Earth at Night Is Dazzling (And Disturbing)

A view of earth from space at night

NASA/NOAA

Earth from afar when illuminated by the sun is a beautiful ball of blue and white swirls that inspires no shortage of awe. But Earth from afar at night is an entirely different thing; it's an elegant marvel, a black sparkling orb with its own man-made constellations. We know this thanks to the incredible images captured by NASA and NOAA and their handy-dandy Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) onboard the Suomi NPP satellite.

VIIRS can detect light coming from a single ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean or a lone highway lamp in rural North Dakota, explains Popular Science.

The results are actually pretty staggering, not only in their beauty, but in what they tell us about how we're lighting up the planet; and how we're spreading out as well. Comparing images from the 2012 set and the ones here, we can see the inevitable sprawl as populations expand. And while it may look beautiful from space, what is really notable is the incredible amount of light pollution we are creating.

While from the darkness of space we can have a good look at at a glittering Earth, from the brightness of Earth we are losing our ability to see the dark sparkling sky. It's to the point where we have designated areas for stargazing: 19 dark sky parks where the heavens steal the show! See more of the images in this list, including some closer shots showing curiosities (like the Nile, it's wild) and panning out to wider shots showing the bigger picture. Above, Europe and Italy, whose boot looks like a constellation.

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The Whole Shebang

credit: NASA/NOAA

NASA notes that there are many potential uses for the "night lights" images. For instance, "daily nighttime imagery could be used to help monitor unregulated or unreported fishing. It could also contribute to efforts to track sea ice movements and concentrations. Researchers in Puerto Rico are working with nighttime data to reduce light pollution and help protect tropical forests and coastal areas with fragile ecosystems. And a team at the United Nations has already used preliminary versions of [NASA Earth scientist Miguel] Román’s night lights data to monitor the effects of war on electric power and the movement of displaced populations in war-torn Syria."

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United States

credit: NASA/NOAA

In a another, related project, NASA Earth scientist Miguel Román is working with an international group of colleagues to improve global and regional estimates of carbon dioxide emissions. The team at NASA’s Global Modeling and Assimilation Office is combining night lights, urban land use data, and statistical and model projections of anthropogenic emissions in ways that should make estimates of sources much more precise, notes NASA.

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Chicago

credit: NASA/NOAA

Bright lights, big city. “Nothing tells us more about the spread of humans across the Earth than city lights,” says Chris Elvidge, a NOAA scientist who has studied them for 20 years.

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The Nile River

credit: NASA/NOAA

Of course people flock to the river, but given the amount of light it looks like a single, long undulating city.

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India

credit: NASA/NOAA

Where the lights of more than 1.3 billion people are dotted across the country; note how cities like Delhi, Calcutta, Hyderabad and Bangalore shine like bright stars.

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Larger Views

credit: NASA/NOAA

For larger images and much more, visit NASA's Earth Observatory. And in the meantime, a video: