Week in Geek: Holiday lights change the view from space


City lights shine brighter during the holidays in the United States when compared with the rest of the year, as shown using a new analysis of daily data from the NASA-NOAA Suomi NPP satellite.

NASA’s Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (Suomi NPP) satellite has been orbiting Earth since October, 2011 collecting remote-sensing and atmospheric data for global climate studies and sending back fascinating images. The satellite is tracking data that includes atmospheric and sea surface temperatures, land and ocean biological productivity,  and cloud and aerosol properties.

Suomi NPP (and other Earth-observing satellites with similar missions) are in sun-synchronous orbits, which allows them to remain in a somewhat fixed position over Earth as seen from the Sun. These orbits are ideal for imaging Earth’s surface because they allow for the fraction of Earth in sunlight to be held constant (i.e., full illumination, half illumination, crescent illumination, no illumination). Different angles of sunlight are required depending on what we want to study. An example you are probably already familiar with is the composite image of the Earth at night. In December 2012, Suomi NPP released an updated version of this famous view of our planet at night made with data taken over 22 days. Suomi NPP also released an updated version of the “Blue Marble”.

Earlier this month, scientists working with Suomi NPP data released super-high resolutions images taken with a new infrared instrument on the satellite that can distinguish natural versus man-made light (as well as isolate signals to a ridiculous level of detail, including forest fires, lights alongside highways, moonlight reflecting off the ocean, etc.). These new images were taken in the course of studying how lighting in cities varies over time. Looking at a sample of 1,200 cities for over two and half years they found that city lights increased during the holidays. Not just Christian holidays either. They also saw it happen in the Middle East during Ramadan.

In several cities in the Middle East, city lights brighten during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, as seen using a new analysis of daily data from the NASA-NOAA Suomi NPP satellite.

These data are more than just a flashy headline about how NASA can see your Christmas lights from space. It also shows how human activities vary on a seasonal and annual basis and how those activities play a role in changes we can detect in our environment. Cites are responsible for 70 percent of carbon emissions, so NASA is putting a lot of effort into understanding how urban areas interact with the global climate system, and not just whether one can see Rudolph from orbit.

tl;dr just watch this excellent video from NASA.

Here’s some more holiday geek for you:

Keep on geeking! @Summer_Ash


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Week in Geek: Holiday lights change the view from space