Digital Earth and Social-Environmental Justice

Summer 2008 Volume 23 No. 2

Thanks to Myrna Yoo, NextNow member, collaborator with NNC on ISDE5 and Publisher of Imaging Notes, tonight’s post is an advance online posting of “Earth Scope,” Tim Foresman’s column in the Summer issue.

The column references what for me was one of the most emotional presentations during ISDE5 on mountaintop mining in the Appalachian Mountains, and on how digital earth technologies create shifts in awareness, facilitate collaboration and fortify communities pursuing social-environmental transformation.

Also check out The International Journal of Digital Earth, concerned with a wide range of interests, but the principal topics are: Digital Earth Framework, Digital Earth Applications, Digital Earth Architecture and Standards, Digital Earth and Earth System, Geoinformatics, Geo-spatial Science, Mobile Mapping System, Visualization and Numerical Simulation, Visible and Microwave Earth Observation, Data Fusion and Integration Algorithm, Data Mining and Artificial Intelligence, Data Processing, Earth System and Global Databases, Remote Sensing – GIS – GPS, Global Environmental Change, Discrete Global Grids. Click here for full aims and scopes.

ARTICLE:  Appalachian Voices and Satellite Eyes:  Winning Tools for Social-Environmental Justice

If you aren’t tuned in to the spectacular mass decapitation of 470 summits along the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky, you are really missing out on one of the most dramatic changes in the American landscape . The coal industry has determined that this action is necessary to access the underlying coal.  Unfortunately, accompanying this shearing off of the rough mountainous topography are the fantastic losses of endemic and remnant ecosystems that have survived along these rugged terrains since long before the arrival of European settlers. And to add further injury to insult and injury, the mountain top mass is shoveled into the mountain drainage ravines and stream beds. Since 1985, according to scientists investigating this social-ecological blitzkrieg, 1200 miles of streams have been irreparably harmed, inflicting excessive pollution from waterborne toxins impacting both human and environmental health (EPA, 2003). Not since Manhattan was paved over to create New York City has an American landscape shifted so radically, but this devastation has occurred in a much shorter period of time. The image of a single mountain top removal area at the West Virginia Hobet Mine Complex transposed as a red overlay over N.Y.C. provides a hint at the aerial magnitude of the coal industries’ ecological footprint.

This red area is the actual size of the Hobet Mine Complex, overlaid on a satellite image of New York City to show the magnitude.

A Cry In The Wilderness

Appalachian Voices ( is an organization whose members are crying in the wilderness – real Americans with real concerns about the rampant destruction by the coal industry of their treasured natural resources and their impacted communities. This David-versus-Goliath challenge has been blessed with the advent of remote sensing and its prowess on the Internet with Google Earth visualization platforms, where it is a layer within Global Awareness on all versions of Google Earth. The sling that is rocking the coal industry is the audacity of the puny locals to use satellite imagery of the landscape desecration to stir up the affected population. “In the beginning, we used to take people up in airplanes to show them what is going on just over the next ridge,” says Mary Anne Hitt, Appalachian Voices founder. “People were shocked at the magnitude. But now, we simply use satellites, remote sensing, and virtual globes to get the message out and let our neighbors view these ravaged mountains. The proof is in the image. A 3-D view has really transformed this issue and that wakes people right up. This is one of the most powerful tools ever for our effort.” This visualized villainy of the Appalachian landscape has raised a clarion call to action as area residents see one mountain top after another sliced off to quench the country’s insatiable appetite for coal in the generation of electricity. Appalachian Voices and increasing numbers of collaborating groups and individuals have banded together to find solace and strength in their common cause for sanity while working to define a sustainable path for the future.

This diagram shows the clear link between poverty and strip mining in the area.

Making the Connections

Environmental justice and a host of social-economic-environmental issues are intertwined with the Mountain-Top Removal (MTR) saga. When we turn on the lights in McLean, Virginia, we are supporting the coal industry pipeline and providing the finances for MTR. “We show people how they are connected to MTR,” explains Mary Anne Hitt. “Using the virtual globe technologies, we can show the connection of mining operations to the delivery of electricity into people’s homes.” And assessing the links to social-economics for these areas being bulldozed over is another requirement to ensure environmental justice to the poorest of our citizens.

The energy deciders held secret meetings in the White House from 2001 and launched a new set of liberal policies for MTR. Whether they will ever have to explain their actions to the citizens of ravaged landscapes is a political question (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2008). But it is increasingly important that all citizens become educated as to the direct and indirect impacts that MTR is having throughout the Appalachians. It is everyone’s business to become concerned with the connections we all have to the policies and lifestyles that result in the horrific desecration of our precious natural resources.

Remote Sensing Contributions

Appalachian Voices does not have a staff of scientists with expertise in remote sensing, landscape ecology, or other critical disciplines that are needed in the MTR drama. What better class project or Master’s thesis could there be than to focus on one of the many areas that have been destroyed, or better yet, to pre-position the imagery and environmental analysis to head off further losses? Hitt points out, “We are going to be doing a lot of looking at mountains that are standing but threatened. We need modelers to help us look at the spread of MTR and modelers to study the extent of pollution along rivers and communities. We are working with Sky Truth and would certainly welcome help from the remote sensing community.”

This red area is the actual size of the Hobet Mine Complex, overlaid on a satellite image of New York City to show the magnitude.

John Amos’ team at Sky Truth (, led by Dr. David J. Campagna (Adjunct Professor in West Virginia University’s Remote Sensing Lab in the Department of Geology and Geography), has been a pioneering partner in helping Hitt and her colleagues assess and communicate the disturbing images of mountain destruction.  “We are working to determine and map the areas most likely to be mined in the near
future,” explains Amos. “We are launching the Web-based Adopt-A-Mountain tool to enable average citizens to help us with ground-truth and field verification prior to the destruction,” he adds, “and are looking for talented GIS and remote sensing professionals.”

It would appear that these true heroes of America’s landscape could use a lot of help. It seems patently unfair to place the continued battle against MTR on their shoulders alone. I wonder what our talented and capable remote sensing community can do to help this chorus of Appalachian Voices.

Timothy W. Foresman, Ph.D., is President of the International Centre for Remote Sensing Education. He
has been director of United Nations Environment Programme’s Division of Early Warning and Assessment (Nairobi, Kenya) and national program manager for NASA’s Digital Earth (Washington, D.C.). He is editor of The History of Geographic Information Systems, 1998, Prentice Hall. Dr. Foresman was the Director-General for the 5th International Symposium on Digital Earth ( and is author of the children’s book, The Last Little Polar Bear:  A Global Change Adventure Story.


EPA, 2003.  Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement on Mountaintop Mining.  III.K-47.May 2003

Union of Concerned Scientists, 2008.  Mining Agency Buries Streams and Science.