County, near Wilbur and West Union, WV

We use high-resolution aerial photography collected as a part of the USDA’s National Agricultural Imaging Program (NAIP) to identify drilling sites and impoundments and make their locations available to the public. NAIP imagery is typically collected every two to three years, so once the imagery from each flight season is available, we  compare permit information from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection with NAIP imagery to find and map new drilling sites. Our datasets of what’s actually on the ground — not just what’s been permitted on paper — help landowners, public health researchers, nonprofits, and policymakers identify opportunities for better policies and commonsense regulations. And our data has resulted in real-world impacts. For example, researchers from Johns Hopkins University used our FrackFinder data in Pennsylvania to document the human health impacts of fracking. Their research found that living near an unconventional natural gas drilling site can lead to higher premature birth rates in expecting mothers and may also lead to a greater chance of suffering an asthma attack. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan cited this information in his decision to ban fracking in his state. 

We’ve shared the updated FrackFinder West Virginia data with research partners at Downstream Strategies and the University of California–Berkeley investigating the public health impacts of modern drilling and fracking, and with environmental advocacy groups like Appalachian Voices and FracTracker Alliance fighting the expansion of energy development in the mid-Atlantic.

We are also proud to roll out a Google Earth Engine app, which will be the new home for our  West Virginia FrackFinder data. Users can find all of our previous years’ data (2007–2014) as well as our new 2016 and 2018 datasets on this app. The interactive map allows you to zoom into locations and see exactly where we’ve found oil and gas drilling sites and wastewater impoundments. A simple click on one of the points will display the year in which we first detected drilling, along with the measured area of the site or impoundment (in square meters). Users can toggle different years of interest on and off using the left panel of the map. At the bottom of that same panel, uses can access the total number of drilling sites and impoundments identified during each year. Lastly, users can download SkyTruth’s entire FrackFinder dataset using the export button.

Image 2. Our Earth Engine app lets users track oil and gas development through time in WV.

We hope that the updates to our West Virginia FrackFinder datasets, and the new Earth Engine app that hosts them, will inform researchers, landowners, policymakers, and others, and help them bring about positive change. Feel free to take a look and send us feedback; we love to hear from people using our data.

Bilge Dumping at Sea: What are SkyTruth and others doing about it?

With free public monitoring services and the help of watchdogs globally, bilge dumping can come to an end. SkyTruth’s new project Cerulean is one solution.

This is the last entry in a multi-part series revealing the significance of bilge dumping globally. You can read parts one, two, and three on SkyTruth’s blog.

Throughout this multi-part series on global bilge dumping, we have revealed how SkyTruth has identified oily pollution from ocean-going vessels, the range of harmful effects to coastal communities and marine ecosystems, and the challenges in prosecuting ocean offenders. We now address the future. What’s next? 

Recall that bilge dumping occurs when vessels bypass treating their oily wastewater and discharge it directly into the ocean. When we started this series, we reported on SkyTruth’s 2019 ocean monitoring efforts in which we recorded 163 oily slicks around the world. So far this year we have detected 98 new slicks. Now that we better understand what is occurring at sea, we are working hard to share that information with citizen watchdogs and others, enabling them to take action such as alerting authorities and publicly exposing wrongdoing in their coastal waters. With sustained pressure, we hope polluters will be forced to act responsibly.

Using radar satellite imagery, SkyTruth can observe and measure oil pollution in the ocean. Making a conservative assumption about an oil slick’s thickness, we can estimate the volume of oil, an indicator of the severity of an incident. The legal limit for discharging oily wastewater under international law outlined by the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) is 15 ppm for most cargo vessels and tankers. Trained observers on aircraft can see oil at concentrations of 50 parts per million (ppm) and above. It’s possible that under favorable sea-state conditions, radar satellite imagery is capable of revealing oil at lower concentrations, so we’ll be able to spot more potential violations. In a resolution to MARPOL specifying visibility limits of oil discharges, the Marine Environment Protection Committee “urgently requests authorities to consider the principle that a visible trace of oil is one element of proof that the 15 ppm discharge standard of Annex I of the MARPOL Convention may have been violated.” Similarly, under the U.S. Clean Water Act, oil discharges that cause a visible sheen are encouraged to be reported and are classified as potentially harmful to public health or welfare. 

