Friday, July 8, 2016

Come Hell & High Water: Flooding in West Virginia

In late June devastating flooding hit many communities across southern West Virginia resulting in over 20 fatalities and complete destruction of homes and businesses across the Mountain State. Because we are located in West Virginia and have been studying mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining across Appalachia, we’ve received a number of questions about what role MTR mining may have played in this recent disaster.


Depending on the amount of mining in the impacted watersheds, the quality of existing baseline data, and the number of measurements taken during and after the flood, scientists may not find a "smoking gun" directly linking the severity of this flood event with MTR mining. But let us take a look at what we do know about the relationship between flooding and MTR mining. 



If you are familiar with stormwater runoff issues then you have probably seen a diagram like the one above. Soil and vegetation absorb water. Impervious surfaces, like rock and pavement, do not. Since blasting off ridge tops to reach seams of buried coal strips the mountains of soil and vegetation, it seems logical that MTR mining would contribute to more intense flash floods. But even after decades of study there are a surprising number of gaps in our understanding of exactly how mining alters flooding.




Debris and mud are strewn around Clendenin, W.Va., after flood waters receded. Photo by Sam Owens, courtesy Charleston Gazette-Mail.

Research conducted so far suggests that MTR mining can contribute to greater flooding during intense rainfall events, but some studies actually found less severe flooding in watersheds with mining. Several of these studies suggested that valley-fills and underground mine workings have the ability to retain water, which may account for less severe "peaks" during moderately severe storms. If you want to dig into the details, I recommend starting with the summary of hydrological studies on MTR contained in Table 1 of 
this paper by Dr. Nicholas Zegre and Andrew Miller from West Virginia University.

What most of these studies have in common is that the researchers must at least know where mining occurred and how much surface area was impacted by said mining. This is where our work here at SkyTruth comes into play because we've been mapping the when, where, and how much of MTR mining for over forty years.

Thanks to a satellite record going back to the 1970's, SkyTruth can look back in time to measure the footprint of mining in Appalachia. We continue to make this data freely available for research, and so far our decade-by-decade analysis has been cited in at least six peer-reviewed studies on the environmental and public health impacts of MTR. These studies investigate everything from the increased risk of birth defects and depression to impacts on biodiversity and hydrology. But clearly there are still many unanswered questions left to research. 


Precipitation on June 24, 2016, as measured by WV DEP. 
Finally, it is worth noting that much of the rainfall (left) was concentrated on Greenbrier County, a part of the state with relatively little MTR mining. Neighboring Nicholas County, however, does have some large mines so it may be possible for hydrologists to diagnose and measure the difference in flooding between mined and unmined watersheds which received equivalent rainfall. But that will take time to decipher and analyze.

In the meantime, SkyTruth and our partners at
 Appalachian Voices and Duke University are working this summer  to update and refine our data about the spread of MTR mining in Appalachia. The resulting data will allow more comprehensive and more accurate research on the effects of MTR mining. Our vision is for this research and resulting studies on the impacts of MTR to lead to better decision-making about flood hazards, future mine permits, and mine reclamation.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Bird's Eye View of the Samarco Mine Disaster

On November 5, 2015, a mine-waste dam collapsed at an enormous iron mine in southeastern Brazil. The wave of toxic waste was at least twice the volume of the Johnstown Flood, and wiped out buildings and bridges over 40 miles downstream. Using post-spill satellite imagery and Google Earth, we have produced a bird's-eye view of the devastation wrought by the deluge of arsenic-laced sludge. 

During the spill, we reported extensively on the immediate aftermath visible on satellite imagery, the remaining threat of a possible second dam failure (which thankfully did not materialize), and by looking back in time with historical satellite imagery, documented the increase of waste in the impoundment behind the failed Fundão Dam. We also wrote about how frequently these kinds of disasters occur around the world. 



