Thursday, March 31, 2011

Interns wanted, apply within!

Looking for something to do this spring/summer? Here at SkyTruth, we're interviewing for (unpaid) interns to help with Gulf pollution assessment and monitoring, Marcellus Shale monitoring, mountaintop removal and other important projects. We're looking for talented people motivated to help SkyTruth promote the cause of conservation by raising public awareness through the use of images and maps. We need help with:
  • downloading, filtering and interpreting environmental datasets
  • identifying sources of imagery
  • processing and analyzing images
  • working with Google Earth and Maps
  • GIS mapmaking
  • GIS modeling
  • digital graphics production and manipulation to generate forward-looking scenarios (like this one)
  • other research (state and federal policies, regulations, history)
If any of this sounds good to you, or if you have other ideas, please contact us with a brief description of your skills and interests. Experience in the areas of GIS and remote sensing is helpful but definitely not mandatory to intern with us. What we need is smart, dedicated and enthusiastic people who believe in our mission. So call us at 304-885-4581, email us or come visit us in the Carriage House of the Entler Hotel and work with us this year!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Shrimp Trawling Re-Suspending BP Oil?

Way back last autumn I had a nagging thought: once oil impacted areas of the Gulf were re-opened to fishing in the wake of the BP / Deepwater Horizon spill, would shrimp trawlers repeatedly churn up oil that had settled on the seafloor?

Google Earth panoramic image showing sediment plumes raised by bottom-trawl fishing for shrimp along the Louisiana coast. More images here.

As the federal government proceeds with a long and complicated legal and scientific process, the Natural Resources Damage Assessment, they are holding a series of public meetings to get input and comments from affected Gulf-area residents. At a meeting last week in Biloxi, Mississippi,
Vietnamese shrimpers said they have pulled up nets full of oil from the seafloor and have had to decide whether to report the oil to the Coast Guard, which would mean dumping their day's catch, or pretend they don't see the oil.

John Lliff, a supervisor with NOAA's Damage Assessment Remediation and Restoration Program, said no one knows how much of the seafloor is covered in oil.
Until the oil totally disappears, it seems highly likely that this will continue. But we don't have a clue how long the oil will linger, or what the impacts of this would be on the health of fishermen, the recovery of the Gulf ecosystem, or the safety of seafood.

Meanwhile, some of our politicians seem to be ignoring the fact that the world's worst accidental oil spill happened here in our own back yard less than a year ago, and are intent on returning to business as usual without assuring the public that drilling is any safer than it was last April. Does anybody else see this as a recipe for another disaster?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Offshore Drilling Safety & Transparency: Still Lacking

Here's the latest guidance from the federal government to oil companies applying for new deepwater drilling permits. This document focuses on the two new well-containment devices rolled out last month, and mentions a new software tool BOEMRE is relying on to evaluate the risk posed by individual deepwater wells should they blow out. There is no link to the software so nobody can assess how robust it is; and, given BOEMRE's silence on these topics, it seems likely that:

1) Neither of the well-containment devices we're now relying on has actually been deployed and field-tested to see if it can reliably function in real Gulf deepwater conditions.

2) BOEMRE is ignoring oil spill cleanup technology, techniques and capacity, and is going forward with high-risk, high-pressure well permits in ultradeep waters far offshore, ensuring the same poor cleanup performance for the next major spill that we experienced with Exxon Valdez and the BP spill. (Recall that there could be 65 million gallons of oil spilled during the 2-3 weeks required to assemble and deploy one of the new containment devices, assuming they work perfectly on the first try.)

Assuming they actually do work, it is progress to have better well-containment options. Especially since we now know that blowout preventers - that previous bit of miracle technology we faithfully relied on - are fundamentally flawed by design, unable to reliably function at the fluid pressures and temperatures likely to be encountered in deep wells that go out of control.

But well containment is irrelevant for other risks that commonly cause major spills, like tanker accidents and intentional sabotage. Petrobras is developing their Cascade and Chinook deepwater oil and gas finds in the Gulf of Mexico using an FPSO (essentially a stationary oil tanker), the BW Pioneer, which can hold 25 million gallons. Other tankers will regularly unload crude from the Pioneer and shuttle it back to port (Galveston?). The Cascade and Chinook wells are 150 miles offshore in water 8,000-9,000 feet deep and drilled to total depth of 27,000 feet (for comparison, BP's failed Macondo well that sank the Deepwater Horizon rig last April was just 40 miles offshore, in water 5,000 feet deep and drilled to total depth of 18,000 feet). Petrobras expects to initially produce 3.4 million gallons per day combined from its two wells. (BP's Macondo well initially spilled 2.6 million gallons per day.)

