Fracking, Mountaintop Mining, and More…My Summer at SkyTruth

 Hi, my name is Jerrilyn Goldberg.  Over the course of  two months last summer I worked as an intern at SkyTruth. In September I started my junior year at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, majoring in environmental studies and physics. Over the course of my internship I contributed to SkyTruth’s Mountaintop Removal (MTR) research by creating a mask to block out rivers, roads, and urban areas that could be confused with mining activity by our analytical model. I also helped classify many of the ~1.1 million control points that allow us assess the accuracy of our MTR results.

To analyze the accuracy of the MTR results we obtained through our Earth Engine analysis, we dropped 5,000 randomly distributed points at each of 10 sample areas for each year between 1984 and 2016. These points were manually classified as being `mine` (if it overlapped a user IDed mine location) or `non-mine` (if it overlapped anything other than a mine). A subset of those manually classified points were then used to assess the accuracy of the output from our Earth Engine analysis

In addition to the MTR project, I created a story map illustrating the development of Marcellus Shale gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in Pennsylvania, and discussing the environmental and public health consequences fracking is having on some rural Pennsylvania communities. Check it out here. Through my research for the story map, I learned about the hydraulic fracturing process. I also learned about many of the political and social complexities surrounding the fracking industry in Pennsylvania, including conflicts between economic and community interests. Our goal with this story map is to present an accessible and accurate narrative about the fracking industry in Pennsylvania, which begins with understanding what’s actually going on now.

Click the image above to visit Jerrilyn’s interactive story map.

I started by learning about SkyTruth’s FrackFinder Pennsylvania data and methodology from the 2013 project. I read through our GitHub repository and figured out why the FrackFinder team chose their methodology and what the results represented. (While I was familiar with the general concept of the project, I did not know much about the specifics beforehand.) With this in mind, I set out to update the dataset with well pads built after 2013.


I quickly realized that this task presented many questions such as, which of the many state oil and gas datasets actually contained the information I sought. I selected the Spud Data, which contains all of the individual locations where operators have reported a drilling start-date for a permitted well. I filtered to include only unconventional horizontal wells drilling for natural gas and excluded those reported as ‘not drilled.’ To account for some missing drilling locations which I noticed while reviewing the latest Google base map imagery, I also download the Well Inventory Dataset which includes all permitted oil and gas wells along with their status. From here I filtered out all the spuds and wells not listed as drilled in 2014, 2015, or 2016 and joined the files. After joining the layers, I formed a well pad dataset by creating a 150 meter buffer around the wells, dissolving overlapping areas, then locating the centers of each buffer. This step effectively says ‘create a 150 m radius circle around each point, but when these overlap, clump them into one circle, then find the center of that new circle.’ Finally, I found all the buffers that overlapped with FrackFinder drilling locations from 2013 and earlier, and eliminated all of those centroids.

A quick note about the imagery: USDA collects high resolution aerial imagery as part of the National Agriculture Imagery Program (NAIP), which at the time of my project was last collected for Pennsylvania in 2015. While I worked hard to eliminate inaccurate points, I was unable to verify all of these with the existing NAIP imagery. That said, I found that the other points accurately represented the general well pad locations and thus chose to include the points for the first half of 2016, even though I obviously couldn’t verify the existence of those recent drilling locations on the mid-summer 2015 NAIP imagery.


At the same time I found The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC’s) 2010 Energy Impact Analysis, which looked at the predicted development of wind, shale gas, and wood fuel usage in Pennsylvania. Part of TNC’s study identified three construction scenarios for how many wells and well pads could be built in Pennsylvania by 2030. With an assumption that 60,000 new wells would be drilled between 2010 and 2030, the study predicted between 6000 and 15000 new well pads would be built to host those wells. Each scenario featured a different distance between pads and a different number of wells per pad (because that number stays constant at 60,000 new wells). I found some data from TNC’s study hidden on an old SkyTruth backup with help from Christian and David. With the FrackFinder data, my update, and the ‘informed scenarios’ in hand, I started trying to figure out an appropriate way to synthesize the three datasets, to identify which TNC drilling scenario best fits what is actually happening..


