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Invisible Stars: Mapping America’s Rural Light Pollution

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Rural light pollution map of United States

light pollution population adjusted

Invisible Stars: Mapping America’s Rural Light Pollution

From the bright lights of Times Square to the high-powered flood lights of a suburban Walmart, we expect our cities to give off a certain amount of light pollution. Even though our view of the universe is largely blotted out around city centers, there’s a measure of comfort in knowing an inspiring view of a starry night is only a short drive away.

Increasingly though, economic activity in America’s rural spaces is casting a glow into the sky, and now four out of five people in North America cannot see the Milky Way at night.

Today’s map, from geographer and journalist, Tim Wallace, is a different perspective on light pollution in the United States. The map was created by subtracting population from light output, which highlights areas that throw off more light than predicted given their population density.

On this style of map, it isn’t the glowing metropolitan centers of New York and Los Angeles that stand out, but regions like the oil-rich corner of South Dakota or the final leg of the Mississippi River. Let’s zoom in and investigate what’s happening in these unexpected illumination zones.

Oil & Gas

Some of the most prominent patterns on the map appear in regions where shale oil is being extracted.

texas north dakota gas flares

In a relatively short amount of time, America became the largest oil producer on the planet. One of the major factors that fueled record production for shale oil producers was the proliferation of multi-well pad drilling — when multiple wells are drilled from a single drill site. From the air, it’s easy to spot these well formations spreading across the landscape, but the effect is even more pronounced at night.

At times, oil production is so strong that drillers flare the excess natural gas. In North Dakota alone, there are nearly 14,000 producing wells, and the resulting flares are what create the distinctive grid patterns on the map.

One of the brightest areas per capita in the country is Loving County, Texas. The county has around 100 residents, but more than 6,000 drilled wells.

Industrial Activities

Another point of interest on the map is Louisiana’s “petrochemical corridor”, running between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. An overhead view of Southern Louisiana in the daytime will be punctuated by the “ribbon farms” flanking the Mississippi River — a nod to the region’s history of French settlement.

petrochemical corridor louisiana

At night though, a different scene emerges. Over 100 sprawling petrochemical facilities run by companies like Dow Chemical and Union Carbide dot the landscape, a patchwork of highly-illuminated plots.

Commercial Sprawl

Some types of infrastructure are typically located away from the city center. Airports, power stations, and racetracks, for example, need a lot of space and aren’t the most popular neighbors.

Another type of facility has been replacing farmland in recent years — logistics hubs. Many of the bright spots on the map outside cities show the warehouses and sortation centers that feed our growing demand for e-commerce.

economic logistics sprawl

In the example above, companies like Amazon, Home Depot, Dollar Tree, and Ikea have all clustered their facilities in the sparsely populated farmland south of Joliet, Illinois. This trend is repeated around the country, resulting in the “halos” of light that ring most cities on the map.

Flipping the Switch on Light Pollution

Though light isn’t toxic or overtly damaging to the natural landscape, it can still have a serious impact on wildlife, as well as blunting the beauty of the night sky.

The good news is that light is one of the easiest forms of pollution to prevent. New technologies and lighting techniques aren’t just good for our night skies, they’re generally more energy efficient as well.

Just as economic incentive lured buildings and infrastructure to America’s natural spaces, it may be energy efficiency that helps us return more of the night sky to its natural state.

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Business

Flying High: The Top Ten Airline Routes by Revenue

This visualization tracks the high-value routes that generate the most revenue for airlines – primarily links between the world’s financial centers

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Flying High: The Top 10 Airline Routes by Revenue

The airline industry is a tough business. Profit margins are narrow, airplanes are expensive to run and maintain, and government regulation and taxation can be onerous and unpredictable.

In addition, demand can stall by the outbreak of disease, recession, war, or terrorism. So when a company has a winning airline route, it makes all the difference to a company’s bottom line.

Today’s visualization uses data from OAG Aviation Worldwide, which tracked the airline routes that generated the most revenue from April 2018 to March 2019.

Top 10 Highest Revenue Routes by Airline

North American routes dominate the global rankings. However, it is the connections from the U.S Northeast and Europe that generate the most revenue and often the most delays.

Only one route breaks the billion dollar barrier: British Airways’ service between London Heathrow Airport (LHR) and New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport (JFK).

