I won’t say I’m an expert in interpreting overhead photos, but a decade or so ago, I needed to find some trash burial pits at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The story was that they contained explosive. That was improbable on the face of it, if you knew how explosives engineers think, but that’s another long story…
So how do you find where stuff was buried several decades earlier, and the vegetation has pretty much returned to normal?
I had a bright young man, Paul Pope, working for me. Let’s take all the data, he said, and overlay it. Let’s use infrared photography to detect differences in surface temperature that might come from water pooling in those pits or from large buried metal objects, like bomb casings, that were supposed to be buried there too. Let’s take the historical aerial photos and everything else we can get and overlay them all. Visual photos that seemed to show partial vegetation patterns. Multispectral imaging from helpful friends in Nevada who wanted to try out their planeful of stuff. Satellite photos if we could get them.
To do that, of course, all the photos would have to be at the same scale and taken from the same angle, preferably directly overhead. Some of the historical photos, in particular, had been taken at quite oblique angles of the area we wanted to look at, from low-flying planes.
Paul programmed a geometric transformation that would revise those oblique photos. The pixel information was stretched or compressed to represent the areas as they would look from overhead.
All the data together pretty well delineated the disposal pits. They did seem to have some big pieces of metal in them, and places where water may have been pooling. I suspect they haven’t been dug up, so we don’t have ground truth yet. But the overlaid data clarified and reinforced what was vague in each individual photo.
That was twelve years ago. Google has applied something like Paul’s transformations to give a realistic look to their “fly-throughs” on Google Earth. When they introduced that feature, one look at the shadows told me that they were just transforming the overheads. Fun, but no more information than in the overheads.
If Google can do that, then it is hard to believe that NSA and CIA haven’t improved on Paul’s work.
Photos of Al Kibar
Moon of Alabama has very kindly pulled the photos that I really wanted to study. I enlarged them to page size and printed them, one to a page, so that I could orient the pages relative to each other. In the video, the overheads are presented in various orientations, angles, and scales. This makes them hard to interpret. Paul’s software would have needed only a few clicks and drags to line them up and scale them, so I have to wonder why they weren’t lined up in this way.
What I wanted to see was landmarks to show 1) that it was the same site and building in all the photos; 2) the differences and lack thereof after the bombing and through the clearing of the site by the Syrians; 3) anything odd or unexpected that showed up; and 4) if the photos appeared to show what the narration in the video claimed they show.
I’m going to start with four photos: the ISIS overhead photo from August 10, 2007; the east-oriented oblique photo at remaining time 11:39 in the video; the closeup at remaining time 11:26; and the photo in which the location of a buried water tank is indicated, remaining time 7:07. (You can click on the photos here to enlarge them, or you can go to Moon of Alabama.)
The ISIS photo is a straightforward overhead shot, probably from a satellite, but the other three are oblique and possibly from a much lower altitude. As b notes, the 11:39 photo is taken facing east, 90 degrees from the orientation of the ISIS photo. When you are looking directly down, as in the ISIS photo, you cannot see the sides of the building, but you can from an oblique shot. In the 11:26 photo, b notes that the features on the side of the building appear to be much sharper than the rest of the photo. I’m not a Photoshop expert, so it might be helpful for someone who is to check this out.
If you can transform an oblique photo look like an overhead photo, you can do the opposite. When you “tilt” a photo this way, perspective insists that objects in the foreground become larger, and those further away become smaller. Since the overhead provides equal numbers of pixels for both, as objects in the foreground become bigger they become blurrier, while objects further back become sharper.
The tilt in the 11:39 photo is not a lot, but the lower (foreground) part of the photo is noticeably blurrier than the rest, particularly the bluff on the left.
If the 11:39 and 11:26 photos are indeed transformations of an overhead shot, it would be necessary to supply the side view of the building, which would not be available from the overhead, which could be why the side of the building looks sharper, as b observed.
These two photos are not transformations of the ISIS photo (compare the shadows), but surely the CIA has other satellite photos that could have been transformed in this way.
The 7:07 photo displays the foreground blurring much more significantly, and it is at a more oblique angle from the overhead. Also, compare the shadows on the left side of the building with those in the 11:26 photo. They are identical. (What’s that white spot?) The 7:07 photo has a light “shadow” around the right side and front of the building, which may be a concrete pad. It appears that the angle of the 11:26 photo would obscure this light “shadow.” Again, the sides of the building appear to be sharper than the rest of the photo.
Infrared photography of the type we did of our waste pits would show the location of the buried water tank. As for b’s question as to why one would bury a water tank, it seems to me to be a toss-up.
All three of these photos look to me like they are transformed versions of a single overhead photo, probably a satellite photo.
I hope to be able to take a closer look at some of the other photos. They don’t appear to have this overhead-oblique transformation applied, and the issues with them are different.