The video above was created using Google Earth, comparing pre-spill imagery with images collected on November 9 and November 11. Our analyst Christian delineated the extent of the mine waste from a lake 70 miles downstream of the mine, all the way up to the town of Bento Rodrigues, the damaged Santarem Dam, and the failed Fundão impoundment (skipping a section of the river with cloudy imagery). Even further downstream, over 400 miles away, the Rio Doce ran orange for months afterwards. 

The confluence of the Rio Doce and the Atlantic on Feb. 10, 2016, over three months after the disaster, as seen by MODIS/Terra.

Now the Brazilian government is seeking $44 billion (USD) in damages, likening the disaster to the ecological devastation of the oil spilled in the 2010 BP/Deepwater Horizon disaster. A police investigation recently concluded that Samarco Mineração, a joint venture of Vale SA and BHP Billiton, was "more than negligent" in overlooking structural failings and continuing to push for more production. 

What is even more alarming is that studies have shown a correlation between the frequency of tailings dam incidents and downturns in commodity prices, and the height of dams is soaring around the world as mines produce more and more waste. 

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Leaving a MARC: Cutting a Swath though Pennsylvania

Construction work on the MARC 1 pipeline right-of-way in the Endless Mountains of Pennsylvania. Photo by J. Henry Fair, flight by LightHawk.
Fracking is not the only part of oil and gas drilling that has an impact on the landscape and the environment. Case in point: the newly-built MARC 1 pipeline runs for 39 miles through Bradford, Sullivan, and Lycoming counties in northeast Pennsylvania, carrying natural gas produced by horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in the Marcellus Shale. Along the route this pipeline crosses 71 roads, 19 named streams and rivers, many small unnamed creeks, and cuts through a densely forested swath of the beautiful Endless Mountains.

The MARC 1 pipeline right-of-way crossing a stream in northeast Pennsylvania. 
Photo by J. Henry Fair, flight by LightHawk.
Construction of the pipeline began in the fall of 2012, and we were interested in illustrating construction-related impacts. Finding info on pipeline routes, however, is no simple task. The first map which turned up was a scanned pdf created by Central New York Oil and Gas Company (CNYOG); a deeper dig for a more accurate map turned up the Department of Transportation’s National Pipeline Mapping System (NPMS), but unfortunately NPMS data is not available for download. So we decided to create our own map of the pipeline – informed by the CNYOG map, and validated against the NPMS data:

MARC 1 pipeline route. Click here to view interactive web map.
The pipeline map was created by tracing the route on aerial and satellite imagery available in Google Earth. Imagery was collected during the pipeline’s construction which helped us do a pre- and post-construction comparison. Road and stream data from the US Census Bureau’s Tiger/Line was used to calculate the number of roads and streams which were intersected by the pipeline. Here is a side-by-side look at a selected site along the pipeline route before and during construction:



MARC 1 pipeline crossing field and forest near Sugar Run, PA. Compare imagery from 2011 and 2012.
Directions to this location.

MARC 1 also traverses Pennsylvania State Game Land for 1.5 miles, with the right-of-way occupying 21 acres of this prime habitat and hunting / recreation area:

Marc-1_oblique2-view2.jpg

We used the USGS’s 2011 National Land Cover Dataset to assess the area and types of land use impacted by the construction of the pipeline. Overall, construction of the Marc-1 pipeline right-of-way impacted over 400 acres of land, 318 of which were forested (see the exact breakdown of land cover types at right and raw data here).

Now the MARC 1 pipeline is a done deal and some of the impacts will eventually fade into the background, but the corridor through forest and woody wetlands will remain. From air emissions and habitat fragmentation to property rights issues, we need to be careful not to overlook the environmental impact of pipeline building, especially as developers focus their efforts on expanding pipeline capacity to keep up with oversupply of natural gas. 


If you want proof of that, look no further than the MARC 2 pipeline. Yes, developers were already proposing a 30-mile MARC 2 pipeline less than two years after the MARC 1 pipeline was completed. Stay alert...

