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!

Monday, October 27, 2014

Last Chance for Cat Island?

With all of the noise surrounding compensation payments made (or not) to people and businesses hurt by the BP / Deepwater Horizon oil and gas disaster, one mostly overlooked casualty of that massive oil spill has been the thin, fragile line of barrier islands that form(ed) the Gulf's first line of defense against hurricanes, and provide vital habitat for birds and other wildlife.  These islands were in trouble before the spill, threatened by rising sea level: the gap between the north and south halves of the island was formed in 2005.  But the spill killed vegetation that helped anchor the sand in place, accelerating erosion. 

Particularly hard-hit are the small islands in Cat Bay, part of the larger Barataria Bay on the west side of the Mississippi Delta in Louisiana.  Satellite imagery shows how fast this has happened:

Cat Island in 2006. Vibrant vegetation covers both parts of the island.
Cat Island in 2010, during the height of the BP oil spill. Absorbent booms surround the island in an effort to hold back the oil. A few small slicks (dark streaks) are apparent, possibly oil from the spill.
Cat Island in 2012. The once-thriving vegetation appears mostly dead, and the island has shrunk significantly in just two years.
Can Cat Island, and the other important Gulf Coast barrier islands, be saved from this precipitous decline?  Enter the US Army Corps of Engineers.  They will attempt to rebuild the island by depositing sediment dredged from the channel of the Mississippi River.  The Corps has a very uneven record where barrier islands are concerned, and the industrial Mississippi River sediments are likely to contain a variety of contaminants -- a problem that has dogged other restoration projects in the region -- but this may be the last chance for Cat Island. 

This 30-year timelapse sequence of Landsat satellite imagery vividly illustrates the problem facing Louisiana and the nation. As the barrier islands melt away, the bays and marshes of the Mississippi Delta -- hosting a vast, aging network of oil and gas pipelines and other infrastructure -- are increasingly exposed to hurricanes and other severe storms. Can we fix this problem in time? 

Friday, October 17, 2014

[Updated] Oil-Laden Cargo Vessel Without Power & Drifting Toward Canadian Coastline

UPDATED OCT. 18, 2014 at 9:42 AM: Canadian Coast Guard patrol vessel Gordon Reid has gained control of the "Симушр" and is towing it out to sea. As of 6:00 am, the Reid had put 14 miles between the stricken tanker and the coast of Haida Gwaii. USCG Spar is arriving on the scene, but the American tugboat Barbara Foss was still over 200 miles out.

Image from ShipView - © exactEarth

The situation looks more promising, but winds are picking up again and more inclement weather is anticipated. More from the CBC... 

ORIGINAL POST: Canadian media and the Council of the Haida Nation are reporting that a 443 foot Russian cargo vessel lost power early this morning in gale-force winds, and is now slowly drifting towards the Canadian coastline. The Симушр (pronounced "Simushir") is a cargo vessel, but is also laden with over 110,000 gallons of "bunker fuel" (a heavy fuel oil) and 13,000 gallons of diesel fuel (500 and 60 metric tonnes, respectively). 

From - The СИМУШР in port in Busan, S. Korea.

According to satellite AIS data, the vessel is 10 miles SE of the coast, and slowly drifting almost due north at an average speed of 2.87 knots (3.3 mph) over the last 9 hours. Weather reports referenced by the Haida Nation stated, "Thirty-five to forty-five [MPH?] south-east winds are blowing the vessel to shore in a 7-10 metre sea." However the release also stated that the winds are expected to turn westerly in the afternoon. 

Timeline of the СИМУШР's drift since Oct. 16, 2014 based on satellite AIS data. The vessel is currently 10 miles from the nearest point of land. Image from ShipView - © exactEarth

A weather buoy off the coast of Haida Gwaii is reporting that the wave height is down to 4.5 meters, but the winds are still coming from the southwest at 16-19 knots (~18-22 MPH). We cannot say with any certainty how the currents or winds will effect the vessel as it gets closer to shore, but a few straight-line calculations may put the risk in perspective.

Image from ShipView - © exactEarth

If we plot a straight line from where the Симушр reported it was no longer under command, through the vessel's last reported location, all the way to landfall with the coast; we find it has drifted approximately 29 miles in just under 9 hours. On this trajectory, it could reach the northern part of Haida Gwaii in 26 miles during the early hours of October 18th.

Fortunately, the last few reports show the path is shifting slightly toward the west. If we plot a straight line between the last two reported locations...

Image from ShipView - © exactEarth

This trajectory clears the coastline by 4 miles, again in the early hours of tomorrow morning. 

However, ocean currents and winds do not follow straight lines, so reality will almost certainly be somewhat different than these projections. Thankfully, nearby vessels like the North Star, an 839 foot American container ship, are closing in on the stricken ship to assist it. Additionally, the Gordon Reid, a Coast Guard Patrol Vessel, is only 21 miles away and closing fast. The Reid was originally reported to be 750 km (466 mi) away. This post will be updated as details unfold.


Friday, October 10, 2014

'Cartographies of Energy and the Environment" at NACIS 2014

Yesterday, SkyTruth Communications Director David Manthos was in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania talking about "Cartographies of Energy and the Environment" at the Annual Meeting of the North American Cartographic Information Society (NACIS).
This year's conference theme is Cartography and Time, offering a perfect opportunity to cover some of the ways we try to display the passage of time in our maps and images. They include this handy tool to let you compare a change over-time (like how much land the Gulf Coast has lost since 1972) just by sliding your mouse back and forth.

Read below the break for the slides and more visualization examples...

