Images of the Day: Three Views of the Himalayas

By Tom Yulsman | November 17, 2013 2:08 am
Satellite image of the Himalayas

False-color image of the Himalayan mountain front acquired by the Suomi NPP satellite on Nov. 15, 2013. (Source: NOAA Environmental Visualization Laboratory)

| Update 11/17/13: When I found the image above yesterday, I was struck by the sharp contrast between India and the Tibetan Plateau — demarcated by the rugged, snow-covered Himalayas.  For my original post I also included a similar view, photographed from the International Space Station. Today I realized that this large-scale geographic dividing line, perhaps one of the most stark on the planet, would look really dramatic in an image captured from orbit at night highlighting the differences in population patterns. Be sure to read to the end of the post to see what I came up with. |

The snow-covered Himalayas, running in a long diagonal across the false-color satellite image above, mark a dramatic boundary between the warm, moist climate of the Indo-Gangetic Plain and the cold, high, and dry Tibetan Plateau.

Captured by the Suomi NPP satellite on Nov. 15, it shows the landscape in the near-infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Green is indicative of vegetation in the color-enhanced image, captured by the VIIRS instrument aboard Suomi NPP. And the gray colors, which dominate Tibet, indicate cold, non-vegetated landscapes. Lakes dot the Tibetan Plateau, some of them showing up in rusty tones characteristic of plankton blooms. (For a true-color rendition, click here.)

Himalayas Karen Nyberg Space Station

The Himalayas, as photographed by astronaut Karen L. Nyberg from the International Space on Nov. 4, 2013

Before Karen Nyberg returned home from her 166-day, 70-million-mile stint on the International Space Station, she shot this striking image of the Himalayas just as dusk was settling on the region and the sun was setting the snow-covered peaks aglow.

Himalayas India Tibet at Night Suomi NPP

Running diagonally from upper left to lower right, the Himalayas are faintly visible in this satellite image captured at night. The mountains divide highly populous India and Pakistan, where city lights glitter, and the Tibetan Plateau. (Source: NASA Worldview)

The geographic differences between the Indo-Gangetic Plain and the Tibetan Plateau result in a striking contrast in population patterns, as is dramatically evident in this nighttime view captured by the Suomi NPP satellite in 2012. The vast, densely populated plain, drained by the Indus and Ganges Rivers, encompasses parts of Pakistan, India and almost all of Bangladesh. (Not all of the region is visible in these views.)

The largest and brightest splotch of light, at the bottom and slightly to the left of center in the image above, is Delhi, a metropolitan area of 16.7 million people. The smaller city to the northeast northwest (toward the upper left) is Lahore, in Pakistan.

Today, the Indo-Gangetic Plain is one of the most populous on Earth. As of 2001 (the latest date for which I could find reliable data), the population stood at 747 million people. It is surely quite a bit larger now. And by 2050, the population is forecast to double, creating enormous strain on resources — most especially water.

Here is how three Indian researchers put it in a 2008 assessment of agriculture, water resources and poverty in the region:

Home to the earliest river valley (Indus valley) civilizations as well as the present-day economic dynamism taking off in South Asia, the basin is a study of contrasts and opportunities in all respects. And yet it is ‘water’ that remains the principal driver (or main set of brakes) for  development in South Asia.

The mighty Ganges River, which rises in the Himalayas, provides some of that water. But for northwestern India, visible in the images above, much of the water for agriculture comes from underground aquifers — which are rapidly being depleted as agricultural production rises to meet the demands of a growing population. For more about this subject, see this NASA feature about the use of satellites to track what’s happening to the water.

  • Elias Chan-Sui

    “The smaller city to the northeast (toward the upper left) is Lahore, in Pakistan.” Shouldn’t that be northwest?

    The legend of the mighty Saraswati comes to mind as you brought up water resources and the Ganges’ relationship to the Himalyas and its melt waters.

    • Tom Yulsman

      My bad! Correction coming right now! Thank you.



ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.


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