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Earth at night

Some of the most iconic views of our planet have been made from space. Satellite images continue to amaze us with their unique perspectives that most of us will never experience by ourselves. NASA’s Earth at night is a very recent image taken by satellites as a series of several separate post-processed images that provide a consistent clear sight of the night views of all human and natural matter that glows and can be sensed from space.

What NASA’s image cannot show, however, are the stark differences between those who do have lights and those who that live without any lights at all at night. This gridded equal- cartogram shows the satellite image resized according to how many people live in an area. Unpopulated areas disappear, while the map gives the most densely populated areas the most space. The world’s largest city regions such as the Nile Delta in the north-east of Africa, or the Pearl River Delta in the south-east of China become visible in stunning detail. Even single cities, such as Moscow, clearly stand out as if a magnifying glass were being put over them.

More sobering are the differences between the illuminated – or light-polluted – night skies in much of the wealthy world (such as Europe and North America), while the poorer parts of the planet appear as dark areas (as on much of the African continent). The so-called emerging economies, most prominently China and India with their large populations, are characterised by much more of a patchwork of bright and dark areas.


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Technical Notes

This map shows the land surface resized by its population with a satellite view of night lights superimposed. Each transformed grid cell in the map is proportional to the total number of people living in that area. 

Data sources
This map uses population estimates for the year 2020 based on data from the Gridded Population of the World (GPW), v4 at 0.25 degree resolution, released by SEDAC (Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center). The map overlay is a composite satellite image of night lights in 2017 as compiled by NASA (accessed March 2018).

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