Earth At Night Glows With Lovely And Loathsome Lights

This image of the continental United States at night is a composite assembled from data acquired by the Suomi NPP satellite in April and October 2012. City and highway lights, gas flares, wildfires and a bit of reflected moonlight are visible. Click for a huge version. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory/NOAA NGDC

Wherever we go, our lights go with us. If we were more thoughtful about choosing the right type of lighting fixtures, it wouldn’t be such a problem, but we’re generally not. Photos taken late last year by the Suomi NPP satellite of Earth at night show the human footprint in blazing garlands of twinkling orange lights strung along coastlines, cities and highways.

While the sight is beautiful on one level, it’s a disturbing waste of good energy. Much of the electric lighting seen from space spills upward to brighten the night sky instead of being directed at the ground where it’s needed.

Comparison photos of the Bakken oil fields region in the year 2000 before active drilling and in 2012 with drilling going full bore. The photo at left was made by the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program; at right by Suomi NPP. Click to enlarge. Credit: NOAA, NASA

One of the most glaring examples of new light pollution shows up in the Bakken shale fields of northwestern North Dakota. Although one of the least densely-populated areas of the United States, the region has seen widespread oil-drilling and natural gas production in recent years. Most of the bright dots are lights associated with drilling equipment and temporary housing near drilling sites, but some are natural gas flares.

Closeup satellite image of lighting in the Bakken oil fields of northwestern North Dakota. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory/NOAA NGDC

Storage facilities and pipelines haven’t kept up with production, so the excess is burnt off in flares. This may sound like a bad idea, but it’s better than releasing it directly into the atmosphere. Methane is far nastier than carbon dioxide when it comes to the greenhouse effect.

Well-designed fixtures shield and direct light toward the ground. This example is from Manchester, UK.

While we all know lighting is necessary to carry on with tasks at night like driving home or picking up the kids at school, wisely-designed fixtures that contain the light in a box and direct it downward not only provide ample illumination, they also save energy, reduce glare and minimize light pollution of the night sky we all love.

Full moon on September 30, 2012 over the Persion Gulf. You can see both the lights of cities and highways as well as details of the landscape. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory/NOAA NGDC

Not all Earth lighting seen from orbit is manmade. Moonlight and aurora cast their natural hues across the planet’s skin, too. The Suomi NPP satellite captured a series of pictures showing dramatic changes in illumination of the Persian Gulf region between September 30 and October 15, 2012 when the moon waned from full to new phase.

With the moon at gibbous phase, the difference in lighting is quickly apparent. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory/NOAA NGDC

Notice that as the moon’s phase lessens, the cities become more obvious while the landscape darkens. To see all four panels showing the complete transition from full to new moon, click HERE.

The southern lights swirl over Antarctica in this satellite image taken on July 15, 2012. Look closely and you’ll see details in the ice shelf along the edge of ocean (top) lit up by the aurora. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon

We’ll leave you with the choicest image of all – the aurora austrinus or southern lights, counterpart to the aurora borealis. Suomi NPP captured this image on July 15, 2012 over Antarctica’s Queen Maud Land and the Princess Ragnhild Coast. At the time the continent was shrouded in mid-winter darkness with a waning crescent moon providing very little illumination. LIght from the aurora was bright enough however to reveal icebergs and the coastline.

If you like your skies dark, here are some outdoor lighting tips on reducing light pollution around the house. For more on the issue, I highly recommend a visit to the International Dark-Sky Association’s Frequently Asked Questions.

25 Responses

  1. Giorgio Rizzarelli

    Great pics Bob, thanx for sharing. Like especially the one showing the difference of light on Earth between full and new Moon.

    One question about the flares from oil plant. Let me understand… fossil fuel (oil, methane?) don’t keep up with production (refining? request?) so, to avoid contribution to greenhouse effect, must burn the excess oil? With the current crisis and oil price growing of these years, that seems incredible.

    1. astrobob

      It’s not oil that’s burning – it’s natural gas (methane) that is released during the drilling process. Much of the gas is processed and shipped. The extra is burned off.

