Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Federal Gov's Proposed 5-Year Offshore Drilling Plan

By now most of you have heard about the Obama administration's proposed 5-year plan for offshore oil and gas development, setting some areas in the Arctic Ocean off limits, but opening up a large chunk of the Atlantic Ocean for drilling along the East Coast off Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia.  Here's the map:

Map showing areas in Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean (orange) proposed for oil and gas development in draft 5-year plan. Atlantic drilling areas begin 50 miles offshore. Source:  BOEM

And here is another interesting map, showing the cumulative oil slick "footprint" of BP's 2010 spill in the Gulf of Mexico, superimposed on the Atlantic coast, assuming an out-of-control well located more than 50 miles offshore:

Cumulative 2010 BP oil slick "footprint" overlain on Atlantic coast. Source: Center for American Progress.

And here's yet another map, showing the tracks of hurricanes along the Eastern seaboard from 2000 to 2013:

Tracks of hurricanes in the western Atlantic Ocean from 2000 to 2013. Source: NOAA.

In case you've missed our many posts on this topic, there is a continuous leak of oil in the Gulf of Mexico from the site of an oil platform that was knocked down by Hurricane Ivan more than 10 years ago. We've observed the slick at this location dozens of times since we "discovered" it in 2010, it's been documented on overflights by the Gulf Monitoring Consortium and others, and it's been sampled by scientists from Florida State University. Our most recent observation of the leak at that site last month showed a slick about 13 miles long. At times the slick has been more than 20 miles long (big enough to span the Beltway, for you DC-area readers). Cumulatively, we now estimate this leak has spilled anywhere from 300,000 gallons to nearly 1.4 million gallons of oil.  

Not a very comforting prospect for those who live along the coast where new offshore drilling is being contemplated.  By the way, you are encouraged to let the feds know what you think about this plan.  Go here to submit your comments.  The public comment period closes on March 30.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Tanker Full Of Kurdish Crude Departs US Gulf

Remember the supertanker loaded with crude oil from Kurdistan that had nowhere to go to unload its cargo, and ended up hanging around in the Gulf of Mexico off Galveston, Texas?  That was months ago, but now the United Kalavrvta is on the move again, and appears to be heading out of the Gulf and off to Gibraltar.  And then?

Here is today's AIS tracking data for this vessel:

Path of the United Kalavrvta, January 27, 2015. AIS data © exactEarth

Friday, January 9, 2015

Taylor Energy Site - Leaking Oil Continuously Since 2004

It's been a while since we posted on the chronic oil leak from the Taylor Energy site just off the tip of the Mississippi Delta in the Gulf of Mexico.  Sad to say, nothing has changed: oil is continuing to flow unabated, as shown by the 13-mile-long slick in this Landsat-7 satellite image that was taken Wednesday morning:

Detail from Landsat-7 satellite image acquired January 7, 2015, showing 13-mile-long slick apparently emanating from Taylor Energy site. (Black lines at left and right sides of the image are data gaps caused by 2003 failure of the scan-line corrector on the Enhanced Thematic Mapper sensor.) 
Same image as above, without annotation. Slick is visible as faint dark streak on this unenhanced true-color image.
In case the slick is too hard to see, here is a 3-2-1 contrast-enhanced image. The colors are bit odd because of high-cirrus clouds, scan-lines, and the enhancement process. 
As far as we can determine, there is no plan by the responsible party, the oil and gas industry, the US Coast Guard or the EPA to permanently fix this leak and stop this ongoing pollution of public waters. 

This is not a big leak: it seems to be somewhat larger than the most productive natural oil seeps that are scattered in deep water throughout the central and western Gulf. So maybe "no action" is a practical decision to make.  But shouldn't the public get to participate in making that decision? 

PIPA: Protected At Last?

We've been using AIS tracking data to monitor fishing activity in and around the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA), within the territorial waters of the Pacific island nation of Kiribati. The management of this marine protected area has attracted criticism by allowing sustained commercial fishing, despite the "protected" label.  This video clip from Global Fishing Watch illustrates the controversy: it shows what we interpret to be pervasive fishing throughout the protected area in 2012-2013.  In fact, the level of fishing activity by large commercial vessels within PIPA appeared to be about the same as in adjacent, unprotected waters during that time period:

But big changes are afoot: as of January 1, commercial fishing within PIPA is no longer allowed.

