Earthshots: Satellite Images of Environmental Change

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» Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

The modernization of Saudi Arabia has been a recent and rapid phenomenon. Here we see two aspects of this transformation: explosive urbanization and center-pivot irrigation. Both are visible in and near Riyadh from 1972 to 2016.

The growth of Riyadh, the national capital, is dramatic. Its population grew from about half a million in 1972 to over 6 million in 2019. Saudi Arabia experienced urbanization later than many other countries; in the early 1970s, its urban-rural ratio was still about 1:3. By 1990, that had reversed to about 3:1. The cities grew through in-migration from rural areas and from decreases in the death rate while the birth rate remained high. In the mid-1970s, Riyadh’s population was increasing by about 10 percent a year.

The dark red squiggly line that winds through the western part of Riyadh is called the Wadi Hanifa, or the Hanifa Valley. This natural water course drains an area of over 4,000 square kilometers. Riyadh has been working to maintain the Wadi Hanifa as an environmental, recreational, and tourism resource.

Located about 35 kilometers north of Riyadh, King Khalid International Airport opened in 1983, so it only appears in the images after that date. The two parallel runways are each 4,200 meters long. The airport occupies about 225 square kilometers.

Princess Nora Bint Abdul Rahman University opened in 2011 just north of Riyadh. This change in land use is noticeable between King Khalid International Airport and the residential areas of Riyadh. The college sits along the highway that curves along the campus. With a capacity of 40,000 students, it is the largest women-only university in the world. The $5.3 billion (US) campus covers over 8 million square meters.

Southeast of Riyadh, irrigation clearly increased between 1972 and 2019, particularly around the city of Al Kharj. The red circles are fields with center-pivot irrigation systems, drawing water from Saudi Arabia’s aquifers. This irrigation development resulted from the investment of part of Saudi Arabia’s oil revenues in an effort to modernize agriculture.

The smaller city of Buraydah, northwest of Riyadh, shows the same pattern of urban growth and agricultural development. From 1972 to 1986, the population of Buraydah almost tripled, from 60,000 to about 180,000 people. The rapid growth continued, and the population was 378,422 in 2004 and 625,000 in 2019. The 47-year increase is over 940%.

New roads are visible in these images, and irrigated land has increased. Buraydah and Riyadh both lie in Saudi Arabia’s central corridor of settlement and development.


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