The Bakken from space

There’s a really cool time-lapse video from the International Space Station bouncing around the interwebs right now. Watch and you’ll see dramatic images of the Northern Lights and a string of lightning storms as the space station swirls around the earth.

Being a bit of a geography buff, though, I can’t help but try to figure out specific locations based on the lights of different cities. And as the video sweeps across North America, I noticed a couple of “cities” that won’t appear on any maps.

For instance, over Alberta, we can clearly see the oil sands near Fort McMurray:

But then as the video sweeps toward the east, at about 0:34 another strange, enormous “city” appears in the middle of nowhere.

What could it be? Billings? Saskatoon? The parking lot of the Super K-Mart in Glendive?

As we move further east, more familiar locations appear, revealing our mystery “city.” It’s the lights from the Bakken oil field in North Dakota (and probably a fair amount of natural gas flares as well).

There have been numerous stories about the scope and impact of oil development in North Dakota. But none put it in quite such stark terms as this image.

30 thoughts on “The Bakken from space

  1. Light pollution? Seriously? I thought that pollution was something that was hard to clean up and caused a lasting impact. What is this impacting? The view of earth for a half-dozen astronauts? Is it keeping anyone awake at night? You know how hard it is to clean up light pollution? Close your eyes.

  2. Beg pardon, but I never said anything about “light pollution.” That would be the person who linked the story on Reddit. Take your issue up with them.

  3. This oil resource is the best thing for us and this country right now. So good to see it growing and bringing prosperity to 1000’s & 1000’s of people in such a tough economy.

  4. We’d best be doing this. China has 95% of the rare minerals market we need for all electronics, so we’d better get a foothold somewhere and we know coal mining is crappy for everyone so I’ll take this. The game is still acquisition of power, not saving the planet. Everyone is in a giant daisy chain when it comes to money; that’s part of the problem

  5. Also…how else do you heat your house if you aren’t burning something in the end, unless you solar power everything (including your electric car) or something crazy like that.A lot of things occur because it was the best bad decision at the time. We have such a trainwreck on our hands when it comes to these old nuke reactors that are falling apart/may meltdown in an earthquake that we are unfortunately going see more hydrocarbon-based plants in our future very quickly. And of course no one wants to start an offshore drilling project now that the underground whale conspiracy is plotting against us for ruining EVERYTHING down there with dispersant. Just kidding about that last bit, although I do think of the whales.

  6. Ken, I cannot begin to thank you enough for taking free and readily available information and putting a face on an issue that has been glossed over and predominantly overlooked in an era where finding any means of financial security and energy independence is king.

    While it is obvious that there are benefits of the Bakken Formation extraction – the consequences are difficult to battle for someone who wonders if living in anonymity and dark silence…in the middle no-where…of the least populated state in the Nation was really what I preferred all along. I grew up in the middle of that Bakken nebula. Odd how fickle one can be when upon realizing first-hand that the commonly referenced phrase of ‘having your cake and eating it too’ really does not exist. At least we have your insight to wise us up, even if it is only for a brief moment.

  7. “Also…how else do you heat your house if you aren’t burning something in the end.”

    Okay, I’ll bite. How about body heat and “two space heaters from Target”? (I’m told electricity can be generated by wind and solar these days.)

  8. “How else to heat your house if you aren’t burning somethingin the end.”? Solar is projected to be cheaper than coal or oil generated electrical within 5-10 years (see J. Vac. Sci. Technol. A 29„3…, May/Jun 2011)

  9. Actually light pollution can be a real problem in cities. There have been several studies and numerous documentaries made on how light pollution affects the sleep cycles of humans and animals and in many large cities the impact on the bird populations. Many cities are installing special lights to help cut back on the pollution and help save wildlife.

  10. I was doing much the same thing you’ve done… going through the video trying to identify cities and towns. At first I thought that huge area of glowing lights in North Dakota might be some sort of enormous camping event. But while poking around news articles on ND, I was reminded of the oil boom. And sure enough, a map of drilling locations is an excellent match for the hundreds of lights in this area.

    The Bakken field turns up again twice in this same video. There’s a considerably better view of it at 02:50 with Lake Fort Peck nicely illuminated by moonlight. It’s visible again on the far left at 04:08 but worse than either of the earlier cases.

