Earthshots: Satellite Images of Environmental Change

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“Buy land,” a wise man once said. “They’re not making any more.” Not so in Singapore.

These images show the physical growth of this island city-nation just off the mainland of Southeast Asia. Between 1973 and 2018, the island expands where Singapore created new land for airports, shipping, and oil refineries. In all, the government of Singapore has planned to increase the island’s original area by as much as 25 percent.

In these images, vegetation is green and water is blue-black. Bare soil and pavement look almost pale or pink. Singapore is often cloudy; these images, some of them with popcorn clouds, are among the clearest in the archive.

Singapore was rainforest, fringed by mangrove swamps, with about 150 people when the British acquired it as a colony in 1819. It soon thrived as a trading city because it lay sheltered from storms, right at the bottleneck where ships passed from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean.

In 1965, when it became independent, Singapore had almost 2 million people, crowded slums, negligible natural resources, and an economy dependent on shipping. But Singapore’s one-party government used this sense of crisis to build a wealthy, modern city by using strict controls. They lowered the birth rate, moved nine of ten Singaporeans into new high-rise condominiums, and developed new banking and manufacturing business while expanding shipping (2) even more. By 2019, Singapore had almost 5.7 million people and a high standard of living.

Map of the featured area.

Landsats 1 through 8 recorded these post-independence changes, starting with the city’s growth. For one and a half centuries, Singapore remained tightly packed in the southeastern corner of the island, but around the time of independence the city and island governments merged, and the population spread out into a new metropolis covering the whole island.

The Second World War taught Singapore how dependent it was on others for food, since it obviously had little room to grow its own. Since independence, farmland has shrunk from around a quarter of the island to about 5 percent. The many tiny Chinese-style family farms based on intensive labor were replaced by a few large production centers with greenhouses.

Amid all the building, the government saved tiny remnants of the pre-1819 tropical rainforest. Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, in only 185 acres, contains more tree species than all of North America. Forest patches stand out in the Landsat images (most clearly in 2002 and 2009) as brighter green, surrounding and working with the central reservoirs to trap as much water as possible. The Japanese took Singapore partly by cutting off its water supply, and even with these central reservoirs Singapore still needs to import water from Malaysia.

The British started the expansion of Singapore within days of landing in 1819. The expansion was begun by moving soil into small areas around the old port town that flooded at high tide. As Singapore became more important to Britain’s economy and military, they invested more in the port, including more extensions of land. This activity peaked between the World Wars, when Britain built the port into its naval stronghold in East Asia, and it ended with the Second World War, after which development quieted. From the mid-1800s to 1960, the city’s coastline had moved about 500 meters seaward.

In the decades following self-government in 1959, Singaporeans have created much more land than the British did in 140 years. The 1973 and 1990 images show this transformation underway; new ground was created either by flattening nearby hills or by scooping up underwater sand to deepen navigation channels. By 2000, you can identify the new recreation areas, stretching east along the coast and on southern Sentosa Island, by the green color of their vegetation, with golf fairways appearing as bright strips. The harbor channel is flanked by the gray areas of loading facilities. In the later images, you can see ships of different colors and sizes swarming in the water.

The new shoreline extends east of the city all the way to the airport on the island’s tip. In the mid-1970s, the government moved the main international terminal from Paya Lebar to Changi, partly to allow more distance between the planes and new, higher skyscrapers downtown.

In the 1989 image, on the east end of the island, you can see the old and new runways, parallel and a few miles apart. Planes now land where once was only water. A further extension of the land on the eastern tip was built for Chengi Air Base, visible in the 2000 image and later.

The symbol of the new Singapore may be on the island’s west end, the industrial New Town of Jurong. In 1962, the government began clearing the jungle and building docks by digging into the shore and by extending new land out into the sea. In the 1973 image, you can see cleared and filled expanses still lying bare and bright. By 1990, you can see Jurong’s streets and plantings filling in as it spreads inland. There are obvious land extensions, and the harbor is now busy with ships.

Much of Jurong’s shipping has been oil; by the 1990s, only the Gulf Coast and Rotterdam refined more. By the late 1960s, several plants were operating along the shore, and by 1973 you can see several more on the small islands offshore, squeezing out their forests and little fishing villages. By 1990, the islands are filled, and the oil companies have begun extending them. By 2000, the islands are gone, replaced by one large “chemical island” called Jurong Island, with its own new causeway to the mainland. Further development of Jurong Island is evident in the 2009 image.

Altogether, the government planned to increase Singapore’s area by 25 percent between independence and “Year X.” Year X was commonly interpreted as 2030, but many developments have pushed ahead of schedule. It appears that this extraordinary nation’s future, like its newest land, is far from settled.


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