SkyTruth CTO: Paul Woods

When Paul Woods moved to Shepherdstown, West Virginia, SkyTruth’s home base, he was looking to get away from the Washington, D.C. area where we had been consulting in the tech industry during the dot com boom. His goal had been to find a slower pace and a more soul-satisfying lifestyle than the world of maximizing profit margins through software development. Now, he’s setting off to help save the oceans by revolutionizing the way the fishing industry works.

As the Chief Technology Officer at SkyTruth, Paul was instrumental in bringing Global Fishing Watch into being. [You can read about that here] Now, the platform we developed for identifying and tracking every commercial fishing vessel on the oceans is spinning off into an independent non-profit organization with Paul at the helm. As the interim CEO of Global Fishing Watch, Paul will be guiding the new organization through the transition. While we’re still keeping him in the fold, we thought it was a good time to sit down for a brief reflection on his path, his time at SkyTruth and a look into what’s next.

It’s a small town, so I guess when you landed in Shepherdstown in 2001, it was only a matter of time before you and SkyTruth found each other. How did you get involved?

It’s true just about everybody in Shepherdstown knows SkyTruth. When I met John (SkyTruth President, John Amos), I was working with another company, but I did a few side projects for SkyTruth. I also joined the board as technology advisor. Then, as the other work was winding down and I was looking for the next thing, I realized I just got a lot more out of the SkyTruth stuff than I did out of creating products to maximize clicks or streamline business processes.

In 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon spill happened, I helped John set up a rapid response website. Of course the whole oil spill incident opened an opportunity for growth at SkyTruth, and I realized I could apply my skills in the stuff I really like doing directly to issues that made a real difference in the world. That kind of direct application to saving the environment is so much more satisfying than just writing a check or writing a letter to your congressman.

By 2013, I came on full time, and one of the first projects we did was SkyTruth Alerts, which is still in use today.

I’m sure it’s rewarding to see Global Fishing Watch mature into its own organization. Do you have any reflections to share as you look back at your time at SkyTruth?

Over the years I’ve been working on many different projects at SkyTruth that have been deeply rewarding to me. Now that one of those projects has gotten big enough that it requires all of my time and attention to keep it running, which is enormously exciting.

What are your hopes for the future:

Clearly my immediate hopes and dreams are focused on the continued success and growth of Global Fishing Watch. I hope to see Global Fishing Watch arrive at a long term sustainable model that will propel its growth beyond me and be wildly successful at making fishing sustainable and helping save the oceans.

Personally, I guess I’m always looking for the next thing. I’m a start-up guy. That’s what I do. It’s what I like to do, so I guess my hope is that there will be another Global Fishing Watch around the corner a few years from now —another project with the same great impact and the same great opportunity to make the world a better place, and I’ll get to be involved in it. There’s a good chance that project is in its infancy right now at SkyTruth.

If you could see any place in the world from space, where would it be?

Anyplace? Well, we have recently detected new planets only four-and-a-half light years away, and at least one of them potentially has liquid water on it. The surface of Proxima Centauri B. That’s my first answer.

Great answer. What about here on Earth. If you could aim the SkyTruth “eye” where would you aim?

What would be really fantastic to see from space would be the bottom of the ocean, the sea floor. Unfortunately we can’t do that right now, but I think that would be the place I’d want to see.

Mining in Ghana’s Forest Reserves

Gold mining chewing up a forest reserve in Ghana. Satellite image taken in 2015.

The government of Ghana has been giving permission to major multinational mining corporations to conduct surface mining operations, mostly for gold, in areas that had been set aside as forest reserves.  Imagery from Google Earth tells the tale of one of these large operations, the Akyem mine operated by Newmont, a Colorado-based company.  The rapid explosion in size of the operation is obvious.  What’s less apparent is the magnitude of the impact on the adjacent forest reserve.  (To be clear: the mining is obliterating the forest, like surface mining anywhere. But we can’t say how big an area of the reserve has been affected.) We don’t have reliable data defining the boundaries of the reserve, so we can’t quantify the destruction of protected forest due to mining activity.  If we can find GIS-ready data showing the reserve boundaries, we’ll update this post.

Akyem project area, 2003. Pre-mining, moderate-resolution satellite image.

Akyem project area, 2012, two years after mining was approved. High-resolution satellite image.

Akyem project area, 2015. The mining operation is 6.5 kilometers across and covers a total area of about 10 square kilometers.  High-resolution satellite image. Smoke, tropical humidity, and dust blowing out of the Sahara make it tough to get crisp imagery in sub-Saharan Africa.

A Message From Elliott

 

My friend and one of SkyTruth’s original board members, Dr. Elliott Norse, is stepping off our Board of Directors after 14 years of tirelessly enthusiastic service.  An internationally acclaimed forest ecologist and marine biologist who founded and ran the Marine Conservation Institute, Elliott has more accomplishments than I can list, but among them: he was an early proponent of the concept of biodiversity and shaped the field of marine conservation biology in its formative years; and he coined the name SkyTruth. So, in a very literal way, we owe our identity to him.

