Protecting Biodiversity and Indigenous Lands from Space

Illegal mining is devastating parts of the Amazon rainforest. SkyTruth is figuring out how to detect new mining threats and alert conservationists on the ground.

The Amazon rainforest is one of the most biologically diverse places on Earth; a breathtaking riot of life that evolved over eons, encompassing the Amazon River and its vast system of tributaries. Those rivers hold more species of fish than any other river system in the world.  The surrounding forests are home to 25% of the world’s terrestrial species. Many are found only in the Amazon region, and some are endangered, while others undoubtedly remain unknown. Besides their intrinsic value as unique species, rainforest flora and fauna represent a barely tapped reservoir of genes, chemicals, and more that could benefit humankind.  Already, more than 25% of medicines used today trace their roots back to Amazonian species, including quinine and many cancer drugs. How many more remain hidden?

And then there’s the forest’s role in regulating climate: those 1.4 billion acres of trees covering 40% of South America hold a tremendous amount of carbon. If released, that carbon will accelerate climate change and the disruptions we already are seeing on Earth, including rising temperatures, melting glaciers, stronger storms, longer droughts, and more frequent flooding.

Photo: Jaguar by Nickbar from Pixabay.

Tragically, this carbon is in fact being released. For decades, there has been widespread concern about deforestation in the Amazon as logging, mining, agriculture, and human infrastructure penetrate forest boundaries and slash holes in otherwise intact habitat. Today, ever more remote regions are affected, including lands held by indigenous people who depend on the plants and animals of the forest to survive.  As forest life disappears, so too will ancient cultures that have lived sustainably in the forest for centuries, victims of a global economy and expanding population that demands ever more resources.

Before this year, SkyTruth’s work hadn’t focused on the world’s rainforests. Yet the fact that they are remote, dense, and threatened makes them perfect targets for exploring environmental damage from space, and our new partnership with Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has pushed SkyTruth to expand its reach in applying its tools to new parts of the world, including the Amazon.

One growing problem in particular has caught our attention: small-scale, artisanal mining for gold in Peru and Brazil along tributaries of the Amazon such as the Inambari River. These aren’t the huge gold mines of the Northern Hemisphere, but rather individual miners or groups of miners who work along the edges of rivers, dredging their banks and beds with toxic mercury to separate out small flecks of gold. In the process, miners cut down trees and destroy riverside habitat with their dredges, pits, and sluices. Their mercury poisons the water, fish, birds, and people who rely on these rivers. Although it’s called “small-scale,” the actions of an estimated 40,000 miners add up: as of 2018 such mining had destroyed 170,000 acres of virgin forest in southeast Peru alone. It’s illegal there, and in other protected areas throughout the region, yet it often occurs unchecked. Government agencies in the region, and our partners at WCS and other NGOs, have struggled with identifying new mining activity in such remote regions; if they don’t know where mining is occurring, they can’t take action to stop it.

Radar satellite imagery from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1 satellite can help. This radar penetrates the rainforest’s frequent cloud cover and reveals activities on the ground underneath. Using this imagery, SkyTruth has begun developing an open mapping platform to identify areas on the ground that have been deforested because of mining, and illustrate trends over time to reveal new mining activity. While radar imagery is able to see through clouds, it lacks the spectral data provided by optical (color-infrared) satellite sensors. To compensate for this, our model includes a processing step that cleans and enhances each image. Then, the images are analyzed using a random forest classifier that we’ve trained to identify land cover types, including mining.

You can see the output of our model in Figure 1 for the Madre de Dios region in southern Peru. Areas in red are classified as likely mines, while areas in yellow correspond to cleared forest, those in green are intact forest, and those in blue are water.  

Figure 1. Recent mining in Madre de Dios, Peru.

So far, we’ve successfully detected recent mining operations in the Madre de Dios region (as well as in the lands of the Munduruku tribe in Brazil, shown in Figure 2) The Munduruku have been struggling for years to demarcate their sovereign lands to protect their indigenous culture and stop continued encroachment from mining.  

Figure 2. Mining activity in Munduruku land along the Cabruá and Das Tropas Rivers in Brazil’s Para state.

