Cartographer Creates Map Based On Night Lights

A St. Louis-based geospatial web dev named Jacob Wasilkowski had an ideal what if he made a map that showed the lights at night on Earth as mountains? Well, he went and made that idea a reality, publishing it early in March 2019, at Palm Springs, California’s Esri Developer Summit.

He took the brightest areas on Earth during night, then made them into luminous mountains, with cities filled with lights stretching up 53mi. on the map. Poorly-lit areas stay flat, even if they’re actually high altitude locations in real life, like mountain ranges. It’s sorta like illustrative maps, but for lights.

Wasilkowski said that the idea behind the map is to get people thinking about what heavily urbanized areas do to nighttime environments. He stated that he also wonders if we don’t consider what day versus night really means when observing maps, noting his interest in the difference between daytime maps and visualization data for night.

Notably, NASA has a how-to guide on how to make such a visualization, showing that there is an interest in nighttime maps, illustrative maps or not.

Wasilkowski admits that he exaggerated the “elevations” on the map, which he did via multiplying the data by a value that he decided on after some trial-and-error. He explains that the luminescence of every pixel is a value from ranging from 0 to 1, then multiplied by 85,000 on the geospatial illustrative maps to get those bright mountain ranges.

Naturally, the map has some of the most urbanized areas being the highest, like Washington DC. Chicago, one of the most densely-packed areas in the US, turned into a giant mountain range of gold.

However, not all of the brightly-lit areas are urban. North Dakota’s northwestern region is still pretty cragged on the map, thanks to housing and gas fires from the oil and the natural gas found in the area, thanks to the Bakken shale formation.

Wasilowski got some good word from other cartographers about the map, with him saying that the project is something special. He notes that it’s a visual example of how the world’s mountains get ignored in favor for the urban areas.