Alaska Oil Spill Detected Using Google? Maybe…

Tip o’ the hat to blogger Michael Cote, who was scrutinizing the imagery in Google Maps around the ConocoPhillips “Alpine”oil field on the North Slope (we like to know we’re not the only ones who think this is a fun thing to do).  He saw something unusual that he thought might be a small, unreported oil spill, and wrote about it on his blog.  Now he’s learned more and thinks it’s probably not an oil spill, but since this has gotten lots of attention online, I thought you’d like to see it and get our take:

Possible small oil spill found on Google Maps imagery of Alaska? Image and analysis by Michael Cote. Read more on his blog.

The Google imagery at this location is a high-resolution DigitalGlobe satellite image shot in July 2012.  I can’t say with any certainty if the dark smudge in the water is, or isn’t, oil. Michael says a ConocoPhillips spokesman told him it was a “shadow from the river bottom” which is very unlikely (Alaskan rivers are typically very silt-laden and opaque; this river appears typical in that regard, so I doubt we’re actually seeing the river bottom).  Whatever it is, it’s a very small feature, about 150 feet long.

I think this dark patch is most likely wind shadow: a calm patch of water on the downwind side of a topographic (or human-made) obstruction that appears darker than surrounding, wind-rippled, sun-glinty water. Moving upstream and downstream, you encounter many dark streaks and patches on the river that indicate a strong, uniform wind blowing from the northeast.  But oilfield infrastructure is often grimy and oily, and it wouldn’t be surprising if there was some light oily sheen emanating from this infrastructure and enhancing the water-flattening effect of wind shadow on the downwind side of this facility.

Nevertheless, it’s great to see people using these tools to adopt a patch of planet Earth to watch over, and investigate things for themselves.  If you feel like trying a bit of skytruthing, check out the imagery in Google Maps and Google Earth — and the millions of free Landsat satellite images, while you’re at it! — and let us know if you see something interesting, something mysterious, something you’d like us to take a look at!

Landsat-8 Continues 40 Years of Earth Observation

Well, we are absolutely thrilled here at SkyTruth that the new Landsat-8 satellite (also known in classic NASA-speak as the Landsat Data Continuity Mission) appears to be functioning perfectly following it’s flawless launch in early February.  Check out these sharp-looking pics of the Colorado Front Range.

Landsat-8 satellite image of Fort Collins, Colorado, taken on March 18, 2013. Images courtesy NASA.

This extends a stellar run of continuous earth-observation going back to the launch of Landsat-1 in 1972.  The millions of images collected since then — all publicly available, for free — constitute a remarkable record and database for measuring changes in landscapes and ecosystems around the world.  Of course, here at SkyTruth we make extensive use of Landsat images to track and illustrate the impacts of human activities like coal and tar sands mining, oil and gas drilling and fracking, and logging.

Back when I started my remote-sensing career, Landsat images were sold through a for-profit company that charged $4,400 per image (even though the entire system was taxpayer-built and operated).  Happily, now you can download every single Landsat image for free and do your own skytruthing.  Let us know what you find!

Year in Review: Most Significant Articles of 2012

SkyTruth’s vision is for “a world where all people can see and understand the environmental consequences of human activity everywhere on the earth, and are motivated to take action to protect the environment.” 


In March we shared a particularly striking view of the Gulf Coast – some images illustrate problems, others are simply beautiful. Click here for the full image from NASA.

In the past year we made significant strides toward realizing this vision, and while we have already shared our Top 10 Most Viewed Articles, we thought it would be good to share what we think were our most significant accomplishments in 2012.

Offshore Oil Drilling and Infrastructure

Taylor Oil Spill: 7 Years, 1.1 Million Gallons, Still Going…

We have continued to document the ongoing spill at Taylor Energy Platform 23051, damaged by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. Still, the oil keeps coming with no sign of activity to finally plug this continuous leak.  We set up a website to document the unrelenting chronology of spill reports. 