      1. Bob Crozier

        Isn’t it mostly the ‘sour gas’ (H2S) that gets burnt off? It is mixed with some natural gas to be sure. I think the flares are kept alight by regular natural gas, but that flame is pretty small. But then when they actually flare up (flare off?), I understood that it is because of sour gas that has been separated out and is being destroyed. H2S is very poisonous even in very small amounts. And so they want it removed from the system and destroyed just as soon as possible.

        1. astrobob

          Hi Bob,
          That may be true about H2S, but in the case of the Bakken shale, they’re burning off excess methane for the reasons I described in the article.

          1. Bob Crozier

            Hmmm…. That seems weird to me. Why wouldn’t they just cap the wellhead and leave the gas in the ground until it was needed? I know that’s what we do in Canada. There are many hundreds (maybe thousands?) of capped (oil and especially natural gas) wells in my country. The drilling is done. They are just sitting there. When they are needed, they will go back and tie them into the exiting infrastructure. Why burn it off just because there is no man-made place to store it? The ground has been storing it for how long now?

          2. Bob Crozier

            Thanks. Interesting article. It is very interesting to me why the Bakken Shale area is burning off 36% (currently, previous high was over 40%) of the total production whereas the US national average for flared off or otherwise not marketed gas is about 1%. To me (and I know nothing about it!), 1% seems pretty reasonable. I wonder why they can’t (or won’t!) just leave it in the ground. I wonder if it is because it is in shale that is being fractured? But if that were the case, then just don’t fracture it until you’re ready to capture it AND produce it. Undoubtedly, I have it way over simplified in my head. But still, something seems more than just a little out of place here. And the worsening reality becomes apparent when the percentages are converted to actual production numbers. The 40% of total production in late 2008 looks to have been approximately 100 million cubic feet PER DAY being flared off or lost. The 36% today looks to be about 175 million cubic feet PER DAY being flared off or otherwise not getting to market. That’s almost double! How much is natural gas worth per cubic foot (or cubic meter) now? No matter how you slice it, that’s a lot of waste: wasted energy, wasted money! How can that be? (Sorry, I had to ask it!)

            Thanks Bob!

          3. astrobob

            Hey Bob,
            I agree. It sounds like a waste, but I’m not knowledgeable on the topic of earthly excess gas burning, only the stellar variety 🙂

  2. Lynn

    Hi Bob
    I was reading an article that someone had wrote about some woman named Denise Chavez-Goforth whoever she is, anyway this woman has claimed that Saturn and Jupiter have suddenly tilted and a series of photos from Soho, but the guy who is writing it is saying that Jupiter is exactly where it should be, so is this just nonsense, as far as I can gather I think she maybe has to do with that Nancy woman, so maybe she is just trying to start a new 2013 doom, but just wanted to check with you, as you will know if it’s just nonsense. Thanks

  3. Lynn

    Thanks Bob, you know after I posted that to you I realised how stupid I had been even asking that as through learning from you I realise we would of known if they were at a tilt, so excuse my stupidity I don’t even know why I questioned that, sorry for that.

  4. Lynn

    Aww thanks Bob, and I did, but you know what it’s like there’s a small niggle and I just wanted to make sure even though I feel daft for asking, and it’s nice to know you are there to ask question’s even though half of them I ask are a load of baloney but I guess we all have to start somewhere 🙂

  5. H.Bob

    The night (black marble) photographs never cease to amaze me. One curiosity, why is it that towards the centre of the country (Kansas, Nebraska, Dakotas) the lights seem to form a perfect geographic pattern of squares. It almost looks like quadrille paper? Are towns that evenly distributed out there?

