As new crises erupt around the world and old conflicts smolder, the images that emerge are usually taken by photographers on the ground. But there is another perspective: the view from space. Satellite images can be an accurate and fast way to analyze situations in countries where international aid workers or observers are unable to operate. They can also show dramatic change — such as in places like the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, whose incredible growth over the past two years is shown in the animated photo series above.


"Satellite images can absolutely save lives," explains Einar Bjorgo, the manager of UNOSAT, which is part of the U.N. Institute for Training and Research. Bjorgo's team provides nongovernmental and governmental agencies with detailed satellite pictures and analyses that are used to plan emergency responses and direct teams on the ground. Often, the images are made available in almost real time.

The following before-and-after comparisons show the devastation wreaked by ongoing crises, as well as the stunning technological possibilities for keeping track of events in dangerous areas of the world. Let's take a look.

Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan: A 'city' is built from scratch

Within only two years, the Zaatari refugee camp has evolved from an uninhabited desert area to a tent city that houses more than 85,000 people. The massive dimensions of the camp are hard to grasp from pictures such as this one:

A Syrian refugee collects water at the Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, on Sept. 15, 2014. (Muhammad Hamed/Reuters)

U.N. satellite imagery has tracked the evolution of the camp since its creation. The photos enable officials to estimate how many people are based at Zaatari. The exponential growth is remarkable. You can move the slider in the middle of this photo to view how the area looked in 2012 and how it looks now.

The refugee camp is rapidly taking the shape of a real city — structured, planned and even separated into neighborhoods and subject to gentrification.

While Jordan's Zaatari camp grew, Christian refugees in the Central African Republic occupied an airport

Central African Republic (CAR) / IDPs / Christians IDP site in M'poko international airport in the city of Bangui, CAR, 09 February 2014. / UNHCR / A. Greco / February 2014
Refugees at M'poko International Airport in the city of Bangui, Central African Republic, on Feb. 9, 2014. (A. Greco/UNHCR)

A U.N. comparison reveals how rapidly the M'poko International Airport in Bangui was overtaken by refugees after violence erupted in the Central African Republic last year. Tents were set up within days, and they quickly stretched to the runway.

This close-up of the airport shows the density of the tents. You can click on the image to see details.

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In South Sudan, enthusiasm about independence turned into fear

In 2011, South Sudan became the world's newest country. When the independence referendum was held in January 2011, people enthusiastically lined up to cast their ballots, overwhelmingly voting for separation from the north. This photo shows voters lined up in front of a polling place.

Residents of the South Sudanese city of Juba line up to cast their votes in the historic independence referendum in January 2011. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

The long lines of voters in Juba were visible even from space, as this U.N. satellite image shows.

The country declared independence from the rest of Sudan on July 9, 2011. Last December, however, troops within the presidential guard started fighting, and the conflict spread quickly. The violence forced many South Sudanese to flee their homes and coincided with warning signs of a famine.

Displaced South Sudanese sell food at a U.N. camp in Malakal, South Sudan, on Oct.16, 2014. (Ali Ngethi/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

The destruction caused by the fighting was captured in satellite images such as this one.

Kobane: An entire city flees at once

Over the past weeks, the world's focus shifted to the northern Syrian city of Kobane, once a Kurdish haven, next to the Turkish border. There has been no shortage of dramatic footage, filmed from relative safety across the border in Turkey. This photo shows cars that were abandoned by refugees on the Syrian side of the border.

Armored vehicles of the Turkish army patrol along the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern town of Suruc on Oct. 8, 2014. (Aris Messinis/Agence France-Presse)

Satellite images depict the huge population — and desperation — of the Syrian refugees. Hundreds of cars were left behind.

Another U.N. comparison, 2011 to 2012, shows the destruction of the Syrian city of Hama.

Mindanao: The destructive power of natural catastrophes

U.N. satellite images are particularly helpful to organize responses to natural disasters. Often, aid workers and photographers are able to reach distant areas or islands only many days after a catastrophe, and images — like this one, taken in the Philippines last year — emerge after they arrive.

Filiponos walk in the typhoon-devastated city of Tacloban, Philippines, in November 2013. (Nic Bothma/European Pressphoto Agency)

Satellite images, however, can provide a quicker and more extensive analysis of the situation on the ground.

In Gaza City, destruction is everywhere

This image was taken earlier this summer in Gaza City:

A Palestinian man stands amid the remains of his living room shortly after his Gaza City home was hit by an Israeli airstrike on Aug. 8, 2014. (Oliver Weiken/European Pressphoto Agency)

The destruction caused by the war between Hamas and the Israeli military was documented extensively by U.N. satellite imagery. An earlier WorldViews post included several other images, as well as before-and-after comparisons.

Photo credits: 

Bangui: This includes an image from Oct. 23, 2013, (Copyright 2014 DigitalGlobe) and an image from Feb. 22, 2014 (Copyright CNES 2014, Distribution Airbus Defense and Space). Image analysis by UNITAR-UNOSAT.

Juba: Copyright: European Space Imaging 2011. Image analysis by UNITAR-UNOSAT

Zaatari: ‘CNES 2014, Distribution Airbus Defense and Space’. Copyright 2014 DigitalGlobe. Image analysis by UNITAR-UNOSAT

Syria, South Sudan, Philippines and Jordan: Copyright DigitalGlobe 2014. Image analysis by UNITAR-UNOSAT

Gaza: Copyright Airbus Defense and Space 2014. Image analysis by UNITAR-UNOSAT