And in a era where ecopragmatism is on the upswing, and tactical compromises and tradeoffs are redefining environmentalism, Elliott has always been an ardent ecospiritualist:  a guiding star to keep us inspired to work on behalf of conservation, not just because it’s something that benefits humankind, but because it’s the right thing, the moral thing, to do.

We’ve benefited greatly from his wit and wisdom, his generosity and leadership.  I know Elliott is still just a phone call away, and we’ll be able to drop in and get his thoughts when we’re wrestling with decisions large and small, and in need of some perspective.  I can’t complain: we’ve had a good run with Elliott, and because of Elliott, and for that I am deeply grateful.

Thank you Elliott, from your friend, admirer and colleague,

John Amos
President

With Elliott’s permission, I’d like to share his message to our Board:

Dear SkyTruth boardies,

There are 2 kinds of actors: those who don’t know when to get off the stage and those who do.

Timing is everything.  Now that SkyTruth is rapidly ascending and I see how smart and devoted our boardies are to John’s vision, SkyTruth’s methods and our crucial conservation mission, it is my sad but heartfelt pleasure to tell you that I am resigning from SkyTruth’s Board of Directors effective 12/31/15, when I am also resigning my day job at Marine Conservation Institute.

I’ve had the pleasure and honor of knowing John since 1985 or so.  30 years.  And I’ve seen how he’s used his talent—which in the for-profit world would have made him rich—to make our world a better place.

John has great vision, a great heart, a great presence as a speaker and very good luck when it comes to choosing the people around him.  You make him even better at what he does so brilliantly.

As you all know, how humans relate to our planet is absolutely key to the complex systems of business, society, politics and ecology.  It’s not easy to understand the behavior of complex systems because we don’t see all that they do until they do it.  But one thing we know about complex systems is that they tend to resist change until they pass an inflection point (or tipping point, as people now see it, thanks to Malcolm Gladwell), the moment when systems reorganize.  Nonlinearity is a defining characteristic of complex systems.  And my sense is that SkyTruth is positioned to become a much more important part of the most important of global conversations: the one about what to do to our blue, white, green and brown planet, on which we and all our progeny live.

I’ve devoted years to seeing SkyTruth succeed, and I now want to watch it ascend to a new level of influence over what people are doing to the Earth and one another.  SkyTruth is about seeing and depicting the environmental truths—local, regional, national and global—on land, freshwaters and the sea.  By taking a satellite’s view (backing off to take in the greater context), SkyTruth provides the iconic views and analyses of big things that are happening on our planet, from the structural failure of coal ash dams and the regulatory failure of mine reclamation to the hemorrhaging of oil leaks and the metastasis of illegal fishing far out at sea.  And with more than a billion people armed with phones that can photograph time-stamped geolocated human activities, SkyTruth has the gravitas and technological savvy to interpret these iconic images for a worldwide network of individual citizens, advocacy organizations and government agencies.  The stars are aligning for SkyTruth’s ascent into a higher orbit, as they are for Marine Conservation Institute.  These outstanding nonprofits deserve to have younger, fresher minds to help our staffs do great things for this truly unique real estate we inhabit.  After working on small, not-so-small and really big things for well over a decade, SkyTruth has shown special capacity to see and understand how things happen and affect nature and people.

John, Paul and their team have done a brilliant job.  Their successes are not one-offs; SkyTruth has all the elements needed to reach a higher orbit.

I think our board needs a few scientists who have exceptional vision, strong pro-Earth ethics and the ability to integrate nature and people.  I think we need more contacts in both the nonprofit environmental advocacy community and the for-profit world of business (the government people who see your products will be compelled to flock to you).  And SkyTruth needs lots more money to succeed, as we all want it to.  So this is the time for SkyTruth’s strategic revisioning and rebooting, keeping our other boardies but also upgrading the geographical ecology position(s) and adding formal economics and social marketing savvy, giving us both substantive credibility and the ability to move lots more people now, while there’s still a brief window of time to succeed.

Worry not for me.  I’ve spent more than 37 years fighting to save the Earth I love.  Now I’m ready to take better care of my health and my loved ones, to grow my vegies, to watch my amazing backyard birds, to read, to think and do whatever life brings me.  If I’ve done good things for this organization and Marine Conservation Institute, I feel it’s the right time to quit while I still have some relevance, not to wait until I’m no longer good enough to play a game this important.  I’m exiting my way, and it feels really good.

Knowing that our baby is in very good hands allows me to leave the stage now.  I’m not going to disappear, so if John, Paul or any of you needs to talk, I’ll still be at this email and phone number.  If I don’t answer, please know it’s not because I’m hunting for funding or meeting with the most powerful people who’ll give me an audience; it’s because I’m working out, watching hummingbirds feed from flowers I’ve planted specifically for them, caring for my beautiful grandchildren (they don’t have any of my genes!), traveling with my wonderful wife of 23 years, reading a novel or doing something else that’s physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually rewarding.  Don’t worry about me.  Just do really good things for SkyTruth and I’ll watch your progress and celebrate.

