What About the Oceans? Mapping Offshore Infrastructure

Mapping stationary structures in the ocean helps us track fishing vessels and monitor pollution more effectively.

We’re all accustomed to seeing maps of the terrestrial spaces we occupy. We expect to see cities, roads and more well labeled, whether in an atlas on our coffee table or Google Maps on our smartphone. SkyTruthers even expect to access information about where coal mines are located or where forests are experiencing regrowth. We can now see incredibly detailed satellite imagery of our planet. Try looking for your house in Google Earth. Can you see your car in the driveway?

In comparison, our oceans are much more mysterious places. Over seventy percent of our planet is ocean, yet vast areas are described with only a handful of labels: the Pacific Ocean, Coral Sea, Strait of Hormuz, or Chukchi Sea for example. And while we do have imagery of our oceans, its resolution decreases drastically the farther out from shore you look. It can be easy to forget that humans have a permanent and substantial footprint across the waters of our planet. At SkyTruth, we’re working to change that.

Former SkyTruth senior intern Brian Wong and I are working to create a dataset of offshore infrastructure to help SkyTruth and others more effectively monitor our oceans. If we know where oil platforms, aquaculture facilities, wind farms and more are located, we can keep an eye on them more easily. As technological improvements fuel the growth of the ocean economy, allowing industry to extract resources far out at sea, this dataset will become increasingly valuable. It can help researchers examine the effects of humanity’s expanding presence in marine spaces, and allow activists, the media, and other watchdogs to hold industry accountable for activities taking place beyond the horizon.

What We’re Doing

Brian is now an employee at the Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab (MGEL) at Duke University. But nearly two years ago, at a Global Fishing Watch research workshop in Oakland, he and I discussed the feasibility of creating an algorithm that could identify vessel locations using Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) imagery. It was something I’d been working on on-and-off for a few weeks, and the approach seemed fairly simple.

Image 1. SkyTruth and Global Fishing Watch team members meet for a brainstorming session at the Global Fishing Watch Research Workshop, September 2017. Photo credit: David Kroodsma, Global Fishing Watch.

Readers who have been following SkyTruth’s work are probably used to seeing SAR images from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1 satellites in our posts. They are our go-to tools for monitoring marine pollution events, thanks to SAR’s ability to pierce clouds and provide high contrast between slicks and sea water. SAR imagery provides data about the relative roughness of surfaces. With radar imagery, the satellite sends pulses to the earth’s surface. Flat surfaces, like calm water (or oil slicks), reflect less of this data back to the satellite sensor than vessels or structures do, and appear dark. Vessels and infrastructure appear bright in SAR imagery because they experience a double-bounce effect. This means that — because such structures are three-dimensional — they typically reflect back to the satellite more than once as the radar pulse bounces off multiple surfaces. If you’re interested in reading more about how to interpret SAR imagery this tutorial is an excellent starting point.

Image 2. The long, dark line bisecting this image is a likely bilge dump from a vessel captured by Sentinel-1 on July 2, 2019. The bright point at its end is the suspected source. Read more here.

Image 3. The bright area located in the center of this Sentinel-1 image is Neft Daşları, a massive collection of offshore oil platforms and related infrastructure in the Caspian Sea.

Given the high contrast between water and the bright areas that correspond to land, vessels, and structures (see the vessel at the end of the slick in Image 2 and Neft Daşları in Image 3), we thought that if we could mask out the land, picking out the bright spots should be relatively straightforward. But in order to determine which points were vessels, we first needed to identify the location of all the world’s stationary offshore infrastructure, since it is virtually impossible to differentiate structures from vessels when looking at a single SAR image. Our simple task was turning out to be not so simple.

While the United States has publicly available data detailing the locations of offshore oil platforms (see Image 4), this is not the case for other countries around the world. Even when data is available, it is often hosted across multiple webpages, hidden behind paywalls, or provided in formats which are not broadly accessible or useable. To our knowledge, no one has ever published a comprehensive, global dataset of offshore infrastructure that is publicly available (or affordable).

Image 4. Two versions of a single Sentinel-1 image collected over the Gulf of Mexico, in which both oil platforms and vessels are visible. On the left, an unlabelled version which illustrates how similar infrastructure and vessels appear. On the right, oil platforms have been identified using the BOEM Platform dataset.

