At night, gas flares outshine everything else in the Niger River delta. In this image of Nigeria taken on December 18, 2013, by the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the Suomi NPP satellite, the lights of Port Harcourt and Benin City are dim compared to the flares. The image illustrates two facts from a U.S. Energy Information Administration assessment: Nigeria contains more gas flares than any other country except Russia, and Nigeria has one of the lowest per capita electricity generation rates in the world.
While some city lights are visible, they are concentrated in small clusters in population centers. There are no sprawling cities and no networks of well-lit roads. Only 50 percent of Nigeria’s population has access to electricity. Among those that do have electricity, demand far exceeds the supply, resulting in load-shedding and blackouts. Some 30 percent of the electricity in Nigeria comes from private generators. Most Nigerians rely on burning charcoal, wood, manure, and other bio-waste for cooking and heating.
Limited use of electricity is not the only reason flares dominate the scene. About 10 percent of the world’s gas flares are located in Nigeria, and most of them are concentrated in the delta region. Nigeria is Africa’s largest oil producer and the world’s fourth largest exporter of liquefied natural gas. But that gas production is not as abundant as it might be because the flares burn at oil production facilities, which lack the infrastructure to capture and process the natural gas that comes out of oil wells. Gas flaring is one of several environmental impacts of oil production that the nation’s government has sought to limit.
The flares and oil production occur both on land and offshore. In fact, it is hard to see where the land ends and the ocean begins in the night lights image above, which shows the delta region in visible light as it might appear to the human eye. But viewing the scene in infrared light, as shown below, better reveals the distribution of the flares.
This second image shows the same area in midwave infrared light, a portion of the electromagnetic spectrum often used to study emitted thermal radiation at night. In this view, warm ocean waters are brighter than the cool land and cold clouds, making it possible to see the boundary between land and water. The flares shine brightly in both views.