AirlineAirport PairCountriesTotal Revenue US$ 2018/19
British AirwaysJFK-LHR🇺🇸🇬🇧$1,159,126,794
Qantas AirlinesMEL-SYD🇦🇺$849,260,322
EmiratesLHR-DXB🇬🇧🇦🇪$796,201,645
Singapore AirlinesLHR-SIN🇬🇧🇸🇬$735,597,614
United AirlinesSFO-EWR🇺🇸$689,371,368
American AirlinesLAX-JFK🇺🇸$661,739,368
Qatar AirwaysLHR-DOH🇬🇧🇶🇦$639,122,609
Cathay Pacific AirwaysHKG-LHR🇭🇰🇬🇧$604,595,063
Singapore AirlinesSYD-SIN🇦🇺🇸🇬$549,711,946
Air CanadaYVR-YYZ🇨🇦$541,122,509

Air Canada’s route between Vancouver and Toronto bottoms out the list with $541 million of revenue in 2019. Low population density, high infrastructure costs, and an aviation industry that is essentially an oligopoly, are all factors driving up ticket costs in Canada.

North America, Top 10 Highest Revenue Routes by Airline

Here’s a look at only the top-grossing routes connected to North America, including the prior ones that made the global list.

AirlineAirport PairCountriesTotal Revenue US$ 2018/19
British AirwaysJFK-LHR🇺🇸🇬🇧$1,159,126,794
United AirlinesSFO-EWR🇺🇸$689,371,368
American AirlinesLAX-JFK🇺🇸$661,739,788
Air CanadaYVR-YYZ🇨🇦$541,122,509
British AirwaysBOS-LHR🇺🇸🇬🇧$523,527,241
Air FranceJFK-CDG🇺🇸🇫🇷$486,378,698
United AirlinesLAX-EWR🇺🇸$479,908,312
Cathay Pacific AirwaysJFK-HKG🇺🇸🇭🇰$475,514,451
Delta Air LinesLAX-JFK🇺🇸$465,130,366
British AirwaysLAX-LHR🇺🇸🇬🇧$452,136,502

Transcontinental routes dominate the domestic market with LAX–JFK appearing twice in the ranking for both American and Delta Air Lines.

Asia, Top 10 Highest Revenue Routes by Airline

Despite Asia’s rise as an economic superpower, there are no routes that break the billion dollar barrier. Singapore Airlines’ Singapore (SIN) to London’s Heathrow (LHR) tops the list, generating $736 million in 2019.

AirlineAirport PairCountriesTotal Revenue US$ 2018/19
Singapore AirlinesSIN-LHR🇸🇬🇬🇧$735,597,614
Cathay Pacific AirlinesHKG-LHR🇭🇰🇬🇧$604,595,063
Singapore AirlinesSIN-SYD🇸🇬🇦🇺$549,711,946
Vietnam AirlinesSGN-HAN🇻🇳$488,487,259
Cathay Pacific AirlinesHKG-JFK🇭🇰🇺🇸$475,514,451
Japan AirlinesOKA-HND🇯🇵$447,224,346
Singapore AirlinesCGK-SIN🇮🇩🇸🇬$436,905,694
Japan AirlinesFUK-HND🇯🇵$431,457,469
Singapore AirlinesSIN-MEL🇸🇬🇦🇺$414,276,407
Cathay Pacific AirlinesHKG-SIN🇭🇰🇸🇬$389,910,239

The routes that dominate Asia connect the financial hubs of London, New York, Singapore, and Hong Kong. There are also two domestic routes in Japan, connecting both Fukuoka (FUK) and Okinawa (OKA) to Tokyo’s Haneda (HND) airport.

Africa, Top 10 Highest Revenue Routes by Airline

At the top of the ranking in Africa is Johannesburg (JNB) to Dubai International Airport (DXB) with revenues of $315 million. Dubai has become an important hub for high value flights arriving and departing Africa, a position that may prove profitable as air traffic on the continent increases in coming years.

AirlineAirport PairCountriesTotal Revenue US$ 2018/19
EmiratesJNB-DXB🇿🇦🇦🇪$315,678,326
British AirwaysJNB-LHR🇿🇦🇬🇧$295,167,492
Saudi Arabian AirlinesCAI-JED🇪🇬🇸🇦$242,155,949
TAAG Angola AirlinesLAD-LIS🇦🇴🇵🇹$231,155,949
South African AirlinesJNB-CPT🇿🇦$184,944,128
EmiratesCAI-DXB🇪🇬🇦🇪$181,392,011
EmiratesCPT-DXB🇿🇦🇦🇪$176,743,498
Air FranceABJ-CDG🇨🇮🇫🇷$174,986,272
British AirwaysCPT-LHR🇿🇦🇬🇧$174,605,201
EmiratesMRU-DXB🇲🇺🇦🇪$163,952,609

Despite the smaller earnings compared to larger markets, some airline companies see the potential for growth in Africa. Virgin Atlantic will fly a route between London’s Heathrow and Cape Town in South Africa, while Qatar Airlines acquired a stake in RwandAir.