This past week, SkyTruth submitted its pitch highlighting this progress as a semi-finalist in the Artisanal Mining Challenge, a competition sponsored by Conservation X Labs to address the adverse impacts of artisanal mining around the world. We made the first cut this spring (from 90 applicants down to 26), and are hopeful that our proposed Project Inambari will be promoted by the judges through this next round of the competition, and we’ll become one of 10 finalists. That would put us in position to be chosen as one of the winners, and to receive significant funding to scale-up this vitally important initiative. We’ll keep you posted.

SkyTruth 2020: What to Expect in the New Year

Oil pollution at sea, mountaintop mining, Conservation Vision and more on SkyTruth’s agenda.

SkyTruth followers know that we generated a lot of momentum in 2019, laying the groundwork for major impact in 2020. Here’s a quick list of some of our most important projects underway for the new year.

Stopping oil pollution at sea: SkyTruth has tracked oil pollution at sea for years, alerting the world to the true size of the BP oil spill, tracking the ongoing leak at the Taylor Energy site until the Coast Guard agreed to take action, and flagging bilge dumping in the oceans. Bilge dumping occurs when cargo vessels and tankers illegally dump oily wastewater stored in the bottom of ships into the ocean. International law specifies how this bilge water should be treated to protect ocean ecosystems. But SkyTruth has discovered that many ships bypass costly pollution prevention equipment by simply flushing the bilge water directly into the sea.

In 2019 SkyTruth pioneered the identification of bilge dumping and the vessels responsible for this pollution by correlating satellite imagery of oily slicks with Automatic Identification System (AIS) broadcasts from ships. For the first time, we can ID the perps of this devastating and illegal practice.

PERKASA AIS track

Figure 1. SkyTruth identified the vessel PERKASA dumping bilge water via AIS broadcast track overlain on Sentinel-1 image. 

But the Earth’s oceans are vast, and there’s only so much imagery SkyTruthers can analyze. So we’ve begun automating the detection of bilge dumping using an Artificial Intelligence (AI) technique called machine learning. With AI, SkyTruth can analyze thousands of satellite images of the world’s oceans every day –- a process we call Conservation Vision — finding tiny specks on the oceans trailing distinctive oily slicks, and then naming names, so that the authorities and the public can catch and shame those skirting pollution laws when they think no one is looking.

A heads up to polluters: SkyTruth is looking. 

We got a big boost last month when Amazon Web Services (AWS) invited SkyTruth to be one of four nonprofits featured in its AWS re:Invent Hackathon for Good, and awarded SkyTruth one of seven AWS Imagine Grants. We’ll be using the funds and expertise AWS is providing to expand our reach throughout the globe and ensure polluters have nowhere to hide.

Protecting wildlife from the bad guys: Many scientists believe the Earth currently is facing an extinction crisis, with wildlife and their habitats disappearing at unprecedented rates.   

But SkyTruth’s Conservation Vision program using satellite imagery and machine learning can help. Beginning in 2020, SkyTruth is partnering with Wildlife Conservation Society to train computers to analyze vast quantities of image data to alert rangers and wildlife managers to threats on the ground. These threats include roads being built in protected areas, logging encroaching on important habitats, mining operations growing beyond permit boundaries, and temporary shelters hiding poachers. With better information, protected area managers can direct overstretched field patrols to specific areas and catch violators in the act, rather than arriving months after the fact.  It can alert rangers before they discover a poaching camp by chance (and possibly find themselves surprised and outgunned).

To make this revolution in protected area management possible we will be building a network of technology and data partners, academic researchers, and other tech-savvy conservationists to make the algorithms, computer code, and analytical results publicly available for others to use. By publicly sharing these tools, Conservation Vision will enable others around the world to apply the same cutting-edge technologies to protecting their own areas of concern, launching a new era of wildlife and ecosystem protection. In 2020 we expect to undertake two pilot projects in different locations to develop, refine, and test Conservation Vision and ultimately transform wildlife protection around the world.

Identifying mountaintop mining companies that take the money and run. SkyTruth’s Central Appalachia Surface Mining database has been used by researchers and advocates for years to document the disastrous environmental and health impacts of mountaintop mining. Now, SkyTruth is examining how well these devastated landscapes are recovering.

