Satellites show Iraq darker at night as conflict spreads

20 August 2014, Geneva, Switzerland - One sure indicator of life in human settlements is the quantity of light visible at night. Often violence and conflict deprive areas of electricity; in other cases people fleeing violence remain in the dark to elude detection by armed groups. In all crises, light can tell us something about how populations are being affected and more often than not looking at crisis areas from space offers new and sometimes very useful insights.

UNOSAT experts have been using a space borne sensor called VIIRS to detect night-light patterns in areas of Iraq invested by armed violence in recent weeks. The analysis concludes that vast areas interested by the surge of violence have been deprived of electricity. Two specific maps have been released by UNOSAT so far, both clearly indicating a relationship between armed conflict and light visible at night. UNOSAT says that large areas of Tikrit and Baiji as well as multiple outlying towns and villages appear particularly affected.

The process is based on the analysis of satellite data acquired over the same zone at different times. UNOSAT compared pre-conflict data from May 2014 with more recent data. In the resulting map, areas highlighted in yellow are those which were lit up in May but are dark now. The map appears consistent with the progression of violence along the Tigris river in the Governorates of Salahedin, Ta'meem, Diala and Ninevah.

To realize the study, UNOSAT used data from the VIIRS sensor, launched into ornit by NASA for scientific and meteorological tasks. VIIRS is capable of taking images of the earth at both day and night that are used to see cloud evolution, fires and ocean features. To complete the map UNOSAT experts added data from Esri and information generated by crowdsourcing via Google and Open Street Map.

View all UNOSAT maps on Iraq.

Images: Detail the UNOSAT map showing in yellow the areas currently without light. Below, a famous image of the earth taken by the VIIRS sensor in 2012 (Copyright NASA)