Thursday, April 24, 2014

Gulf Coast Islands: Now You See 'Em, Now You...??

Four years have passed since the BP Oil and Gas Disaster began in the Gulf of Mexico.  Some of the lasting damage from that spill is just becoming apparent.  One possibility: the acceleration of wetlands loss and coastal erosion due to the die-off of marsh vegetation.  The small, isolated islands that dot the bays are most vulnerable. Like much of the Mississippi Delta region, natural subsidence compounded by sea-level rise and the fragmentation of marshland by oil and gas activity was threatening their existence before BP's oil washed in.  But the spill-related loss of vegetation may have hastened this decline.    

Using the Historical Imagery tool in Google Earth, it's easy to see how quickly some of these islands, which provide important habitat for shorebirds and migrating songbirds, are disappearing.  Here is a look at a few of the small islands in Barataria Bay on the Louisiana coast:

Densely vegetated islands in Barataria Bay in 2006.

Same islands in 2010 during the BP oil spill, encircled by booms in an attempt to deflect the oil.
Same islands in 2012, noticeably diminished in size and apparently lacking vegetation.

Timelapse: Urban Growth off Doha, Qatar

Here at SkyTruth we wanted to get on the Throw-Back-Thursday (#TBT) bandwagon, and thought what better way than with a global Timelapse!? This Google-powered tool allows us to see composite Landsat images of anywhere on earth from 1984 - 2012. This amazing time-machine helps us better understand growth, change, development or destruction.

Today we're checking out the urban development around Doha, the capital of Qatar. What you can see in this 28 year span is some HUGE growth happening off the coast and out into the Persian Gulf. By default you'll see it in "Fast" mode, but go ahead and click that button to slow down to "Medium" speed. You can also zoom in and check out those man-made islands that bloom off the coast.

If you check out the Timelapse homepage you may see similar landmasses appear off of Dubai. We're beginning to think that plant-shaped islands are the hottest new building craze of the mid-2000's. THOUGH if you zoom in close on Qatar you'll see that one of the little "blooms" gets darker than the others right around 2010. It's the only one so far with any development, but one of the furthest from that golf course that pops up in the desert)! It seems they're rolling along with infrastructure investments and gearing up for World Cup 2022.

Zoom out and explore the world! The Timelapse project was launched by Google in 2013 as a global, interactive map that uses three decades of Landsat imagery to show our ever-changing world. Check out Time's "Explore the World" option and do some skytruthing of your own!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

New 2013 Imagery for Shepherdstown

Not only is there new high-resolution aerial survey photography available for Pennsylvania -- allowing us to begin a major update to our ongoing FrackFinder project -- there is also 2013 imagery now in Google Earth for the Shepherdstown area, so we can take a look at some of the changes that have happened in our own neighborhood since the previous aerial imagery was taken.  

Here's one thing that caught my eye: some tree-clearing and what appears to be fill activity taking place in a wooded area on the southwest side of town (see it in Google Maps). Anyone know if a permit has been issued for this work?  

Wooded area on the southwest side of Shepherdstown as it appeared on 2011 aerial photography in Google Earth. Route 480 bypass is highway at lower left; parking lot for Clarion Hotel is at lower right.  
Same area in 2013. Cleared land is light brown. Apparent fill, in formerly wooded area, is darker brown. About 1.3 acres of trees have been cleared. A yellow bulldozer and another construction vehicle are visible at center.

I also took a look at the nearby Potomac Farms mulching operation, just across the bypass from the area shown above. This site has been an ongoing concern for some local residents because of noise, dust and other hazards occurring in close proximity to their homes:
2013 imagery from Google Earth showing Potomac Farms mulching operation along the Route 480 bypass west of Shepherdstown.

The 2013 imagery for this site is not yet available in Google Maps, which still displays 2010 imagery for most of the mulch operation.  So do yourself a favor and get Google Earth, so you can see the latest imagery, toggle back through historical images, make exact measurements of the distances between places, and make your own custom maps. And if you see anything else interesting in our area, please let us know!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

FrackFinder PA: Dart Frog Complete; New 2013 Imagery to Map

Thanks to all our great skytruthers who helped 
us find all the ponds that look like this!
Thanks to all of our FrackFinders-- Project Dart Frog is complete!  Many thanks to all of our volunteers for helping us get through this phase of the FrackFinder PA project.  We had over 250 registered users power through 7,835 images to help us figure out if the ponds they saw in aerial imagery were related to fracking or not.  Now if 7,835 images sounds like a lot, consider this. Because we really like accuracy, those images were viewed by 10 different sets of eyes.  That means our 250 frackfinders looked at 78,350 images! If it wasn’t for YOUR help, our small team at SkyTruth headquarters would still be toiling through imagery. 

While we work on finalizing the results, we've already got a another project ready for you to help us with: FrackFinder PA – Project Tadpole 2013.  Some of our FrackFinding veterans may be thinking, “Wait…didn’t we already go through Project Tadpole?”  We did.  Back in August you all knocked out 90,000 image analysis tasks in only 28 day, but that was only for the years 2005, 2008, and 2010.  Now we have brand new imagery from 2013 and we need your help to identify how fracking has spread across PA in the three years since the last aerial survey. All you need to do is tell us if you see a wellpad at each site we show you...

