Tracking Down Pollution at Sea
SkyTruth is using satellite imagery and artificial intelligence to reveal the hidden impacts of global shipping and offshore oil production on the ocean and the climate. We call this project Cerulean. Starting in 2023, Cerulean will detect both acute and chronic oil pollution from vessels and offshore oil platforms—and identify polluters around the world—in a free, public platform.
By leveraging rapid advances in satellite and computing technologies over the coming years, Cerulean will become increasingly powerful at exposing and measuring the true cost of society’s oil dependency to our ocean and climate.
Over the past two years, our experts have been building technology to rapidly comb through thousands of satellite images daily and identify the tell-tale signs of an oil slick. The Cerulean prototype currently detects oil slicks from ships at sea. In many instances these slicks are caused by the intentional discharge of oily wastewater directly into the ocean. Using a machine learning model, Cerulean has processed hundreds of thousands of radar satellite images and detected more than a thousand slicks. Many of these slicks have been matched to vessel tracking data generated by our partner Global Fishing Watch, allowing us to publicly identify polluting vessels and their owners. We are now training the Cerulean model to detect oil pollution from offshore oil platforms and subsea pipelines.
SkyTruth has discovered that oily wastewater discharge from vessels is a pervasive problem. The initial six-month pilot of Cerulean revealed a startling portrait: ships may be dumping more than 1.8 million barrels of oil per year into the ocean. A major, recent study—co-authored by Cerulean scientific advisor Dr. Ian MacDonald—indicated that this hidden crisis is far worse than previously recognized. Cerulean data has already led to a dozen groundbreaking investigations published by European media outlets on chronic oil pollution in EU waters.
The map to the right displays results from the first six months of operation of Cerulean. White dots are the locations of more than 1,000 oil slicks caused by ships at sea, automatically detected on Sentinel-1 satellite images. Red highlights indicate pollution hotspots in the ocean based on this data.
Shipping vessels transport 80% of global trade by volume, and the vast majority use heavy fuel oil (HFO), one of the world’s dirtiest fossil fuels. These vessels emit 1 billion metric tons of climate pollution a year, potentially growing 50% by 2050. Meanwhile, offshore oil production is rapidly expanding to extract the world’s untapped reserves that lie beneath our vital ocean. But the data infrastructure we need to understand the impacts of these industries is woefully behind. The outlaw ocean reigns supreme: ocean activities receive far less oversight than similar activities on land.
The expected growth of shipping and oil development in the ocean increases the likelihood of even more undetected pollution, resulting in an ever-growing toxic footprint of fossil fuel dependence. Studies link oil pollution to long-lasting impacts on marine ecosystems, coastal economies, and public health in port cities and coastal communities. Vessels burning HFO also release black carbon, particulate matter, and other harmful pollutants including NOx and SOx.
Cerulean will be a compelling data toolkit for civil society and governments alike, helping them expose the consequences of the rapid growth of global shipping and offshore oil and gas production. SkyTruth is building a global community of ocean and climate advocates, journalists, researchers, lawyers, government agencies, and many others in civil society who care about our vital ocean, climate, coastal communities, and marine life. Here are some of the things they’ll be able to do with Cerulean:
Cerulean will enable regulators and anyone concerned about the health of our oceans to identify releases of oil from ships, drilling platforms, and other sources. This will put important information into the hands of the public who can advocate for stronger regulation and enforcement of existing laws to hold polluters accountable. SkyTruth’s new tool should help protect our oceans and coastal environments from the devastating impacts of oil spills.
Cerulean harnesses new technology, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, and the growing ocean data ecosystem to build transparency by illustrating how industrial activities at sea affect our ocean and our climate. Moving forward, SkyTruth plans to add advanced features and data layers, including:
SkyTruth is a founding partner of Global Fishing Watch. Powered by satellite technology and machine learning, Global Fishing Watch merges multiple types of vessel tracking data to provide a daily view of fishing activity throughout the ocean. Global Fishing Watch is now a thriving independent organization with dozens of staff working to illuminate fishing activity around the world.
At SkyTruth, we know what it takes to develop and transform innovative technology into a powerful program that makes previously hidden activities on the ocean visible for the entire world to see. This kind of transparency is a game-changer: Cerulean will leave polluters nowhere to hide.
The Surfrider Foundation has relied on SkyTruth’s expertise to raise public awareness and compel decision-makers to take action on ocean pollution issues for years. We are eagerly looking forward to the public launch of SkyTruth’s new project, Cerulean. Our members can use this information to hold Big Oil accountable for polluting our coasts and harming our climate. As a grassroots organization that engages citizens in environmental advocacy, Surfrider believes that the work of SkyTruth is an important and necessary complement to our collective efforts to protect clean water and stop oil and gas development.