This clip is a bit long, but Rachel Maddow got Noble Energy's Regional Oil Spill Response Plan that accompanied their permit to resume deepwater drilling, the first permit BOEMRE approved since the BP spill. This plan should include cleanup details. The plan is dated September 2009, seven months before the BP spill, and includes no new information or plans, according to Maddow.

So how can BOEMRE express such confidence in the ability to safely and effectively respond to a worst-case spill scenario if we're still relying on old cleanup plans that gave us scenes like this? And why is this information so difficult for us ordinary folks to come by?

Monday, March 28, 2011

Grand Isle Oil Spill - More Than 4 Gallons?

IF our analysis of the March 22, 2011 MODIS satellite image is correct, and we assume the apparent oil slick on that image is on average only 1 micron -- one millionth of a meter -- thick, then that roughly 2,427 km2 oil slick held at least 640,728 gallons.

That would make it a major spill (more than 100,000 gallons), and a heckuva lot more than the 4 gallons in total that was reported to the National Response Center. But not unexpected if the Anglo-Suisse well the Coast Guard has pegged as the source was actually leaking for three days (rather than 4-6 hours), as this news report suggested:

Wildlife and Fisheries officials found the source of the oil Monday evening and encountered workers in a boat trying to restore a cap on the well using a remotely operated submarine.

"Well-capping went out of control," the state official said.

The spill was first reported to the NRC at about 8pm on Friday, March 18, three full days before the Louisiana officials came across the continuing effort to plug this well.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Coast Guard Tests "Conclusively" Point to Anglo-Suisse Well for Latest Gulf Spill

Tests of crude oil collected by the Coast Guard off Louisiana beaches last weekend, conducted by a scientist at Louisiana State University who deemed the results "conclusive," appear to match the chemical "fingerprint" of crude oil taken from the hurricane-damaged well that Anglo-Suisse was trying to permanently plug. Anglo-Suisse is disputing this and is hiring their own lab to investigate.

If the Coast Guard's conclusion is correct, then Anglo-Suisse grossly underreported the amount of oil that spilled from their well. They reported to the National Response Center (NRC) that only about 4 gallons were released.

This calls into question the reliability of the NRC system. The NRC is the place polluters call whenever they spill oil. Government agencies determine if a cleanup response is warranted based on the size of the spill in the report. And it's probably the main source of data industry uses to make the claim that not much oil is spilled from offshore oil development. We see some obvious problems with this setup, including gross mismatch between the reported amounts spilled and the size of observable oil slicks.

If fines are very low (or nonexistent) for reporting a spill - and nobody from the state or federal agencies is going to come out to check up on you if you've reported a small spill - then you can see how companies might be tempted to systematically underreport their pollution incidents. Who wouldn't?

With the heightened sensitivity and scrutiny in the Gulf now, maybe it's time to reevaluate this fundamentally flawed system. Poor, or patently inaccurate, information can lead to hysteria now whenever oil appears. And that doesn't do the oil, fishing or tourism industries any good.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Check Out Our Natural Gas & Oil Drilling Collection

Now that we've got our image gallery all organized and pretty, we don't want to keep it to ourselves. We want to share our images with you and ask what you think. So without further ado, here is our biggest collection, Natural Gas and Oil Drilling. The images in this collection show the impacts of exploration, drilling, production, storage and transport of natural gas and oil. This gallery contains images of some beautiful Western landscapes too, like Valle Vidal, Raton Basin in New Mexico, shown here:

Valle Vidal

Or how about pictures from the the San Juan Basin of Colorado and New Mexico, where coalbed methane development has forever changed the landscape:

San Juan Basin coalbed methane (CBM) development

Take a look at our Upper Green River Valley, Wyoming set, then read more it in our blog posts.

