03 January 2013

Fracking visible from space

North-western North Dakota is home to the Bakken shale formation, where fracking has led to an oil boom. Most of the bright lights are natural gas from wells being burned because the region lacks the infrastructure to pipe all the gas away. Gas production has increased rapidly in recent years but 30% is flared. Image: NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon VIIRS/SUOMI
As explained at The Guardian, North Dakota is now visible from space because of the light generated by fracking-related activity.

Addendum:  Further information about the image, from NASA's Earth Observatory site:
Northwestern North Dakota is one of the least-densely populated parts of the United States. Cities and people are scarce, but satellite imagery shows the area has been aglow at night in recent years. The reason: the area is home to the Bakken shale formation, a site where gas and oil production are booming.

On November 12, 2012, the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the Suomi NPP satellite captured this nighttime view of widespread drilling throughout the area. Most of the bright specks are lights associated with drilling equipment and temporary housing near drilling sites, though a few are evidence of gas flaring. Some of the brighter areas correspond to towns and cities including Williston, Minot, and Dickinson.

The image was captured by the VIIRS “day-night band,” which detects light in a range of wavelengths from green to near-infrared and uses “smart” light sensors to observe dim signals such as gas flares, auroras, wildfires, city lights, and reflected moonlight. When VIIRS acquired the image, the Moon was in its waning crescent phase, so the landscape was reflecting only a small amount of light.


  1. What a waste to burn off 30% of the gas. Why don't they hold off on fracking if they can't transport the results?

  2. I read the Guardian article, and a couple of others on this. One caution.. This picture does not discriminate between the lights of the drilling rigs and operations in the area and gas flaring (The drilling rigs and other operations run 24 hours a day, and are brightly lit). The Guardian over simplified it a bit..

    When I looked into this, North Dakora (where most of this light is) only allows flaring like this for 1 year of operations. After that time, any gas that is flared is taxed and payments required as if it went to market. (Ref: http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=4030) The lights in this area have been notably visible for like 3 years, which is beyond the point that this flaring makes any economic sense.

    2011 imagry http://www.midwestenergynews.com/2011/11/14/the-bakken-north-dakota-oil-field-from-space/

    I suspect a fair amount of this light is from night time operations. Its a very dark area, so any light sources would be very visible.

    Having said that, around 30% of the natural gas produced in North Dakota is not marketed. Certainly a chunk is being flared. But from a producer standpoint, they're flaring off money they could earn -- and have very little incentive to do that. As noted in the EIA article referenced above, as gas pipelines are put in, the flaring reduces dramatically -- in one case, from the EIA article, putting in gas pipelines and processing plants reduced flaring by over 60%. I suspect the amount of flaring will be substantially reduced in the future, and it will be interesting to see how much the illumination comes down, if any.

  3. That image and the science it purports to show is imho extremely suspect.


    There are similar 'fires' in Western Australia which are brighter than any of the major cities in Australia, despite the fact the fact that the areas that contain the fires are semi-desert, and so any fire would be a low bush fire - not an intense forest fire.

    1. Danack, some of the points you raise are addressed at the NASA original link, which I should have included in the post. I've inserted it now, as an addendum, and have changed my words "fracking-related fires" to "fracking-related activity."


    2. Very good follow up Minnesotastan! This is why I read TYWKIWDBI -- some of the coolest information on the internet.

      But I've learned there are a couple of "news" sites that you really need to go look at the source data to get the real truth in the story behind. Regrettably this includes the Guardian, Daily Kos, Drudgereport, Hotair and several others which are very popular.

      FYI -- here's another night time picture of the Earth from NASA using the same sensor. Look down off the southern coast of Argentina and around the Falklands/ Malvinas. Those lights, which in this picture rival those from Rio and Buenos Aires, are from the squid fishing fleets. The squid fishing fleets use bright lights to lure the large squid to their ships. Fishing rights, and how the squid is being brought to market is one of the major bones of contention now between Argentina and the UK, sinc squid fishing is the largest fishery around the Falklands/ Malvinas. http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/image/1212/dnb_land_ocean_ice.2012.3600x1800.jpg

    3. Thanks for the link, Wales. It might also come in useful for future "dark-sky"/light pollution-related posts.

  4. 30% of the oil flared. My god that's insane. We're experiencing a world-wide oil shortage, prices are skyrocketing, and yet they're willing to piss 30% of that resource away just for lack of infrastructure. There really isn't a way to control the flow of oil from the wells so that only the amount of oil that can be carried away is allowed to flow? Really??

    1. I don't believe any oil is being burned. The 30% figure refers to the natural gas that is released from the shale when it is fractured.


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