Planet imagery shows a deserted Miami Beach in Florida following COVID-19 closures. © 2020, Planet Labs Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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Journalists Use Satellite Data to Track Pollution, Kim Jong-Un and More During COVID-19 Pandemic

News

Journalists are using satellite imagery to discover and share visual indicators of the COVID-19 pandemic, providing timely information that can help people make better decisions about global issues.

“The first folks that were asking for Planet data were the news media, who were just trying to understand [what’s happening on the ground], especially since they can’t send journalists [out on location] anymore,” said Planet CEO Will Marshall in a video interview with Bloomberg Businessweek’s Hello World.

Here are some examples of how satellite data continues to be used to monitor changes and global events—despite limiting COVID-19 travel and health restrictions.

The Shifting Landscape

BBC, Bloomberg Green, KQED, CNBC, Axios, Forbes, the Financial Times and more used satellite imagery to show how the Earth’s landscape and activities have changed due to the pandemic.

As Planet’s chief technologist and director of research Creon Levit told Wired, Planet can use images to create a kind of “time machine.”

“If we want to know what happened two weeks ago,” Levit says, “We can go look.”

Planet imagery shows the crowded Great Mosque of Mecca, Islam’s holiest site, on January 25, 2020 (left), and again on March 10, 2020 (right), after the nation limited access to the shrine and suspended all entrance and prayers. © 2020, Planet Labs Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Planet imagery shows the crowded Great Mosque of Mecca, Islam’s holiest site, on January 25, 2020 (left), and again on March 10, 2020 (right), after the nation limited access to the shrine and suspended all entrance and prayers. © 2020, Planet Labs Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Planet imagery shows the usually-busy Venice canals in October of 2019 (left) and the nearly empty waterways on March 18, 2020 (right), following Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s call for a countrywide lockdown. © 2020, Planet Labs Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Planet imagery shows the usually-busy Venice canals in October of 2019 (left) and the nearly empty waterways on March 18, 2020 (right), following Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s call for a countrywide lockdown. © 2020, Planet Labs Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Epcot Center in Bay Lake Florida on January 6, 2020 (left) is full of park goers cars. Since COVID-19 safety measures were instated by Walt Disney Co. on March 18, 2020, the lots have continued to be empty (right). © 2020, Planet Labs Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Epcot Center in Bay Lake Florida on January 6, 2020 (left) is full of park goers cars. Since COVID-19 safety measures were instated by Walt Disney Co. on March 18, 2020, the lots have continued to be empty (right). © 2020, Planet Labs Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The typical queue that forms at the entrance to the Colosseum in Italy was absent in this SkySat image from April 6, 2020. Compared to July 5, 2019, traffic on the surrounding streets was greatly reduced. The Colosseum is among the many tourist sites around the world temporarily shut down in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. © 2020, Planet Labs Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The typical queue that forms at the entrance to the Colosseum in Italy was absent in this SkySat image from April 6, 2020. Compared to July 5, 2019, traffic on the surrounding streets was greatly reduced. The Colosseum is among the many tourist sites around the world temporarily shut down in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. © 2020, Planet Labs Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Oil is Barreling into the U.S.

Planet imagery of Saudi Aramco crude oil storage in Ras Tanura, Saudi Arabia. © 2020, Planet Labs Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Planet imagery of Saudi Aramco crude oil storage in Ras Tanura, Saudi Arabia. © 2020, Planet Labs Inc. All Rights Reserved.

While oil prices have fallen in the United States and there’s been a dramatic decrease in demand for oil due to COVID-19, Saudi Arabia has shipped a record amount of 50.4 million barrels across 24 supertankers to America, says Samir Madani of TankerTrackers in a CNBC interview. Planet’s SkySat imagery of tankers near Baniyas, Syria is shown in this broadcast.

“These are very large crude carriers or super tankers,” Madani says. “They have been arriving as of recent, and during May we are going to see a very large boost in imports by the U.S.”

