Help SkyTruth Study Fracking from the Edge of Space

Check out our Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to support the mission and get one of our great rewards (like a limited-edition embroidered mission patch)! Go to Skytruth the Bakken and become a mission sponsor today…


For the past year, our satellite monitoring of infrared data from around the world has detected immense amounts of light and heat coming from natural gas flares in North Dakota’s Bakken Shale. A recent study concluded that 30% of the natural gas produced in North Dakota is being wasted by a process called flaring, and the CO2 emissions alone are equivalent to the annual emissions of 1,000,000 automobiles.This does not even touch the unknown air quality impacts from burning fracked gas in large, open flames at ground-level. To study this issue further, we are teaming up with a non-profit called Space For All to send cameras and instruments on a weather-balloon to the edge of space (well, the upper tropopause), to examine air quality and infrared emissions from oil shale fracking and flaring.
Typical N. Dakota natural gas flare. Joshua Doubek, Wikimedia Commons


But what is flaring and why is it an issue? Flaring is the practice of burning off natural gas to dispose of it, primarily this happens right after a well is put into production or when other methods of using the gas are more expensive to implement than its market value. Operators do not want methane (the primary hydrocarbon in natural gas) accumulating on their wellpads where it can explode, and burning it off is slightly less harmful to the climate than venting it directly to the atmosphere. 

But there is so much flaring going on that the fields around Williston, North Dakota positively glow, and there is limited information on other air quality impacts from flaring all of this gas produced as a by-product from fracking for oil. Help us Skytruth the Bakken to find out what is really going on…

(Above) Annotated image from NASA’s Black Marble composite of nighttime lights as seen by the Suomi NPP satellite. Flaring and rig lights in the Bakken Shale are clearly visible, but we want to better understand the difference between flaring and use this data to better detect wasteful flaring around the globe. 
With your help, we are planning to go to North Dakota to groundtruth satellite detections of flaring, and launch cameras and air quality instruments to the edge of space, tethered to a high-altitude balloon rig. We will combine our ground observations with detections from the balloon rig, and compare that to satellite data to measure the amount of natural gas flaring there. This will help us test the accuracy of our satellite-based flaring detections so we can do a better job of monitoring environmentally damaging (and unnecessarily wasteful) flaring that happens in the Bakken and around the world. The more good data we can collect, the more we can help groups that are working to reduce and eliminate it. 



FrackFinder 73% Complete: What’s Next?

Exactly two weeks ago, we officially launched the first stage of our new skytruthing initiative – FrackFinder: Project TADPOLE. Since the launch, our amazing volunteers have taken the project from 10% complete to 73% complete; that’s over 64,000  completed tasks (task = number of times an image is viewed and classified). 

Above is a live, interactive map that illustrates, by county, the progress that our FrackFinder volunteers have made toward completing all tasks for Pennsylvania. So far, we have focused on natural gas drilling and fracking in the Marcellus Shale region of William Penn’s woods. Now, we are working on preparing the next stage of this project, which expands FrackFinder to the Marcellus Shale region in another state – West Virginia. 
We continuously keep the lines of communication open with our volunteers and have gotten some great feedback. One volunteer shared with us an image that seems at first to be a bad photoshop job. The image, shown below, was captured by an aerial survey in 2010 over a permitted wellpad in Butler County, Pennsylvania. However, while it looks electronically manipulated, we believe that the image is really a sort of  real-world photoshop called hydroseeding. Hydroseeding is a reclamation process that involves spraying a slurry that contains seeds, fertilizer, mulch, and/or soil stabilizer, etc., on bare earth to help re-vegetate and prevent erosion.
Unconventional wellpad in Butler County, PA (2010), likely treated by hydroseeding.
While they missed a few spots, suggesting the job was done haphazardly, partial hydroseeding is at least better than leaving re-graded slopes bare and susceptible to erosion. More current imagery, found in Google Maps, shows the vegetation beginning to grow back in patches and at least part of the site plowed for agriculture. 
Have you seen anything out of the ordinary or interesting while using FrackFinder? Send us a screen capture of the image in question, including the location data (County, year, and the lat./long. coordinates) directly above and below the image. Also, if you would like to be a part of preparing and refining the the next stage of FrackFinder, please contact us.

FrackFinder: Tracking Our Progress

Last week we officially launched FrackFinder, a crowdsourced skytruthing project to find, map and track natural gas fracking sites. The first stage of the effort, Project TADPOLE, focuses on the Marcellus Shale region of Pennsylvania. Using data from drilling permits for fracking sites in PA and aerial survey photography taken by the National Agricultural Imagery Program (NAIP), we ask volunteers to identify what they see at each fracking site over a 5 year period. Thanks to an article the Washington Post published about our work here at SkyTruth, FrackFinder has been getting a lot of attention!

