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We Can See Your Christmas Lights From Space

| 18 Dec 2014 19:00
american holiday lights

A NASA satellite is picking up increased volumes of night time light, but everything's fine! It's just the Christmas holiday season.

Thanks to satellites, we're already well aware that city lights can actually be seen from space at night. But what you might not have expected was for night time lights to rise by over 50% during the holiday months. As far as scientists can tell, that shift is generated largely by the Christmas lights that make the holiday season more festive. After punching in some algorithms to see how the lights change each night, it turns out that yes: It's very possible to see Christmas lights from space.

NASA's Suomi satellite wasn't designed with Christmas lights in mind. Its original purpose was to monitor cloud cover, vegetation, ozone layer and air pollution, among other factors. But researchers from the Goddard Space Flight Center and Yale University use it to track how various countries display their holiday appreciation. After accounting for snow-reflected light, aerosols, and the reflection of the moon, we've been able to generate some fascinating visual results.

From the results, it's very clear that city lights aren't distributed evenly during the holiday months. While central urban areas got 20-30% brighter, suburbs and rural residential areas went all National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation with a staggering 30-50% increase. Cities like Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Pheonix, Sacramento, and San Jose all see such spikes between Black Friday and New Year's Day. It also shows that most Americans tend to get away from densely populated urban areas for the holiday season.

"We were really surprised to see this vibrant increase in activity during the holidays," research physical scientist Miguel Roman explained, "and particularly around areas in the suburbs where you have a lot of single family homes with a lot of yard space to put lights."

And it's not just America brightening up the night sky, it's happening internationally. For example, Cairo's lights appear far earlier than other countries thanks to Ramadan. We can also tell that Saudi Arabia is making a bigger deal of Ramadan lights than Turkey. More significantly however, we can tell that people of the Middle East tend not to travel during holidays the same way Americans do. "The communities are staying where they are and they're shifting their activities to the night," Roman continued. "We're seeing patterns of behavior that vary significantly from country to country."

The data itself holds interest to anyone researching human behavior or tracking energy use during the Christmas season. But on a surface level, it's just really cool to look at, and know for a scientific fact that the holidays light up the world in a measurable way.

Source: LA Times

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