Tuesday, July 22, 2014

My Super Cool Internship at SkyTruth

Hi, I'm Tom Jones!  I'm a Shepherd University student majoring in environmental sustainability.  I'm interning at SkyTruth this summer as part of my senior capstone project.  The purpose of my research project is to map mountain removal coal-mining sites in Appalachia in order to update the database previously established in 2007, where they mapped everything from 1976 to 2005.  I'll be picking up where they left off, mapping everything from 2005 to 2010.  

This time around I'll be using a new program called Google Earth Engine (GEE), made available to us at no cost (thank you Google Earth Outreach!).  In GEE you can train a classifier, which means I can train it to identify mountain top removal sites for me, without having to go through every potential mountaintop removal site in Appalachia myself!  The first thing I did in GEE was to bring in Landsat satellite data, which is provided by GEE from a database of both inactive and active satellites.  I'll be using Landsat-5 Annual Greenest-Pixel TOA Reflectance Composite.  This will allow me to view all of the images taken from that year as one image and I won't have to worry about cloud obscurity.  Next, I create the classes I want GEE to identify, which in my first run through, was Mining (RED), Vegetation (GREEN), and Urban (BLUE).  Using the feature to add hand drawn points and polygons, I clicked on 12 sample locations for each class so that the classifier would know what colored pixels are associated with which class.  

There are 10 different options for what type of classifier to run the trainer with.  After some experimenting I chose Voting SVM, which chooses the value identified by the highest number of classifiers.  The last thing I did before clicking the "train classifier" button was to choose a resolution of 20 meters to increase the detail of the image.

Detail from Greenest Pixel Landsat-5 composite image, 2010.
Classification results for image above. Red = mined area, blue = "urban," green = vegetation.

As you can see above, the classifier is far from perfect, correctly classifying the brighter parts of the mine -- areas of recent cut-and-fill activity --  as a mine, but incorrectly identifying the darker parts as an urban area, which it clearly is not.  Mines and urban areas both contain impervious surfaces, and bare rock is spectrally similar to concrete and asphalt, so it is no wonder that the classifier confused the two.  All said and done, the classifier was still able to correctly classify most of the mined area under the mine class I created.  In order to better analyze the accuracy of the results I needed a more detailed image, so I downloaded the classified image and brought it into QGIS to convert it from a raster, an image full of pixels, to a vector file, an image full of points and lines.  The vector file allowed me to select just the mine class and bring that into Google Earth as a KML file.  Then I could overlay that on the much more detailed, high-resolution imagery in Google Earth to get a better view of the area that was classified. 

Hi-resolution imagery in Google Earth for mining area shown above.

Mine classification results from 2010 Landsat composite image (red) overlain on hi-resolution imagery for direct comparison and error analysis.

With Google Earth I can better see what the Landsat classifier missed.  As you can see, the area that was classified as Urban (BLUE) in GEE, you can now tell that most of it is actually reclaimed land, which means, for now, they finished mining on that portion of the land and have attempted to restore it.  Since I'd like to be able to identify both the active and reclaimed portions of the mine, on my next training of the classifier I will remove the urban class and add in the reclaimed mine class.  Instead of placing my points for the new blue class on urban areas I will place them on areas at the mine that appear to be reclaimed.  Through this methodology I hope to obtain more accurate results.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Taylor Energy Site - Still Leaking In Gulf

If you've been wondering "have they cleaned up that chronic crude-oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico from the Taylor Energy site yet?" the answer, sadly, is no.  We're closing in on ten years of continual pollution into the Gulf from this location, with no end in sight.  So...what's the plan?

A Landsat-8 satellite image taken on June 21 shows a slick more than 12 miles long emanating from the site:
Landsat-8 satellite image taken June 21, 2014, shows slick emanating from chronic leak site in the northern Gulf of Mexico.  Mississippi Delta (green) at upper left.
Detail from above. Slick (pale blue line) is at least 12 miles long.
Our friends from Florida State University visited the site on June 18 and collected photos and samples.  To their eyes, it seemed as though the leakage from the site may have gotten worse since their previous expedition.  Here are a few of their photos.  As you can see, there is some thick, brownish-orange emulsified oil in this slick:

You can see more photos from this expedition, taken at sea level and from the air (flight courtesy On Wings of Care), on this video by FSU's Dr. Oscar Garcia:

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Timelapse: World Cup Edition!