CNBC also reported on energy analysts such as Ursa Space Systems, Kayrros and Orbital Insight—who use satellite data sources to monitor current oil storage capacity and to predict how much we’ll have in the future. In the news story, our imagery of Saudi Aramco crude oil storage at Ras Tunura, Saudi Arabia is shown.

“We’re looking every week using satellite imagery at tanks all over the world,” Ursa Space Systems analyst Geoffrey Craig told CNBC. “What we see in storage matches really well with what you see in seeing price action.”

Catching Up with Kim Jong-Un

Planet imagery, annotated by 38 North, shows the Leadership Railway Station in Wonsan, North Korea on April 23, 2020.

Planet imagery, annotated by 38 North, shows the Leadership Railway Station in Wonsan, North Korea on April 23, 2020.

When North Korean ruler Kim Jong-Un mysteriously vanished a few weeks ago resulting in rumors of his possible death, journalists and expert analysts utilized satellite images to look for changes and patterns that might explain and track Kim’s whereabouts.

Reports by the New York Times and ABC News show Planet imagery of a train station near Kim’s retreat complex in Wonsan, North Korea. 38 North, a website specializing in North Korea studies, analyzed the imagery, discovering that one of Kim’s personal trains was parked nearby, suggesting that he wasn’t dead, but was actually visiting Wonsan.

While investigating Kim, The Drive used satellite imagery to show Kim’s enormous water park barge in Wonsan. There’s continuous work occurring on the 260-foot long barge, according to The Drive, complete with a two-story lounge and twin water slides. NK News investigated the barge using Planet data, showing a series of Planet stories and images in a recent report depicting construction over time.

Pollution Pervades

Some steel mills and power plants remain in operation around Beijing, China during the COVID-19 crisis. © 2020, Planet Labs Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Some steel mills and power plants remain in operation around Beijing, China during the COVID-19 crisis. © 2020, Planet Labs Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Due to closed construction sites and factories related to coronavirus, China has been experiencing its lowest recorded air pollution levels—yet still remains steeped in smog in certain areas of Beijing. The Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) used our imagery in a recent report, which describes how researchers used satellite data to discover that many steel mills and power plants have continued operation near Beijing, causing pollution.

“Planet data helped the Centre shed light on why Beijing experienced serious smog episodes even when much of the country was closed down, and why imports of commodities linked to steel production stayed strong when demand for steel was obviously plummeting,” says Lauri Myllyvirta, one of the Centre’s researchers. “[Satellite imagery] provides us a unique visual perspective. It helps tell a clearer story about the current situation than numbers from industry surveys, even when those are available.”

Our imagery also provided insight into a Luming mine accident in China, where polluted water seeped from a dam. The images were published on the LandSlide blog, run by Dave Petley, the pro-vice-chancellor of research and innovation at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom. The imagery allowed him to determine the pollutant spread and state of the dam in the aftermath.

Planet SkySat image of the aftermath of the Luming Mine accident © 2020, Planet Labs Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Planet SkySat image of the aftermath of the Luming Mine accident © 2020, Planet Labs Inc. All Rights Reserved.

“The image, which is rather beautiful, captures the two tailings dams, which are intact, and the extensive pollution in the valley below the dam,” Petly says.

Our satellites also captured imagery of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant fire in the Ukraine in early April, when smoke plumes filled the air southwest of the power plant and radiation levels spiked 16 times higher than normal—causing big concerns for the health of the fire crews and public.

Planet imagery shows smoke plumes over the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukraine © 2020, Planet Labs Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Planet imagery shows smoke plumes over the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukraine © 2020, Planet Labs Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Journalists! Planet is dedicated to helping reporters investigate important issues, and our tools are designed to do just that. If you haven’t already, sign up for a Planet Explorer account—free for the first two weeks—to unlock the potential for visual and compelling stories.

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