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Six man-made features you can see from space

By Daniel Martins
Digital Reporter
Sunday, October 13, 2013, 3:04 PM

Our planet's face has always been ever changing, but the last century has seen mankind add its own signature, and enormous, features.

From new lakes and islands, to barren landscapes and oil spills, here are six man-made changes to our world that can be seen from space.

Lake Nasser, the Aswan Dam

From time immemorial, the waters of the Nile have been a source of life and prosperity for Egypt, its banks the home of one of the world’s first civilizations.

Now, thanks to human ingenuity, the ancient river has a lake halfway down from its headwaters, 5,000 square kilometres in surface area, and 130 m deep in some places:

Image: NASA

Image: NASA

Lake Nasser is the reservoir of the Aswan High Dam, begun in 1960 and visible at the head of the dam, to the left of the above shot. It’s now one of the largest man-made lakes in the world, certainly visible from space (it’s in the south of this shot of Egypt and Sudan):

Image: NASA

Image: NASA

The change to the face of our planet is not just cosmetic. The dam has tamed the Nile, ending millennia of flooding, and providing hydroelectric power to Egypt’s growing population.

But aside from concerns of the dam silting up, around 100,000 people were displaced as the waters began to rise (other sources put the number at 50,000).

And, more famously, before construction, the planned reservoir would have submerged several ancient Egyptian temples, including the complex at Abu Simbel.

The solution: Cut up the temples and move them to higher ground:

The lake has not only changed the landscape, it changed history as well.

Manicouagan Reservoir, Quebec

To be fair, mankind didn’t create the “eye of Quebec.” We just made it bigger:

Image: NASA

Image: NASA

It’s enormous … almost 2,000 square kilometres in surface area and 350 m at its deepest point. The crater that holds the water is what remains of an asteroid impact 214 million years ago that may have been responsible for a widespread extinction event.

You can see here how the original lake looked (it wasn’t even a closed ring) before Quebec built the Daniel-Johnson Dam, which was inaugurated in 1969.

Image: Dan Fleet/Wikimedia Commons

Image: Dan Fleet/Wikimedia Commons

Aside from providing a pretty spectacle for orbiting astronauts, it’s a visible symbol of one of the most important episodes in Canadian history: Quebec’s Quiet Revolution.

Alongside from the revolution’s massive social changes, it also included a huge expansion of hydro-electric power, making the province a big player in renewable energy.

Deepwater Horizon oil spill

Remember the enormous Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010? Here’s an idea of how huge it was:



That snakey piece of land is the Mississippi Delta. And that shiny area offshore is the spill, in May, relatively early in the 87-day disaster that resulted in 4.1 million barrels of oil pouring into the Gulf of Mexico. 

It is the largest known oil spill in history.

The disaster was a huge blow to the reputation of B.P., which owned the rig. Eleven workers were killed in the disaster, and the extent of the environmental damage is still being worked out. (just this year, massive tar mats were still being uncovered on shore).

You can read the full report of the cleanup operations here, and get a better picture of the disaster via this BBC documentary:

The Aral Sea is almost dried up

Here's another, more extreme example of how mankind can wreak enormous changes to our planet's features. Have a look at the Aral Sea, as it appeared in 1989:

Image: NASA

Image: NASA

Back then, it was about the size of Ireland, and the fourth largest lake in the world.

And here's how it looked in 2008, five years ago:

Image: NASA

Image: NASA

That's a staggering transformation, the result of Soviet agricultural policies dating as far back as the 1960s, diverting major waterways to irrigate cropland. 

The result has been a 90 per cent reduction in the sea's surface level, which has dwindled to those salty pools you see above.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called it one of the worst environmental disasters in the world.

The once-thriving fishing industry has been decimated, entire villages have been left kilometres from the water's edge, and abandoned ships dot the landscape like a scene from a post-apocalyptic film.

Image: Staeker/Wikimedia Commons

Image: Staeker/Wikimedia Commons

There has been some good news in recent years, though. The government of Kazakhstan has teamed with the World Bank to pour millions of dollars into new diversion efforts, that have increased the surface area of one of the pools remaining of the original sea by around 50 per cent in a few years.

They're also working on stocking the refilling lake with fish. The few fishermen that remain in business say annual catches have doubled since 2007.

The deforestation of Haiti

The thing about looking down on Earth from space is that, with the exception of certain rivers and mountain ranges, you usually can't tell where all the boundaries between countries are.

In Haiti, however, you can absolutely tell where the frontier with the Dominican Republic is. Just look at where the forest ends.

Image: NASA

Image: NASA

Haiti is the dusty area to the left of that river. That's how severe the country's deforestation is, after a century of clear-cutting that has left much of the landscape treeless.

This source estimated that in 1923, roughly 60 per cent of the country's land area was forested. By 2006, that figure had dropped to a mere two per cent.

Lack of tree cover has led to soil erosion, declining agricultural yields, and landslides, a huge problem in a country already plagued by political instability and wrecked by the 2010 Haiti earthquake that may have killed more than 300,000 people.

RELATED: Ten earthquakes that changed the world

Over the course of the decades, several irrigation or reforestation efforts have been launched, including one which resulted in 25 million trees being planted, but they've never been enough to keep up with commericial cutters and Haitians who rely on wood and charcoal for fuel.

Dubai's artificial islands

From the dire, to the fanciful. Dubai's artificial, palm tree shaped islands are visible from space, if you've a sharp eye and a good camera.

Image: NASA

Image: NASA

Those palm-shaped islands, and the nearby world-shaped archipelago, began construction in the early 2000s, and stand as an enduring symbol of the boundless wealth the country boasts as a world financial centre.

This one, "Palm Jumeira," photographed in 2007, is a great example:

Image: Leroy Chiao/NASA

Image: Leroy Chiao/NASA

Roughly five kilometres by five kilometres, the island was designed to be home to more than 2,000 villas, dozens of luxury hotels and and 40 theatres, malls and other structures, all for a projected population of 500,000 people.

Image: Alexander Heilner/Wikimedia Commons

Image: Alexander Heilner/Wikimedia Commons

We're not sure whether those dreams have come true, but the island is slowly being populated. However, since 2009, Dubai's economy has been badly hit, and the island itself, along with others like it along the Dubai shore, has been plagued by construction delays, cost overruns, and even accusations that the completed island is sinking about 5 mm a year, not to mention the risk from rising sea levels.

Not to mention the fact many tenants, expatriates included, have struggled to cope with outrageous heat and smaller-than-expected property sizes.

Regardless of the site's problems, if nothing else, it shows that the larger changes mankind has made to Earth's surface can be quite beautiful - when viewed from a distance.

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