Also in this collection are the Roan Plateau, Colorado set, with stunning visuals like this:

Roan Plateau, Colorado

But don't stop there. There are 21 sets in this collection including the Pronghorn Roadkill Accident in the Jonah Gas Field of Wyoming; the Otero Mesa, in the Permian Basin of New Mexico; the Oil Sands/Oil Shale set; a simulation of proposed drilling in Grand Mesa, Colorado; and the Wyoming Range, Bridger-Teton National Forest.

There are images from the Montara Oil Spill off the coast of Australia in August of 2009, a blowout that provided us an unhappy preview of what can go wrong with offshore drilling:

Montara Oil Spill - August 25, 2009

Dirty Snow on the North Slope of Alaska:

North Slope - Winter 2006, Detail 3

And the tragic BP/Deepwater Horizon blowout in our own Gulf of Mexico almost a year ago:

Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill - FSU Sampling Cruise - June 22, 2010

Go check out these and many other images now at our SkyTruth Gallery. And we'll be back with our next collection soon.

Gulf Spill - Source?

Coast Guard has tentatively identified a well damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 as the source of the oil spill last weekend that came ashore in Louisiana. Located in West Delta Block 117, and operated by Anglo-Suisse, the spill reportedly occurred for a few hours last Saturday afternoon during operations to permanently plug and abandon the well.

Polluters are required to report any oil spills to the National Response Center, including the amount spilled. So what do the official pollution reports say? We checked the NRC database this morning and found only three reports that list Anglo-Suisse as the responsible party since last Wednesday (March 16). These reports show amounts spilled of 1.89 gallons, 1.33 gallons, and 0.5 gallons - a whopping total of 3.72 gallons spilled.

Can a 4-gallon spill of oil travel across 20 miles of the Gulf, come ashore across a 30-mile stretch of coast, and oil 1300 to 2700 feet of beach? Call us skeptical, but we don't think so. If the Anglo-Suisse well in West Delta 117 really is the source of this pollution then they have significantly underreported the amount spilled. (And why shouldn't they lowball it, if nobody is going to check up on their reports?) We've seen this before, at the continuing spill from the Taylor Energy site where a platform was taken out by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. This calls into question repeated claims of industry and politicians that oil pollution related to offshore production is minimal, because they're using these same highly questionable reports to make this claim.

Or, Anglo-Suisse has reported their spill accurately. Then there must be another source of the oil that came ashore, and some say is still coming ashore.

We'll keep looking.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Gulf Spill - Not So Fast - Problem at LOOP?

[UPDATE 11:15am ET - according to an email sent to us, a pilot flying over LOOP yesterday observed an oil slick there. UPDATE 11:50am ET - a 2 mile long slick was reported to the NRC Saturday morning at the LOOP facility]

Whoa, hold the horses. Maybe Anglo-Suisse did happen to have a small spill over the weekend. But we just looked at this NASA/MODIS satellite image taken yesterday afternoon, from the Terra satellite. It shows what appears to be an extensive oil slick emanating from very near the location of the Lousiana Offshore Oil Port (LOOP). We have no confirmation of any problem at or near LOOP at this time (10:30am ET):

MODIS/Terra satellite image, March 22, 2011 showing possible oil slick originating near LOOP facility and carried off to the northwest. Light brown areas are sediment-laden water entering the Gulf from the Mississippi River.

SkyTruth analysis of March 22 MODIS image showing extent of possible oil slick

SkyTruth analysis overlain with platform locations (orange dots) and pipelines (yellow); data from BOEMRE

Detail of March 22 satellite image, with platform locations and pipelines

Latest Gulf Oil Spill - Mystery Solved?

It looks like our guess yesterday may have been correct: the oil spill that came ashore in Louisiana this weekend originated about 30 miles offshore in West Delta Block 117, at the site of a platform destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 that was operated by Anglo-Suisse Offshore Partners, LLC, according to a Louisiana official. The Coast Guard and BOEMRE have not officially acknowledged this yet. Click here for a map showing the location.

On March 18, Anglo-Suisse reported to the National Response Center a spill at 4pm local time at the site of Platform E during plugging and abandonment operations. They claimed a total amount of spilled oil of - get this - half a gallon, making a slick 1320 feet long and 20 feet wide. Yet this same tiny spill somehow managed to come ashore 20 miles away, impacting beaches at Elmer Isle, Grand Isle and Fourchon; creating a slick that, as seen from the air, appears to stretch for miles.

