Invisible Stars: Mapping America's Rural Light Pollution
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Invisible Stars: Mapping America’s Rural Light Pollution

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Rural light pollution map of United States

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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The Biggest Carbon Emitters, By Sector

The manufacturing and construction sector contributed to 6.3 billion tonnes of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2019.

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The following content is sponsored by Northstar Clean Technologies

The Biggest Carbon Emitters, By Sector

It’s no secret that greenhouse gas emissions need to decrease drastically in order to fight the effects of climate change.

As countries across the globe ramp up efforts to reduce global warming, every industry needs to do its part. So who’s lagging and who’s leading?

Although often less discussed, the manufacturing and construction sector is a large contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions.

The above graphic from Northstar Clean Technologies takes a look at the biggest contributors by sector in relation to greenhouse gas emissions.

Breakdown Of Emissions

The manufacturing and construction sector is a growing one, and as population and infrastructure expand, it’s vital that we take all actionable paths to reduce emissions.

Manufacturing and construction contributed to 6.3 billion tonnes of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2019. Let’s look at the breakdown of greenhouse gas emissions by sector over the years from Our World In Data.

In 2019 electricity and heat were the biggest carbon emitters, while transport came in second place.

Manufacturing and construction overtook the agriculture sector in 2007 to become the third largest contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions.

Building a Solution

One solution to reducing the impact of the manufacturing and construction sector is to repurpose materials. This reduces emissions and waste while also being both energy and cost-efficient.

Take a material like asphalt shingles as an example. This product is found on the roofs of approximately 75% of single-family detached homes in the U.S. and Canada.

In 2018, 86% of total asphalt shingles waste was dumped in landfills where they do not decompose or biodegrade. Reusing and recycling existing materials like asphalt shingles is a vital step in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the industry.

Northstar Clean Technologies repurposes the three primary components of asphalt shingles which are then recycled back into the market.

By reprocessing asphalt shingles into three primary components, Northstar’s clean technology has been shown to reduce CO₂ emissions by 60% compared to virgin production of liquid asphalt.

Click to learn how Northstar Clean Technologies is becoming one of the top material recovery providers in North America.

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Mapped: Carbon Dioxide Emissions Around the World

This graphic maps out carbon emissions around the world and where they come from, using data from the European Commission.

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mapping carbon dioxide emissions worldwide

Mapped: Carbon Dioxide Emissions Around the World

According to Our World in Data, the global population emits about 34 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO₂) each year.

Where does all this CO₂ come from? This graphic by Adam Symington maps out carbon emissions around the world, using 2018 data from the European Commission that tracks tonnes of CO₂ per 0.1 degree grid (roughly 11 square kilometers).

This type of visualization allows us to clearly see not just population centers, but flight paths, shipping lanes, and high production areas. Let’s take a closer look at some of these concentrated (and brightly lit) regions on the map.

China, India, and the Indian Ocean

As the two most populated countries and economic forces, China and India are both significant emitters of CO₂. China in particular accounts for about 27% of global CO₂ emissions.

And looking at the oceans, we see how much shipping adds to emissions, with many shipping lanes east of China clearly outlined as well as the major Indian Ocean lane between the Strait of Malacca and the Suez Canal.

The United States and Central America

The United States is one of the world’s biggest carbon emitters. While other countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia technically have higher emissions per capita, their overall emissions are relatively low due to smaller populations.

Across the U.S., the most brightly lit areas are major population centers like the Boston-Washington corridor, the Bay Area, and the Great Lakes. But also lit up are many of the interconnecting highways linking all these population centers, even in the less-populated middle of the country.

With so much traffic in and out of the U.S., the oceans become a murky mix of shipping and flight paths. To the south, very clearly visible is the major concentration of people around Mexico City and the traffic flowing through the Panama Canal.

South America’s Network of Emissions

Like the other regions, some of South America’s most populated areas are also the biggest emitters, such as São Paulo and Rio in Brazil and Buenos Aires in Argentina. This map also highlights the continent’s rough terrain, with most of the population and highway emissions limited to the coasts.

However, the cities aren’t the only big emitters in the region. There are clear lines intersecting the Amazon forest in many sections where cities and roads were constructed, including the economic hub city of Manaus along the Amazon River. Likewise, the oceans have many major shipping lanes highlighted, particularly East of Brazil.

Europe and North Africa

Germany is one of Europe’s biggest carbon emitters—in 2021, the country generated almost 644 million tonnes of CO₂.

Also making an impression are Italy (which is the second-highest CO₂ emitter after Germany) and the UK, as well the significant amount of trade along the English Channel.

Compared to the intricate network of cities, towns, and bustling highways spanning Europe, across the Mediterranean are far clearer and simpler lines of activity in Northern Africa. Two major exceptions are in the Middle-East, where Egypt’s Nile River and Suez Canal are massively lit up, as well as Israel on the east of the sea.

But a more significant (albeit murkier) picture is drawn by the massive amounts of shipping and flight paths illuminating the Atlantic and Mediterranean at large.

Net Zero by 2050

To mitigate the negative effects of climate change, countries around the world have made commitments to reach net-zero emissions.

Imagining the global map of emissions with these commitments in action requires a complete transformation of energy production, consumption habits, transportation infrastructure, and more. And even then, a future generated map wouldn’t be fully dark, as “net-zero” is not equivalent to zero emissions but a balance of emissions and removal.

How might this map of global emissions look in the near and distant future? And what other interesting insights can you generate by browsing the world this way?

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