  11. My daughter, a senior, in HS just showed me this. We live in Mckenzie Co. ND smack dab in the middle of the Bakken. I would have to say that the light you are seeing is ALL oil well flares burning off natural gas. Pretty from up there, UGLY, to what its doing here! Our farming, ranching, small business way of life and beautiful “God’s” country is being raped by this boom and all of the garbage it has braught to our town to make a quick buck! If you or anyone you know are thinking about coming here to work, stay away, far away! Winter has already hit, its 12F outside w/ a 15mph wind giving us a cold -1 below and its only Nov 17 at 2:00pm Central! Theres no where for anyone to live, whats available are campers that can NOT make it through the winter or a precious few rental apts or housing at $1500.00 a week! So, just stay where you are , do what you have to do to make a lving, pray (as we all are) that the economy will soon get better, and just enjoy looking at the Bakken throughe the eyes of satelight- from afar!

  12. I have to say that I agree with Jen, I live in Belfield ND. They really need to figure out what to do with that Natural Gas other than burn it all off.
    At any rate, we have more jobs than we have people to fill them, and no where for new people to live, the only thing they can really start doing is to boot farmers off of the land that they have owned for a long long time, and worked so hard to maintain, and yet I’ve heard locals say that they WANT this newly proposed coal mine to go in, because it would ‘make more jobs’. I think ‘well enough’ should be left alone, these guys that came out here for the oil field are about to be in for the roughest winter most of them have ever seen, and they’re doing it in a camper with nothing but boards around the bottom in hopes it’ll keep them warm.

    Keep praying that the economy will get better, if you aren’t used to ND, its probably not worth it to move up here just for a job, when you’re not going to have any place to live.

  13. There’s got to be a smarter way of developing the natural resources available. Burning off the natural gas? Don’t we drill for that in other parts of the country? and no housing for the people working in the oilfields? maybe we should slow down. the oil isn’t going anywhere. I grew up in ND and now live in AK. Alaska developed their oil fields fast and production is now on the decline; the bulk of the oil was sold when it was going for $10 a barrel. wouldn’t it be great if some of that oil could be sold now? ND is going to burn through the oil fast, a few companies will make loads of money, and the folk who were there AND the folks who moved there will be left in the dust when the oil runs out. Seems like a little planning could provide a much more efficient use of the resources ND has available, and benefit everyone invloved… except the oh-so-benevolent companies that actually get to make those decisions…

  14. I agree with the last few posts. I grew up in and work in Ray. Dan, you are forgetting one thing. It’s not just the companies making the decisions. It’s the state and local governments. They finally wised up and put a moratorium on man camps. Personally, I think it’s a little too late as they waited until our sewer, water, and electric utilities were at absolute max capacity, not to mention our roads. I think things need to slow down. I know that may cause a few oil leases to lapse and those companies will pay millions because of it, but they are making billions off our area. They should take our way of life into account. All the state and local officials care about is how we are finally the shining star of the US. All they want to grow and expand all of our cities so they make more money. Why do the newspapers or radio not mention the huge increase in crime? They do, but only a small blurb here and there. That’s probably enough ranting for now. Thanks for reading my thoughts.

  15. I’m a senior in high school living in the bakken formation. I live around 15 miles from town and have to drive me and my little sister to school every morning. Sometimes I don’t know weather we’ll make it or not between the constant truck traffic (passing around 15) or the horrific condition our highway is in, and I know other fellow students and teachers feel the same way. From my house, I can count 3 different flares just from looking out the window. It’s truly sad what’s happening to my small community, although I am fortunate for how our economy is going in ND. A lot of local families have made a few oil earnings, as mine has. As the way things are going in our town, they would give every cent and penny back just to see our old town again. You can’t go ANYWHERE in this town(that’s right, in town) without seeing a white crew truck with out of state license plates going 40 in a 25. I encourage anyone interested to read some local newspapers and look at the accidents happening 2-3 times a day, not to mention small crimes and bar fights. It’s sickening. Unfortuately, I’ll probably never see this town the way it was again, which is kind of a touchy subject that doesn’t get brought up very much. I know that other communities in the bakken are dealing with the same exact thing. This is why I believe, we need to work our hardest to try and preserve what is being stolen from us. It’s important that the word gets out about what exactly is happening in the part of the country. Thank you, love a concerned bakken citizen.