As we began to explore the potential of SAR imagery for automated vessel and infrastructure detection, we quickly realized that methods existed to create the data we desired. The Constant False Alarm Rate algorithm has been used to detect vessels in SAR imagery since at least 1988, but thanks to Google Earth Engine we are able to scale up the analysis and run it across every Sentinel-1 scene collected to date (something which simply would not have been possible even 10 years ago). To apply the algorithm to our dataset, we, among other things, had to mask out the land, and then set the threshold level of brightness that indicated the presence of a structure or vessel. Both structures and vessels will have high levels of reflectance. So we then had to separate the stationary structures from vessels. We did this by compiling a composite of all images for the year 2017. Infrastructure remains stationary throughout the year, while vessels move. This allowed us to clearly identify the infrastructure.

Image 5. An early version of our workflow for processing radar imagery to identify vessel locations. While the project shifted to focus on infrastructure detection first, many of the processing steps remained.

Where We Are Now

Our next step in creating the infrastructure dataset was testing the approach in areas where infrastructure locations were known. We tested the algorithm’s ability to detect oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, where the US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) maintains a dataset. We also tested the algorithm’s ability to identify wind turbines. We used a wind farm boundary dataset provided by the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office to validate our dataset, as well as information about offshore wind farms in Chinese waters verified in media reports, with their latitude and longitude available on Wikipedia.

Image 6. Wind farms in the Irish Sea, west of Liverpool.

Our results in these test areas have been very promising, with an overall accuracy of 96.1%. The methodology and data have been published by the journal Remote Sensing of Environment. Moving beyond these areas, we are continuing to work with our colleagues at MGEL to develop a full global dataset. What started as a project to identify vessels for GFW has turned into an entirely different, yet complementary, project identifying offshore infrastructure around the world.

Image 7. This animated map shows the output of our offshore infrastructure detection algorithm results (red) compared to the publicly available BOEM Platform dataset (yellow).

In addition to helping our partners at Global Fishing Watch identify fishing vessels, mapping the world’s offshore infrastructure will help SkyTruth more effectively target our daily oil pollution monitoring work on areas throughout the ocean that are at high risk for pollution events from oil and gas drilling and shipping (such as bilge dumping). This is also the first step towards one of SkyTruth’s major multi-year goals: automating the detection of marine oil pollution, so we can create and publish a global map of offshore pollution events, updated on a routine basis.

Be sure to keep an eye out for more updates, as we will be publishing the full datasets once we complete the publication cycles.

New Writer–Editor Amy Mathews Joins SkyTruth Team

Telling SkyTruth’s stories

SkyTruth is both an intensely local and vibrantly global organization. Based in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, many of our highly talented staff are long-time residents (and some were even born and raised here). That makes our work on Appalachian issues such as mountaintop mining and fracking personal − it’s happening in our backyard, typically with little oversight from government agencies. But confronting global environmental challenges sometimes means reaching beyond local borders and finding the right people to take on a task that no one else has tackled before. And so SkyTruth’s family of staff and consultants includes programmers and others from around the world, plus top notch research partners at universities and other institutions.

The SkyTruth team in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Photo by Hali Taylor.

As SkyTruth’s new Writer–Editor, I plan to bring you their stories in coming months, to add to the remarkable findings and tools the staff regularly shares through this blog. We’ll learn more about the people whose passion propels our cutting-edge work. And we’ll learn more about all of you – the SkyTruthers who use these tools and information to make a difference in the world. We’ll share your impact stories: That is, how you’ve made a difference in your neighborhood, state, nation or the world at large.

To start, I’ll share a little bit about myself. As a kid, stories hooked me on conservation. I used to watch every National Geographic special I could find and never missed an episode of Wild Kingdom (remember that?). My fascination with all things wild led me to major in wildlife biology at Cornell University. But I quickly realized that I wasn’t a scientist at heart − I was more interested in saving creatures than studying them. I spent spring semester of my junior year in Washington, D.C. and shifted my focus to environmental policy. That decision led to dual graduate degrees in environmental science and public affairs at Indiana University and a long career in environmental policy analysis, program evaluation, and advocacy in Washington.

Urban life and policy gridlock eventually pushed me to Shepherdstown, where nature was closer at hand. I became involved in Shepherdstown’s American Conservation Film Festival, which reignited my passion for storytelling and the inspiration it can trigger. And so, after years of working and consulting for the federal government, conservation groups and charitable foundations, I returned to my conservation roots. I completed my M.A. in nonfiction writing at Johns Hopkins University in May 2013 and left my policy work behind.