One roadblock in conducting a thorough analysis and comparison was that TNC’s research makes a quantitative prediction about the possible volume of infrastructure development instead of a more tangible spatial prediction. The study distributes the predicted numbers of new well pads across the counties of Pennsylvania, which overlay the region of Marcellus Shale with ideal conditions for hydraulic fracturing for natural gas. All of the included counties now contain at least one well pad. I did notice that since 2010, about 1/3 of the well pads estimated by the low impact scenario (6000 well pads) have already been constructed. If the rate of development between 2010 and 2016 remains constant, Pennsylvania will surpass TNC’s low impact scenario.

An example of The Nature Conservancy’s “low” impact scenario for fracking well construction across a section of Pennsylvania.

The Nature Conservancy’s medium impact scenario for future fracking well construction across a section of Pennsylvania.

The Nature Conservancy’s high impact scenario for future fracking well construction over a section of Pennsylvania.


Fracking Pennsylvania” uses maps and other media to create a narrative of hydraulic fracturing and its consequences. While originally intended for the community members we work with in southern Pennsylvania, I hope this story map becomes a useful tool for many different communities grappling with fracking.


While I have my time in the Watchdog spotlight, I want to publicly thank everyone here for welcoming me into the awesome world of SkyTruth. I’m so grateful for the learning opportunities I had last summer and for all of the support I received. Special thanks to Christian for introducing me to SkyTruth and to John for helping me improve my Story Map even though he is definitely one of the busiest people in the office. I look forward to sharing my experience through the Carleton Internship Ambassador program this year.  

A Productive Week in Shepherdstown

With team members in three continents and four U.S. states, we at SkyTruth make extensive use of Slack and video conferencing. This form of remote working saves many hours on commute time and has allowed us to build this great tool from our spots all over the world — but sometimes there’s just nothing like meeting in person. Two weeks ago a number of us working on Global Fishing Watch, including a few colleagues from Oceana and Google,  met in Shepherdstown, WV (SkyTruth’s World Headquarters), for a week-long workshop.

Global Fishing Watch is at an exciting point it its history. We just launched our public-facing website at the U.S. State Department’s Our Ocean’s Conference. Over the next year, we hope to roll out more features to the website, undertake a series of analyses to better understand fishing around the globe, and publish more of our datasets for outside researchers and advocates to use. Stay tuned for more updates. Below are some pictures from the week.

Nate Miller Shares his Analysis on Transshipment

Nate Miller shares his analysis on transshipment with the Global Fishing Watch team.

Machine Learning Engineers Alex Wilson of Google and Tim Hochberg of SkyTruth

Machine Learning Engineers Alex Wilson of Google and Tim Hochberg of SkyTruth collaborate on an improved neural network to identify fishing vessels. Christian Thomas is at his computer in the background.

David Kroodsma at the Chalkboard, Outlining the Next Global Fishing Watch Projects

David Kroodsma, at the chalkboard, outlines the next Global Fishing Watch projects.

How SkyTruth Works: David Kroodsma

SkyTruth isn’t your ordinary organization. Of course, everyone says that, so we thought we’d give you a glimpse into what makes us unique. With a little inspiration from Lifehacker’s “How We Work,” we’ve asked our staff to answer a few insider questions that reflect who we are and what makes us tick. . .

Name: David Kroodsma
Job title: Research Program Manager, Global Fishing Watch
Location (at the moment): Oakland, CA

David came to SkyTruth after cycling 30,000 miles through 28 countries to talk about climate change. He says the hardest part of his journey came after the peddling when he decided to sit down and write a book about it. Today he applies his education in environmental science and physics to keeping the wheels in motion at Global Fishing Watch.

