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Home / World / Background story: Using satellites to count buildings in the South China Sea

Background story: Using satellites to count buildings in the South China Sea



HONG KONG – Wrapped in Chinese military secrecy and hidden from the eyes of journalists, Beijing's construction of artificial islands on reefs deep in the maritime heart of Southeast Asia is an annoying story.

FILE PHOTO: Chinese structures are pictured in the Subi Reef at the disputed South China Sea on April 21
, 2017. REUTERS / Erik De Castro / archival photo

Reuters deputy graphic chief Simon Scarr, based in Singapore, had previously negotiated with private satellite imagers, but always felt that more could be done within the highly competitive field.

Late last year, Scarr wondered in a conversation with Earthrise Media, an independent group that assists journalists in acquiring and analyzing satellite data, on whether it would be possible to build buildings on China's seven man-made islands in the Spratly archipelago of the hotly-contested South to count China sea.

For a period of six weeks, Earthrise studied hundreds of images dating back to 2014, when China began building these islands quickly. Reuters journalists reviewed the data with a series of military and academic contacts.

On a spreadsheet that confirmed extensive construction work on the South China Sea, a number stood out: The Subi reef housed nearly 400 buildings, more than expected and almost twice as many as on similar islands.

"It was great to have data, and it really helped to build the site with images and information from other sources," Scarr said.

Subi information helped journalists in Hong Kong, Beijing, and Sydney explore the story that would anchor the package on the islands.

For a multimedia package on the data, please click on [http://wwwtmsnrtrscom/2J3cWne

There was also an insight into possible Chinese intentions for military bases on islands that Beijing had once described as predominantly civil. The buildings in Subi, along with extensive facilities at the Fiery Cross and Mischief reefs, seemed to fit in with the military bases in China and could accommodate up to 2,400 people.

Subi is the largest of China's seven man-made outposts in the Spratlys. The so-called "Big Three" of Subi, Mischief and Fiery Cross reefs all have similar infrastructure – including rocket positions, 3km of runways, extensive storage facilities and a range of installations that can track satellites, foreign military activities and communications.

Determined to use the package to test their innovations, a Reuters RTV team went to the coast of Hong Kong to shoot footage that was to be overlaid with animations to illustrate the development.

"It was one of the most lavish things we did," said senior producer Ryan Brooks.

Reporting by Greg Torode; Arrangement by Lauren Young


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