You may be wondering a few things, like: who the heck is Anglo-Suisse, and what are they doing drilling in the Gulf of Mexico? Well, it turns out that a lot of relatively obscure companies operate wells in US waters, many without the deep pockets of Shell and BP, and with no retail brand to protect if things go wrong.

You might be asking, this spill was caused by a well damaged during Hurricane Katrina, more than five years ago? In fact, wells damaged by Hurricane Ivan more than six years ago are still leaking, and this industry report shows there's still a significant backlog of work to safely decommission all the storm-damaged wells and platforms in the Gulf.

You may question how good our national oil pollution reporting system can be when we rely on the polluters to turn themselves in and accurately report what they've spilled -- knowing full well they are subject to being fined based on that amount, and knowing it's highly unlikely the state or federal government will send anyone out to check on the incident (especially if it's small).

Once again: we need independent, transparent monitoring of pollution in the Gulf.

At SkyTruth, we're working on it. Stay tuned for an announcement in coming weeks...

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Oil Spill in Gulf of Mexico Last Weekend - Questions Remain

Still trying to pin down exactly what happened in the Gulf last weekend. The Coast Guard has reported that a well south of Grand Isle that was being plugged and abandoned leaked on Saturday for 4-6 hours for some reason, with oil showing up on the beaches of Grand Isle, Elmer's Island and Fourchon. Cleanup is continuing although no new oil is washing ashore. [UPDATE 5:56pm - see pics of oil coming ashore].

Locations of interest mentioned in this post. Active oil and gas platforms are orange dots. Backdrop is MODIS satellite image taken March 19, 2011.

We've looked at low-resolution MODIS satellite images of the Gulf over the past few days and haven't seen any signs of a large oil slick, although this aerial pic that was reportedly taken by the Jefferson Parish Department of Emergency Management appears to show a sizable oil slick, with relatively thick brownish-red stringers of weathered crude oil surrounded by thinner sheen. MODIS images aren't always suitable for oil slick detection, so we're still looking. At this time, yesterday's images are mostly incomplete and don't fully cover the affected area.

This morning we called the Coast Guard public affairs office in Louisiana to ask a simple question: where is this well located? The answer: "that is under investigation." They couldn't tell us the name of the platform, who the operator is, or even what protraction area it is in.

Some possibilities have been mentioned in various press accounts. This report claims the leaking well is at a hurricane-damaged platform operated by Anglo-Suisse Offshore Partners, LLC. A 2006 news release from the former U.S. Minerals Management Service shows that Anglo-Suisse had a cluster of five platforms in West Delta Block 117, about 30 miles southeast of Grand Isle, that were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Maybe the well was under one of those now long-gone platforms. That's our bet: it's close to Grand Isle, and satellite pics of the past few days show currents are sweeping masses of sediment-laden water from the Mississippi River through the West Delta 117 area and straight toward the beach. Any spilled oil at that location would most likely get caught up in that current.

But other reports hinted at problems at the site of the Matterhorn SeaStar platform, a state-of-the-art "mini Tension Leg Platform" owned by W&T Offshore, whose stock prices nosedived Friday. W&T issued this statement today claiming the the slick is not coming from Matterhorn or any of their other nearby facilities. The TLP was installed in 2003, in water 2800' deep, in Mississippi Canyon Block 243 about 28 miles due west of the BP / Deepwater Horizon site and 80 miles east-southeast of Grand Isle.

Another possibility, not mentioned in any news accounts we've seen, is the platform that caught fire on March 6 and was evacuated. Located in Grand Isle Block 102, it's about 50 miles due south of Grand Isle.

Meanwhile, oil is continually leaking from the site of a Taylor Energy platform (Platform 23051) that was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan way back in 2004, and the Ocean Saratoga rig is back on site working to plug the leaks. You may recall we "discovered" that chronic leak during the massive BP spill last summer. Here's a pic that Greenpeace took on Sunday of the oil slick there:

Photo of oil slick from chronic, ongoing leak at former site of Taylor Energy platform destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. Ocean Saratoga drill rig is working to plug the leaks.

Lots of questions. Here's one more: In the wake of the world's worst accidental oil spill, can't we manage our offshore resources better than this?