Using advanced remote sensing techniques, we often can determine a likely source of pollution, whether from a vessel, a natural oil seep, or energy infrastructure like pipelines, drill rigs and production platforms. This kind of information can help oil-spill response efforts: If they know the location and source of oil pollution, responders are better able to take action and reduce the impacts of the pollution. In addition, if the pollution is from a vessel, near-real-time monitoring can help authorities catch a perpetrator who might still be nearby, or take administrative action when that vessel comes into port. Prosecuting criminal offenses for environmental crime requires robust evidence connecting a culprit to the crime. Satellite imagery can help: It collects evidence remotely, potentially providing an efficient way to prosecute ocean offenders.

To demonstrate this potential, in late 2019 SkyTruth launched project Cerulean to automate the detection of oil slicks on the world’s oceans and identify likely sources. Cerulean applies a machine learning technique called Deep Learning (a type of Artificial Intelligence) to make it possible to analyze thousands of satellite images every day to detect slicks and sources. We compare these slicks with public Automatic Identification System (AIS) vessel tracking data in order to identify the likely sources of this pollution (you can read more about our process here).

Image 1. Sentinel-1 radar satellite image of suspected bilge slick (black streak) in the Java Sea on February 15, 2020. AIS signals are shown for two potential sources. The likely source vessel is circled in red, with its AIS track (red) closely matching the slick in space and time. The other nearby vessel’s broadcasts (white) did not match the time and location of the slick.

Satellite data such as that provided by Cerulean could potentially help prosecutors convict oil polluters if it is approved for use in court. Remote sensing evidence is a relatively new tool in court cases. It must be authenticated and checked for integrity regarding the collection and storage of the data to ensure its validity. In the United States, cases using satellite evidence have not been widely published since many decisions about whether evidence is admissible can be made orally or pretrial. Because of this, we do not have a good estimate of how frequently satellite imagery is accepted as evidence. However, we do know that if the remote sensing technology is not new or novel it is more easily admissible. When trying to prove a fact, an expert witness with specialized knowledge can explain the reliability of the technology used and the data presented. In describing the detection of an oily slick, for example, an expert might need to explain a variety of factors that are considered in the analysis of ocean imagery, including weather conditions such as rain and wind speed, atmospheric and oceanographic features, and differentiating a vessel from ocean infrastructure in order to demonstrate the admissibility of image-based evidence

Satellite imagery has been used as evidence of other environmental crimes such as deforestation and illegal fishing. However, it is uncommon for imagery alone to provide conclusive evidence, or to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in prosecution for environmental crime. Satellite imagery has provided corroborating evidence that has led to prosecutions of pollution at sea. However, we have found no cases where it provided conclusive (dispositive) evidence, meaning it alone is usually not enough to link a crime to a perpetrator, or even prove that a crime occurred at all. Currently, eyewitness reporting is more often used as evidence for prosecution of bilge dumping. Whistleblowers and vessel inspectors have been a common catalyst for prosecution. For example, between 1993 and 2017, 76% of prosecuted cases under the U.S. Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships came from whistleblowers. Overall, there are no restrictions on satellite imagery’s power to serve as evidence in court as long as the technology has been proven valid and trustworthy.

Europe currently has an ocean monitoring service called the CleanSeaNet that has led to several prosecutions using satellite imagery in combination with on-ground evidence, in which fines were imposed. The European Union Directive 2009/123/EC specifies types of prosecution for ship-source pollution. However many courts still rarely prosecute. Often they require official inspection on site where the pollution occurred and on the vessel in order to connect the evidence to the crime, which can be challenging when collecting on-ground evidence is time sensitive. (Oil can disperse within 12 hours, and ships can easily be long gone by then.) Additionally, the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) states “(r)esolution of cases can take many years, and in some countries privacy issues prevent the full details being disclosed publicly.” 

Image 2. Suspected bilge slick in the Gulf of Guinea on February 23, 2020. The red AIS signals closely follow the linear slick to the likely source vessel (circled in red). Another nearby vessel’s broadcasts (white AIS signals) were also analyzed; however, this vessel was moving nearly perpendicular to the slick and is not a likely source.

