Helping The Environment Recover With Data Science

 After the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, a question that came up frequently was – how long would it be before the environment recovered? This was a concern both for the ocean surrounding the spill area as well as the marshes and beaches inland where the oil washed up.

Not all spills are as bad as the Deepwater Horizon one – but a concern that comes up repeatedly when anything needs to be extracted from the Earth is – what is the impact on the local environment and how long will it take for it to recover or at least return to a state as close to the original one as possible?This is true whether it’s minerals being extracted or gold or oil and natural gas.

The recovery of land after oil and gas wells have been drilled is a question that has been studied for quite a while now. In general, most of the work has looked at individual sites and evaluated how they are doing after the extraction is complete and the system has been shut down, but there are very few studies that have been able to look at what’s happening at a larger spatial scale.

Enter satellite data, machine learning and all the lovely new tools that data science brings. A study recently completed by US Geological Survey (USGS) used satellite data to understand what was happening at abandoned oil and gas sites in the arid US Southwest. The scientists used data from NASA’s Landsat satellite to develop an index that measured the vegetation adjusted for the soil and compared areas with similar soils, topography and geology. They then used a statistical algorithm to identify the sites that were recovering at a slower pace than the others and tried to isolate the factors that could be causing the slow recovery.

What’s fascinating about this type of work is that it isn’t something that springs to mind when you think about cleantech. However, helping the environment recover is very much a “green” endeavor. And companies do it for multiple reasons – not just because environmental recovery and cleanup are mandated by governments around the world. It helps companies improve their sustainability bottom line, it’s good for building relationships with the community where the work is taking place and most of all it helps to attract talent that wants to do good as well as earn money. Chevron, BP, Saudi Aramco, Shell – all the major players in the oil and gas industry also have jobs where the focus is entirely on helping the environment recover.

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