Ready? Just hit this button, sign up (or sign back in), and off you go!

Just to recap for you, FrackFinder PA is a multi-phase effort to map drilling and hydraulic fracturing across Pennsylvania using crowd-sourced image analysis of satellite and aerial imagery.  Ultimately, these projects will create a comprehensive, public map of drilling and fracking in Pennsylvania.  After Pennsylvania, our goal is to create this map for the entire United States.

You may also be thinking, “I don’t live in Pennsylvania.  I can’t possibly help.”  FrackFinder is not a boots-on-the-ground type mission, you can do this from the comfort of your own home, anywhere in the world. We like to think of skytruthing as a sort of "armchair citizen science" that can have a really powerful contribution to our understanding of issues like fracking.

As you probably know, the results from our FrackFinder projects are informing a Johns Hopkins University study on the public health impacts of drilling and fracking. Thanks to you we've already delivered two unique datasets to them that would not have been possible without you. 

So check out FrackFinder PA – Project Tadpole 2013 and keep on skytruthing!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Oil Spill Causes Shipping Backup in Gulf of Mexico

The 168,000-gallon fuel oil spill that happened Saturday near Galveston, Texas caused the Coast Guard to temporarily close the Houston Ship Channel.  That's a very busy, narrow waterway connecting the Port of Houston with the Gulf of Mexico and overseas ports.  In addition to the environmental consequences of this heavy oil spill, including the threat to shorebirds at the peak of their spring migration, this closure has caused a big-time backup of shipping traffic.  

Here at SkyTruth we track vessels with satellite imagery, and also with other satellite-collected data.  Here's a view of the situation using satellite Automated Information System (AIS) data, radio-frequency tracking information that vessels continually broadcast so they can avoid running into each other at sea:

AIS map on March 24, 2014 showing ship traffic backed up as a result of an oil spill in the Houston Ship Channel. Colored triangles mark the locations of vessels of different types. Port of Houston is at upper left.
Detail from above, showing large offshore holding area where dozens of cargo ships and tankers lie at anchor, awaiting clearance to enter the ship channel (marked by dashed pink line).

This shows a large "waiting room" in the Gulf just outside the entrance to the channel where dozens of vessels -- mostly oil tankers and cargo ships -- are anchored, waiting for clearance to proceed into port.  There are also quite a few vessels bottled up in port, waiting to get out, including a few large cruise ships.  

You can see some of the AIS data yourself, and query individual vessels, at the cool Marine Traffic ship-tracking site.

Fatal Landslide in Washington State

Sad news from Washington State this weekend, after a major landslide killed several people near the town of Oso. We're hoping the missing are soon accounted for and are alive and well.  

Geologically speaking, landslides are commonplace throughout the Pacific Northwest which mostly sits on a thick pile of unstable layers of volcanic ash, tuff, and debris flows that are regularly shaken by earthquakes.  

But when we looked at imagery of this area, we were a bit surprised there were clear warning signs:  this same area has slid before, quite dramatically, just a few years ago in January 2006. That 2006 slide temporarily dammed the river and posed a serious threat of flooding, just like this weekend's tragic repeat.  Looking at this time-series of high resolution aerial images in Google Earth, and the low-altitude air photo of the slide, it seems clear that this is dangerous terrain to build around. But as they say, hindsight is 20-20:

Site of fatal landslide as it looked in 2005. Steelhead Drive, where several homes were hit by the flow of mud and rock, is marked for comparison to this annotated air photo of the slide area.
Same area in 2006, after a slide that occurred in January 2006. Bright area is bare rock and soil exposed by the slide, which temporarily dammed the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River.
Same area in 2007. Vegetation is beginning to cover the landslide debris, and the river is adjusting to the new channel.  Hydraulic pressure from the river is maximized along the outside edge of a meander bend, tending to undercut the landslide debris on the north bank of the river.
Same area in 2013. New growth covers most of the 2006 landslide, but the headwall escarpment (bright area of bare rock) remains unstabilized and prone to failure.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

It's Better Together - Host a FrackFinder Event to Help Map Fracking

As you may know, we've been working on Project FrackFinder--a multi-phase effort to map drilling and hydraulic fracturing using collaborative image analysis by citizen scientists like you. 

Not sure you want to sort through FrackFinder tasks on your own?  Enlist some friends and host a FrackFinder-A-Thon!  On February 28th, the Shepherd University Environmental Organization participated in the first ever FrackFinder-A-Thon.  They threw a pizza party and in only 2.5 hours, 15 people powered through 10,000 tasks!   
The following week, a group of University of San Francisco students were visiting Appalachia on a spring break immersion trip.  These Bay area students spent the day with us, FrackFinding and learning about skytruthing mining, drilling and other extractive industries.  Take a listen to this WV Public Radio piece to learn more about their experience. 

We need your help to finish the last 14% of tasks for Project Dart Frog. The sooner we do, the sooner Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School can start crunching numbers on their study of public health as it relates to fracking. Over 200 folks have contributed to the FrackFinder project so far, but we still need your help to keep things moving.

Need help in figuring out how to host your own FrackFinder-A-Thon at your school or in your community?  Let us know--!  We'd love to help you set one up.

Once Project Dart Frog concludes, we'll embark on a new phase of group image analysis based upon YOUR findings.