Last year, NASA posted a new high resolution map of the lights present across the world at night using the Suomi NPP satellite, which was launched in 2009.

While the overall appearance of the map is similar to those provided by older satellites, with a well-lit developed world and a global south shrouded in darkness, the higher level of detail allows a closer look at some of the smaller features around the globe

A River Of Fire

Along the shores of the southwestern Mediterranean lie the heirs of two ancient civilizations, whose modern cities are arranged in distinctly different patterns.

Along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, we can see a web of Levantine cities in Lebanon and Israel starting from the coast and expanding back toward their eastern borders. The countries to their east, Syria and Jordan, have their urban networks concentrated around the capital cities of Damascus and Amman respectively.

Of course, one of the most striking features of any nighttime satellite imagery of the Earth is the glowing strip of lights along the Egyptian Nile, starting with the triangular delta and stretching upstream until it comes to an abrupt end at the Aswan Dam, built at the site of the first cataract, the historic separation point between Egyptian civilization and the Nubians of what is now southern Egypt. While there are some scattered lights in Egypt outside of the Nile Valley, those can only be found in the oases of the Sahara, whose desiccated expanse otherwise impedes the growth of sedentary society, serving instead as the domain of a small number of nomads migrating across its vast waves of dunes.

The utter darkness of Nubia is a reflection both of the population displacement caused by the formation of Lake Nasser with the building of the the Aswan Dam and the extent to which the Nile cataracts impeded the extension of Egyptian civilization southward to a meaningful extent.

Further upstream, there is little in the way of lights until reaching the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, which serves as an island of urbanization in an otherwise dark Sudanese countryside. With six cataracts between its capital and the glowing thread of the Egyptian Nile Valley, Sudan’s darkness outside of its capital is representative of the African continent south of the Sahara.

The Burning Gulf


Almost every feature of the Persian Gulf’s nighttime appearance stems from the wealth of oil beneath its seabed and the ground of the lands surrounding it. The most obvious feature are the glowing orbs that can be seen starting from the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys, extending along the coasts and through the middle of the gulf itself. These orbs are the product of gas flares from the oil rigs that maintain the region’s economy and fuel those of the developed nations of the world. The abundance of flares reflects the fact that the gulf countries see burning the natural gas accompanying the oil as a waste product to be more economical than building a distribution network for the gaseous fuel to sell it abroad.

The cheapness of energy in the region is further reflected by well-lit highways crisscrossing the deserts of Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman, forming lines of light brighter than those seen anywhere else in the world, not even in the larger, but still oil-rich states of Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran, who despite their great wealth of oil, do not have nearly the same concentration relative to the size of their countries and thus have not need for the gratuitous desert lighting of their smaller neighbors.

Eastern Seas


East Asia is home to several unique features, perhaps the most striking of which can be seen on the Korean peninsula, where South Korea has its outline traced in light and the metropolis of Seoul glares out into the night while North Korea is a realm of darkness outside of the faint lights of its capital, Pyongyang, a striking example of what a particularly virulent strain of Communism can work upon a country whose population has the potential for greatness, as realized in its neighbor to the South.

But it is not only South Korea’s land that is covered with a web of lights; its coastal waters also play host to a fleet of fishermen casting lights out upon the water with their nets. Nor is it only Korean waters that play host to such fishermen. Similar clusters of light are visible off the coasts of Japan, China, Taiwan, and in the South China Sea, a disbuted area which provides ten percent of the world’s fish supply.

It is worth noting that these fishing fleets are transient, fluctuating in their size, extent, and location over time, a fact that is reflected by the straight lines and sharp angles bounding the cluster of fleets south of South Korea’s Jeju Island. This reflects, not the distribution of artificially imposed exclusive economic zones, but rather the composite nature of this imagery. Obviously, there is no time in which the whole Earth is covered in the blanket of night and the imagery must be taken over time and stitched together to form a coherent map.

A Polish Palimpset

Finally, I wanted to reflect upon an interesting pattern that can be found in Poland. As you may know, the geographic political preferences in Polish Assembly elections are a reflection of Poland’s history:

The areas that tend to vote for Poland’s Civic Platform Party tend to bet those that were part of the German Empire before World War I.

However, that pattern is not reflected in the lights of Poland, as shown by the Suomi NPP satellite:

Instead, there is a pattern of brightness that falls within the borders of Poland between the two World Wars:
Poland Between World Wars
This pattern reflects the population distribution before either of the World Wars in which many of the eastern parts of the German Empire were majority Polish-speaking, a distribution that was used to sculpt the borders between Germany and Poland in the negotiations after World War I. However, after World War II, the Soviet Union took much of the eastern territory of Poland, incorporating it into its Belorussian and Ukrainian SSRs, while giving Poland land from Eastern Germany, leading to the expulsion of the Germans living there. As such, those areas have a lower population density and thus dimmer lights at night than those areas that were longer-settled by Poles.

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