What the amazing NASA night video says about politics, the environment and borders

December 6, 2012

The striking new "black marble" video released by NASA and the NOAA offers a rare look at mankind's activity at night. 

Using images taken with a high-resolution sensor aboard a satellite that orbits 500 miles above the Earth, scientists were able to depict the world after dark with unprecedented clarity.

"It's very high-quality data," NOAA scientist Christopher Elvidge told reporters at the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco. "I rate it six times better spatial resolution."

The camera pans over the lit-up, boot-like Italy and the usual urban hot spots such as Manhattan. But the video also showcases a few interesting geopolitical tensions and environmental issues around the world:

North Korea

First, there's the stark contrast between North and South Korea: the South burns brightly while the North remains dark, owing in part to the severe energy shortages there. By some estimates, all of North Korea consumes about 10.4 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity per year, which is less than the amount used in the city of Washington. Its electrical grid is so rundown that one-quarter of the power generated is lost in transmission, energy expert David von Hippel told National Geographic. (Although the image of the two Koreas is often used as an indictment of North Korea's backward regime, it's also worth noting that other areas around the world are also largely dark at night, such as large swathes of the U.S. Midwest.)

The tension between North Korea and South Korea also reveals itself in the sharp-edged blob the video shows in the Yellow Sea, as a line of fishing boats lines up on the maritime border between the two. Earlier this year, a group of six or seven North Korean fishing boats briefly crossed the boundary and quickly retreated after a South Korean patrol boat broadcast a warning message.

Screenshot: NASA. Fishing boats in the Yellow Sea.
Screenshot: NASA & NOAA. Fishing boats in the Yellow Sea.

Australia

The few bursts of light in Australia aren't lights at all, but rather wildfires that flare up there periodically. 

Currently, there are fears that a bushfire could threaten the summer tourist destination of Bremer Bay, while authorities are fighting another fire in a national park near Augusta in Western Australia with water bombs. The same satellite found another image of wildfires blazing in northern Australia by using a “day-night band” -- the brightest parts of the fire are white, and the smoke is light gray. 


Screenshot: NASA & NOAA. Wildfires in Australia

Middle East:

In the video, the Middle East is pockmarked with large gas flares, a byproduct of oil production. So-called "flaring" occurs when oil extractors burn off the natural gas that's associated with extracting crude oil, rather than capturing it.

The process releases harmful gasses into the environment but is still common in the region. Subsidies, sanctions and weak environmental regulations contribute to the problem as companies lack the incentives to strengthen infrastructure. One study found that Middle East oil and gas producers pumped 87 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in 2008 by burning 34.6 billion cubic meters of gas.

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Olga Khazan | December 6, 2012