NASA

They're especially bright in the suburbs, says NASA.

Forget going out to view your neighborhood's Christmas lights this year: You can do it the 21st-century way, bathed in the pallid glow of a monitor. That's because NASA has just released a wonderful bunch of satellite images of American cities, gleaming like nebulae with all their candy-colored LEDs, sparkling icicle nets, and illuminated, blow-up Santa Clauses.

Note that NASA's tech isn't so advanced it can tell a radiant tree-topper from a porch lamp, but it has measured a seasonal light increase around big cities—a 20 to 50 percent brightness jump during December, compared to other times of the year. The explosion of effulgence is clear in the images above and below, depicting areas where holiday lighting intensified in green (and where it's remained constant or dimmed in yellow and red, respectively).

The space agency captured these festive views using the Suomi NPP satellite, which has a sensor so keen it sees boat lights as flaming beacons in the dark seas. After analyzing the satellite data of America's lights, NASA scientists determined they brightened early and in places with single-family houses and yards, i.e. the suburbs. They explain:

In the United States, the lights started getting brighter on the day after Thanksgiving and continued through New Years Day, said Miguel Román, a scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and member of the Suomi NPP Land Discipline Team. Román and colleagues examined the light output from 70 U.S. cities in 2012 and 2013 as a first step toward determining patterns in urban energy use—a key factor in greenhouse gas emissions.

The science team found that light intensity increased by 30 to 50 percent in the suburbs and outskirts of major cities. Lights in the central urban areas did not increase as much as in the suburbs, but still brightened by 20 to 30 percent....

"It's a near ubiquitous signal," said Román. "Despite being ethnically and religiously diverse, we found that the U.S. experiences a holiday increase across most urban communities. These lighting patterns are tracking a national, shared tradition."

Snow cover fudges the signal, so the agency was only able to get images of warmer-weather cities. Here are the metropolitan centers of SoCal and the Southwest blossoming in the night:

The South and Southeast:

And because the United States isn't the only place to celebrate holidays, here's the Middle East's summertime surge of radiance during Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr (this image combines data from 2012-2014):

NASA

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. a photo of yellow vest protesters in Paris, France.
    Equity

    To Understand American Political Anger, Look to ‘Peripheral France’

    French geographer Christophe Guilluy has a controversial diagnosis of working-class resentment in the age of Trump, Brexit, and the Yellow Vests.

  2. A rendering of a co-living building in San Jose.
    Life

    The Largest Co-Living Building in the World Is Coming to San Jose

    The startup Starcity plans to build an 800-unit, 18-story “dorm for adults” to help affordably house Silicon Valley’s booming workforce.

  3. a screenshot of a video about Baltimore's Metro
    Transportation

    It’s Time to Celebrate Baltimore’s Much-Maligned Metro

    In 1987, the Maryland Transit Administration busted out a brass band to open a subway that never had a chance.

  4. Equity

    Is It Better to Be Poor in Bangladesh or in the Mississippi Delta?

    The Nobel laureate Angus Deaton discusses extreme poverty, opioid addiction, Trump voters, robots, and rent-seeking.

  5. a photo of a striking Uber/Lyft driver
    Transportation

    Uber and Lyft Really Don’t Want California to Pass This Worker Rights Bill

    As California considers a gig-work bill to make ride-hailing drivers employees eligible for benefits and bargaining rights, Uber and Lyft ask for compromise.

×