Within one week of the article’s release, Project TADPOLE gained 84 volunteer participants and jumped from 10% complete to 52%; that’s over 35,000 tasks (number of times an image is viewed by a volunteer) completed in one week. Of the 84 volunteers, 31 participated anonymously. Our anonymous volunteers averaged 49 tasks per person, and volunteers who chose not to work anonymously averaged 630. Impressively, several volunteers have completed thousands of tasks!

Progress of Project TADPOLE by county.

To keep everyone updated on the status of Project TADPOLE, we’ve created an interactive map that illustrates the progression of the project. The completion status for each county is measured independently and color coded accordingly. It is sort of exciting watching the counties change color as we move toward the finish line! Of this stage, that is.
We’ll soon need to prepare for the next stage of FrackFinder… TREE FROG?
 Stay tuned!


SkyTruth in The Washington Post

We’re pretty giddy around here today. The Washington Post just published an article and video all about SkyTruth on their website yesterday.  It will be the cover story on the print edition of this weekend’s Sunday magazine:

The opening makes us look like omniscient, see-all, Bourne-Identity-like uber-spies.  Rest assured the reality is a lot more, well, down to earth.  But the article does a great job describing some of the things we’re doing, and how we do them.  And with ever-changing technology and communication tools, the opening sequence may not be too far-fetched just a few short years from now.

We’re using this amazing technology to give everyone the ability to see and share what’s happening in the environment, be it just down the block or on the other side of the planet.  If you’d like to be part of this movement, please come and join us.  We’re looking for tech geeks and programmers, image analysts and graphics pros, fundraisers and financial supporters — people who want to apply their skills and effort to work on behalf of conservation.

And we’re looking for volunteer skytruthers who can spend a few minutes helping us with our first crowd-assisted image analysis project, FrackFinder, to find and map gas drilling and fracking sites.

It’s an exciting time to be at SkyTruth!  But it’s still a very big planet, and we can’t watch over it without your help.

FrackFinder: Mapping and Tracking Fracking Sites With Your Help

At SkyTruth, we work hard to make the unseen impacts of pollution and industrial development visible to the public. Our latest skytruthing effort is the FrackFinder. FrackFinder is a crowdsourced project to find, map, and track all sites where drilling for natural gas using hydraulic fracturing (fracking), occurs in the Marcellus Shale region of Pennsylvania.

This project goes a step beyond plotting data from state and industry sources as “pins in a map,” because there is much more going on in the forests, fields, and public lands of the Marcellus Shale than a single point on a map can tell. There are many stages to the life of a well and drilling/fracking has a footprint far larger than just the individual well. Our tool utilizes the innovative concept of crowdsourcing to enable concerned citizens to easily look at thousand of images over multiple years, allowing them to contribute to scientific evaluation of shale gas issues and provide us with large quantities of reliable spatial information. Crowdsourcing, outsourcing the work of image analysis to volunteers (like yourself), is an integral part of our vision of skytruthing — where anyone can see the impact of human activity on our planet, and take action to protect the environment.

We are now launching the appropriately named Project TADPOLE. It is the first in a series of applications that make up the FrackFinder project. (Look out for different growth stages, and possibly different amphibians and reptiles, as our skytruthing project continues to evolve.)

Example of a drilling site with equipment, as shown in the TADPOLE crowdsourcing tool.
At this stage, we’ve gathered aerial survey photography taken by the National Agricultural Imagery Program (NAIP; the same high-resolution imagery used in Google Earth) in 2005, 2008, and 2010 and data extracted from drilling permits for fracking sites in the state of Pennsylvania. There are nearly 3,000 fracking sites across PA, and we are asking volunteers to classify the type of activity they see at these sites for each of the three years. That’s 9,000 separate image-analysis tasks. To ensure accuracy, we require each image to be viewed and classified by ten different volunteers. (Preliminary testing has provided us with impressive results; volunteers agree on what they see in an image 89% of the time.) This means there are 90,000 individual tasks — instances of an image being served up and classified — to be completed… Whew.
That’s where you come in!
Become a skytruther by participating in Project TADPOLE. First, please fill out our sign-up sheet so we can let you know how the project is progressing (we promise not to spam you). Then, go to Project TADPOLE and spend at least 20 minutes classifying drilling sites for us. And finally, we are still beta testing and we need your feedback so please tell us how your experience was on our Facebook page.

We are continually improving Project TADPOLE and will be adding features such as a “finished” button to exit the tool. But please know that your work is saved as you go!