Will this fishing ban have teeth? On December 31 (January 1 in PIPA), just 30 minutes after the closure took effect, we observed nine fishing vessels still in the area that were broadcasting an AIS signal.  Four appeared to be engaged in fishing activity, and five were in transit.

But by the next day, all of these vessels had moved out of PIPA. A few remained to fish nearby in Kiribati waters, like the Mataika, a South Korean purse seiner probably fishing for tuna, shown on the map below. 

We're encouraged by what we've seen so far. We'll keep watching in coming weeks using Global Fishing Watch to systematically monitor the effectiveness of the PIPA closure over time.  Look for a report from the GFW team in a few weeks -- hopefully confirming that this protected area is, indeed, protected at last.

Map showing locations of vessels using AIS in and around Phoenix Islands Protected Area (black line) on January 2, 2015. Vessel track is shown for Mataika, a purse seiner likely fishing for tuna.  Exclusive Economic Zone boundaries shown in blue. AIS data ©exactEarth via SkyTruth.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Making a List – 2014 in Review

It's Christmas Eve here in the U.S. and tonight there will be thousands of children keeping a close eye on the skies for a jolly man and his flying reindeer. Now while there are some engineers out there who have their doubts about the physics of 'ol St. Nick, it is a well documented fact that some of those twinkling lights aren't meteors or levitating caribou, but satellites that help SkyTruth know who's being naughty or nice. 

Artist's rendering of Sentinel 1-A, a new radar satellite launched by the European Space Agency (ESA) back in April 2014. Image Credit - ESA

Unfortunately, our naughty list is usually longer than the nice list as we spot spills from oil tankers and gold mines, and watch landscapes being transformed by mining and fracking. So we need your help to keep on top of all the environmental changes happening place around the world. Will you consider making a tax-deductible donation to support our work in 2015?

Gas flares from oil wells in North Dakota's 

Bakken Shale. 
Here are a few of our top stories from the past year...

5. Global Flaring Map: In August, we launched a dynamic map to track the wasteful practice of natural gas flaring around the world. The SkyTruth Global Flaring Visualization compiles nightly infrared data from a NOAA satellite and filters it to display gas flares associated with oil and gas production and refining. Read more...

4. FrackFinder: Throughout 2014, several hundred volunteers contributed to our various FrackFinder projects in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Learn how citizen scientists helped map hundreds of impoundments related to shale drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in the Marcellus Shale. Read more... 

This map displays impoundments related to shale gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in Pennsylvania, as identified by SkyTruth staff and volunteers on USDA aerial survey photography from 2005, 2008, 2010 and 2013.
3. Malaysian Airlines Flight 370: When a commercial airliner disappeared without a trace back in March, the world wanted to know how this was possible. SkyTruth president John Amos was booked to appear on CNN several times (but they kept canceling) and quoted in the Washington Post on the limitations of our current technology. New satellites coming online will give us better coverage of humanitarian and environmental disasters, but there still needs to be someone to tell the satellites where to look and interpret the results. Read more...

2. Global Fishing Watch: Last month, SkyTruth, in partnership with Google and Oceana, announced a new technology prototype to visualize all of the trackable fishing activity in the world. The tool, introduced at the IUCN World Parks Congress in Sydney Australia, will be a powerful tool to illuminate the global fishing fleet, and help stop overfishing. Read more...

An oil spill in Bangladesh threatens rare dolphins and 
what is believed to be one of the largest 

of the 

Bengal Tiger.
1. Spills, Spills, and Potential Spills: Satellites offer a unique vantage point for monitoring spills and pollution, so we continue to report on all of the spills and incidents that come to our attention. We've been busy throughout 2014 tracking disasters such as a massive sludge spill from a gold mine in Canada, oil tankers and oil-laden cargo ships wandering aimlessly around the ocean, and right now, a catastrophic spill in the world's largest mangrove forest (see above). 

