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Washington Post
SkyTruth layers satellite imagery to create composite images and maps, such as this oil slick in the Timor Sea in 2009.

SkyTruth keeps an eye on our environment

Tiny nonprofit is a satellite revolution

Washington Post
SkyTruth members huddle around their computers and analyze data during a meeting at Mellow Moods Cafe in Shepherdstown, W. Va.

Somewhere in the South Pacific, thousands of miles from the nearest landfall, there is a fishing ship. Let’s say you’re on it. Go onto the open deck, scream, jump around naked, fire a machine gun into the air – who will ever know? You are about as far from anyone as it is possible to be.

But you know what you should do? You should look up and wave.

Because 438 miles above you, moving at 17,000 miles per hour, a polar-orbiting satellite is taking your photograph. A man named John Amos is looking at you. He knows the name and size of your ship, how fast you’re moving and, perhaps, if you’re dangling a line in the water, what type of fish you’re catching.

He’s a 50-year-old geologist who heads a tiny nonprofit called SkyTruth in tiny Shepherdstown, W.Va. Amos is looking at these ships to monitor illegal fishing in Chilean waters. He’s doing it from a quiet, shaded street, populated mostly with old houses, where the main noises are birds and the occasional passing car.

With a couple of clicks on the keyboard, Amos switches his view from the South Pacific to Tioga County, Pa., where SkyTruth is cataloging, with a God’s-eye view, the number and size of fracking operations. Then it’s over to Appalachia for a 40-year history of what mountaintop-removal mining has wrought, all through aerial and satellite imagery, 59 counties covering four states.

“You can track anything in the world from anywhere in the world,” Amos is saying, a smile coming into his voice. “That’s the real revolution.”

Amos is, among the first, if not the only, scientist to take the staggering array of satellite data that have accumulated over 40 years, turn it into maps with overlays of radar or aerial flyovers, then fan it out to environmental agencies, conservation nonprofit groups and grass-roots activists.

This arms the little guys with the best data they’ve ever had to challenge oil, gas, mining and fishing corporations over how they’re changing the planet.

His satellite analysis of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010, posted on SkyTruth’s website, almost single-handedly forced BP and the U.S. government to acknowledge that the spill was far worse than either was saying.

He was the first to document how many Appalachian mountains have been decapitated in mining operations (about 500) because no state or government organization had ever bothered to find out, and no one else had, either. His work was used in the Environmental Protection Agency’s rare decision to block a major new mine in West Virginia, a decision still working its way through the courts.

“John’s work is absolutely cutting-edge,” says Kert Davies, research director of Greenpeace. “No one else in the nonprofit world is watching the horizon, looking for how to use satellite imagery and innovative new technology.”

“I can’t think of anyone else who’s doing what John is,” says Peter Aengst, regional director for the Wilderness Society’s Northern Rockies office.

Amos’ complex maps “visualize what can’t be seen with the human eye – the big-picture, long-term impact of environment damage,” says Linda Baker, executive director of the Upper Green River Alliance, an activist group in Wyoming that has used his work to illustrate the growth of oil drilling.

Layers of data

Let’s go back to that fishing ship in the Pacific: How does Amos know so much about fishing ships, anyway?

First, the basics: Chilean officials wanted to know whether they had an illegal fishing problem off Easter Island, their territory 2,000 miles off their coast. Chile was working with the Pew Charitable Trusts on the issue; the Trusts hired SkyTruth to figure it out.

The problem: These waters are one of the most remote places on Earth and cover 270,000 square miles.

Amos began by going small: What would fishermen be after? Tuna and swordfish, it turned out. They were fished in certain seasons, and that narrowed both the type of ships he was looking for and when.

Next, Amos started buying Automatic Identification System data. AIS is sort of like air-traffic control on the high seas: Ships send radio signals with the ship’s name, size, speed and ownership, little identifying radar blips.

Amos used AIS as a screen to identify most ships passing through Easter Island’s no-fishing area, and this formed his first layer of data.

Next, he hired a multinational satellite operation to take radar images. It took nine sequenced images: three strips of three images, taken from three orbits of Earth, at about $5,000 per image.

