The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

If night lights were mountains: Cartographer invents whole new way to look at Earth

The eastern United States with cities as mountains. (Jacob Wasilkowski/Petrichor Studio)

Thousands of mountaineers have conquered Everest. But how many have climbed into the thermosphere to summit a peak of raw, incandescent light?

Alpinists wishing to challenge the laws of physics will find a wonderfully illustrative road map in Jacob Wasilkowski's “Earth at Night, Mountains of Light.”

The St. Louis-based geospatial Web developer, who will show his creation in early March at the Esri Developer Summit in Palm Springs, Calif., has taken the brightest spots on the planet at night and transformed them into luminous, towering structures.

Cities loaded with street and building lights stretch like radiant citadels as “high” as 53 miles. Poorer-lit regions, including normally imposing mountain ranges, look as flat as the ocean floor.

Why did Wasilkowski create this warped planet?

“Perhaps it was an underlying thought to get people thinking about the effects of our urbanized areas on our nighttime environments,” says the cartographer, who along with fellow mapping whiz Sarah Bell runs the geoviz site Petrichor Studio.

“I also wonder if we don’t often consider what day versus night means when looking at maps — maybe we even assume daytime when there are bright colors on a thematic map, or looking at daytime satellite imagery maps — and I have been curious lately what that means for maps and visualizations dealing with 'nighttime data.’ ”

There's a how-to guide for those interested in this visualization and the NASA imagery underpinning it, which comes from 2012 and 2016 data from the Suomi-NPP satellite. It's a bit technical.

“I am exaggerating the ‘elevations’ by multiplying by a value I settled on after visual trial and error,” Wasilkowski says. “The luminescence of each pixel ranges from 0 to 1, and then I multiply by 85,000.”

But for those who want to jump blind into the Tron-verse, the visualization’s natural starting point over the Nile Delta is illuminating. Look at how the densely packed settlements along the river transform it into a fiery dragon’s back:

Another beautiful blob is Washington, D.C., and Interstate 95 leading to Baltimore:

Welcome to the new topography of the American east, where the only mountains visible are metropolises styled like lava-vomiting volcanoes:

One of the most-pancake places known to humankind, Chicago, has become an airplane-devouring tsunami of gold:

The mountains that make travel through the West so thorny during snow season have vanished. Here's gazing from Colorado all the way to the California coast:

Not every brightness cluster represents a city. The decidedly nonurban northwest sector of North Dakota is hot and bumpy because of all the infrastructure, temporary housing and gas flares from oil and natural-gas exploration of the Bakken shale formation:

It's worth noting that brighter areas in this imagery don't always correspond to higher or denser populations.

Many things affect how a satellite detects brightness, from ambient moonlight to snow cover to the types and arrangements of streetlights. To its credit, NASA has done a lot to delete “noise” and focus almost exclusively on humanity’s artificial-light footprint — removing the glowing hot spots that lit up the Australian interior during the 2012 wildfires, for instance.

Since creating “Earth at Night, Mountains of Light,” Wasilkowski has collected some nice shout-outs from his cartographer comrades, and also added the option to toggle to a daytime version because “I sort of like how wacky it looks,” he says. “I think it helps illustrate how real-world mountains get flattened in favor of urban areas.”

Indeed. Witness how the Himalayas appear to have marched a long clip south to the more lit-up regions of India, leaving a dried-out salt sea in their wake:

And poor New Zealand, whose soaring peaks inspired much of Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” films, now bows down to a new Mount Doom — the Great Prong of Christchurch:

John Metcalfe is a freelance writer based in California. He previously worked as a journalist for CityLab, covering climate change and the science of cities.