Radio-collared Mexican wolf. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Since then, my writing has appeared in publications such as The Washington Post, Pacific Standard, Scientific American, High Country News, Wonderful West Virginia and other outlets. In fact, my 2018 story on the endangered Mexican wolf for Earth Touch News recently won a Genesis Award from the Humane Society of the United States for Outstanding Online News. I was thrilled to be able to observe a family of wolves as part of my reporting for that story, and I always welcome new opportunities to go out in the field and learn about the important work conservationists are doing.

During my time as a freelance journalist, I also led workshops for the nonprofit science communication organization COMPASS, teaching environmental (and other) scientists how to communicate their work more effectively to journalists, policymakers, and others.

There’s one more thing I’d like to share: Although my official role at SkyTruth as Writer–Editor is new, I’ve known SkyTruth since its very beginning. I still remember the day SkyTruth founder John Amos and I sat down at our dining room table and he told me his vision for a new nonprofit. His goal was to level the playing field by giving those trying to protect the planet the same satellite tools used by industries exploiting the planet. John is my husband, and SkyTruth’s journey has been exciting, frightening, gratifying, and sometimes frustrating, with many highs and the occasional low. But it has never been boring.

I’m looking forward to sharing SkyTruth stories with all of you, making sure they move beyond the dining room table to your homes and offices, inspiring you, your colleagues, your friends and families to make the most of what SkyTruth has to offer. Feel free to reach out to me at info@skytruth.org if you’d like to share how you’ve used SkyTruth tools and materials. Just include my name in the subject line and the words “impact story.” Let’s talk!

Note: Portions of this text first appeared on the website amymathewsamos.com.

SkyTruth Alerts: When We Know, You Know

Key Takeaways:

  1. SkyTruth is looking for new sources for the environmental alerts we send out.
  2. Since relaunching Alerts in December, 2018, we’ve expanded Oil & Gas permitting to include West Virginia, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Montana and Utah. We’ve also added pollution alerts for Florida, New Mexico and New York.
  3. We rely on our users to let us know about potential new sources for Alerts. Email your ideas to info@skytruth.org.

Introduction

Where do you start if you want to monitor the environment in an area that’s special to you? How do you find useful data? You might have a specific issue in mind and you suspect there’s relevant data online if you could only find it. Data.gov alone contains 252,892 datasets last time you checked, and much of that’s related to the environment.

You could spend days researching online datasets, and when you find something relevant figure out how to navigate the website to pull out the data you need while somehow filtering for your Area of Interest (AOI). Repeat daily.

Or, you could register for a SkyTruth Alerts account, outline and save your AOI, then go live your life while we do the heavy lifting.

Example of an Alerts email.

SkyTruth Alerts was built in 2012, originally as an in-house tool for our staff to automate receiving notifications of incidents reported to the Coast Guard’s National Response Center (NRC). The NRC is a federal emergency call center that fields initial reports for pollution and railroad incidents. They make updates available usually once a week, which we then download and add to our database. SkyTruth Alerts was soon thereafter made available to the public and expanded to include Pennsylvania Oil & Gas Permitting events, which we “scrape” from PA’s Dept. of Environmental Protection website several times a day. SkyTruth makes Alerts available to anyone, and at no charge, for the purpose of providing access to tools, data and satellite imagery that environmentalists otherwise wouldn’t have. 

In 2018, Alerts was given a facelift and SkyTruth began looking for additional datasets that would help subscribers monitor their AOIs. We’ve since expanded Oil & Gas permitting to include West Virginia, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Montana and Utah. We’ve also added pollution alerts for Florida, New Mexico and New York.

Alerts In the Big Picture

Alerts is an environmental monitoring platform. In addition to receiving incident emails, users also have access to satellite imagery, relevant map layers, and the ability to annotate and share map views. Alerts is not a research platform — there are websites that do a great job with this (World Resources Institute, for one). And while we have some of the tools that allow you to monitor a species, we’re not really designed to do this task which, by the way, is already very aptly handled by sites such as iNaturalist.org. At the same time, if there’s a map layer that will help you monitor your AOI, let us know about it and we’ll see if it can be added to the set of layers we make available. 

Getting Started with Alerts

  1. If you haven’t already done so, register for an account.
  2. Identify your AOI(s).
  3. Identify the Alerts you want to receive.
  4. Check your email for new alerts.