Google Earth views of Brazil's Arena da Amazonia in Manaus.  From left to right:  2001, 2011, 2014.
An old, 21,000 seat stadium was torn down to build the new, 42,000 seat arena.

Maybe you're an avid World Cup follower, sporting your favorite team's colors under your work clothes.  Maybe you're not.  Either way, you've probably seen something about the"greening" and "sustainability" of World Cup Brazil.  FIFA has been devoting A LOT of PR to these ideas, but even Forbes is calling some of it 'greenwashing'.

One of the more controversial stadiums is Arena Amazonia in Manaus. Located on the Amazon River, Manaus has a population of two million people surrounded by approximately two million square miles of rainforest.  A 19th century rubber boom caused population growth in this region. Timelapse shows more recent growth in Manaus (including what looks like a new bridge or causeway) thanks to a free trade zone offering tax incentives for manufacturing.

While it is great that the stadium sports some cool green tech, as a skytruther and a soccer (ahem, football) fan, I've got to wonder if it was worth the impacts and construction nightmares of building it IN the Amazon.  With growing World Cup fever and recent coverage of just these issues by the Washington Post, we thought we'd "kick" things off a little early this week with "Wayback Wednesday" instead of Throwback Thursday (#TBT).

Playing soccer in the middle of the rainforest is tough (80+ degrees with 80+% humidity), but building in this region proved even tougher.  Most of the materials had to be shipped up the Amazon, and a sizeable part of the stadium was shipped all the way from Portugal.  Workers fought with high humidity that allegedly caused steel to buckle (?!) and three people died during the construction efforts.

All this for a 42,000 seat stadium that will be the home to only four World Cup games.  That's right...nearly $300 million dollars for four games.  After that, the stadium's will be the home of Nacional, a 4th tier Brazilian league team with an average attendance of 1,000 fans (Manaus isn't exactly known for fanatical football culture). So like other big sporting complexes we've skytruthed recently, (think the Winter Olympics in Sochi) we have to wonder what the future holds for these big construction projects.

And, if you're curious to see the stadium be sure to watch the Group of Death match between the US and Portugal on June 22nd.

Want to do some World Cup skytruthing of your own?  Check out Natal and Cuiaba!

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Timelapse: The Shrinking Mississippi Delta

NASA satellite view of sediment around Bird's Foot Delta.

This week for throwback Thursday (#TBT) we're heading south to check out the Mississippi Delta region.  We're looking at the mouth of the mighty Mississippi River, sometimes known as the Bird's Foot Delta.  This is where the river branches off in three directions and enters the Gulf of Mexico.  While it is the nature of a river delta to shift and change over time, humans make things complicated when we set up permanent residence in shifting landscapes and tamper with natural cycles. The wetlands that surround the delta act as a natural barrier, a shock-absorber if you will, to the storm surge or hurricanes and other tropical cyclones. But between levees starving these marshes of sediment, and the impact of thousands of miles of canals servicing oil and gas wells across the coast, the Delta is shrinking.

The canals allow saltwater to intrude on the marshes which should be brackish, killing vegetation and accelerating erosion. Because this increases the flood risk to the region, the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority - East  filed a lawsuit last year against 97 oil and gas companies. Our partners in the Gulf Monitoring Consortium have been working to document these impacts, but this week Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal signed a bill blocking the board from pursuing their case and other so-called "frivolous lawsuits."

SkyTruth is not the first to see these changes in Google's Timelapse, you can see other investigations and learn more about coastal erosion here and here.

Click the link below to explore the world and do some skytruthing of your own...

As always, feel free to share your findings with us on Facebook or Twitter.