Now he had a map of ships in the area on a specific day and time, and this formed his second level of data.

He then matched the days and times of both maps and laid one over the other to identify the ships.

But the radar map also showed other ships, ones with no transponders. Since they were in protected waters during fishing season, they were highly suspicious, some making the telltale back-and-forth patterns of trawling nets.

“If the ship is big enough for us to detect on a satellite image, and they’re not broadcasting, we’re pretty sure it’s a fishing vessel,” he says, acknowledging it could be even more serious illegal activity, such as human trafficking or drug running.

Spilling the truth

On the morning of April 21, 2010, Amos flicked on his home computer and saw that a BP oil rig had exploded overnight.

He blogged about it, warning that the damage might be severe. Within a day, he was looking at satellite images: “SkyTruth analysis of two NASA satellite images taken hours apart yesterday suggests the Deepwater Horizon rig may have been drifting.”

This was an editorial “we,” as Amos was SkyTruth’s only employee, but this would be his defining moment.

The oil slick spread to 817 square miles, then to 2,223, he could see from NASA satellite images. Given that range, Amos reasoned, the BP and the Coast Guard official estimates of 1,000 barrels per day couldn’t be right.

Amos and Ian MacDonald, a friend and an oceanographer at Florida State University, figured that the spill had to be at least 5,000 barrels per day, and perhaps many times higher, depending on the size of underwater plumes.

On April 27, Amos blogged: “Based on SkyTruth’s latest satellite observations today of the size of the oil slick and published data on the thickness of floating oil at sea that produces a visible sheen (1 micron, or 0.000001 meters) we think the official estimate of the spill rate from the damaged well has been significantly too low.”

He went on to catalogue his computations with MacDonald, concluding that the spill had to be at least 6 million gallons – about half the size of the Exxon Valdez spill, then the worst in American history – and was now gushing at 20 times the rate that BP and the Coast Guard reported.

By May 1, the pair was saying the spill had passed 11 million gallons.

Their report was picked up by environmental groups and news organizations. The federal government immediately upped its estimate to 5,000 barrels per day. Amos became a hot television news property. He was quoted in the Washington Post, the New York Times and dozens of others.

The Coast Guard gave up, saying exact estimates were “probably impossible.” A BP official said, in May, “there’s just no way to measure it.”

But MacDonald and Amos were pretty accurately estimating the spill, co-writing a New York Times op-ed piece late in the month that argued that such estimates were vital to cleanup and restoration.

The size of the spill is still being fought out in court. But it’s at least 172 million gallons.

SkyTruth had broken through.

A crowd effort

On a recent morning in Shepherdstown, Paul Woods, SkyTruth’s new chief technology officer, is working with two interns on maps that will detail fracking operations in Tioga County, Pa. He’s also on a Skype call with Egil Moeller, a computer programmer in Gothenburg, Sweden, whom they’ve hired to build a crowdsourcing website.

The idea is to give volunteers a short online tutorial, then have them make simple classifications (active, not-active) about each drill site, based on aerial and satellite imagery.

This will help build county and statewide maps of the reported 3,600 Pennsylvania fracking operations. Woods says there are “gaps in the state data” that make it unclear whether some permits were ever drilled, or whether some drill sites actually used the high-pressure water blasting techniques that have made fracking so controversial.

There are other truth-squadding projects such as tracking natural gas flares in Nigeria and a crowdsourcing project about water quality in Appalachia, and the list keeps getting longer.

Annual donations and grants had averaged about $75,000 per year before the gulf oil spill, but are now at $405,000. There are four full-time employees and two paid interns. Amos now spends more of his time fundraising and less on the technicalities.

“We want to play Tom Sawyer, to get the whitewash and the fence, and then get people to do the rest of the work, looking at their own patch of the planet,” Amos is saying.

“Really, what I’d like, the goal here, is for ‘SkyTruthing,’ to be an activity, a verb, like ‘Googling.’ As in ‘I Googled this’ or ‘I SkyTruthed that.’ ”