What About Dataset XYZ?

We are always on the lookout for new datasets that can be a source for new Alerts, and we depend on our subscribers to help find these sources. If a dataset is important to you, it might also be important to others and we’d like to learn more. Email us at info@skytruth.org.

The number one requirement for an Alerts source is that the data must be available online. After that, to be meaningful the source needs to be related to the environment, have location information such as latitude/longitude or address, and include a date such as the incident date. Alerts don’t have to be about incidents that have already occurred. We’re also interested in new alert sources that would drive people to take action before there’s harm to the environment. Think upcoming hearings, permitting processes, etc. If the data’s online somewhere, it might make a relevant SkyTruth alert.

Our current plans are to add more oil and gas permitting states, pollution incidents and federal datasets such as those from the EPA. We love hearing from our subscribers about potential new sources and how they can be useful, and the more people who might use a source, the more likely we can add it to our database.

Coming Soon?

SkyTruth may soon be its own source of Alerts. Over the years we’ve compiled some unique datasets such as our global flaring data, which dates back to 2012. New flaring in an AOI equals a new alert, right? That’s the plan! We’re also working on algorithms that will automatically identify changes in the environment and our strategic plan includes feeding the results of Conservation Vision into Alerts. Stay tuned for progress on these fronts!

 

Visualizing the Expansion of Fracking in Pennsylvania: Part 3

If you have been following the first two posts in this series, you have been introduced to Pennsylvania’s hottest commodity: natural gas. The state has experienced a drilling boom with the development of the Utica and Marcellus shale formations, which underlie approximately 60% of the state. With Dry Natural Gas reserves estimated around 89.6 trillion cubic feet in 2017 (roughly ⅕ of the US total), natural gas development will likely play a big part in Pennsylvania’s future. The method for extracting natural gas from porous rock underneath the Earth’s surface, usually horizontal drilling paired with hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”), is an extremely disruptive industrial process that could present significant human health and environmental repercussions (see also this compendium of public health studies related to fracking). Allegheny County, the focal point of SkyTruth’s previous analyses, has survived largely unscathed to this point, but developers have high hopes of expanding into the county.  

In order to see just how quickly natural gas development can expand, Allegheny residents need not look far. Allegheny’s neighbor to the south, Washington County, has become a critical site of natural gas production for the state of Pennsylvania. Not only does Washington County rank second in production among all Pennsylvania counties, but it also recently moved ahead of Susquehanna County as the home of the most active wells in Pennsylvania. Washington County is considered a part of the Pittsburgh metropolitan area, with a population of approximately 207,000. Though this is a fraction of the population of Allegheny County, its close proximity could prove indicative of what is to come in the county if stricter regulations are not put in place. In our final entry of this series, we will examine the expansion of drilling and fracking in Washington County, with eyes toward how the trends here might carry over to Allegheny County.

 

 

The area shown above lies close to the town of West Finley, PA and surrounds the perimeter of the Four Seasons Camping Resort (shown in the center of this image series). This area is right on the PA/WV border, within the heart of the Utica and Marcellus formations. These images show the growth of drilling infrastructure in a relatively low population setting.

 

The image above (courtesy Google) gives us a closer look at one of the drilling fluid impoundments which can be seen at the top left corner of the previous scene. SkyTruth recently wrapped up its 2017 FrackFinder update, which mapped the extent of new drilling in Pennsylvania between 2015 and 2017. According to our findings, the average size of one of these impoundment is 1.4 acres, slightly larger than the average football field. These ponds sometimes hold fresh water, and at other times are temporarily storing leftover fluid used in the hydraulic fracturing process which can contain volatile, toxic chemical additives.

 

 

This second area sees significant well pad development from 2008 to 2017. Located right outside the small town of Bentleyville, PA, several wells are constructed along this bend of I-70. This area is made up of former coal towns.  Mining facilities dot the landscape, indicating that residents of this area are no strangers to resource extraction.

 

 

This third series of images shows the massive development of the agricultural land surrounding Cross Creek Lake, located right outside of West Middletown. Cross Creek County Park (outlined in black), which encompasses the lake and its surrounding area, is the largest park in the county and serves as a convenient day retreat for residents of the city of Washington, PA, Washington County’s largest city. Many people come to the lake to fish, but the fracking operations in the park could prove to be detrimental to the health of the lake’s fish, according to recent research.