Monday, March 21, 2011

Third Deepwater Drilling Permit Issued for Gulf - Still No Spill Response Info

Third time's definitely not the charm. BOEMRE just issued another permit for deepwater drilling in the Gulf, again to continue work on a well that was already underway, again with a sweeping statement of confidence:
“This permit approval demonstrates that deepwater drilling can and will continue in the Gulf of Mexico provided that operators have successfully demonstrated their ability to operate safely,” said BOEMRE Director Michael R. Bromwich.
And once again, the public version of this permit application submitted by ATP Oil & Gas Corporation contains no information at all about the estimated worst-case spill, the specifications and test results for the containment device that would be deployed in the event of a blowout, and the cleanup technology that will be employed to deal with a major spill. We assume from their letter to President Obama that the company provided this information to BOEMRE. So why can't the public see this information too, so we can all share in BOEMRE's confidence?

What's so secret about an oil spill cleanup plan anyway?

On a related note, BOEMRE also just approved Shell's latest exploration plan for the deepwater Gulf, which did contain details about a worst-case scenario spill, a containment plan, and a cleanup plan. We think the plan had some alarming shortcomings. You can read our concerns in the comments we submitted.

Mystery Oil Slick off Grand Isle, LA

Reports of an oil slick in the Gulf just off Grand Isle, Louisiana this weekend prompted us to take a close look at the available low-resolution MODIS satellite imagery from NASA. Some accounts claimed an oil slick as large as 100 miles long and 12 miles wide, and mentioned a 4-6 hour leak from an offshore well that was being plugged.

It seems a couple of things are happening: the Coast Guard does say there has been a leak from a well undergoing plugging operations (we're still trying to determine exactly which well, and where). But there is also a huge plume of sediment (and other stuff) surging out of the Mississippi Delta and streaming past Grand Isle, thanks to the spring melt of much deeper than normal snowpack in the upper Midwest, and heavy rainfall in the Mississippi watershed. This sediment plume looks pretty ugly up close: it's brown, nasty, and carries a lot of stuff in it that is very bad for the Gulf: pesticide and fertilizer runoff, sewage overflows, and oily runoff from all our paved roads and parking lots that's been building up over the winter. This is what causes one of the Gulf's worst, chronic environmental problems: the giant "dead zone" that forms every year.

This MODIS image taken from the Aqua satellite in Saturday shows this big brown plume of gunk knuckling toward Grand Isle:

NASA satellite image taken about 2pm local time on Saturday, March 19, 2011

Photos taken from the air over the weekend show what looks to me like the leading edge of this nasty sediment plume, not an oil slick. And the MODIS satellite images taken since Friday don't show any sign of a major oil spill. But there is more to this story: the Coast Guard does say that there has been a leak from a well, and oil from that leak began coming ashore on Elmer Isle, Grand Isle and Fourchon Isle on Sunday.

We know that several wells have been steadily leaking at the site of a destroyed oil platform since Hurricane Ivan in 2004, with sporadic work since then to plug those wells; we assume that work has still not been completed. It's possible the oil originates from that location; the MODIS image shows surface currents moving from the Platform 23051 site toward Grand Isle.

Grand Isle Platform 102A is also nearby, about 50 miles south of Grand Isle. This oil platform was evacuated just two weeks ago when it caught fire. The company reports that production had been shut in before the fire, but we've seen no followup since then on the status of that platform.

Again, based on the free NASA satellite images we've seen so far, there is no sign of a large oil spill. We'll keep looking.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Check out Videos of SkyTruth's Presentation at American University.

Here are clips to some highlights from SkyTruth's presentation at American University on February 15.

Here is the introduction and John discussing what we do here at SkyTruth.

In this clip, John discusses his testimony before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on November 19, 2009. Hear all about how much the Senator from Louisiana liked him.

John discusses the view from above and then takes you down to ground level.

And in this last clip, John shares with the group some of his favorite satellite images.

Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant - Then and Now

Yesterday we posted on the deepening crisis at the blast-damaged Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan; our first version of that post compared a March 16 high-resolution satellite image of the plant with what we thought was a March 12 image of the same plant. A couple of alert readers pointed out that the March 12 image actually showed a sister nuke plant nearby, the Fukushima Daini plant, so we removed that image from the blog (you can see it here).