But law enforcement agencies and citizen-activists aren’t the only stakeholders concerned about clean oceans. Companies have market-based incentives to be recognized as sustainable and socially responsible businesses, and they are liable to their stakeholders to uphold promises of corporate social responsibility. While the shipping industry produces ocean oil pollution, it is also the most energy efficient method for transporting goods. Such a large and fast-growing industry requires effective environmental regulation and enforcement. 

The International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) theme for 2020 provides a unique opportunity for the shipping industry to clean up its act. The theme is “Sustainable shipping for a sustainable planet.”  For example, part of this includes the IMO’s 2020 sulphur cap on ships’ fuel oil. In transitioning to lower sulphur fuel, some shipping companies must adjust their current operations and infrastructure, which requires financing. By choosing cleaner ships that meet current and future environmental standards, investors, banks and other stakeholders consider Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) criteria. ESG concerns have led to efforts such as the Sustainable Shipping Initiative (SSI), an international partnership that promotes sustainability between its members, from ship owners to insurers to NGOs. SSI’s “Save As You Sail” program partners ship owners with financial providers in order to update vessels with more efficient emission-reducing technology and save on fuel costs. 

Additionally, vessel companies can voluntarily use grading initiatives such as the Swedish Clean Shipping Index (CSI) to hold themselves accountable. CSI scores a vessel company and its operations from its supply chain to emissions to operational discharges, allowing investors, clean tech providers, and other stakeholders, such as freight forwarders, to partner with responsible vessels who can be trusted to comply with international standards. A similar program exists in North America called Green Marine. The Environmental Ship Index (ESI) is an international scoring option that provides vessel-specific scoring and offers incentives such as discounts on port dues and bonuses to clean ships. Its index currently evaluates over 7,000 ships globally. To help support responsible ships and shipping practices, investment frameworks such as The Poseidon Principles provide banks around the world with principles that align ship financing with climate interests. Several large European banks such as the European Investment Bank (EIB) are committed to providing green investments through Blue Economy Finance Principles. These principles were created by the EIB to uphold the United Nations Environment Programme’s Sustainable Development Goal “Life below water.” In 2018, two banks, EIB and ING, agreed to provide 300 million euros of financing to support green shipping in Europe. These initiatives provide evidence that sustainability and a blue economy aren’t mutually exclusive. 

Cerulean aims to support international clean sea initiatives as well as stakeholder interests by providing a platform for stakeholders to directly monitor oily discharges from vessels. Companies and coalitions like those listed above can use Cerulean to help ensure a greener supply chain. Scoring indexes can use Cerulean to make sure vessels hold true to their ratings, allowing investors and insurers to be more confident in their partnerships. Widespread transparency of activity in the oceans encourages vessel operators, owners, and crew to operate responsibly in order to continue to receive support from their clients and other stakeholders, as well as to avoid criminal penalties. 

Image 3. These bright lines, compiled from dozens of radar satellite images, reveal heavy vessel traffic through the Strait of Malacca, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, over the course of several months in 2019.

Our conversation with a resort director in Southeast Asia suggests Cerulean will support citizen activists as well. This resort director (first introduced in the second blog post in this series) reached out to SkyTruth to share some of his experiences with bilge dumping. He has regularly found oil and tar washing ashore on beaches near Singapore and the Strait of Malacca for several years. He believes that part of the reason ship operators act irresponsibly is that they don’t really understand that they can be monitored, and don’t realize that their AIS broadcasts can be collected by the public. As an environmental activist whose livelihood depends on a clean coast, he would like to make vessel operators more aware of the transparency of their behavior and is interested in doing more personal monitoring of the sea surrounding his property. He believes Cerulean can help him, stating  “(i)t is super compelling to pair satellite data with AIS.” Knowledge of potential oil slicks nearby, even at night, allows citizens to prepare for when oil hits the land and can alleviate some of the clean-up. “It would be useful to know if a slick is coming,” he said. “We could get people organized to stop it. If we had a warning — even 30 minutes, it would give us enough time to make a difference.”

While the first version of Cerulean won’t provide continuous monitoring of the ocean (because the satellites now in orbit can only cover a portion of the earth every day), it would allow insight into ocean pollution every several days and will build a one-of-a-kind record of incidents over time. One key objective of Cerulean is to establish a scalable pipeline that can process more and more images as new satellite constellations are launched and cover our oceans more continuously. 