It looks like there will be some big decisions in 2015 on Arctic oil drilling and the Keystone XL pipeline, but we are also working to get ahead of pollution and environmental damage. With your help we can promote responsible fishing and protect special places from mining, drilling and spilling before it's too late. Will you help us? 

Click below to make a tax-deductible donation...

If you can see it, you can change it...

Monday, December 15, 2014

[Updated] Bangladesh - Oil Spill in the Sundarbans National Park

Updated Dec 16, 2014 at 6:00 PM with new information on the location of the Southern Star 7, as well as new and updated satellite images.

Posted Dec. 15, 2014 at 11:00 PM: On the morning of Dec. 9, 2014, a tanker carrying heavy furnace oil to a powerplant in Bangladesh was struck in the fog by a cargo vessel and partially sank, releasing thousands of gallons of oil into the Sundarbans, the world's largest continuous mangrove forest and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This tidal river delta, already threatened by climate change, is home to incredible biodiversity including rare Irrawaddy and Ganges dolphins and what is believed to be one of the largest populations of the very endangered Bengal Tiger

Details, including the exact location* of the incident, remain vague, even though nearly a week has passed since the accident. The Times of India reports that while the accident occurred in a commonly travelled shipping lane, the collision occurred within one of the Sundarban's three dolphin reserves. 

*SkyTruth has now received the coordinates of the incident from representatives on the ground. See below.

The "Southern Star 7" was carrying somewhere between 66,000 and 92,000 gallons (250,000-350,000) of furnace oil, but how much was actually spilled into the river remains unknown.

From The Guardian: Oil from a Bangladeshi oil-tanker is seen on the [Shella] River in the Sundarbans in Mongla. Photograph: STR/AFP/Getty Images

Residents have been seen collecting the oil by hand and with buckets to sell for a small reward to the state run Padma Oil company, while fishermen attempt to use their nets to contain the spill. Regional officials just announced they are hiring 100 boats and 200 workers to expand the clean-up effort. These tedious and messy clean up methods are a stark reminder that even after the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the Exxon Valdez spill off Alaska in 1989, the Ixtoc 1 spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 1979, and even the Santa Barbara Oil Spill off California all the way back in 1969, we haven't really made any major improvements in how we clean up spilled oil. 

SkyTruth has been monitoring satellite images of Sundarbans National Park, and we believe we can see evidence of the oil on imagery from the European Space Agency's new radar satellite: Sentinel 1 - A.

Radar satellite image, acquired December 12, shows black ribbons that may be some of the oil spilled in this disaster. The bright white spots are ships or other large metal objects with strong radar reflectance. The coordinates of the Southern Star 7 were provided by a first-responder on the ground in Bangladesh.

Image Credit – Sentinel 1-A (ESA); Acquired Dec. 12, 2014

According to sources on the ground, the Southern Star 7 sank into the river at 22°21'14.33" N, 89°40'17.66" E, about four kilometers from the confluence with the Passhur River. On December 12th it was lifted from the river floor and moved up to the riverbank to 22°22'1.44" N, 89°38'30.91" E

Because this region is a tidal river delta, water sloshes in and out of the mangrove forest twice a day. There are reports that the oil is continuing to spread up and down the river, and throughout the canals and channels that crisscross the region. On radar satellite imagery, we have observed what appears to be ropy strands of oil along 30 miles of the Passur River. 

Here are some more images of the area as seen by Sentinel 1 - A and Landsat 8...

The same area, as seen by the panchromatic band of Landsat 8 on Dec. 10, the day after the spill. We don't see any obvious slicks around the confluence of the Passur River (the main channel in the center) or the Shella River (Smaller offshoot to the east, obscured by clouds), but there appear to be a few ropy slicks downstream from the spill. At 15 meters, the panchromatic band (B8) is the highest resolution we can get with Landsat 8. 

Image Credit – Landsat 8 (NASA/USGS); Acquired Dec. 10, 2014

Here is the detail on those ships moored in the Passur River, with the black discoloration in the water more apparent as we zoom in. 

