Ships Passing in the Night


More than 170 oil rigs stand in the North Sea, making it one of the world’s largest offshore oil and gas exploitation sites. The sea is also among the busiest areas in the world for ship traffic.

Archaeology and history tell us that the North Sea has been an active area for maritime traders, sea battles, and explorers since at least 12 B.C. Today, the traffic include supply and recreation boats, fishing boats, and merchant ships traveling between ports in the North Sea and Baltic Sea. The region experiences significant traffic throughout the year.

Some of the busiest shipping lanes are concentrated in the center of the sea, often traversed by supply vessels for offshore oil and gas platforms. Oil and gas extractions were first licensed in the North Sea in the 1960s. Five countries own oil rigs in the sea, although companies from the United Kingdom and Norway operate the majority of them. The products are a mixture of liquid oil and natural gas pulled from reservoirs under the sea.

The image pair above shows lights from oil rigs and pathways of ships navigating between the rigs in the North Sea on March 2, 2021. The top image was acquired around 2:30 a.m. local time by the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the NOAA-NASA Suomi NPP satellite, using the day-night band (DNB). The DNB detects light in a range of wavelengths from green to near-infrared and uses filtering techniques to observe signals such as city lights, auroras, and reflected moonlight. The bottom image was taken around 12:50 local time by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s satellite.

The shipping lanes are traced out by “ship tracks”—narrow clouds brightened by small airborne pollution particles emitted from the vessels. Water vapor condenses around the tiny particles of pollution to form thin, winding clouds. Research shows that ship traffic increases the number of cloud droplets over shipping lanes, blocking some sunlight from reaching the ocean surface and creating local cooling events.

Many rigs in the North Sea are expected to be decommissioned in coming years as European countries move toward other forms of energy. Some rigs will be pulled back to shore and dismantled, although some ecologists are suggesting some rigs remain as habitat for the marine life that has grown around them.

NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using VIIRS day-night band data from the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership and MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS LANCE and GIBS/Worldview. Story by Kasha Patel.

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