Sky Truth: Bird’s Eye View Of Human’s Eco-Impact

Unconventional gas drilling in Wyoming – May 2006: The massive landscape transformation of the Jonah Field was an early SkyTruth project, coordinated with other NGOs also studying the impacts of modern fracking. Photo by Bruce Gordon – EcoFlight

If you can see it, you can change it Seeing  > Believing  > Caring  > Acting  > Changing

SkyTruth is a nonprofit organization using remote sensing and digital mapping to create stunning images that expose the landscape disruption and habitat degradation caused by mining, oil and gas drilling, deforestation, fishing and other human activities.

Our vision is a world where all people can see and understand the environmental consequences of human activity everywhere on Earth, and are motivated to take action to protect it.

Our mission is to motivate and empower new constituencies for environmental protection through illuminating the issues that impact our planet. We use scientifically credible satellite images and other visual technologies to create compelling pictures that vividly illustrate environmental impacts, and provide these pictures and supporting data to environmental advocates, policy-makers, the media, and the public.

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Throughout the 1990s, working in the private sector as a geologist who used remote sensing as an exploration tool, John Amos became increasingly concerned by the mounting evidence of human-caused changes to landscapes and ecosystems around the world. He began to think that images of habitat loss and the spread of human influence could be important, not only as a source of scientific data on environmental change, but also as a powerful tool for communicating these changes to the public.

In 2001, John left the for-profit world to lay the groundwork for SkyTruth: meeting with environmental groups to learn more about the state of environmental remote sensing; talking to advocates about their communications needs and resource limitations; and presenting the capabilities of satellite and aerial images to environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs), grassroots activists, and government resource managers. A Board of Directors was assembled from friends with hands-on experience in environmental policymaking, communications, and nonprofit administration–and SkyTruth was incorporated.

In 2002, SkyTruth was granted non-profit status by the IRS and awarded a start-up grant from the Curtis and Edith Munson Foundation. Projects soon followed, including the use of satellite and aerial imagery to study the landscape impacts of natural gas drilling on the Rocky Mountain west (above), reveal commercial fishing vessels “fishing the line” around marine protected areas, and show the growth of strip mining for coal and other minerals around the United States.

SkyTruth, still only a one-man operation, testified before the Senate in November 2009 on the risks of offshore drilling. John testified based on observations of the Timor Sea oil spill, Australia’s worst drilling-related oil spill. A pro-drilling senator from Louisiana was unconvinced, however, saying such a drilling operation would not be allowed in U.S. waters.

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NASA/ALI image taken from the EO-1 satellite on April 25, 2010, showing some of the oil slicks and sheen (bright areas) resulting from the Deepwater Horizon drill rig blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. See a full-size image here.

In April 2010, an offshore drilling rig called the Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 men and setting in motion the largest accidental oil spill in history. SkyTruth was the first to publicly challenge BP’s inaccurate reports of the rate of oil spilling into the Gulf. With our partners at Florida State University, we used satellite images to estimate the actual amount of oil gushing from the damaged well. Based only on the oil that appeared on the surface, we calculated the rate of flow from the gushing well was between five and twenty-five times more than BP was reporting.

As the disaster unfolded, we continued to document the spill on satellite imagery, and our images and calculations thrust SkyTruth into the spotlight. The disaster proved pivotal for SkyTruth. Challenging BP’s estimates brought major media attention to our mission and demonstrated the role that remote sensing has to play in understanding environmental issues.  However, our long-term goal is not just to report on disasters, but to inspire a global movement where everyone can easily access the resources we use, and be motivated to protect the planet from future catastrophes.

As of 2013, SkyTruth has grown to four full-time staff members and a variety of interns and volunteers who help us to analyze images and data, build tools to engage the public, and provide scientifically credible resources to help better understand environmental issues. We have analyzed 30 years of Landsat images to map the extent of mountaintop removal mining and released to the public the only free, nation-wide database of chemical disclosures from hydraulic fracturing.

Looking ahead, we aim to transform skytruthing into a global movement where anyone, anywhere, can adopt a part of the planet that they care about, monitor it with the tools and technology we provide, and be empowered to take action to protect the environment. Learn more about the issues we are working on here.