Oil Spill Causes Shipping Backup in Gulf of Mexico

The 168,000-gallon fuel oil spill that happened Saturday near Galveston, Texas caused the Coast Guard to temporarily close the Houston Ship Channel.  That’s a very busy, narrow waterway connecting the Port of Houston with the Gulf of Mexico and overseas ports.  In addition to the environmental consequences of this heavy oil spill, including the threat to shorebirds at the peak of their spring migration, this closure has caused a big-time backup of shipping traffic.

Here at SkyTruth we track vessels with satellite imagery, and also with other satellite-collected data.  Here’s a view of the situation using satellite Automated Information System (AIS) data, radio-frequency tracking information that vessels continually broadcast so they can avoid running into each other at sea:

AIS map on March 24, 2014 showing ship traffic backed up as a result of an oil spill in the Houston Ship Channel. Colored triangles mark the locations of vessels of different types. Port of Houston is at upper left. Image Credit © exactEarth
Detail from above, showing large offshore holding area where dozens of cargo ships and tankers lie at anchor, awaiting clearance to enter the ship channel (marked by dashed pink line). Image Credit © exactEarth

This shows a large “waiting room” in the Gulf just outside the entrance to the channel where dozens of vessels — mostly oil tankers and cargo ships — are anchored, waiting for clearance to proceed into port.  There are also quite a few vessels bottled up in port, waiting to get out, including a few large cruise ships.

You can see some of the AIS data yourself, and query individual vessels, at the cool Marine Traffic ship-tracking site.

Fatal Landslide in Washington State

Sad news from Washington State this weekend, after a major landslide killed several people near the town of Oso. We’re hoping the missing are soon accounted for and are alive and well.

Geologically speaking, landslides are commonplace throughout the Pacific Northwest which mostly sits on a thick pile of unstable layers of volcanic ash, tuff, and debris flows that are regularly shaken by earthquakes.

But when we looked at imagery of this area, we were a bit surprised there were clear warning signs:  this same area has slid before, quite dramatically, just a few years ago in January 2006. That 2006 slide temporarily dammed the river and posed a serious threat of flooding, just like this weekend’s tragic repeat.  Looking at this time-series of high resolution aerial images in Google Earth, and the low-altitude air photo of the slide, it seems clear that this is dangerous terrain to build around. But as they say, hindsight is 20-20:

 

Site of fatal landslide as it looked in 2005. Steelhead Drive, where several homes were hit by the flow of mud and rock, is marked for comparison to this annotated air photo of the slide area.

 

Same area in 2006, after a slide that occurred in January 2006. Bright area is bare rock and soil exposed by the slide, which temporarily dammed the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River.

 

Same area in 2007. Vegetation is beginning to cover the landslide debris, and the river is adjusting to the new channel.  Hydraulic pressure from the river is maximized along the outside edge of a meander bend, tending to undercut the landslide debris on the north bank of the river.

 

Same area in 2013. New growth covers most of the 2006 landslide, but the headwall escarpment (bright area of bare rock) remains unstabilized and prone to failure.

It’s Better Together – Host a FrackFinder Event to Help Map Fracking

As you may know, we’ve been working on Project FrackFinder–a multi-phase effort to map drilling and hydraulic fracturing using collaborative image analysis by citizen scientists like you. 

Not sure you want to sort through FrackFinder tasks on your own? Enlist some friends and host a FrackFinder-A-Thon! On February 28th, the Shepherd University Environmental Organization participated in the first ever FrackFinder-A-Thon.  They threw a pizza party and in only 2.5 hours, 15 people powered through 10,000 tasks!  
 

The following week, a group of University of San Francisco students were visiting Appalachia on a spring break immersion trip.  These Bay area students spent the day with us, FrackFinding and learning about skytruthing mining, drilling and other extractive industries.  Take a listen to this WV Public Radio piece to learn more about their experience.

California Students Learn About Natural Gas, Coal Industries

We need your help to finish the last 14% of tasks for Project Dart Frog. The sooner we do, the sooner Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School can start crunching numbers on their study of public health as it relates to fracking. Over 200 folks have contributed to the FrackFinder project so far, but we still need your help to keep things moving.

Need help in figuring out how to host your own FrackFinder-A-Thon at your school or in your community?  Let us know– kristy@skytruth.org!  We’d love to help you set one up.

Once Project Dart Frog concludes, we’ll embark on a new phase of group image analysis based upon YOUR findings.