Financial Hubs

The cities that appear in the top revenue ranking are revealing. Since business and first class travelers are such an important revenue driver, it makes sense that connections between the world’s financial hubs are delivering big value to airlines.

As Asian and African economies continue to evolve, what route could be the next billion dollar route for airlines?

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China

Meet China’s 113 Cities With More Than One Million People

China has the same amount of 1 million+ population cities as both North America and the EU combined. Here they all are, from biggest to smallest.

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In 2010, China’s urban-dwelling population surpassed its rural population, marking a monumental demographic milestone in the country’s history.

Just three decades prior, China looked markedly different. Only 20% of Chinese citizens lived in urban areas, and many of today’s metropolises were still small villages.

Since then, huge swaths of the population have moved from farmland into cities, a shift that is still causing many urban areas to swell in size. Case in point is the growth of Guangzhou, which lays just north of Hong Kong. From 1980 to today, more than 18 million people moved into the city. A 40-year-old born in Guangzhou will have seen their small, regional city mushroom into one of the largest urban amalgamations on Earth.

Of course, this is just one example of a process that has been altering the landscape of cities from the coast of the South China Sea out to the Eurasian Steppe.

The One Million+ Club

According to Demographia’s World Urban Areas report, there are now 113 urban areas in China that surpass the one million population threshold. In comparison, North America and the EU combined have 114 urban areas that surpass one million people.

Below is a full breakdown of China’s one million+ club:

Meet China’s 113 Cities With More Than One Million People

Unparalleled Urbanization

The massive scale of rural-to-urban migration isn’t just a major development within China, it has no parallel in modern history.

Since 1980, over half a billion people have moved from the countryside to an urban center. The construction of these new cities took a staggering amount of raw materials. Few data points highlight the scale of construction better than China’s cement production in recent years.

china cement production

In 2018, Chinese construction used about 8x the amount of second place India, which has a similar population size.

Megacities on Megacities

Cities with over 10 million inhabitants are defined as megacities. China is already home to six megacities, with another three urban areas well on the way to achieving that status.

In fact, some megacities within close proximity have grown so large that they are merging into contiguous urban areas. The most prominent example of this phenomenon is in the Pearl River Delta region of China.

The Pearl River Delta region is not only home to the megacities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen, but also a number of other sizable cities that are quickly merging into a unified continuous entity containing up to 50 million people. Demographia still considers most of these cities to be separate labor markets ⁠— but as more connections form across the region, the Pearl River Delta could be poised to become the largest unified urban area in human history.

Westward Migration

As megacities like Shanghai and Shenzhen have grown and developed, they’ve also become more expensive places to live and do business. The economic evolution of these cities has created opportunity for smaller, less developed cities to woo both residents and businesses.

This natural reshuffling has led to impressive growth in cities further inland like Zhengzhou, which sits 350 miles (630 kms) east of the coastline where many of the country’s largest cities reside.

Using the “build it and they will come” approach, the city converted a 160 square mile (410 sq km) patch of empty land into the Zhengzhou Airport Economy Zone (ZAEZ). The project has proven wildly successful, and the city even has the nickname “Apple City” thanks to the presence of Foxconn (which produces the iPhone) and a cluster of other smartphone manufacturers.

This airport-centered zone was developed with the full political and economic backing of Beijing as part of a broader effort to increase economic activity in China’s interior cities. Zhengzhou has nearly tripled in size over the last decade, a powerful testament to the shift in economic momentum.

China’s Inland All-Stars:

Urban AreaPopulation 2010Population 2019Change (2010-19)
Chengdu4.8M12.1M+152%
Xi'an4.0M7.1M+77%
Wuhan5.2M8.5M+63%
Chongqing5.4M8.3M+53%

Compare the numbers above to fast-growing cities in the U.S., such as Las Vegas or Phoenix, which managed 33% and 12% growth respectively over the last decade.

If this trend continues, China’s one million+ club will most likely expand once fresh census data is released in 2021.

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