Cerulean is currently under development, and we hope to have an operational product by 2021. Once up and running, Cerulean will be free and open to the public, providing a user-friendly interface that allows anyone, without any technical expertise, to monitor their areas of interest for oily slicks. Users can receive near real-time alerts for oil detected in their area of interest along with insights into who might be responsible for the pollution. Cerulean will identify features such as a slick’s location, date, time, and length, in addition to specific vessel characteristics such as a vessel’s ID number, destination, owner, operator, and flag country. We hope Cerulean will provide more insight into hotspots — where bilge dumping is particularly common — as well as track repeat offenders to enable more robust prosecutions. We anticipate Cerulean will be a useful tool for fleet owners, shipping companies, and international merchandise retailers that choose to be environmentally responsible: they’ll be able to use Cerulean to track the performance of their fleet and incentivize operators and crew to stay in compliance with ocean law. Additionally, law enforcement can use these near real-time alerts to catch perpetrators in port and in coastal waters. Finally, we hope it will be a tool that empowers citizen watchdogs, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and journalists  to keep an eye on what’s happening at sea, report wrongdoings, and rachet up pressure on governments and businesses to do a better job protecting our ocean. 

In the meantime, SkyTruth analysts will continue to monitor hotspots in the ocean and share our results on this blog. By continuing to report on pollution across the world, innovate user-friendly platforms, and spread awareness, we are working to stop oil pollution at sea and protect the world’s marine ecosystems and the coastal communities that depend on them. 

Ten years ago SkyTruth Revealed the Truth about the BP Oil Spill

SkyTruth video highlights our work fighting oil pollution, then and now.

Ten years ago last week, BP’s Deepwater Horizon platform in the Gulf of Mexico exploded, killing 11 men and setting off the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. SkyTruth was there; not in person but remotely; using satellite imagery to track the spill from space. Working with oceanographer Ian MacDonald, we estimated that the amount of oil gushing from the broken wellhead was more than an order of magnitude larger than the estimates provided by BP and the U.S. Coast Guard. By making our independent analyses available to the public, we generated national and international media attention, and created pressure on the federal government to create its own scientific task force to determine the true size of the spill. Their conclusion, months later, was even larger than our estimates, and set the stage for the billions of dollars that BP eventually paid to help restore Gulf ecosystems and economies.

Watch our four-minute video to learn more about the disaster, and what SkyTruth is doing now to stop oil pollution at sea.

Thanks to Thad Reid for helping us with this production.

Bilge Dumping in Southeast Asia Continues in 2020

Southeast Asia appears to be a hotspot for bilge dumping.

SkyTruth continues to find frequent instances of apparent bilge dumping in the waters of Southeast Asia. Bilge dumping occurs when cargo vessels and tankers illegally discharge oily wastewater directly into the ocean. Vessel operators might do this to avoid the costs of treating their polluted wastewater, as required under international law (read more about that here).

On March 23, Sentinel-1 imagery captured three likely bilge slicks off the coast of Madura Island in Indonesia. The yellow circles in the image below highlight the length and variety of the slicks. In this image, two of the three bilge slicks reach a length of almost 90 kilometers (almost 56 miles). Multiple long bilge slicks in such close proximity to each other show an alarming trend for this region.


Image 1. Three suspected bilge slicks of varying length surround Madura Island in Indonesia.

On March 15, Sentinel-1 imagery captured another potential bilge slick about 30 kilometers long off the coast of Malaysia in the Java Sea. Using Automatic Identification System (AIS) broadcasts from the vessel, SkyTruth identified the likely source of this slick as the Indonesian vessel known as the ARIN 8. 


Image 2. A vessel spotted off the coast of Malaysia leaving a black trail in its path: an oily slick indicating a possible instance of bilge dumping.

SkyTruth frequently documented bilge slicks in Southeast Asian waters throughout 2019 suggesting that this region is a hotspot for dumping, and in 2020 we’ve spotted oily slicks indicating more than 25 potential bilge dumping incidents in the  region. These slicks ranged from 20 to 100 kilometers (12 to 62 miles) in length. SkyTruth will continue to monitor this high traffic area to help bring attention to the issues in this region.