 

 

This close-up on an area at the Southwestern portion of the park (courtesy Google Earth) shows a children’s playground that lies just under 1500 feet away from an active drilling site (at lower right). This is well within the proximity suggested to be potentially hazardous to public health.

 

 

This final image series is taken from right outside the Washington County towns of McGovern and Houston. The drilling operations, which pop up in just four years, are located in close proximity to developing neighborhoods, parks, The Meadows Racetrack and Casino, and the Allison Park Elementary School. Unlike the other images depicted throughout this evaluation, this development takes place around a well established suburban area, where public safety could be at risk should disaster strike at one of these drilling locations.

 

 

The image above (courtesy Google) presents yet another example of just how close these drilling sites are built to residential areas in some instances. Massive industrial development could be seen and heard from one’s back porch!

This is all happening directly south of Allegheny County, so it is plausible that similar development could take place there.

Allegheny County is in an unique situation given its location, its population density, and its relatively low levels of natural gas development. As pressures on Allegheny County mount, we hope that these bird’s eye view evaluations of drilling in nearby counties will help to enlighten and inform policy moving forward. To see SkyTruth’s analysis of the effect that setback distances can potentially have on natural gas development in Allegheny County, please follow the link provided here.

This is the final entry in a three-part series visually chronicling the expansion of fracking across Pennsylvania.  This series is meant to complement our work mapping setback distances and potential adverse public health consequences in Allegheny County, PA.  For more about our setbacks work, please check out our blog post and interactive web app. To read the first entry in this series, please follow this link. To see the second entry in the series, click here.

Visualizing the Expansion of Fracking in Pennsylvania: Part 2

This is the second entry in a three-part series visually chronicling the expansion of fracking across Pennsylvania.  This series is meant to complement our work mapping setback distances and potential adverse public health consequences in Allegheny County, PA.  For more about this work, please check out our blog post or the web app. To see the first entry in this series, please follow this link.

If you have read the first entry in this series, you have been introduced to the situation that Allegheny County, PA currently finds itself in. Hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) paired with horizontal drilling has become a well established method for breaking natural gas out of porous, but impermeable, rock formations like shale and silty sandstone. Pennsylvania has been inundated with these fracking operations over the past decade following the discovery of the massive gas reserves located in the Utica and Marcellus Shale formations. Although this discovery has led to a booming industry in Pennsylvania, these activities have also had adverse public health and environmental consequences.  

Susquehanna and Bradford Counties in the northern portion of the state are two examples of areas that have been heavily developed with natural gas wells and facilities. According to a report issued by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) in August of 2018, not only is Susquehanna County the largest producer of natural gas in the state, but it also accounts for 4% of the United States’ natural gas production. The same report points to Bradford County as the fourth largest natural gas producing county in the state, accounting for 13% of the state’s production. Although these two counties are both considered to be rural (their populations combined equal to roughly 8% of the population of Allegheny County, per the 2010 Census), the intensity of industrial infrastructure development across their landscapes has been astounding. In this post, we will look at the footprint the energy industry has created in both counties.

 

Figure 1

Figure 1 (shown above) gives an example of the development taking place in Susquehanna County. This time-series shows the expansion of wells over a seven year period in New Milford Township. The once agriculturally-dominated area is markedly changed by the introduction of gas drilling: new roads, fracking fluid impoundments, and supporting facilities carve up the landscape.

 

Figure 2(a)

 

Figure 2(b)

Figures 2(a) and 2(b) depict a very rapid expansion of drilling in Bradford County. Located between Troy Township and West Burlington Township, we’re able to see the development of ten new drilling sites in a 32 square kilometer area over just two years. These sites may have played a role in the 2.6 billion cubic feet (Bcf) of natural gas generated per day by Bradford County, according to the PA DEP’s August 2018 report.

 

Figure 3

Figure 3 shows an area near the city of Sayre in Bradford County. Situated along the border of New York and Pennsylvania, eight new drilling sites are developed between 2010 and 2013, along with subsequent roads and fracking fluid containment ponds. Drilling in these two counties is significant and — without a change in policy — could serve as a glimpse into Allegheny County’s drilling future.

To see SkyTruth’s analysis of the effect that setback distances can potentially have on natural gas development in Allegheny County, please follow the link provided here. Please be sure to check out Part 1 of this series and stay tuned for our final post in the series, detailing the current drilling scenario in one of Allegheny’s neighboring counties, Washington County.