Today, we'll take a look at before-and-after images of the struggling Daiichi plant made using imagery from DigitalGlobe and Google Earth:

Fukushima Daiichi, high-resolution satellite image taken March 16, 2011 (from DigitalGlobe). Obvious damage to the outer containment buildings from hydrogen explosions at reactor units 1, 3 and 4. Unit 2 appears relatively intact but unseen damage inside the unit from a March 14 explosion is posing a serious threat

Fukushima Daiichi, high-resolution satellite image taken in 2004, with 3-d buildings shown for reference (from Google Earth)

Fukushima Daiichi, high-resolution satellite image taken in 2004 without 3-d buildings overlay (from Google Earth)

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Damage to Nuclear Reactor Buildings - Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant, Japan

The situation is steadily getting worse at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant crippled by Japan's earthquake and tsunami.

Here's what it looks like today, on March 16:

These hi-resolution satellite images from DigitalGlobe starkly reveal the extent of damage to the outer containment buildings surrounding the reactors. Check out all of the images and damage analyses at the DigitalGlobe website.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Feds Issue 2nd Deepwater Drilling Permit in Gulf

BOEMRE, the Federal agency managing offshore energy development, just issued a second permit to allow deepwater drilling to continue in the Gulf of Mexico. Like Noble Energy, recipient of the first permit, BHP Billiton (an Australian company) will resume drilling on a well that had been partly completed when the BP / Deepwater Horizon explosion and massive oil spill occurred last April.

Another unfortunate similarity: the public version of BHP's permit application contains no information about oil spill containment, cleanup, or other response plans and capabilities. I hope it's all in the redacted version. But shouldn't that information be readily available to the public, along with a record of decision detailing the agency's review of the information and justifying their confidence that the applicants can respond rapidly and effectively in the event of a major incident and spill?

Maybe somebody from BOEMRE can explain that to us. Otherwise, we're just skipping down the road to the next disaster.

2011 Japan Quake and Tsunami - Before / After Images

Lots of satellite images of this disaster, including very high-resolution images from Geoeye and DigitalGlobe, are now becoming publicly available, showing from above the destructive power of the brutal one-two punch Japan has endured. Here's a panoramic before/after view of what used to be the pretty little coastal neighborhood of Arahama in the city of Sendai, 80 miles due west from the quake's epicenter and in the immediate path of the nearly 30-foot-high tsunami that swept the coast. The ocean is at lower right.

Many more before/after high-resolution satellite images can be seen by Google Earth users if you download this KML file from Google's information-packed 2011 Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami Crisis Response website. The KML includes low-resolution MODIS and radar images too, and reports from folks on the ground that are being collected using Ushahidi, the same tool we've deployed to track impacts in the Gulf during the BP oil spill.

Don't use Google Earth? There are several sites featuring collections of high-resolution images:
And NASA has a page featuring their low-resolution daily MODIS images, which we've found useful for illustrating smoke plumes and ocean turbidity.

Let us know if you find more useful images. Natural disasters aren't our main focus here at SkyTruth, but if we can see a way to help when they occur we'll do what we can.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Sendai Tsunami - Turbidity and Smoke, March 13

Clear skies follow tragedy: this MODIS / Aqua satellite image to the left was taken on March 13, 2011 at about 12:55 pm local time in Japan. Click on it to see a larger version.

Striking bright aqua and turquoise patterns in the water reveal turbidity along much of the Pacific coast of northeastern Japan.

This turbidity is probably sand, churned up off the seafloor and scoured from beaches by the massive magnitude 8.9 earthquake and series of destructuive tsunmami waves that it generated; and mud and debris washed off lowlying coastal areas that were inundated by the tsunami.

Several plumes of smoke are visible as well, blowing eastward off the coast and out to sea. Three faint white plumes are visible between Miyako and Sendai. A fourth plume, dark brown, continues to emanate from the city of Sendai and may be caused in part by a fire at a major petrochemical facility.

Radiation leaks from crippled nuclear reactors along the coast are a serious concern at this time. If prevailing winds continue to blow from the west, releases of radioactive gases into the air should move offshore.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Smoke and Turbidity - Sendai, Japan

We've done our own processing on a NASA / MODIS satellite image showing a large smoke plume coming from the port city of Sendai. The image was taken from the Aqua satellite at 12:10 pm local time on March 12. The magnitude 8.9 quake struck at 2:46 pm local time on March 11, and tsunami waves crashed ashore along the northeastern coast of Japan shortly after.