      1. Richard Keen

        H-Bob, that grid pattern of lights is thanks to Thomas Jefferson, in part. After the Louisiana purchase, most of the territory was laid out on a “township-range” grid of, I think, 6-mile squares. So properties were squares, and the roads between them were on the grid. Then the main E-W roads (US36, US40, etc.) and their N-S partners followed a “super grid”, and towns grew along these, along with counties. Without rivers, valleys, coasts, etc. to guide development, growth occurs along transport grids.
        BTW, the first gridded settlement in the US was Philadelphia, laid out by Bill Penn in the 1600s. Washington DC was planned by a Frenchman, L’Enfant, who chose a radial pattern (like Paris) superimposed on a grid. Boston’s streets simply were not planned, grid or otherwise.
        But back to the lights….
        Way back in ’79 while driving from Boulder, CO, to Williston, ND, for the solar eclipse, my 66 Plymouth died – electrical failure – along a 60-mile stretch between the nearest towns. It was about 10 below (late February), with diamond dust sparkling in the headlights before the headlights went out. It was pitch black outside (the moon was approaching new, of course) except for some small green curtains of aurora to the north – towards Williston.
        I wonder how dark those skies would be now.
        Within minutes a local stopped, and with a slight Norwegian accent offered a ride to Watford City or somewhere. Of course, I took him up on that, returned with a service station owner to the Plymouth the next morning, replaced the distributor cable, and ambled on up to Williston. A day later the eclipse darkened the clear skies from our location on the center line, up near the northern edge of that grid of brilliant gas flares around Williston. I recall seeing only one gas well during that trip, and wondering if there was really enough oil there to justify it!
        Did any one else online here go to that eclipse? It came within a day’s drive of Duluth.

        1. astrobob

          Really interesting Richard – thank you for the explanation. By the way, I first saw Duluth in ’79 en route to Lake Winnipeg for the eclipse. It was seeing the city on that trip that inspired me to find a job here.

          1. Richard Keen

            Bob, so your first sighting of Duluth was in February? You must have been impressed by the ice – ’79 was one of those rare years when all the lakes froze over.
            And how was the eclipse on Lake Winnipeg, also frozen?
            That was a famously cold winter – a few hours after the eclipse in Williston, the temperature went above freezing for the first time in 2 or 3 months.

          2. astrobob

            Yes, we had mostly clear skies – just a little cirrus – on frozen L. Winnipeg that day. It was my first total solar eclipse. I went alone but ran into a friendly group of amateur astronomers from N. Minn. on the lake. Very enjoyable day with little wind and bright sunshine, except for those few precious minutes.

        2. H.Bob

          Yes thank you for that explanation Richard, I was wondering if the grid was some kind of optical illusion or whether things had been laid out that way.

          On light pollution, I wonder how far away bright lights (of a town or city) need to be in order to give good dark skies. This is considering how quickly light trails off. I live forty miles outside of London (UK) in a relatively rural area, and surprisingly, the night skies can be relatively good. There must be some kind of scale / gradation of how much of the sky you can see compared to how close you are to a light centre.

          1. astrobob

            H. Bob,
            I find it depends on the size of the city and sometimes on much more local things like having a shopping center near your house. Here in Duluth, Minn. the south-southwestern sky 10 miles north of town shows significant light pollution, but the northern half of the sky is very dark. 20 miles to the north of town the southern sky is much better, but the city’s light dome still reaches up to 20-25 degrees. You can know how dark your sky by determining the faintest star visible with the naked eye. The limit’s about mag. 4.5 in suburban, moderately light-polluted suburban skies. Rural, truly dark allow you to get to about mag. 6-6.5. I’ve heard of a few people with great eyesight under exceptional conditions with no light pollution go a little fainter than that. I did a blog about the topic using stars in the Little Dipper. You might find it helpful:

  6. H.Bob

    Excellent info Bob. Never thought of that, checking which stars of different brightness I can see. Once I get a clear night I will do that. It’s quite useful because I have been considering driving to a hill 25 minutes away is even further away from lights, but I have wondered whether it would make a difference. Now when I do that I will have some objective comparison. As yet I don’t have a telescope (at least not a proper one) but even for simply looking it’s good to know these things.

    BTW that Stellarium software you use looks great. I checked their website and it’s impressive that it’s available as open source. The visualisations you produce in this blog are stunning, and so helpful for understanding the commentary.

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