MARC 1 crossing field and forest near the Susquehanna River close to Sugar Run, PA. 
Compare imagery from 2011 and 2012. Directions to this location.

MARC 1 traversing rural Bradford County, PA near Foster Branch, a tributary of the Susquehanna River. 
Compare imagery from 2011 and 2012. Directions to this location.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Oil Spill Response Is A Joke

But not a very funny joke:


Skimmer vessel working at Shell oil slick in Gulf of Mexico, May 15, 2016. Photo courtesy Dr. Ian MacDonald / Bonny Schumaker - On Wings of Care / EcoGig-2


Thank you, Shell, for demonstrating quite convincingly over the past 4 days that oil spill cleanup is nothing more than a convenient fantasy.  At about 11am local time last Thursday, Shell reported about 90,000 gallons of oil leaked from a pipeline 90 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico in the Glider field, one of their recent cutting-edge deepwater developments in water 3,400' deep.  Oil from wells in the Glider field flows through a single pipeline to the Brutus tension-leg platform (TLP) about 7 miles away.  Apparently this innovative "cost-effective flow assurance method" sprang a leak.  Here are a few unfortunate things we've learned from this:

Pipeline leak detection is unreliable.  This spill was discovered accidentally by a helicopter pilot flying over the area who happened to spot the slick.  That's right: a modern pipeline at a high-tech deepwater development project leaked thousands of gallons of oil, and that leak was accidentally discovered.  Not because high-tech telemetry on the pipeline signaled an alarm due to a drop in pressure; not because flow metering detected a difference between what was going in one end of the pipe vs. what was coming out the other.  How long would this leak have continued, if not for the sheer luck of having a vigilant pilot happening by? 

Oil spill response vessels grossly underperform. As of yesterday, 5 spill response vessels (4 oil skimming vessels and a work boat named the Harvey Express) were dispatched to tackle the slick as it drifted steadily west away from the source of the spill in Green Canyon lease block 248.  The first to arrive, a fast-response boat named the H.I. Rich, showed up about 11pm Thursday. Two other skimmers, Deep Blue Responder and  Louisiana Responder, arrived at 2am and 3am on Friday morning, May 13. The last one to the party, Mississippi Responder, took 26 hours to make it out to the slick, arriving at 11pm on the 13th. By that time the slick had drifted more than 30 miles away from the Glider field.

These skimmer vessels are rated to remove thousands of barrels of oily water per day: 12,500 bpd for the H.I. Rich, and a combined 39,220 bpd for the others.  At 42 gallons per barrel, that's a total capacity of more than 2 million gallons per day for these 4 vessels.  Sounds pretty good, huh?  By noon on Sunday, based on the arrival times of the skimmer vessels that we tracked using their AIS broadcasts, more than 6 million gallons should have been collected and this 90,000 gallon oil spill should have been long gone.  

Yet on Sunday the Coast Guard reported only 50,000 gallons of "an oily-water mixture" had been recovered.  Video taken Sunday during an overflight by Dr. Ian MacDonald of Florida State University with pilot Bonny Schumaker of On Wings of Care shows thick stringers of emulsified oil in a slick several miles long, similar to what Greenpeace (pics) and our Gulf Monitoring Consortium partner Jonathan Henderson (video) encountered on Saturday.  Dr. MacDonald observed that the response vessels seemed to be missing the thickest parts of the slick and were generally making very little headway, despite operating under fairly calm conditions (average wind speed of 7 knots recorded at Brutus TLP over this time period), nearly ideal for oil cleanup operations.  
 
AIS tracking map showing locations of spill-response vessels this morning (May 16). Data courtesy exactEarth/ShipView.

