Satellites Gone Green: Polluters Tracked From 438 Miles Up

Nonprofit SkyTruth employs sophisticated mapping and sat images to track oil, coal, gas and fishing violators.
An artist's rendering of the satellite used by SkyTruth to keep ecological do-badders honest. (Photo: Courtesy of SkyTruth)
Aug 9, 2013· 1 MIN READ
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

It turns out that high-tech spying—or observing, depending on your take—is working equally well for government and its watchdogs.

While the truths about the National Security Agency’s collecting of phone and email data on average folks keeps tumbling out and is troubling on a variety of levels, there are polluters out there who should be similarly alarmed by the increasing sophistication of satellite observation, digital mapping, and remote sensing used by environmentalists.

Case in point, SkyTruth, a West Virginia-based company, is now using satellites to track landscape disruption and habitat degradation caused by mining, oil and gas drilling, deforestation, fishing, and other human activities.

The goal is to help environmental groups prove what they’re seeing—or may not quite be able to see—from ground level.

SkyTruth is essentially providing the ultimate big picture, from several miles above Earth.

The nonprofit’s motto: “If you can see it, you can change it.”

Along with Google Earth and sites like Timelapse—which allow viewers to watch time-lapse video of how anywhere in the world has developed over the past 30 years—the world is shrinking, and shrinking fast.

Polluters should be very, very worried.

Just this week, SkyTruth participated in documenting the direct sources of 12.9 million gallons of polluted water and 192 tons of air pollution that were released into and over the Gulf of Mexico during Hurricane Isaac last year due to breakdowns at coal, chemical and oil plants. From space it was easy to see the dark streaks across farmlands spread out directly from coal terminals, the sheen of just-spilled oil-slicked waters near refineries, and leaking oil rigs spoiling various wetlands.

In past cases, SkyTruth’s satellites—operated by a small team out of a ramshackle office on High Street in Shepherdstown, West Virginia—have been employed mostly by conservation and environmental groups to observe everything from fracking operations in Pennsylvania to illegal fishing boats off Easter Island. “You can track anything in the world from anywhere in the world,” SkyTruth’s John Amos tells the Washington Post.

Amos is the first to take all of the satellite data accumulated over the past 40 years, lay it over maps, and share it with green groups.

His ability to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt what’s happening on the ground from deep space is singular.

SkyTruth is credited with almost single-handedly forcing BP and the U.S. government to admit that the Gulf spill was far worse than they were admitting. Similarly, coal-mining operators in Appalachia have been put on the spot by the outfit’s recordings of mountaintop removal operations covering 59 counties in four states. Same for those drilling oil wells across Wyoming.

The message from SkyTruth to polluters is: You’re being watched!

While the Big Brother aspect of such “observation” might feel oppressive, when used to call corporations, and government, on the carpet for trying to get away with polluting, it seems justified.

Until you get caught, of course.

And then I’m sure even the polluters will try and trot out a plea for some kind of constitutional protection from being Big Brother-ed.