Apparently there is now a sprawling metropolis in northwestern North Dakota, or… something

As any regular reader of this irregularly-updated blog knows, I love maps. That I didn’t become a cartographer is mainly a result of the times in which we live, although given the tech geekery of GIS, it’s still not a convincing explanation.

Anyway, as a map lover, I geeked out today when The Atlantic Wire had a post about new nighttime satellite imagery released by NASA, including this amazing “map” of the US, with its major metropolitan areas aglow with artificial luminescence.

Knowing the US map as well as I do, I was immediately able to pick out most of the major cities. Starting with my home in Minneapolis, I proceeded to identify Chicago, Des Moines, Omaha, Kansas City, etc.

And that’s when it hit me. I know there’s no major US metropolitan area between Minneapolis and Seattle. So… what is that huge glowing area in what appears to be northwestern North Dakota? I wondered. Atlantic Wire’s Dashiell Bennett wondered the same thing, and came to the same conclusion as I did:

One thing that sticks out for us is the surprisingly large bright spot in what appears to be an otherwise dark North Dakota. Could that be the state’s exploding oil industry working overtime?

I’ve created an animated GIF illustrating the situation. Using the NASA photo published on the Atlantic Wire post, I overlaid a map outlining the state boundaries, dropped in markers for some recognizable cities in the western US and Canada, and then… that big weird area in North Dakota.

I decided to take a closer look at just what is around that huge glowing area in North Dakota. I zoomed the satellite photo and overlaid it on another map outlining counties and rivers in North Dakota to try to make sense of it. Surely North Dakota’s population centers must be near all of that light, right?

Not so.

At this level of zoom, on Google Maps, only four towns in the entire western half of the state are populous enough to be identified: Williston, Minot, Dickinson and Bismarck. And of those four, only Williston (population 14,716, according to the 2010 census) is in the glowing area.

So… yeah. This light is not coming from a city. At least, not a well-planned, livable city densely populated with humans. I’m no expert on the topic, but I am well aware of North Dakota’s current shale oil boom and the controversies of the hydraulic fracking techniques that must be used to extract it from the earth. It’s just kind of interesting, I think, to see yet another consequence of fracking: light pollution.

For further reading… well, just Google “Williston fracking”.