Federal permits for deepwater drilling rely on wishful thinking. Since the BP / Deepwater Horizon spill, companies applying to the federal government for permission to drill in our public waters are required to calculate a worst-case scenario oil spill should they, for example, lose all control of a well as BP did in 2010.  Then they must present a response plan that asserts they have the capacity and ability to adequately respond to that spill. The most recent plan [warning: humongous, unwieldy PDF file] for Green Canyon block 248, dating from 2013, envisions a worst-case spill averaging 15.3 MILLION gallons of oil per day -- every day -- for up to 92 days

The response plans to match these massive potential spills rely on oil skimmers performing at their rated capacity.  Yet by noon Sunday, after two full days of cleanup response with four of these vessels and 130 workers,  only 50,000 gallons of oil and (mostly) water had been recovered, possibly even worse than the performance of an older generation of skimmers during the BP spill in 2010.  Once again we see that in the real world, these vessels don't perform anywhere near as well as they do in the fantasy world of offshore drilling regulation.

The upshot?  Our government is indulging in a troubling fantasy that is eagerly abetted by the oil industry and pro-drilling politicians, dressing up deepwater offshore drilling as a safe operation so they can continue to rubber-stamp permit applications that contain laughable oil-spill response plans.  But as Shell just demonstrated, this emperor has no clothes.  When will our government and the global oil industry wake up to this reality and get serious about oil spill response?  If the BP / Deepwater Horizon spill wasn't a disaster big and costly enough to provoke a serious overhaul, then what will it take?  

On Thursday, The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing on Capitol Hill to critique the federal government's offshore oil and gas leasing program.  Expect to see pro-drilling politicians taking this opportunity to pound their fists and wag their fingers at government officials for not doing enough to accelerate the pace of offshore oil drilling.  You might even see a few unicorns and fairies sitting up on stage behind the politicians, nodding in agreement.  

Friday, May 13, 2016

Making Headlines: We're On to Something!



It’s been a little more than two years since we first demonstrated the Global Fishing Watch prototype in public, and the media coverage hasn’t stopped. Since launching the prototype we’ve been featured in more than 100 publications on six continents, from the Atlantic, the Wall Street Journal and International Business Times to media outlets in Russia, China, France, Argentina, South Africa, Australia and more. The attention is not only exciting, but extremely encouraging. Our Chief Technology Officer, Paul Woods, puts it this way; “The fact that you have so many people talking about Global Fishing Watch, a product that isn’t even available yet, is an indicator that there is a huge unmet need. There is a need for something that doesn’t exist yet.” In February, 2016, an article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine opened with a cinematic recounting of one particular day in our offices.
    Late on a January 2015 evening in Shepherdstown, W.Va., a data analyst named Bjorn Bergman, surrounded by whiteboards scribbled with computer code, was orchestrating a high-stakes marine police chase halfway around the world. -Palau vs. the Poachers, NY Times Magazine.
The story, which focused on illegal fishing, went on to describe the coordination of an international effort to track and capture the Shin Jyi Chyuu 33, a vessel we had discovered fishing without permission in the waters of Palau. Other media coverage has included commentary in National Geographic Voices, by conservation technologist and Emerging Explorer Shah Selbe who wrote:
    The methods that we traditionally relied upon (to manage marine reserves) can no longer meet these protection needs, so there currently exists a massive demand for new tools and fresh ideas. . . The Global Fishing Watch prototype looks to be a great tool, and a strong step in the right direction when it comes to ocean information.
In a feature article in WIRED, W. Wayt Gibbs wrote:
    Large commercial fishers are about to get a new set of overseers: conservationists—and soon the general public—armed with space-based reconnaissance of the global fleet. . . . now environmentalists are using sophisticated technology of their own to peel away that cloak of invisibility.
In addition to filling an unmet need, as Paul described, our partnerships with globally recognized leaders Google and Oceana have helped launch us into the headlines at a time of rising awareness and excitement for protecting our ocean resources. In the past three years alone, high-profile celebrities and philanthropic organizations such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Paul Allen, the Packard Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation have collectively contributed tens of millions of dollars to ocean conservation and fisheries management. Political recognition for ocean issues has also gained momentum in recent years. In 2008, the United Nations officially recognized June 8th as World Oceans Day, and in February 2014 by President Obama established of the world’s largest fully protected marine reserve in the central Pacific Ocean.