Monday, June 9, 2014

[Updated] SkyTruth Offers Federal Pollution Report Database For Public Download

[Update - July 17, 2014: Updated link to include reports through 7/13/14]

[Update - July 17, 2014: USCG MIX now appears to be regularly updating this site (
cgmix.uscg.mil/NRC/) each Monday, but we will continue to host a copy on this page for the foreseeable future]

[June 9, 2014 - Shepherdstown, WV] An environmental conservation and mapping group is hosting an updated database of the most recent federal pollution reports until public access to the designated source is restored. West Virginia-based SkyTruth tracks pollution and environmental issues through remote sensing and big data such as this nationwide pollution report database from the U.S. Coast Guard's National Response Center (NRC) for oil and hazardous materials spills.  

Public access to data from the NRC has been offline since February 21, 2014, reportedly due to an extensive rebuild required to comply with new federal cyber-security requirements. NRC officials told SkyTruth it could take up to a year to fully restore the website, but in the interim their staff would provide a weekly update containing all the pollution reports received during the calendar year at an alternate website

Until the NRC establishes a regular update schedule at this alternate website, SkyTruth will receive updated copies of the database directly from NRC staff and post them as-is for public download. Our most recent version contains all the reports received through July 13, 2014. Our staff is working to incorporate these changes into the SkyTruth Alerts system to restore regular, automated email notification of pollution incidents to Alerts subscribers. 

Anyone witnessing an oil spill, chemical release, or maritime security incident can report it by calling the NRC hotline at 1-800-424-8802

Note: SkyTruth is providing this data as a public service and assumes no liability or responsibility for the information contained in the linked files. The linked file is an unaltered copy of the data downloaded in .xlsx format from cgmix.uscg.mil/NRC/

Questions and media inquiries can be directed to SkyTruth Communications Director David Manthos (david.manthos@skytruth.org).


Thursday, June 5, 2014

Timelapse: Madre de Dios Gold Mining

This week for throwback Thursday (#TBT) we're looking at gold mining in the Madre de Dios region of Peru.  If this sounds familiar, then bonus skytruther points for you because we did in fact write about this region last fall. A recent crackdown on illegal mining inspired us to give this region another look, and show you what it looks like through the lens of the Google Timelapse. What you'll see in this part of the Amazon is rapid mine development over the years and sediment-laden runoff from the mines and deforested landscape infiltrating surrounding waterways.  Feel free to zoom in and do some exploring of your own.

On April 19th the Peruvian government took action against illegal mining in this region and halted the shipment of gasoline to the Madre de Dios area.  Troops were also sent to destroy any heavy machinery that could have been associated with illegal mining activity (if the miners in the region really look like their statue in the Huepetuhe town square, those must have been some seriously strong troops).  In the wake of the government's intervention the region has gone bust and the mayor of Huepetuhe estimates that approximately 22,000 people have left town, leaving only 3,000 in a serious state of transition.

Over the years, small-scale 'wildcat' mining reached staggering proportions in the region, causing obvious damage to one of the most biologically diverse places on Earth.  Deforestation, mercury contamination and sediment-laden runoff are just a few of the major concerns facing this environment.

Use Timelapse to check out other gold mining regions around the world...

As always, please share your findings with us via Facebook or Twitter.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Timelapse: Mount St. Helens

Landsat Imagery of Mount St. Helens blast zone from 1980 - 2010 from NASA.

We're heading to the Pacific Northwest for this week's throwback Thursday (#TBT) to check out the changes on and around Mount St. Helens over the years.  The 1980 eruption certainly wasn't the largest or deadliest eruption in recorded history, but it may be one of the most thoroughly researched.  For over 30+ years, scientists have been exploring how the landscape recovers from such a catastrophic event.  But it may surprise you that there's an even bigger transformation going on in national forests around this infamous stratovolcano.

All around the mountain, logging companies have been clearcutting large tracts of the national forests for timber. If you look at this map of global forest cover from the University of Maryland, you will see a checkerboard of growth, loss, and a mix of both. But keep in mind, the areas that show gain are not necessarily diverse, old-growth forests, they are most likely a monoculture crop grown over decades instead of months.

The google-powered Timelapse below allows you to view the landscape changes around Mount St. Helens from 1984 to 2012 (the eruption occurred in 1980).  After you explore the Timelapse, you can also check out the Global Forest Watch to see exactly how the forests have changed over the past 12 years.

Interested in what you see from our Timelapse investigations?  Do some of your own and share your findings with us on Facebook or Twitter!