  16. I grew up in ND, and as I listen to the people that have posted here I cant help but think if the California Goldrush days and the way it changed California and the country. It is called progress and ND is on the leading edge this time. It doesnt mean you cant have quality and a good life. you also have jobs and economy the rest of the country would like to have. Growing pains are always hard.Be involved in your communities to make possitive changes instead of whining about “the way things used to be” or maybe you want to return to horse and buggy days too?

  17. I have been told by company men working the Bakken field that they will burn off in 30 minutes what you or I would use in our lifetime of Natural Gas. What a waste! We have this resource someone needs to get a pipeline up there and quick!

    I have been to Watford, ND, small town with small town feel. They were very nice to me, but I think that was only because I was a female. They do not treat the men so nicely. The food was horrible. These people were not ready for this to hit their town and really do not want it there, but they sure are making a pretty penny on it. $6.00 for a gallon of milk….hmmmm. For the Locals their, all I have to say about the complaining is…”You or your neighbor took that hefty check that the oil company gave you/them. If it’s your neighbors land….take it up with them. If you cashed that nice check…stop your complaining. YOU GOT PAID FOR IT!

  18. In response to Eve; yes, we have jobs, but our economy was fine before the boom. Our bankers were smart enough not to make stupid loans/mortgages to people who couldn’t pay. We complain because we are the ones who will be left here when the boom is over.

    To Nancy, I agree that we need more pipelines. We need more gas lines as to cut back on the wasted energy. We also need more oil lines to cut back on the truckers in the area. As far as the comment about stopping the complaining because people are getting paid. Does that make you feel better about all of the women being raped in the area? Should that make us feel better about the increased violence/bar fights and vandalism occurring in the area? There are many negatives that money does not fix.

    To some extent I agree with your point involving greed: greed in the oil companies to lock in their lease to own the rights to produce, and (to a lesser extent) greed of the people taking the lease money. However, an oil company can force pool a mineral owner into a lease. Once they have a lease, there is little a landowner can do. The oil company is pretty much able to place a well site wherever they want.

    I argue that we could develop this oil in a more reasonable fashion.

  19. “How else to heat your house if you aren’t burning somethingin the end.”? Solar is projected to be cheaper than coal or oil generated electrical within 5-10 years (see J. Vac. Sci. Technol. A 29„3…, — don’t hold your breath. The comment is true as it stands, except for hydroelectricity. I disbelieve any projections about solar power.

  20. To everyone who is going off about solar power, I would just like to say that in ND, where I live, solar power is simply not a good idea because of our storms. The hail that we get in our thunderstorms would destroy all of the solar panels every year and in the end, replacing those every year would be insanely expensive. That’s all I want to say.

  21. Goodbye to the peaceful and serene North Dakota I grew up in. With money comes crime, prostitution, greed and all kinds of vices.
    I sympathize with the people who wish they could go back to pre oil boom days.

  22. how do i get the picture of north dakota oil wells burning? iam a student doing my student teaching and would really like a poster size to put in my room. iam doing my student teaching in New Town, North Dakota please get back to me thank you.

  23. maybe you could draw a line where the Missouri River is on the map. would be nice to know what light might be my home town on the river?

  24. Folks:

    I can’t believe these stories talking about the flaring of natural gas. Accross the borderinto Saskatchewan and Alberta, there are strict rules concerning the flaring of natural gas that is produced as a by-product of oil production. The natural gas must be recovered in most instances. Your government officials are letting you folks down.

  25. I live in Williston, ND. Born and raised here. I agree that the boom has ruined our once decent city. I agree that if you were thinking of coming here to just stay home!! There are very few places to live and the places that are open are charging thousands a month for rent. Our city infrastructure is is stressed to the max! We have homeless living in tents all over the place, campers fill the Wal-Mart parking lot because there is no other place for them or their children. Our schools are full and we don’t have the business to support all the people. Stay home, please!

  26. To Nancy, it’s called inflation. and read the Mckenzie County Farmer. it will explain to you that the idea of everyone living here is rich is simply NOT TRUE. if you didn’t like it here, don’t come back.

  27. when the price of living exceeds your income..pretty much th entire western half of ND. clearly something needs to be fixed.