  1. Describe yourself in one to three words.
    Energetic, optimistic
  2. What are you working on this week?
    I am working with our research partners to help move a number of research projects forward. I’m working on the crowdsourcing app that we use to verify different types of fishing boats and identify different types of fishing. I’m also learning how to use Google’s Earth Engine platform which allows us to do global-scale calculations on extremely high resolution data.
  3. Do you have a set routine for your workday?
    I get up at 6:20 am and join the 6:30 am office call. It’s a daily check-in meeting for the development team at SkyTruth to share their priorities and goals for the day. It’s at 9:30 am Eastern Time, but since I’m based on the West Coast, it means I start the day at 6:30 am. I like to join that because it helps me focus for the day and it’s great to stay connected to what is a pretty dispersed team. After the meeting I like to spend some time responding to emails and getting organized for the day. Then I drop my son off at the nanny. After that it varies day to day, but usually I end up having a lot of calls, especially to help coordinate our research team. It’s nice that by the end of my day, a lot of people on the East Coast have stopped working. If I’ve gotten most of my stuff done, I can finish early in the day because I start at 6:30. But usually, that’s a good time to work on projects that don’t require a lot of interactions with other team members. Things like coding or more open ended analytic projects.
  4. Coffee or tea?
    Coffee, anything will do, really, although there’s a Philz coffee very close by.
  5. What does your workspace look like right now?
    DavidK's work space

    David Kroodsma’s Office. Photo credit: David Kroodsma.

  6. What do you consider the most creative part of your job?
    The most creative part is figuring out how to best host a research workshop: what’s the best way to organize a day such that our research partners will get the most out of it and feel the most engaged and want to contribute to the program? There’s kind of an art to setting up a meeting. In some ways that’s the most creative.
  7. What are you most excited about doing at SkyTruth?
    I am most excited about making discoveries that matter. So really what we are doing is getting access to datasets no one has had the chance to analyze before, and we’re trying to say meaningful things with them. It’s about helping interpret this amazing resource of environmental observations and making it useful for people. That’s what really excites me about this work.
  8. What’s been the biggest challenge in your professional life?
    Finding that balance between research and advocacy. I’ve kind of done both in a sense, so it’s just trying to figure where I fit on that spectrum. Because I’ve done some activist-related things, but at heart, I really love science and research. I think that’s why I was originally drawn to this organization. For me it’s the right balance of seeking both truth and change.
  9. What apps are you using to accomplish the work?
    Slack, Chrome and iPython Notebooks.
  10. In your personal life are there any apps or devices you could not live without?
    Strava. It’s an app for tracking your exercise, and mapping your runs or rides.
    Strava screenshot
  11. Of the places in which you’ve lived, or places you’ve visited what would be most interesting viewed from a satellite, and why?
    I swam in the Aral Sea in 2014, and it would be very interesting to watch how that is changing. It used to be the world’s fourth largest lake, but in the last 30 years it has declined in size by over 90 percent due to the overuse of water in Central Asia. It’s now one tenth the size it used to be.

    Satellite imagery of the Aral Sea in 1998 and 2008

    Aral Sea in 1998 and 2008

    We had to drive across the empty lake bed for many, many miles to get to the edge of the water, and it continues to recede every year. As water has drained from the lake the salinity has risen to several times that of seawater, which makes it easy to float.

    Photo of David floating in the Aral Sea

    David challenging the theory of specific gravity in water several times saltier than the ocean. 

  12. What superpower do you bring to the project, even though you don’t like to brag?
    Power napping. I can grab ten minutes or twenty minutes of sleep anywhere.
  13.  If you weren’t at SkyTruth, how would you be changing the world?
    Through making sure my five month old son gets his sleep. That would be world-changing for me.
  14.  What’s inspiring you this today or this week?
    Animated gifs.
    Animated gif of dog hanging head out of car window