Thank you all for the great privilege of working with you.

Peace and love for you and for the Earth,

Elliott

Map of Active Wellpads in Pennsylvania: 2005-2013

Citizen-scientist analysis of aerial survey imagery from 2013, validated by SkyTruth, found 1,615 new wellpads in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale (and related Devonian shales). This latest result of our ongoing FrackFinder projects brings the total to 2,724 active industrial operations that we have identified spread across the fields and forests of Pennsylvania. These numbers are not to be confused with rig counts (which maxed out at 116 in 2011 and 2012) or the total number of shale wells drilled in William Penn’s woods (over 7,788). 

Because drilling rigs move around and operators often drill multiple wells from each wellpad, this count is a more accurate representation of the number of locations around the Commonwealth where land has been cleared, pipelines have been laid, impoundments have been built, water and chemicals have been trucked in, and equipment has been assembled to drill and frack one or more wells. 


Click here or the animation above to explore an interactive map of wellpads observed in 2005, 2008, 2010, and 2013. The animation shows all observed wellpads cumulatively, 2005 = Blue, 2008 = Yellow, 2010 = Orange, and 2013 = Red. 

By itself this data might not be much different than what you could generate from looking at permit data and when drilling began, but we have included this phase in all our FrackFinder projects so that we can be sure we are looking at all the right places. Sometimes permit data is backlogged and a dataset you download today may not reflect everything that is happening in the real world. Additionally, having several years of crowdsourced image analysis data will enable us to do some nice comparisons to see how accurate state data are, as well as check the accuracy of our citizen scientists. 



Wellpad in a Pennsylvania State Forest in 2012. Credit: Bill Howard, The Downstream Project via LightHawk

To provide some context for all those points on the map, check out these aerial photos from our parters at the Downstream Project. Wellpads are typically 3-5 acre gravel parking lots surrounded by roads, impoundments, pipelines, and other related infrastructure. In high-density drilling areas, or areas with a lot of steep terrain, these sites can occupy 15-20 acres of interconnected industrial activity. Ultimately, we are doing these studies so that we can better understand the public and environmental health implications of living near these operations.

Stay tuned for news about a new FrackFinder project coming up for a brand new state (Hint: It’s a very mountainous state and the only one in the Union with this cardinal direction of the compass in its name). 

Oil Closes Another California Beach

Officials in Santa Barbara County, California, had to close another beach because of oil washing ashore from an as-yet unidentified source.  Summerland beach is located along the coast between the site of the Refugio State Beach pipeline oil spill back in late May, and the beaches of Ventura County that were also closed when tarballs began coming ashore a week after that.  Is the Summerland oil coming from some of the natural oil seeps in and around the Santa Barbara Channel?  Or is it coming from one of the offshore oil platforms in the vicinity?  

A beautifully clear Landsat-8 satellite image was taken on August 14.  Summerland is at top center on this sequence of images.  A faint slick several miles long dominates the center of the scene:

SkyTruth-SB-L8-14aug2015
Detail from Landsat-8 satellite image showing California coast around Summerland.
SkyTruth-SB-L8-14aug2015-annot
Seven oil platforms and three passing vessels are noted. Platform A was the site of the infamous Santa Barbara Oil Spill of 1969.  The slick in this image appears to emanate from the same location as Platform A. 
SkyTruth-SB-L8-14aug2015-annot-seeps
Locations of known natural seeps, and sample collection sites for oil slicks and tarballs, are shown.  Data from USGS / PCMSC. The USGS data show a “seep” or small cluster of seeps at the Platform A site.

It’s not clear to us if the “seeps” indicated by USGS on the data shown above are natural seeps that predate the installation of Platform A and the catastrophic subsea blowout and spill of 1969; or if “seep” in this case refers to the ongoing slow leakage of oil resulting from that blowout.  If you know, please write a comment below.  

This Sentinel radar satellite image taken yesterday (August 23, 2015) clearly shows the big metal oil platforms as rows of brilliant spots. The large dark patches are slicks — flat patches of water — but it’s not clear on this image if they are caused by seeps, variable wind, floating kelp, or (most likely) all of the above in this very dynamic place:

SkyTruth-SB-Sentinel-23aug2015
Sentinel-1A radar satellite image, same area as above, taken on August 23, 2015. Oil platforms are bright spots; slicks (oil and otherwise) are dark patches. Image courtesy Copernicus / ESA.
SkyTruth-SB-Sentinel-23aug2015-annot-seeps (1)
Radar image shwoing locations of oil platforms, as well as known oil seeps and sample locations from USGS / PCMSC. Image courtesy Copernicus / ESA.
Bottom line: We don’t see a clear culprit for the Summerland spill, but it might be worth flying over Platform A to see if the seepage there has recently increased for some reason.