Sea Ice Receding at Shell’s Alaska Drill Sites

We closely followed Shell’s attempts to drill in the Arctic Ocean during the brief summer season. Ultimately, a series of embarrassing failures (including both of their drill rigs running aground, a flattened spill containment device, criminal investigations on the drillship Noble Discover, and the drill rig Kulluk holed up in a remote harbor south of Kodiak Island awaiting salvage assessment and repair) reinforced concerns that we’re not ready to drill offshore safely in this difficult region


On the left, sea ice retreating in early August, but still rather close to Shell’s Arctic drilling operations this summer in the Chukchi Sea.

Possible Contamination from Stolthaven Chemical Facility, Braithwaite, LA The Gulf Coast is home to a significant amount of chemical plants, fed in part by petroleum resources pumped out of the Gulf. In the aftermath of Hurricane Isaac, members of the Gulf Monitoring Consortium flew over the Gulf and onshore infrastructure, documenting a number of slicks from storm-damaged facilities, as well as highly visible damage at Stolthaven that forced the evacuation of nearby residents.

“You would think that by now, major industrial facilities planted in the middle of Hurricane Alley would be better able to withstand such predictable storm exposure. But I guess you’d be wrong….”    – John Amos, Sept. 13, 2012

Incident Monitoring: SkyTruth routinely reports on slicks and spills that we observe, including:



Coal Mining and Export

Visualizing Elevation Change – Mountaintop Removal Mining 

Few human activities alter the natural terrain more thoroughly and permanently than  mining, and modern remote sensing allows us to visualize that and measure it very precisely. Using Digital Elevation Models (DEMs) created from aerial survey imagery taken in 2003, and from a Light Detection And Ranging (LiDAR) laser survey flown in 2012, we created detailed representations of the terrain before and after mountaintop removal mining at the Spruce #1 Mine in Logan County, West Virginia.

Growing Coal Mines in the Powder River Basin

Another area that we turned our attention to is the practice of coal export, predominately to Asian markets due to the growing demand for energy there, and cheaper natural gas prices here. If new coal-export terminals are approved in the Pacific Northwest and on the Gulf coast, coal mining here in the US could accelerate. In this article, we mapped the area that has already been impacted by mining on public lands in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming, compared it to a more familiar areaSan Francisco — and showed the area under permit that could be mined in the future.


Smog (grey clouds) over China as seen by NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) in October 2010. Increased exports through the Pacific Northwest are expected to find a major market in China and Southeast Asia.

Oil and Gas Drilling and Fracking

Shale Gas Fly-Overs in Pennsylvania and West Virginia
As part of our work on shale gas development in North America, we coordinated two LightHawk flights over active shale gas drilling areas in the Marcellus Shale, documenting the impact shale gas development has on the landscape while showing stakeholders and partners the value of an aerial perspective on these complex issues. Check out the video and our photo galleries.

Waterdogs from The Downstream Project on Vimeo.

Worthy of an entire chapter of SkyTruth history, the FracFocus data release was the culmination of a major effort on our behalf and a significant contribution to the conversation on fracking. With it, researchers and decision makers can finally see the whole picture of reported fracking activity, at least as it is disclosed to the public. There are several critical shortcomings with the current state of “disclosure” (we made specific technical recommendations to the federal government to address some of those flaws), but using the aggregate database we released, anyone can quantify some of those problems and bring them to the attention of the public, regulators, policymakers and industry.
SkyTruth Alerts: Drills, Spills, and Fracks, Oh My!


Here, we plotted the centerpoints of all active Alerts subscriptions in the Lower 48 states and coastal waters. Most subscribers are apaprently interested in the Marcellus Shale play in the mid-Atlantic, and pollution monitoring in the Gulf of Mexico. SkyTruth Alerts are viewed and/or shared approximately 10,000 times each month.

We built this system as an internal tool to help us know when and where to look for spills, but we also realized this system had the potential to be a great resource for the public to stay informed about incidents in almost real-time. In 2012 we significantly improved the Alerts system, adding reports from industry about the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing operations nationwide, and drilling-related safety and environmental violations issued by regulators in West Virginia and Pennsylvania. 

