At night, even from 200 miles above the Earth, an astronaut can float over to a window in the International Space Station and see cities in such incredible detail that it's possible to recognize individual streets.

Since 2003, when an astronaut figured out how to snap a clear photo of the view from orbit, hundreds of thousands of amazing urban photographs have piled up in archives.

A new website is attempting to use volunteers to identify each of those cities--not just because the shots are beautiful, but because they can help scientists better understand the problem of urban light pollution.

Thanks to artificial light, a place like Hong Kong is now 1,000 times brighter than an unlit natural space at night. All of that blinding light is wrecking sleep, harming wildlife, and wasting energy.

Cities at Night was launched by some Spanish astrophysicists who started following an astronaut's Twitter account.

"For us his nighttime pictures were like fire for a firefighter--it's pretty, but you must control it," says Alejandro Sanchez from Complutense University of Madrid.

"We want to make the nighttime images useful for citizens, journalists, and scientists. And make this beauty accessible--but also make people think about if all this waste of energy is really needed."

The scientists made apps to help volunteers sort through the images, and have already crowdsourced help for almost 1,000 tasks.

Ultimately, they're hoping that blindingly-lit cities start taking more steps to dim down.

Some solutions are simple--like using shields that direct light down where it's actually needed, instead of into the sky--and some, like these smart streetlights, use more advanced technology to limit light.

All of the options for reducing extra light can also save money and energy. The scientists point out that the costs are much greater than the space travel that made the photos possible.

"Humans spend over $110 billion per year for obsolete lighting that wastes at least 50% of its energy, but we only use $34 billion for space exploration," says Sanchez.

"If these images help reduce the waste of energy, we will save several times the money that we spend on exploration."

2014-07-22

Co.Exist

These Incredible Photos From Astronauts Show The Brightest Cities On Earth

These beautiful images disguise a growing urban problem: blinding light pollution.

At night, even from 200 miles above the Earth, an astronaut can float over to a window in the International Space Station and see cities in such incredible detail that it's possible to recognize individual streets. Since 2003, when an astronaut figured out how to snap a clear photo of the view from orbit, hundreds of thousands of amazing urban photographs have piled up in archives.

A new website is attempting to find volunteers to identify each of those cities—not just because the shots are beautiful, but because they can help scientists better understand the problem of urban light pollution. Thanks to artificial light, a place like Hong Kong is now 1,000 times brighter than an unlit natural space at night. All of that blinding light is wrecking sleep, harming wildlife, and wasting energy.

Cities at Night was launched by some Spanish astrophysicists who started following an astronaut's Twitter account. "For us his nighttime pictures were like fire for a firefighter—it's pretty, but you must control it," says Alejandro Sanchez from Complutense University of Madrid. "We want to make the nighttime images useful for citizens, journalists, and scientists. And make this beauty accessible—but also make people think about if all this waste of energy is really needed."

The scientists made apps to help volunteers sort through the images, and have already crowdsourced help for almost 1,000 tasks.

Ultimately, they're hoping that blindingly lit cities start taking more steps to dim down. Some solutions are simple—like using shields that direct light down to where it's actually needed, instead of into the sky—and some, like smart streetlights, use more advanced technology to limit light.

All of the options for reducing extra light can also save money and energy. The scientists point out that the costs are much greater than the space travel that made the photos possible.

"Humans spend over $110 billion per year for obsolete lighting that wastes at least 50% of its energy, but we only use $34 billion for space exploration," says Sanchez. "If these images help reduce the waste of energy, we will save several times the money that we spend on exploration."

[Images: Courtesy of the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center]

Add New Comment

8 Comments

  • Slow Factory is also working on raising awareness to Light Pollution with their Cities by Night series very much inspired by the works of Cities at Night.

    http://slowfactory.com/blogs/news/14821417-as-seen-from-above-what-the-stars-see-when-we-cant-see-the-stars-anymore

    My work was previously featured on Fast Company.

