The Use of Satellite Imagery in Visualizing and Monitoring Ecological Violence in the Russia-Ukraine War

Satellite imagery has been critical in documenting the environmental destruction of the Russia-Ukraine war in 2022–2023: burned forests and fields, polluted rivers and soils, and flooded villages, as captured by high-resolution imagery or open-source satellite data. Remote sensing and satellite imagery are frequently used as objective, unbiased sources to document, assess, monitor, and verify environmental harm, as well as advocate for environmental protection in conflict situations. While mapping and monitoring environmental damage in times of violent conflict has incredible potential, it also has the risk of advancing various political and military objectives, intensifying existing and limited imaginaries of how sustainable futures may look like, in addition to zooming out on the human and social costs of environmental harm.

The exponential growth in the use and accessibility of satellite imagery necessitates a critical analysis of the potentials and pitfalls of remote visualization and mapping methods in documenting the environmental costs of conflicts and war. In light of this pressing need, this Seed project has two goals:

  1. to explore how various actors and institutions use satellite imagery
  2. to critically examine the possibilities and limitations of these visualization methods.  

The team will ask what kinds of political, ethical, and methodological concerns arise with the use of satellite imagery, and how do these new ways of seeing and documenting environmental harms add to our understanding of ecological violence?

The proposed research will address this question by focusing on the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, one of the first intensively mapped wars in which environmental concerns are increasingly playing an important role in the public debate. The project team will specifically study the possibilities and limitations of these visualizations through a focus on specifically Dutch organizations and state institutions. They will collaborate with PAX, a Dutch NGO very active and experienced with the use of satellite imagery in the context of the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

This research project is important for stakeholders because it provides a better understanding of the potentials and limitations of satellite imagery in capturing environmental harm: how these visualizations are created, what underlying assumptions are built into the technology, and how corporate, political, and military paradigms and interests may shape the ethical and social ramifications of using the technology in the everyday monitoring of war and environment. This project will deliver empirical findings for one assessment report, one workshop, and one co-authored academic article.