“It’s great to see that people agree with us that this is a big deal,” says Paul, noting that it’s more than just a shot in the spotlight. We know what we’re doing is exciting, and we know it’s important, but a part of what’s so valuable about Global Fishing Watch lies in the crowdsourcing capability. Media attention like this is the best recruitment tool for users who are going to help elevate this platform to become one of the most robust resources for monitoring commercial fishing on the world’s oceans. We’re excited to see that happen. Below is a brief selection of the many articles that have featured Global Fishing Watch.

2016 (January-April)

Business Wire: Global Fishing Watch Enables Clear View of Fishing in Marine Protected Areas
Yale Environment 360: How Satellites and Big Data Can Help to Save the Oceans
Christian Science Monitor: SkyTruth spots environmental problems from space
Wall Street Journal: Indonesia Takes Explosive Approach to Illegal Fishing
New York Times Sunday Magazine: Palau Vs. the Poachers

2015

National Geographic: Tiny Team Uses Satellites to Bust Illegal Fishing Worldwide
National Geographic:11 Ways Technology Stops Crime Against Endangered Animals
EcoWatch: 15 Huge Ocean Conservation Victories of 2015
The Guardian: To catch a fishing thief, SkyTruth uses data from the air, land and sea
GovInsider: Open Dataset of the Week: Illegal fishing in Indonesia
Jakarta Post: Government Set to Improve Commercial Fishing Transparency
Fast Company: Inside The Satellite Detective Agencies That Catch The Companies Destroying The Planet—From Space
New York Times: Mapping the World’s Problems
Christian Science Monitor: How to free modern slaves: Three tech solutions that are working Part 5 of a series on human trafficking: Includes discussion of how GFW can combat slavery in Thailand’s fishing industry. “ . . . Outside of government, one of the most ambitious initiatives launched in recent years is Global Fishing Watch, an online platform that uses…”

2014

Wall Street Journal: Google, Partners Target Illegal Fishing with New Technology
Wired: The Plan to Map Illegal Fishing from Space
The Atlantic: Tracking Fishy Behavior from Space
PRI/BCC "The World": (Radio) Google is teaming up with environmental groups to help fight illegal fishing
CNN: (Video): New Tool Monitors "Pirate" Fishing Boats
CBSN:CBS News: New System to Combat Global Overfishing
Bloomberg: Commercial Fishing Far Out Sea & Over the Horizon – Until Now
Forbes: Google Helps Map Illegal Fishing 
Examiner.com: Setting the Watchdogs on Illegal Fishing with Global Fishing Watch
International Business Times: Google-Backed Satellite Project Aims To Track, Eliminate Illegal Fishing Around The World
Maritime Executive: New Google Tool to Track Global Fisheries: "Global Fishing Watch provides an unprecedented view of human interaction with the ocean"

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Ending Hide & Seek at Sea: Global Fishing Watch in Science

The Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA), located in the central Pacific between Hawaii and Australia, is the world’s largest UNESCO World Heritage Site. Spanning a swath of ocean roughly the size of California, its hosts a series of isolated seamounts and almost entirely uninhabited islands, all supporting rich, largely unspoiled ecosystems.

On January 1st of 2015, this unique park was officially closed to industrial fishing. But given that the protected area is so huge and isolated, how can we possibly monitor such a park and be sure that that fishing vessels are staying out?

In previous posts, we showed how Global Fishing Watch has done exactly that—verifying that most fishing vessels are following the new regulations in the Phoenix Islands. Today, in the prestigious journal Science, members of the Global Fishing Watch team outline in more detail how this monitoring was possible, and we make policy recommendations that will improve our ability to monitor the rest of the world’s oceans.