Figure 2. Mountaintop mine near Wise, Virginia. Copyright Alan Gignoux; Courtesy Appalachian Voices; 2014-2.

To do this, we are generating a spectral fingerprint using satellite imagery for each identified mining area. This fingerprint will outline the characteristics of each site, including the amount of bare ground present and information about vegetation regrowth. In this way we will track changes and measure recovery by comparing the sites over time to a healthy Appalachian forest. 

Under federal law, mining companies are required to set aside money in bonds to make sure that funds are available to recover their sites for other uses once mining ends. But the rules are vague and vary by state. If state inspectors determine that mine sites are recovered adequately, then mining companies reclaim their bonds, even if the landscape they leave behind looks nothing like the native forest they destroyed. In some cases, old mines are safety and health hazards as well as useless eyesores, leaving communities and taxpayers to foot the bill for recovery. SkyTruth’s analysis will provide the public, and state inspectors, an objective tool for determining when sites have truly recovered and bonds should be released, or when more should be done to restore local landscapes.

Characterizing toxic algal blooms from space: Harmful algal blooms affect every coastal and Great Lakes state in the United States. Normally, algae are harmless — simple plants that form the base of aquatic food webs. But under the right conditions, algae can grow out of control causing toxic blooms that can kill wildlife and cause illness in people. 

 SkyTruth is partnering with researchers at Kent State University who have developed a sophisticated technique for detecting cyanobacteria and other harmful algae in the western basin of Lake Erie — a known hotspot of harmful algal blooms. They hope to extend this work to Lake Okeechobee in Florida. But their method has limitations: It uses infrequently collected, moderate resolution 4-band multispectral satellite imagery to identify harmful blooms and the factors that facilitate their formation. SkyTruth is working to implement the Kent State approach in the more accessible Google Earth Engine cloud platform, making it much easier to generate updates to the analysis, and offering the possibility of automating the update on a regular basis.  We anticipate that this tool eventually will enable scientists and coastal managers to quickly identify which algal blooms are toxic, and which are not, simply by analyzing their characteristics on imagery.

Revealing the extent of fossil fuel drilling on public lands in the Colorado River Basin: Modern oil and gas drilling and fracking is a threat to public health, biodiversity and the climate. For example, researchers from Johns Hopkins University used our data on oil and gas infrastructure in Pennsylvania to examine the health effects on people living near these sites and found higher premature birth rates for mothers in Pennsylvania that live near fracking sites as well as increased asthma attacks.

The Trump Administration is ramping up drilling on America’s public lands, threatening iconic places such as Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico. Chaco Canyon is  a UNESCO World Heritage Site that contains the ruins of a 1,200 year-old city that is sacred to native people. According to the Center for Western Priorities, 91% of the public lands in Northwest New Mexico surrounding the Greater Chaco region are developed for oil and gas, and local communities complain of pollution, health impacts and more.

Figure 3. Chaco Canyon Chetro Ketl great kiva plaza. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

In 2020 SkyTruth will deploy a machine learning model we developed in 2019 that identifies oil and gas drilling sites in the Rocky Mountain West with 86.3% accuracy. We will apply it to the Greater Chaco Canyon region to detect all oil and gas drilling sites on high-resolution aerial survey photography. We hope to then use these results to refine and expand the model to the wider Colorado River Basin. 

Local activists in northwestern New Mexico have fought additional drilling for the past decade. Last year, New Mexico’s congressional delegation successfully led an effort to place a one-year moratorium on drilling within a 10-mile buffer around the park. Activists view this as a first step towards permanent protection. SkyTruth’s maps will help provide them with visual tools to fight for permanent protection.

A new SkyTruth website: We’ll keep you up to date about these projects and more on a new, revamped SkyTruth website under development for release later this year. Stay tuned for a new look and more great SkyTruthing in the year ahead!

Christian Thomas Works to Protect his Home State of West Virginia

Christian had a choice: The Peace Corps or SkyTruth.  He chose SkyTruth.

“It was no contest,” Christian Thomas told me when I asked him about choosing between the Peace Corps and SkyTruth. Born and raised near Shepherdstown, West Virginia, Christian first met SkyTruth President John Amos at the Shepherdstown Farmer’s Market when he was a student at West Virginia University (WVU). Every Sunday morning in the summertime, Christian helped a local farmer tend a stand that sold meat and eggs to community foodies. When John learned that Christian was studying geography and environmental geoscience, he encouraged Christian to send his resume to SkyTruth.

