Earth at night

NASA has released what it’s calling the clearest view ever achieved of the earth at night.

NASA calls it “the Black Marble”. It comes from the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) instrument on the Suomi National Polar-orbiting satellite. The space agency says it can remove stray light and get better look at the imprint made by human activity.

You are here (probably).

For reference, Duluth is upper right in the above photo. Sioux City is lower left. Rochester lower right (I think).

Do you see much difference compared to 2012, the last time NASA provided an image like this? Me neither.

NASA says it’s possible to detect the light of just one building now.

Heavily pixelated, but check out the Oil Patch 2016…

…vs. the Oil Patch of 2012.

You can find all of the images here. If you find some areas of interesting comparison, go ahead and upload them in the comments section below.

  • KTFoley

    Would not have expected to see the band of light that appears to be India’s northern border running from Bangladesh to Nepal to Pakistan.

    • Jerry

      Looks like the line of the Grand Trunk Road which includes Delhi and Lahore. Probably home to hundreds of millions.

  • dschille
  • Mike Worcester

    I’m reasonably certain that is Des Moines in the far lower right. Rochester is closer to the mid-right.

    • Yes, i believe you’re right.

    • Will

      Actually, I think that’s Waterloo since it’s south and east of the dual cities of Clear Lake & Mason City (which are directly south of the Twin Cities).

      You are correct on Rochester.

    • Neil

      I think it’s waterloo on lower right. On US 20.

  • John

    There appears to be less light bleed between pixels when you compare 2012 to 2016. It’s most evident two me while looking at the first two images – where the twin cities and Duluth both look smaller four years later. I doubt either has shrunken in size, or had a significant reduction in lighting.

    Inverting the color on one of the pictures and then overlaying it with a semi-transparent version of the other one would probably highlight the differences, but I don’t have the skills or software to make it happen.

    • That explanation, perhaps, would be consistent with NASA’s note about eliminating stray lighting.

      • John

        yup, it would. I wonder if there’s a point though. It’s a better picture. . . okay. What does it tell us about the world that we didn’t figure out in 2012?

        In other words – what do we do with this new, refined, information?

  • John

    I wonder why the oil patch lights have direction to them (i.e. they’re oblong, always east-west), while the cities are always roughly round. (I understand why the city lights look round – I don’t understand what drives the shape of the oil patch lighting)

    edit: maybe that’s just the pixellation of the oil patch pictures – distorted in that direction more than the north/south axis.

    • Ben Chorn

      In the central part of the basin the wells are done as “pads” where a rig will drill a well horizontally, move over a few feet, then drill another. The wellheads thus line up, which is where they put the tanks, flares, etc. The lights you’re seeing is all the gas being flared.

      I’ll attach a screen shot of the penninsula near New Town (just north and west of the center of the NoDak photo) from the Oil and Gas commission website. You can see the well heads/where they were drilled (the dots) all line up. The lines are the laterals (horizontal) parts of the wells.

      The website to view for yourself:

      • John


        I got a chance to visit a horizontal drilling site a few years ago for work. It was in Oklahoma, and at least in the area I was visiting, they weren’t doing multiple horizontal wells – drilling one and then fracking like crazy. Different geology down there maybe? Actually, probably, since they’ve been drilling OK for many years, and ND is relatively new.

        Thanks for the info!

  • Jerry

    You’re right. That’s Hanoi on the upper left with Hong Kong on the upper right and the island of Hainan being the circle in the middle.

  • Jim in RF

    Now about that map projection that they chose…

  • John

    Okay . . one last thought and then back to work.

    MN has remarkably evenly distributed cities/towns. I think it’s reasonably safe to assume that the points of light on the map are towns. They look to almost always be the same distance apart.

    If you know which roads are freeways, you can see the difference between a freeway and a less traveled route as well. The freeways have brighter lights on them (I’m assuming more people on those routes). now . . . the bigger question – did the population centers drive the freeway creation, or did the freeway tend to go through more populous areas?

    • Bob Sinclair

      Actually it was the railroads that created the “population centers” back in the 19th century. Early roads tended to follow the railroads as the right of way was usually available. You can still see evidence of that when looking at the US numbered highways. Freeways more often bypassed the “population center”. However, since freeways were now where the business was (and therefore the light pollution that go with those businesses) those are the areas that reflect the most light.

  • Jerry

    When I read this, my first thought was to wonder how there could possibly have been a single night to get such a clear picture, with so few clouds in the way. My next idea was that, just maybe, most of the clouds in the world happened to be over oceans on that night. I suppose that could happen at some strange moment in history. However, in retrospect, I don’t think we’ve ever had a night that was this *dark* everywhere at once. (Or this visible from a single satellite, for that matter.) 🙂

    • DavidG

      Composite image.

      From the NASA site: “The compositing technique selected the best cloud-free nights in each month over each land mass.”