Friday, October 3, 2014

SkyTruth Releases Map of Drilling-Related Impoundments across PA

Thanks to the efforts of several hundred citizen-scientists who participated in our FrackFinder PA projects, we are releasing a map of fluid impoundments that we believe to be associated with drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale. 

Among other public and environmental health concerns, the shale drilling boom in Pennsylvania has led to construction of hundreds of large ponds and reservoirs to hold the water needed to frack modern shale gas wells, and to contain the "flowback" or "produced water" that returns to the surface laden with toxic and often undisclosed chemicals

Click here or above to explore a full-screen, interactive map: 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. The backdrop for this map is the most recent statewide imagery from 2013, but note that older ponds identified on the 2005, 2008, or 2010 imagery may have been reclaimed by 2013.

Did we miss an impoundment, or mark a pond that isn't really related to drilling and fracking? Let us know - and please include as much detail as possible (pictures, GPS coordinates, etc).

These impoundments are of interest to researchers at Johns Hopkins University who are investigating the public health implications of living near drilling and hydraulic fracturing. We couldn't find any existing public map or dataset that would do the job, so we put together the FrackFinder program and asked for your help. 

We already knew that living next to one of these massive impoundments could be a headache (figuratively, if not literally too) because we noticed last year there were ten separate complaints to the National Response Center from five different residential addresses surrounding the 13.5 million gallon Carter Impoundment in Washington County. Since then, our partners at Earthworks published a detailed case study of this site, and Range Resources was recently fined $4.15 million by Pennsylvania's Dept. of Environmental Protection (DEP) for violations at the Carter Impoundment and five other centralized fluid impoundments in Washington County. The penalty is the largest fine to date assessed against a shale gas driller by PADEP.   

Preliminary Findings:

Year     Number of Ponds      Area – Average (meters2)      Area – Median (meters2)

In 2005, drilling was just getting started so we don't see many ponds or very large ones. But as drilling ramped up, the ponds grew progressively larger. From 2010 to 2013 the median area of drilling impoundments more than tripled, and the average area (which also includes small fluid reserve pits located right on the wellpad) more than doubled. As of 2013, the total impoundment surface area measures nearly four million square meters, scattered across the Commonwealth. (New York's Central Park measures 3.4 million square meters.)

We also observed that these impoundments are not permanent and may be reclaimed after a few years. Of the 581 ponds we delineated in 2010, only 116 of them were identified again on 2013 imagery.

Keep reading after the break to learn more about how we produced this map. 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Sanctions on Russia to Freeze ExxonMobil's Arctic Drilling Efforts

Last week the U.S. Treasury Dept. issued new sanctions that are expected to force ExxonMobil to halt its current Arctic drilling operations, a $700 million dollar partnership with Russian energy company Rosneft. Earlier sanctions only applied to new financial transactions and therefore did not stop the energy giants from moving the West Alpha drilling rig hundreds of miles north of the Arctic Circle to begin drilling for oil in the Kara Sea. On August 9, Vladimir Putin gave the go-ahead to start drilling in the Universitetskaya (Университетская) Prospect, making this venture the northernmost oil well in Russia. However, ExxonMobil now has just until the end of the month to wrap up their operations.

ExxonMobil and Rosneft planned to complete the project during the brief ice-free season between August and October. In early July, barely a month before the West Alpha rig arrived from Norway, the Kara Sea was still covered in ice (above). 

As we've written before, there are a number of reasons to be concerned about drilling in the Arctic. We've seen the devastation caused by a blowout in the relatively calm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and this drilling operation is 385 miles northeast of Gazprom's controversial Prirazlomnaya platform that Greenpeace activists boarded last year.

What is so worrying about drilling in the Arctic? Aside from the unforgiving weather that can tear a 28,000 ton drill rig from its support vessels and drive it ashore, there are no technologies proven to clean up spilled oil from the ice that covers the region most of the year. And this ice is always moving: consider what the Kara Sea looked like in July (above) compared to August (below). At 68² km, the 11 km long chunk of ice identified above is larger than Manhattan.  According to Rosneft, the West Alpha rig is outfitted with sensors to track advancing sea ice, and they claim to be able to shut-in the well and move the rig if necessary.

(Above) As of August 22 the ice had retreated. 

Clouds often block the view of electro-optical satellites like Landsat, but synthetic aperture radar on satellites like the European Space Agency's Sentinel 1-A can peer through clouds and collect data on vessel locations, oil slicks, and sea ice, day or night. While we wait for Sentinel to begin routine data collection, we are watching vessel activity around the West Alpha rig using satellite AIS tracking data. (To read more about our work with satellite AIS, click here)

(Above): AIS data show the path taken by the West Alpha rig as it was towed from Norway to its current location in the Kara Sea. Image Credit © exactEarth

(Above): With our AIS visualization tool provided by exactEarth, we can "see" all of the broadcasting vessels operating around the West Alpha. This may also allow us to see if vessels appear to engage in oil-spill clean up operations.  Image Credit © exactEarth

Looking at Landsat's 15-meter panchromatic band (Band 8), we can just make out the rig and several support vessels. We've been able to definitely identify the two vessels east of the rig. The furthest vessel to the east is the REM Supporter and the vessel in the middle is the Loke Viking. The identity of the vessel right beside the rig is unknown. 

It is worth noting that the West Alpha rig has not broadcast its location since August 14. It is not to clear to us from the IMO regulations if they are required to continually broadcast their location until they are safely back in port, but it is not uncommon for drill rigs to stop broadcasting when they are "on-station" and not moving.

According to Rosneft, drilling began in early August and was expected to take two months. But under these new sanctions Exxon has to wind down their activity and secure the well by the end of September.