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SkyTruthiness: Ecological disasters from above

John Amos uses his satellite image analysis skills to evaluate the real impact of human activities on the environment. His NGO SkyTruth hopes to lead the way in verifying ecological data.

by Sylvain Lapoix On July 22, 2011

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À propos de l'auteur

Journaliste politique engagé et un brin utopiste, j'ai couvert la campagne présidentielle pour Marianne2.fr avant de m'ouvrir à l'économie. Enquêteur augmenté sur OWNI depuis septembre 2010, je cherche la petite bête dans les domaines de l'énergie, de l'écologie et des partis politiques.


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The NGO SkyTruth, launched in 2001, gathered hundreds of satellite images of disasters caused by land development, and industrial and agricultural activities (including oil spills, deforestation, landslides, and floods). The photos are a far cry from aesthetically pleasing Yann Arthus-Bertrand imagery or Nicolas Hulot’s photoshopped snapshots. John Amos, the geologist who founded the NGO, takes authenticated snapshots for the general population and disseminates his work under a Creative Commons license. We discovered his pictures while searching Flickr’s shale gas photos, and he accepted to answer a few questions for OWNI.

Where did the idea of SkyTruth come from?

The idea came to me in the middle of the 1990s. I worked for two Washington, DC area consulting firms that explored and decrypted satellite images for different oil, gas, and mining companies, and sometimes government agencies. BP, Shell, Exxon, and Texaco were included in the mix. My niche, as a geologist, was processing and analysing remote sensory technology – whose most common form is satellite images and aerial photographs. By the end of the 1990s, I had seen enough satellite images of environmental catastrophes: clear cutting in forests around the world in remote areas where no one would find out, oil pollution throughout the world’s oceans, and the impacts of large scale open pit mining… I started to think the stories those images told were too important not to be made public. At the time, data from satellites was very expensive and hard to access. You needed to really know what you were doing to understand it. The only people regularly using this kind of data were large government agencies and commercial mining companies. I started thinking about how to fix this problem and make the technologies accessible to anyone concerned about the environment, and how to make the data understandable to anyone with two eyes.

An open pit mine in Cerro de Pasco (Peru). It's at the center of the city, where the population is 70,000.

When did the project really start coming together?

When you work with those type of industries, it’s easy to be comfortable. In 2001, I took my paycheck and launched SkyTruth, making sure to obtain the IRS status that allows donations to be written off for tax purposes. From 2001 to 2010, it was just me! I hired Teri and Paul in December. Teri is our office administrator, and Paul is our technology, web, and social networking guru.

How do you obtain the satellite images?

Unfortunately, we can’t afford our own 300 million dollar satellite! There’s a variety of different remote sensory devices that provide a range of prices and quality. Some of them are managed by governments and provide the images for free, although the resolution is very low. For example, for pictures of the Gulf of Mexico we took two free images per day from NASA, with a resolution of 250 meters per pixel. In contrast, we are monitoring gas exploitation in western Wyoming (where the wells are built closely to one another) and the impact it has on local wildlife. We buy those images from the French company that monitors the Spot satellite, and those photos cover a 60 x 60 km area with a resolution of 5 meters per pixel – yet each satellite image costs $4,700.

For paid images, we have an advantage that we can request a certain angle or a particular resolution. For free images we take what we can get; NASA’s Modus system covers the entire globe, but not necessarily in the best possible way.

Inundations caused by over mining in Papua New Guinea

Have you thought about ways to take your own photos?

Paul Wood, our chef engineer, is trying to take images with high resolution digital cameras attached to hydrogen balloons. This technique was already used by an MIT researcher to take images of the BP oil spill for GrassRootsMapping.org. For now, we’re still in the experimental stages.

What is your job after you have obtained the photos?

It’s a quick process. I download them, take a look and go to the next one if nothing catches my eye. If there is something interesting, then I have to compare the image using cartography programs like GIS – our expertise is comparing data. For shale gas, we count the number of sites on a satellite photo and compare it to the authorized zones and the number of sites declared by energy companies. For oil spills, we compare the images with wind speed data gathered by buoys to evaluate the dispersion.

Who is your audience?

Our ultimate goal is to attract as many people as possible. Real political power comes from the grassroots level, which will translate into protecting our planet. To push environmental policies, action is needed at every level: from Washington, DC to states, from governors to voters. The goal is to get people to reflect on their relationship with the environment and start engaging in the political process. A lot of the work we do is extracting useful data which you can’t get any other way. What area is affected by top mining in the Appalachian Mountains? How developed is gas extraction in Wyoming? It’s almost impossible to find the answers to these questions.

Explosion in Wyoming resulting from shale gas exploitation.

What do you think of the work of certain reporters who present magnified images of nature to protect the environment – your work does not conflict with this?

You raise an interesting point: I’ve been accused of leaving people very depressed because I show the true impact of our way of life. This leads to the million dollar question – To what extend are we responsible? I hope that will make people think about their use of energy and materials. Sometime I also show beautiful images, because it’s important to see the world as beautiful place that is still worth saving. I think imagery can be a motivating tool to get people off their couches.

Do you think the SkyTruth model could work for other organizations?

Anyone can do their own “SkyTruthing” in their backyard! It’s a powerful tool that has many different applications. We use Creative Commons because we want the information to spread as widely as possible. We also work with NGO’s on problems connected to forests, shale gas, and more, but what we really want is to help empower citizens to use the tool. SkyTruth could become a verb. The next step in our development is to build an army of “SkyTruthers” to restore power to the people, giving them the right to be involved in issues that threatens the environment.


Photo credits FlickR CC by-nc-sa SkyTruth

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