    "Another reason why I began Slow Factory is because as I have grown up, I can see less and less stars in the sky. Adding to it the fact that we traveled a lot and that I never really felt grounded or connected to a home, I felt the need to look at telescope and satellite images of the stars.

    We are moving further away from feeling connected to our planet, to our world and even to one another as human beings. Slow Factory is an experiment and a way to raise awareness around these issues by celebrating science, our world and us as one."

    Just thought I'd mention my work in here as it is very connected to what you wrote.

  • Cari Poulin

    For those who are scared that light pollution is just another "scam", it is not. The light that you see from space is obviously wasted towards the sky and doesn't serve it's purpose for security on the ground. So the first thing is to direct the light downwards and keep the intensity at a minimum so that people can see, but that the light does not reflect as much. These are really simple changes that don't cost a lot. Dimmer lights are also more secure on streets because they do not cause glare. Also, it is well documented now that artificial night lighting affects wildlife so just reducing it can help with that too.

  • JAYARR7, The ornamental light almost never refected light. In addition, there are very different levels of lighting in different parts of the world. More light is more security is just marketing, not science. Cities with less light, often are safer than the lightest. That does not mean you have to not be light in the streets, but to put 500 W of light does not put more security than 100 W. Extremes are never good.

    DON JARRELL, This the actual tecnology we could do it much better without spending one single dollar. Is that simple as put the right power in the right place when the old lamp is dead. But, probably with the we tecnology we could do it even better. Don't get fear to do the things correctly make you not to act. Maybe you are actualy paying to much taxes for unuseful light just because of the ancestral fear to the dark of some people.

  • jayarr7

    Well....then....perhaps you would rank North Korea at the top of your conservation list. I understand your argument, but the light in most of these photos is mostly reflective. You are right that bulb tech could save more, but let's face facts, no city is going to seriously dim lighting streets for safety reasons.

  • So whose streets should be dark at night ? How about yours Adele ?

    This sounds like another "imminent catastrophe" for which the government should spend billions and for which the advocates and "experts" make millions. (Hint: it's not about the "wildlife", it's about the Bentley and house in Sand Point for the next savior of the world.)

    Hopefully when the bright-eyed idealistic twentysomethings have been around the block a few times, paid hundreds of thousands in taxes and gained a bit more curiosity about actual COSTS and VALUES and the path of OPM in these imagined problems, they will be a little more reserved about jumping on a silly bandwagon.

  • Well, I'm 42 years old and I photograph the night sky.

    Have you ever seen the Milky Way with your own eyes? Would you like your grandchildren to be able to see it?

    Screw you and your "imagined problems".. I've been around the block more than a few times. Who the hell makes millions trying to save the planet or control pollution? Name ONE person.

  • Daniel, while I expressed some disfavor about the story and the idea, I didn't make a personal attack on anyone. My mention of Adele's street being dark was simply to examine the probable NOMBY aspect of this "movement".

    I applaud the more focused/reasoned comments from some posters who didn't talk about making areas darker but designing lighting to be more efficient in where they cast light. Still, your concern about photographing the night sky (which, yes, I used to do) is NOT caused by the light that is shining upwards as described here, but in scattering of lateral and downward light that is absolutely related to safety. Right here in environmentally-aware Austin, we have heard far more from the public on more light for safety then we have for less light for ... whatever is this objective in a darker world.

    As for your last question, it reveals such predisposition that an actual informational discussion seems impossible. I'll just say start with "Al Gore".

  • christiancnv

    "As for your last question, it reveals such predisposition that an actual informational discussion seems impossible. I'll just say start with "Al Gore"."

    Nice cop out. I'm guessing you can't give a serious answer, not because of his predisposition, but because you know you don't have an example/source. This is almost always the case with you types: all the talk in the world, yet, nothing to back up the talk. This sounds awfully similar, doesn't? Ever talked to one of those conspiracy theorists that believe that everything is under the control of a few wealthy families?