Satellites trace the appearance of crop circles in Saudi Arabia

It's not the work of aliens. Instead, you can chalk these crop circles up to humans + money + time. And, with the help of satellite imaging, you can watch as humans use money to change the desert over the course of almost 30 years.

Landsat is a United States satellite program that's been in operation since 1972. Eight different satellites (three of them still up there and functioning) have gathered images from all over the world for decades. This data is used to help scientists studying agriculture, geology, and forestry. It's also been used for surveillance and disaster relief.

Now, at Google, you can look at images taken from eight different sites between 1984 and 2012 and and watch as people change the face of the planet. In one set of images, you can watch agriculture emerge from the deserts of Saudi Arabia — little green polka-dots of irrigation popping up against a vast swath of tan. In another se, you'll see the deforestation of the Amazon. A third, the growth of Las Vegas. It's a fascinating view of how we shape the world around us, in massive ways, over a relatively short period of time.


  1. In this case, the one thing it won’t show is the draining of aquefers.  Speaking of the Aral Sea, I remember an Uzbek agricultural scientist coming out to Arkansas State University to study the use of deep wells in crop irrigation to make up the difference in their unsustainable use of the water that had originally fed the Aral.  When my father pointed out that it was equally unsustainable:  we were pulling water out of the aquefer at a foot a year (at that time) when it was only replentished at less than an inch a year he decided to talk to someone else.

  2. Greening the Desert II: Greening the Middle East
    This is “the kind of work that should be encouraged, supported and emulated worldwide. It is the ultimate root-cause type of aid work.”

    1.  Yep, zoom on over to the Central Valley in CA, and just watch how the crops rotate, shift, creep over lakebeds and up mountainsides and the reservoirs go up and down.  It flashes like a crazy old movie.  It’s cool.

  3. The area around Oswego, IL is interesting too. Shows the eradication of corn fields to make room for more suburbs.

    Site gets kind of glitchy if you drag the map around too much though, and the inability to link to custom locations is a bit of a drag.

    1.  There is a button to the bottom right of the map that lets you share your location “share this view”

  4. I’ve seen a picture like this, taken over Libya.  The explanation was that they had drilled for oil and hit water instead (it was near an oasis).

  5. For many years, Saudi Arabia had some sort of project to make itself self sufficient in wheat.  It was insanely expensive and wasteful, probably would have worked better if they’d tried to farm using Chia Pets. 

  6. It’s not just you.

    Plus all crop circles are the work of humans + time. They’re really cool, but they’re not made by aliens.

  7. Hey peeps!

    A great organization needs some programming help to use satellite imaging like this one to help tribes in the Amazon fight illegal logging and mining.

    Look below, and reach out if you know someone! @vegajorge


    Digital Democracy is seeking to build a community-run early-warning system with Google Earth Engine (GEE) to identify illegal mining operations and forest clearance in the Amazon rainforest in Southern Guyana.The basic idea is that indigenous territory monitors, from the Wapishana communities in the region, will receive notifications via email and a website of potential mining operations and forest clearance, with a map of the location so they can visit to verify whether illegal activities are taking place.

    They’ll develop an algorithm to identify potential mining and forest clearance on MODIS and Landsat 8 imagery on the GEE platform.We will be working with the Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project group from AAAS, which have experience with similar satellite analysis projects, to help develop the algorithm.

    We are seeking a developer to implement the algorithm on the Google Earth Engine API, writing server code to run periodic analysis and send notifications, and developing a UI for a website/emails to notify the monitors.

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