Tracking Down Pollution at Sea

Credit: bridgehead/Pond5



Tracking Down Pollution at Sea

Footage by bridgehead on Pond5

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.

How does it work?

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.

A hidden crisis

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.

A clear need

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.

A tool for ocean conservation and climate action

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:

  • Raise public awareness of the hidden impacts of global shipping and oil production at sea
  • Investigate responsible parties
  • Reveal the risks of financing offshore oil development
  • Make possible for all levels of government to hold polluters accountable
  • Deter continued pollution and incentivize transparency and better environmental performance by governments and corporations
  • Promote conservation measures including the creation and sustainable management of Marine Protected Areas

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.

An opportunity for growth

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:

  • Flaring from offshore platforms

    Many offshore platforms routinely burn off methane as a byproduct of oil production. This burning generates additional CO2 beyond the pollution that the oil itself will produce. SkyTruth has already developed the technology to map flaring using satellite data.

  • Methane venting

    Offshore platforms may be releasing unburned methane directly into the air. Methane is an even more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2—more than 80 times as potent. Cerulean will tap into emerging satellite-based data sources and overlay onto our global database of offshore platforms.

  • Seismic surveys

    Marine mammalogists have long worried about the impacts on dolphins and whales of offshore seismic surveys that use powerful blasts of sound to detect potential oil and gas fields. SkyTruth, as a founding partner of Global Fishing Watch, can track hundreds of thousands of vessels around the world every day and identify the exact time and place where seismic survey vessels are working. These data can help researchers and conservationists link cetacean beachings, injuries, and death with offshore exploration activity.

  • Collateral vessel traffic

    Oil platforms can sometimes seem like small cities, requiring substantial vessel traffic to support the crew and operations. This vessel traffic produces its own air and water pollution, as well as climate footprint.

A record of success

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.

The road ahead

Cerulean is on its way! Here, we’ve listed important milestones as we prepare for launch, then push toward years of protecting the planet and serving people and communities.

  • Fall 2022

    Oil slick detection: Our engineers have already begun detecting oil spills based on our machine learning model. Cerulean gets smarter every day as we test and improve the model, making results more robust for our users.

  • Spring 2023

    Automatic Identification System (AIS) association: Cerulean gains the ability to “name names” by connecting detected slicks with likely polluters. Technical users will be invited to beta test our platform to help us refine its features and architecture.

  • Summer 2023

    Infrastructure association: Future iterations will do much more than track vessels. They will detect pollution from offshore oil structures, track natural gas flaring, and more—reaching beyond oil slicks to get a complete picture of how human activity at sea impacts ecosystems and climate. Journalists, governments, advocacy groups, and all people will have a free, central hub where they can monitor our ocean to help protect our planet.

  • Fall 2023 to Spring 2024

    Web application: Cerulean becomes even more accessible during an open beta testing period, incorporating intuitive features and expanding its availability. We will integrate satellite-detected methane emissions data into the platform, pinpointing offshore facilities that are venting this climate-harming gas directly into the air.

  • Spring 2024 and beyond

    New pollution analyses: With Cerulean’s help researchers, journalists, and SkyTruth analysts will release studies linking polluters to pollution events. These analyses will be available to users far and wide, thanks to the technology built by SkyTruth.

Contact us

Got a question, comment, or request? Are you interested in partnering with us or exploring how Cerulean data can support your work? We want to hear from you! Please contact hello@skytruth.org.

For media inquiries, please email us.