Friday, 29 February 2008

The Earth at Night

NASA has some absolutely amazing pictures of the Earth as seen from space at night. These pictures are astounding both for their technical magic (splicing together photographs taken of different parts of the earth at different times into one complete world map) and for what they tell us about the world.

Click on the image below to see a bigger picture:

I wasn't surprised to see the degree of economic activity in Western Europe, the US, Canada or Japan. I was surprised at what I saw of India and China.

Other than the developed countries, only India has such a uniform coverage of lights. The country is obviously far more developed than even I had imagined (Only the poorer eastern states of Orissa and Bihar show less lighting, which I guess was to be expected). What brings this into even starker relief is the clear demarcation of national boundaries between India and many of its near neighbours. Burma, Tibet, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan - all eerily dark. Pakistan fades away towards the west. Only Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh share in the light. [With Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, I guess that's a natural consequence of being such densely populated countries, so one shouldn't be too surprised.] Even the relatively neglected northeastern states of India are well-lit, showing that India as a whole seems to be balanced in its development.

The other big surprise was China. It appears that only the eastern third of China is developed and densely populated. In other words, even though China is three times larger than India in area, the habitable areas are roughly comparable, and so are the populations (over a billion people each).

More insights:

It's sad to see vast areas of the earth underdeveloped - most of Africa and large parts of South America and Asia.

Urban development in eastern Russia seems to hang off the Trans-Siberian Railway. The railway seems to be the lifeline of economic activity in Siberia, just as rivers were the magnets for human habitation in the past.

I had expected to see signs of development in eastern Brazil, and in Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador. But Uruguay was a pleasant surprise. Likewise the Caribbean. Jamaica I had expected, but Puerto Rico? That's the brightest spot in the Caribbean.

I had read that Pakistan's northwestern region was backward, but now I can see it for myself.

I can also clearly see the difference between South and North Korea.

Finally, Australia is almost as large as the US in area, but alas! We are in fact a tiny country, as the map unmercifully reveals.

This map is "alive". It's not a standard map of the kind we see all the time in atlases. This is real. It gives us astounding insights into how people actually live. I can gaze at it for hours.

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