Image Credit – Landsat 8 (NASA/USGS); Acquired Dec. 10, 2014

Zooming back out with Sentinel 1 - A to the wide-angle view, here is an overview of the impacted area. Not all of the black in the river is oil. Calm waters near shore can also appear darker than open water stirred up by the wind. However, where there are narrow strands of darker material, we believe this may very well be some of the oil threatening this incredibly diverse ecosystem. 

Image Credit – Sentinel 1-A (ESA); Acquired Dec. 12, 2014

To download these images for yourself, visit EarthExplorer for the latest Landsat, and create an account at the Sentinel Scientific Data Hub

Friday, December 5, 2014

Shining a Light on Fishing: FAQ about Global Fishing Watch

On Friday, November 15 at the IUCN World Parks Congress in Sydney, SkyTruth, Oceana, and Google announced a global technology partnership to map all of the trackable fishing activity in the ocean. Global Fishing Watch is a technology platform that uses AIS (Automatic Identification System) data to shine a light on the global commercial fishing fleet. We're thrilled to be able to share our vision for using satellite data to bring transparency to the global overfishing crisis, and to have Oceana and Google's support to make it all possible. 

Check out the video below to find out just what Global Fishing Watch is all about, then we'll address some of the most burning questions people have been asking...

1. Can't fishing vessels just turn their AIS off? Sure, but that is certain to draw attention, like wearing a trenchcoat and sunglasses on a hot summer day. Global Fishing Watch will enable us to flag suspicious behaviors like suddenly disappearing, or appearing as if from nowhere, or jumping 1,000 miles and appearing to fish in the middle of Asia. It will give us the opportunity to identify who may have something to hide, and who is operating openly and transparently.

Secondly, more countries and intergovernmental agencies like Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) are requiring AIS use within their waters, so more fishing vessels will be legally compelled to use AIS in the coming years.  Many already are.  For example, as of May 2014, all European Union-flagged fishing vessels over 15 meters in length are required to use AIS.

Perhaps most importantly, AIS was primarily designed as a safety mechanism to help avoid collisions at sea. Turning off your AIS just to avoid being tracked puts your vessel and crew at risk of being run down by a cargo ship in the middle of the night. 

2. Do "pirate" fishing vessels that engage in Illegal, Unregulated, Unreported (IUU) fishing even use AIS at all?  Nearly any large vessel will be expected to use AIS when navigating busy coastal waters, particularly approaching or leaving port. A longliner might switch off its AIS a few hours after it leaves the harbor, and might remain "invisible" for months, but as they return to port we'll likely see them when they turn their AIS back on. 

But we think the most important purpose for Global Fishing Watch is to provide an easy way for fishing vessel operators to show the world they are fishing legally. By consistently using an AIS transponder, those operators might be able to fetch a higher price for their catch -- or get access to markets that some day may be closed to any fishing vessel that doesn't meet this basic transparency standard. As more vessels voluntarily use AIS to show they are operating legitimately, the size of the "dark fleet" will steadily shrink -- allowing the authorities to focus their attention and resources more effectively on those vessels who continue to operate in the shadows.

3. Won't this just show everyone where the fish are? Not really. Commercial fishing fleets are already using sophisticated technology like helicopters, tracking beacons, fish-finding sonar, and even fish forecasts based on satellite data to find and catch every fish they can.  Global Fishing Watch shows where fishing activity happened; it doesn't predict where fish are likely to be in the future.

4. Is listening in on AIS signals an invasion of privacy? No. AIS was designed to be an open, public communications tool.  Vessels that use AIS are voluntarily making themselves trackable to everyone around them.  Monitoring vessel activity through satellitAIS is already a well-established practice in the shipping, insurance, and commodities industries.  

Global Fishing Watch shows commercial resource extraction that takes place on the open ocean, not on private property. Our fisheries are a common resource, whether on the high seas that belong to everyone, or in the sovereign waters of individual nations.

5. So, where is the map? What we've announced is a prototype, so that the public, researchers, conservation groups, and funders can see what is now possible using AIS data. We are still developing the software and the engineering framework so that we can make this available to everyone, and do so with near real-time data. We will invite partners to apply to beta-test the program in early 2015, and anticipate a full public release by late 2015. Stay tuned!