“The bucketheads are here,” Jeff Holmes radioed back to his camp in Grand Bayou Village, a totally bizarre and charming outcropping of homes built on salt marshes that Holmes is worried will disintegrate under a thin but suffocating blanket of oil that is creeping up the bayou. That is, in part, why he has volunteered to take us out to film the bay as part of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade’s Grassroots Mapping Project, which is helping citizens use balloons, kites, and other simple and inexpensive tools to produce their own aerial imagery of the spill (which is then pieced together by GIS experts at MIT and in San Francisco). We stepped onboard his flatboat and made our way out to Bay Baptiste.
This is a red state with a lot of blue problems and Capt. Holmes has the self-sufficiency and paradoxical politics common down here in Louisiana. He built his getaway in Grand Bayou Village (pictured below), which essentially floats on salt marsh mud, using salvaged materials. He voted Obama but likes a lot of what Palin says. He wants to see more renewable energy. He forgot his pistol on our trip. He chain smokes and eats off the land. He loves Louisiana and the bayou. Seeing it through his eyes, it was impossible not to. He was also the only one of us willing to suck helium off the balloon for the sake of a laugh.
Holmes and others are worried about the effects of the spill on the salt marshes. From an abstract of a 2004 paper* on the effects of the Spanish oil spill on salt marsh soils, “oil pollution altered both chemical and physical soil properties, aggregating soil particles in plaques, lowering porosity, and increasing resistance to penetration and hydrophobicity.” The wetlands in the Mississippi River Delta already had it rough due to oil development in the area and pollution from upstream. Katrina didn’t help, either. Wetlands in the region have been receding by about 24 square miles a year and this makes Holmes and others on the bayou terrified for the wildlife, the fishing, and their homes.
But why bother mapping it? There are many reasons, as Kris Ansin, an MPH student at Tulane who is helping coordinate the mapping effort, pointed out. The imagery has finer resolution than even classified satellites, although many groups are doing aerial photography that will be used in litigation. The project is also a way of decentralizing the mapping process, of empowering communities/citizens to work together to produce their own images and to give them the skills to do it anytime, anywhere. You can use a kite or a balloon (the availability of helium can impede the balloon’s use) and a pretty basic camera secured in the top of a two liter soda bottle. We trained earlier this week outside the New Orleans Art Museum with a kite but wound up using a balloon on the bayou because there was little wind. I look forward to sharing the map from our trip, which should take a few weeks to process (in the meantime, check out our grassroots mapping set on Flickr). With very little funding, the project has supported about 50 mapping trips (see some of the data here). They have a gallery of neat images on Flickr, too.
Ansin was also in the GIS course that was setting up an Ushahidi platform (meaning ‘testimony’ in Swahili; it was first designed to map incidents of violence in Kenya, after the election fall out in 2008 and I wonder if it would be a good way to track llegal fishing reports on the high seas or elsewhere) where citizens could report oil accidents to the LA Bucket Brigade. Although the map was meant to track refinery incidents, it went live the same day the Deepwater Horizong platform exploded.
*Andrade et al. Effect of the Prestige Oil Spill on Salt Marsh Soils on the Coast of Galicia (Northwestern Spain) Journal of Environmental Quality 33:2103-2110 (2004).