A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

The Man Who Saw It First

Space to Earth: “We Have a Problem”

By Cathy Boyle

Back in April, when most of us were fixated on the volcanic eruption in Iceland, John Amos of SkyTruth saw a worrisome message in the images he’d just downloaded from a satellite.

No one else seemed to be seeing what John was observing: thousands of barrels of oil pouring into the Gulf of Mexico. That was because most of the people monitoring the world’s picture-taking satellites were busy watching the volcano.

That quickly changed, of course, when everyone realized there was a new threat in the Gulf. But since April 21, John had already been gathering evidence of the catastrophe that was unfolding there. By contrast, it would not be until June that the government and BP would agree with, and then exceed, the 20,000-barrels-per-day estimates that SkyTruth had calculated just one week after the explosion.


SkyTruth is a non-profit organization that John founded to ensure important satellite images like these were available to the public, the media and environmental advocacy organizations.

Before SkyTruth, John worked for 10 years as a consultant for the energy industry. However, his love for the outdoors and his curiosity about how things get the way they are, made him see the deeper meaning in the hundreds of images he analyzed. The environmental impact of things like logging, unchecked wildfires, oil and gas drilling, urban growth and mining for coal and minerals were clearly evident in satellite images. Yet, not enough people were seeing these images to understand the truths they told.

I had the pleasure of chatting with John recently and learned how satellite images tell striking stories about human impact on the environment, and why we should all look at these images to discover what a “normal” environment really looks like.

The Truth-Telling Power of Satellites

Many people (myself included) can recall seeing pictures of the environmental devastation in the blast zone around Mount St. Helens. Thousands of trees, across many acres, lay dead on the ground, stripped of their branches. In John’s words it was like, “someone had dropped a giant box of toothpicks.”

Years later when he was asked to analyze new imagery of the area, the blast zone was still clearly evident. Yet, it was overshadowed by the pervasive checkerboard pattern of clear cutting throughout the rest of the national forest. “When you compared the two,” he said, “the cumulative absolute devastation of the clear cutting was just obviously much greater than this massive act of nature.”

The satellite images showed the impact of human activity. “Those were the pictures,” John explained, “that people needed to see, but they weren’t.”

None of us were seeing images of the Green River Valley in Wyoming either. Images John analyzed when he attended graduate school in the area, showed very little happening. However, the images he looked at 10 years later he told me, “showed a spider web network of roads and gas drilling locations…again, a pervasive destruction of that landscape.”

While he analyzed these images, he saw ads in the local newspaper and on television, claiming that drilling practices were now environmentally friendly and how the impact was much less than it used to be. “Yet,” he said, “I was seeing the opposite.”

Satellites Show What Normal Should Look Like

“The normal we accept now,” in respect to our surrounding neighborhood or environment, “is not at all normal for what the place used to be like 10 years ago.” In many places, to know what an intact ecosystem looked like, you need to travel back in time.

“Satellites,” John explains, “allow you to go back 10, 20, 30, close to 40 years.” Thanks to the imagery gathered by NASA’s Earth Observing System, we can see “how a specific piece of the Earth’s surface has changed over that time span.” This is extremely important when trying to show the impact of things like logging, mining or drilling that can cause progressive changes in landscapes and habitats.

Wherever people are doing things, satellites can get imagery and investigate the impact on the environment. Unlike aerial photography, satellites can look at large chunks of the planet all at once, which enables us to see large landscape changes.

In the case of the BP Oil Spill, which at times has spanned more than 16,000 square miles across the Gulf of Mexico, satellite imaging is critical. When SkyTruth came out at the beginning of this disaster and said the spill was 20 times bigger than officials were saying, they systematically laid out their data, calculations and assumptions. Consequently, they earned people’s trust. Their Gulf Oil Spill Tracker Site is a go-to source for people in the Gulf Coast region to post photos and details about how the oil spill is impacting their beach or area. Those reports then show up on a map with an icon so others can see and read first-hand accounts of the spill’s effects.

“We get a lot of feedback from people,” John explains, “Comments on our blog, Flickr gallery and e-mail out of the blue. People want the visuals. And then they want to know how they can help.” When those visuals come from an objective satellite, they’re hard to refute, unless, of course, they’re never seen. Through SkyTruth, John is determined to get these important messages from space out to as many people as he can. Whether they be images showing the impact of gold mining on the other side of the planet, or the oil spill we’re seeing in our own backyard, their purpose is to educate us all.
Cathy Boyle is a writer, creative director and environmental/wildlife enthusiast with a penchant for gadgets and technology. David Almeida provided technical assistance during the writing of this article. David is a computer engineer with a Master’s of Science degree in remote sensing and is currently earning a PhD in Spatial Information Sciences.