The dark brown smoke plume stretches to the southeast, reaching at least 115 kilometers (73 miles) over the ocean.

Notice the bright turquoise patterns in the water; this is turbidity, quite possibly sand stirred up from the seafloor by the scouring action of the massive waves, and debris and sediment from flooded coastal areas dragged out to sea as the waves receded. Clouds and snow are bright white in this image, processed to enhance the smoke and turbidity:

Earthquake and Tsunami - Sendai, Japan

The Ring of Fire strikes again.

We're starting to see satellite imagery of the damage caused by the massive earthquake and resulting tsunami that struck northeastern Japan yesterday (this aerial video shows the waves approaching shore, and the terrifying destruction as they sweep through coastal towns). Some resources:

DigitalGlobe has a Flickr gallery of high-resolution images and produced a cursory analysis (PDF).

High-resolution satellite image showing shipping containers scattered by the tsunami in the port of Sendai, March 12, 2011. Image courtesy of DigitalGlobe.

The MODIS imaging team's website at NASA now has a Japan Earthquake Project page. The low-resolution MODIS sytem captured an image at about noon local time on March 12, showing a large plume of smoke blowing out to sea from Sendai. Before-and-after images give a glimpse through the clouds of broad coastal flooding as of 10am local time yesterday.

Please submit a comment if you run across other useful sources of satellite imagery for this event.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Safer Offshore Drilling? Trust us.

With much fanfare, the federal government agency responsible for managing offshore drilling, BOEMRE, issued the first new permit for deepwater drilling since the BP / Deepwater Horizon blowout and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year.

Sort of new, but not really: the permit allows Noble Energy to resume work on a well that was already being drilled when the spill brought activity to an abrupt halt. Nevertheless, BOEMRE made a big deal out of this. In this Houston chronicle op-ed, director Micheal Bromwich said:
"This permit was issued for one simple reason: The operator successfully demonstrated that it could drill its deep-water well safely and that it was capable of containing a subsea blowout if it were to occur. We expect further deep-water permits to be approved in the coming weeks and months based on the same factors that led to the approval of this permit."
In other words, this permit will become a template that all other companies will follow to get their drilling plans approved. Well then, this must be one heckuva permit application, filled with substantial details evaluating what a worst-case spill scenario for this specific well would be in the event of an uncontrolled blowout; detailing the capabilities, engineering design specifications, rigorous testing procedures and comprehensive test results for the vaunted new containment device that would be relied on to stop a blowout; and describing all the new cleanup equipment, techniques and procedures that are now standing by ready to immediately respond to the multimillion gallon oil spill that will happen even if the containment device works perfectly.

Here's the public version we obtained of Noble Energy's permit application. Notice anything missing?

This document doesn't address any of the obvious safety issues listed above. Not a one. So how on earth did Mr. Bromwich reach the conclusion that Noble "successfully demonstrated that it could drill its deep-water well safely"?

It is possible that all of the necessary information is in the redacted version, not available to the public. But then I have to ask, 1) how can this application serve as a model for other companies who want to drill, if all of the important new safety information is withheld from view? and 2) how can the public have any degree of confidence that the safety of offshore drilling in America has been significantly improved, if we can't see that information and evaluate it for ourselves?

Is this the new era of transparency and accountability that we were promised in the wake of the deadly Deepwater Horizon explosion?

Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Be a SkyTruther! Follow Your Favorite Places in Google Maps/Earth

The folks at Google have released a great new tool called Follow Your World. Now you can sign up to get email alerts whenever they update the imagery in Google Maps and Google Earth covering your areas of interest. Using a simple interactive map interface, you can select and register points of interest:

I'm hoping that in the near future they'll allow us to draw polygons on the map to define areas of interest.

What's so great about this? Now anyone can do some armchair SkyTruthing, keeping on top of the latest free imagery from Google showing what's happening in the places you care about most. Don't forget about the View Historical Imagery tool in Google Earth, which allows you to toggle between images taken at different dates to see (and even measure) how a place has changed over time. See a SkyTruth example, looking at the growth of impact from tar-sands mining in Canada, and watch the video below of the shrinking Aral Sea. Then show us what you can do!