But it took Christian a while to get around to that. First, he graduated from WVU in the spring of 2014. Then he worked as a cook at Camp Arcadia on the shores of Lake Michigan; a favorite family summer destination when he was a kid. After returning to West Virginia in the winter of 2015, he began volunteering at SkyTruth and soon became a part-time employee.

Then the offer from the Peace Corps arrived, giving him the opportunity to work in Ethiopia for two years as an Environmental Extension and Forestry Volunteer. Offer in hand, Christian asked John if SkyTruth would be interested in hiring him full time. Sure enough, SkyTruth made him a counteroffer. “[SkyTruth] was a direct application of everything I had studied,” Christian told me. And one of his first projects at SkyTruth focused on mining: “things I could see and have impact on,” he said. He jumped at the chance for a full-time position.

“One of my favorite things about SkyTruth is creating data that never existed before,” he said. He pointed to how much he values having his data used by researchers, universities, and other partners to generate scientifically credible results that can influence policy, thereby having real impact on the ground.

Christian leads SkyTruth’s work on mountaintop mining; a common practice in Appalachia in which mining companies blow up entire mountaintops to get at the coal hidden inside, then dump the soil, rock, and other material into valleys and streams below. This practice destroys native ecosystems and can poison the water supply. “West Virginia is beautiful. By not destroying the landscape there are more benefits for the state,” Christian believes.

SkyTruth’s Central Appalachia Surface Mining dataset shows where mining has occurred across 74 counties in the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia since 1985. University researchers have used SkyTruth’s data to examine health impacts on nearby communities and conservation groups such as Appalachian Voices have used this data to mobilize activists. Most recently, scientists at West Virginia University published a study in the peer reviewed International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health that relied on this dataset to document an association between mining and dementia-related deaths.

“There aren’t a lot of [job] opportunities for West Virginians and what there is often hurts them,” according to Christian. As coal production declines, Christian believes there are better ways for West Virginians to make a living that don’t harm people’s health. “[The beauty] is still there, but we don’t want to lose more,” he said. Some mines are massive, he pointed out — hundreds of acres. “You can see them march across the landscape in the course of a decade.” Christian has seen this firsthand by analyzing countless satellite images. One of the first steps in stopping the process, he believes, is showing how destructive these mines are.

Christian mountain biking in Oregon. Photo by Joe Milbrath.

His next step is looking at reclaimed mine sites. “You can never put the mountains back,” he said. Once mined, the Mountain State’s mountains are gone forever. But he hopes that some previously mined sites can support a native Appalachian forest again if they are reclaimed effectively. “We’re going to quantify how well the land can recover, or has recovered,” he said. This is critical information for taxpayers: Under federal law, mining companies are required to reclaim sites after they are done mining, plus set aside money in bonds to cover reclamation costs. If the mining company convinces state inspectors that recovery is sufficient, they get their bond money back. But if bonds are released for poorly reclaimed sites, communities and taxpayers can be left with denuded landscapes and large restoration bills. Christian wants to know whether real restoration is actually occurring.

His other project work at SkyTruth includes mapping offshore infrastructure in the oceans to help SkyTruth monitor ocean pollution and its partner Global Fishing Watch track fishing vessels. In November 2019, the journal Remote Sensing of Environment published his ocean infrastructure work with coauthors Brian Wong and Patrick Halprin from Duke University’s Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab.

When not saving his beloved West Virginia (or the world’s oceans), Christian spends time outdoors with his partner Amy Moore, whom he’s known since childhood. Amy is lead instructor at the Potomac Valley Audubon Society’s Cool Spring Preserve, and is what Christian calls “an extremely adventurous person,” big into rock climbing, cross country skiing, and white water kayaking. Christian prefers mountain biking, board games, and fly fishing – a family tradition handed down from his mother. But they both enjoy hiking at the nature preserve and, with their shared interest in conservation, make a difference every day in West Virginia.

Christian and Amy at Temperance River State Park, MN . Photo by an anonymous passerby.

Updated 12/5/19.