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From 512 miles up

You can see the American economy changing from space

The picture above was taken by NASA’s Earth Observatory, which orbits the planet twice a day some 512 miles up. This view of the continental United States at night is fairly stunning, showing the brightly lit population centers. But what are we really looking at? Maybe it would help to go back in time:

Oil-fields-at-night

That new constellation of lights is evidence of a major shift in the American—and global—economy. They come from the fire of natural gas burning as companies work all night to extract petroleum from the Bakken formation under North Dakota, a place whose citizens now refer to it as “Kuwait on the prairie,” according to NPR’s Robert Krulwich.

This is “fracking,” the controversial technology using water and chemicals pumped into the ground to shatter bedrock and gain access to the surrounding oil and natural gas. While some drillers are specifically tapping gas reserves, others that are going after the oil often just flare off the accompanying gas, because the oil is more profitable. As a result, some 29% of the gas being extracted goes to waste—or rather, into creating this spectacular light show.

Fracking opened up access to previously cost-prohibitive deposits, putting the United States on pace to once again be the world’s largest oil producer in 2017, beating Saudi Arabia. It has reduced America’s energy imports from around the world, setting off a chain reaction of economic consequences that include making US manufacturing more competitive, reducing the economic clout of the OPEC nations and Russia, and even undermining environmental regulations in Europe.

And the race to exploit the Bakken formation has made a boom town out of this part of North Dakota, giving it low unemployment, rising prices and unique business opportunities.

It’s only fitting—and a little frightening—that such huge changes be visible from orbit.

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