SkyTruth Founder John Amos on Using Satellites to Expose Environmental Misdeeds

SkytruthWhen the White House’s National Science and Technology Council issued its latest report on Earth observation in April, one of the goals it set out was to improve user engagement. According to the National Strategy for Civil Earth Observations, “Mechanisms for engaging user communities will be developed to cultivate wider application and use of Earth observations.”

SkyTruth, a small nonprofit organization, is aiming to do just that. Based in West Virginia, and headed by former geologist John Amos, SkyTruth uses Earth observation to expose environmental malfeasance, following the principle that “if you can see it, you can change it.” One of SkyTruth’s first projects documented landscape impacts in the Rocky Mountain West caused by drilling for natural gas. The group is funded primarily by grants from more than a dozen organizations, including the Rockefeller Family Fund, the Brainerd Foundation, and the Patagonia Foundation.

Since its founding in 2002, SkyTruth has used radar, aerial, and satellite imagery to tackle a number of environmental issues, including mountaintop removal mining, fisheries management, and oil and gas drilling. The group primarily uses satellite data from Landsat, MODIS (Terra and Aqua), Suomi NPP (National Polar-orbiting Partnership), and COSMO-SkyMed SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar).

“You can track anything in the world from anywhere in the world,” Amos told a reporter for the Washington Post recently. “That’s the real revolution.”

Earth observation data have never been more abundant. But the key to SkyTruth’s success has been in collecting, analyzing, and interpreting those data and making the results available to the public in user-friendly formats. Organizations and individuals can access SkyTruth’s eye-opening products online in a number of ways.

SkyTruth works with other organizations to compile reports, like this one, released Aug. 6, assessing storm-readiness of Gulf Coast coal and petrochemical facilities.

Videos are one of the most popular SkyTruth formats. A short Athabasca Tar Sands Mining 3D Flyover, made in 2007, was an early experiment using Google Earth to document landscape changes through video. A more polished video, “Upper Green River Valley: A View from Above,” combines audio narration and still and moving images. The result is a 10-minute mini-documentary that has been viewed more than 34,000 times.



SkyTruth gets Earth observation information to the public in near real-time through its Alert System. It also uses social networking platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Flickr.

The group recently launched a new venture called Project TADPOLE, that uses crowdsourcing to find, map, and track fracking sites. Volunteers recruited online are sorting through images of more than 6,600 drilling sites in Pennsylvania, home of the Marcellus Shale, and classifying each site as either “no pad visible,” “bare pad,” “pad with equipment,” or “don’t know.” Before a site is labeled, at least 10 volunteers must independently agree on the characterization.

Amos, SkyTruth’s founder, said in a question and answer session with Earthzine that his organization has several upcoming projects:

Amos: We are particularly excited about the new imagery from the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the Suomi NPP satellite, mainly the “nighttime lights” imagery that shows city lights, wildfires, and other sources of illumination at night.

At some offshore drill rigs and oil platforms, and in booming onshore oil fields like the Bakken Shale in North Dakota — where natural gas pipelines are limited and oil is the profitable target — natural gas is simply burned off to dispose of it.  This practice, known as flaring, can be detected and measured using the VIIRS sensor.  Not only is flaring a waste of gas; a recent study by Ceres found that the carbon dioxide released by flaring in North Dakota alone was equivalent to the annual emissions of approximately 1 million cars, and the soot and other byproducts of combustion pose a threat to human health.

We can see this wasteful practice from space. VIIRS lets us discriminate between hot sources of illumination like fires, and cold sources like electric lighting. We are interested in measuring the amount of gas that’s being burned off in the Bakken Oil shale, monitoring natural gas drilling plays like the Marcellus Shale, which will give us an idea when well completions occur, and investigating flaring offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, where operators are not allowed to flare “marketable quantities” of natural gas.  We’re also looking at flaring in places like Nigeria, where the practice is widespread throughout the Niger Delta in highly populated areas.

Earthzine: What kind of impact is SkyTruth is having?

Amos: During the BP/Deepwater Horizon disaster, we used public satellite imagery to directly measure the size and growth of the oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico.  Working with Dr. Ian MacDonald, a University of Florida oceanographer, we used those observations to calculate a minimum rate of flow from the damaged well. Our first estimate of 5,000 barrels per day challenged the official estimates from BP and the Coast Guard that about 1,000 barrels per day were flowing from the failed well. After analyzing more imagery, along with oil-slick maps made by trained aerial observers, we increased our estimate to 26,500 barrels per day, noting that was a minimum estimate because we couldn’t directly observe the plumes of chemically and mechanically dispersed oil that remained below the surface.  Possibly due in part to the media attention given our calculations and methodology, the federal government assembled a team of scientists to seriously study the problem and come up with a science-based estimate for the flow rate using several different techniques.  In the end, this team concluded the flow rate was around 60,000 barrels per day in the beginning of the spill, declining slightly as pressure in the reservoir dropped, cumulatively releasing 4.9 million barrels (206 million gallons) of oil over 87 days. Some of that oil was successfully diverted from the leaking well and into ships at the surface, so the total amount of oil that actually entered Gulf waters is somewhat less — about 4.1 million barrels.

Earthzine: What — other than more funding, of course — would help SkyTruth better accomplish its mission?

Amos: More eyeballs, please!  We are a small group in West Virginia and we can’t possibly look at the entire planet on a daily basis. However, we can use technology to put the images and data we use into the hands of anyone who is motivated and empowered to use it. That is the idea behind skytruthing — crowdsourcing the basic elements of big analytical projects.

Most of the data and images we use are publicly available, and often you can download them for free. However, the technical tools to interpret them can be expensive and complex. So to get people to look at environmental issues through remote sensing and digital mapping, we have to show them where to look and provide the tools to understand what they are seeing. In that way, we hope to be the Tom Sawyer of Earth observation, getting others to help us in our mission.
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