Other Environmental Issues

Monitoring Illegal Activity on the Open Ocean: Busting Polluters by Satellite

In April we noticed a 92 mile-long oil slick off the coast of Africa, but on this radar satellite image the likely culprit was revealed as just a bright, white spot headed west at the far end of the slick. Using other data collected by satellites, one of our enterprising Shepherd University interns was able to conclusively identify the mystery ship responsible for this mess. We were told, by folks who should know, that this was the first publicly documented case of detecting a pollution event on the open ocean and identifying the responsible party, using only space-based data. 


Micro-satellites tuned to listen in on the location data broadcast by ships (required by many insurance companies to help prevent collisions) recorded the path of the offending vessel. Read more on the blog.
In another first, we are now using the same approach to detect and assess illegal fishing activity in the South Pacific Ocean. This project is will continue throughout 2013, so stay tuned and check back here for updates on our progress! 


Moderate Earthquake in Colorado Yesterday – Related to Fracking?

[UPDATE 3:15pm EST – apparently the answer in this case is “NO” – we just heard from a colleague who works in Colorado:  “These are not oil and gas drilling waste water wells. These are Bureau of Reclamation salinity control wells where shallow brine water is pumped and then reinjected deep to reduce salinity in the Colorado River system. Same mechanism but not oil and gas related.”]—-
An alert skytruther, who describes himself as a retired city environmental health director, gave us a heads up that a moderate (magnitude 3.9) earthquake shook residents along the Colorado – Utah border near the Paradox Valley late last night.  He also passed along a link to the USGS information page on this earthquake.  This statement caught our eye:

The largest historical earthquakes were a M4.4 in 2000 near the Paradox Valley in western Colorado and a M4.3 in 1953 near Green River, Utah. The M4.4 earthquake in 2000 and many smaller earthquakes in the Paradox Valley were induced by brine injection in deep wells. 

“Brine” is drilling-industry lingo for the non-hydrocarbon fluids that are produced by oil and gas wells.  This is mostly water by volume, but often includes toxins — metals and salts leached from deep bedrock, residual chemicals used in drilling and fracking the well, and low levels of radioactivity.  Getting rid of this stuff by pumping it back into the bedrock is an increasingly common practice as the current national shale-gas and shale-oil drilling booms are producing large amounts of wastewater that in some places threaten to overwhelm the current disposal infrastructure

This method of disposal has been proven for decades to cause small to moderate earthquakes, and is strongly implicated in recent earthquake swarms in Ohio, Oklahoma, Colorado and Arkansas.  We suspect this shallow quake (1.2 km depth) is possibly the latest example of an earthquake related to oil and gas activity.

So far the only known example of earthquakes caused by the hydraulic fracturing operation itself, is from Lancashire, England in 2011.  Given the number of disposal wells and fracking operations, induced seismicity due to oil and gas development remains a relatively rare occurrence, but as one scientist puts it “an earthquake even of magnitude 4 in a populated area can be an unpleasant thing.”  Indeed.

What on Earth is a Waterdog?

This past summer SkyTruth and the Downstream Project went up to Northern Pennsylvania to document Marcellus Shale gas development in and around the Pine Creek Watershed, a watershed known to Pennsylvanians as the “Grand Canyon of the East.” Our trip was facilitated by LightHawk, a volunteer conservation pilot association who took us up in a single-engine aircraft to get an aerial perspective on unconventional shale gas wells popping up across the Northern Tier (Read more about our part of the story here). However, one of the most unique features we found was the waterdogs.

Eastern Hellbender: Image from Davidson College.

“Waterdog” is a nickname for a type of Hellbender, North America’s largest salamander. But because of local citizens’ concern for the habitat and health of these elusive creatures, and the amount of time volunteers spend in the streams they care about, these citizen-scientists have taken to calling themselves the “Pine Creek Waterdogs.” To learn more, check out:

Waterdogs from The Downstream Project on Vimeo.

Special thanks to The Downstream Project, Pine Creek Headwaters Protection Group, Trout Unlimited: God’s Country Chapter, Dickinson College’s Alliance for Aquatic Resource Monitoring (ALLARM), and LightHawk.