Syria is fading – Using night lights to see the detrimental effects of conflict

Night light data recorded by satellites can be used to trace human activity and have been statistically linked to economic activity proxies, such as Gross Regional Product (GRP).  Furthermore, night light data has shown the lack of electricity at night in North Korea. A google search for “satellite night lights”, however, gives me a list of articles on just how beautiful the Earth is from space. And it is! But the night lights, or lack thereof, also show a sad situation in parts of the world.

Researchers have started using night lights to show the impact of conflicts in areas that are inaccessible, such as Syria and Iraq. A study from Wuhan University in China, published in 2014, find a decline of more than 60% in 12 of Syria’s 14 provinces. Another study from the same research group showed that city lighting in areas controlled by the IS in northern Iraq had seen reductions of between 50 and 93% over only 7 months.

I downloaded night light data from NOAA and visualized them in a few maps, showing the extent of nightlights in Syria and Iraq in 2005 and 2010 and 2013.


Night lights in Syria and Iraq 2005


Night lights in Syria and Iraq 2010


Between 2005 and 2010 we see an overall increase in light pollution, especially in urban areas. However, from 2010 until 2013 Syria is showing a decreasing amount of lights, most likely due to the escalation of the conflict.


Night lights in Syria and Iraq 2013

It actually looks like Syria has less night lights than it had in 2005, especially around Aleppo. Iraq, however, seems to be steadily increasing their night lights.

This is just a visualization of night light data, and a visual interpretation of what is really happening. I can see a lot of interesting analyses that could be done on these data, in combination with other conflict related data. I just need a grant!

UPDATE: I have added links to sliders so you can compare two years – see below.

Nightlights in Syria and Iraq 2005 vs 2010

Nightlights in Syria and Iraq 2010 vs 2013

Unfortunately I couldn’t embed the sliders in the blog, but the links should work.

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