The key technology behind Global Fishing Watch is AIS – the “Automatic Identification System” that almost all large ocean-going vessels are required to carry. AIS transponders broadcast a vessel's location and identity every few seconds to every few minutes. The system was originally designed as a ship-to-ship collision-avoidance system, but now we can use it to track, via satellite, the movements of large fishing vessels across the globe. In the Science paper we outline the strengths and weaknesses of using AIS to track fishing effort.

To get a sense of what we can see using AIS, we created the map below, which shows the movements of all vessels in the world that carry AIS in 2015. To produce this map we processed four and a half billion data points from over 200,000 vessels.



Out of these roughly 200,000 vessels, more than 35,000 are commercial fishing vessels whose movements we can track and analyze. Global Fishing Watch has developed algorithms—and is working to refine these algorithms—that use the movements of fishing vessels to estimate when and where the vessels are placing their hooks and nets. In the paper we show that in the central Pacific, the fishing estimate of our algorithms correlates very well with official, direct observations of fishing.

We then used these algorithms to estimate the fishing activity in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area before and after the closure. Below is a video that shows how the fishing vessels cleared out of the marine reserve. The yellow and white heat map shows the intensity of fishing effort as measured by Global Fishing Watch. In 2014, the park was heavily fished; in 2015, there was almost no fishing.




Today, also using PIPA as a case study, our partners at Oceana published their own report on the role of Global Fishing Watch in fisheries management and monitoring. 

As we make clear in the paper, AIS is not perfect. It is used primarily by large vessels, and is thus better for monitoring fishing on the high seas than in small artisanal fisheries. Also, mixed regulations means that in some regions of the world almost all fishing vessels carry AIS, while in others only a few vessels do. Nonetheless, this technology is an enormous leap forward, and in recent years, more countries are requiring more vessels to carry AIS. As the paper describes, "hide and seek" on the world's oceans may be coming to an end.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

[Updated] Fishing Fleet at MH370 Search Site May Have Moved North

Vessels in the Fu Yuan Yu fleet previously seen near the MH370 search site suddenly disappeared from our monitoring system last week as the entire fleet and associated fishing gear stopped broadcasting AIS. One of the vessels has now reappeared, the Fu Yuan Yu 076 is giving a current location in the Bay of Bengal near India. However looking at the vessel's track over the past three months there is good reason to be skeptical. While the vessel showed a likely fishing track they appeared in a very unlikely location, the mountains of Tibet.

What we see is in fact a latitude reversal where a vessel's position in the Southern Hemisphere is flipped over the Equator to appear in the Northern Hemisphere. This is one of a number of patterns of false AIS locations we have documented. We're not sure if these simply result from errors in transmission or if the vessel operator intends to make his vessel difficult to track. Fortunately we have developed some tools to pick these false locations out of our data and correct them. The reappearance today of what is likely a beacon attached to the vessel's fishing gear (identifying as Fu Yuan Yu 076 08) with a mirror track in the Southern Hemisphere is very strong evidence that this is also the true location of the parent fishing vessel.

The vessel's latest positions show them moving on an irregular course at slow speed so it's possible that they have resumed fishing at this new location. Though we can't see any of the other vessels in the Fu Yuan Yu fleet there is a good chance they are nearby. We'll see if any of them reappear in the next few days.

Here are seen two AIS tracks over the past 3 months. The fishing vessel Fu Yuan Yu 076 broadcasting an impossible location on land in the Northern Hemisphere and the associated Fu Yuan Yu 076 08 (likely fishing gear) mirroring the track but in the Southern Hemisphere. The track of the Fu Yuan Yu 076 08 confirms our suspicion that the true location of the parent vessel can be found by reversing the latitude of their broadcast positions. While none of the other vessels in the fleet can be located it may be that the group has moved north to this new location.