Earthshots: Satellite Images of Environmental Change

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Sydney, Australia, is a growing cosmopolitan city. Besides its recent growth, however, these images show that Sydney takes advantage of the natural beauty of its mountains and harbours.

Except for the shoreline to the east, Sydney is surrounded by green on all sides. The deep green south of Sydney includes national parks, recreation areas, and a military reserve. These areas prevent urban development from moving that direction. Royal National Park is located along the coast of the Tasman Sea just south of Sydney.

Over the past several decades, Sydney’s expansion has been mostly westward, toward the Blue Mountains.


Fact: Australia is the 6th largest country in the world. But it has the 3rd lowest population density with just under 3 people per square kilometer. About one-fifth of the country’s population lives in Sydney.

Map of the featured area.

Sydney Harbour defines the city and makes it recognizable worldwide. Parks, reserves, and gardens line the 240 kilometers of shoreline of this beautiful natural harbour. Any green that you see in the images along the harbour are parks or reserves—along with a few golf courses.

The Sydney Harbour Bridge crosses the harbour. This well-known Australia landmark opened in 1932. The height of the top of the arch is 134 meters above sea level. The 1-kilometer-long bridge is visible in the Landsat images, but you have to look closely.

Located near the bridge is one of the world’s most recognizable buildings and part of Sydney Harbour’s landscape. The Sydney Opera House was completed in 1973. It is seen as a few bright pixels in the images, on the end of the point nearest the bridge.

The 2000 Summer Olympic Games took place in Sydney. Can you spot the location of Sydney’s Olympic Park?

The other major natural harbour on the south end of these images is Botany Bay. The runways of Sydney Airport stretch into the bay. The main north-south runway is 3,962 meters long and was built in 1963. The other runway that extends into the bay appears in the 2002 image; it was completed in 1994.

Another expansion seen in Botany Bay is Port Botany, a major shipping port for Australia. The port is in an ideal location because of the deep water channels of the bay and proximity to the open waters of the Tasman Sea. The most recent addition is seen in the 2013 image, which shows the development of 63 hectares of land.

Urban growth in Sydney is seen on its western side. The light greens and purples in this sequence of images are residential and retail areas, and they are expanding over the green and tan colors of a more vegetated landscape. Even with this population growth, natural areas are preserved.

The lake that looks like the top of a rooster’s head is Prospect Reservoir. It’s been there since long before satellites. It was completed in 1888 to supply Sydney with water. The earthfill dam that formed the reservoir is 2.2 kilometers long and 26 meters high. The reservoir is surrounded by green in the images—the Prospect Nature Reserve. The purpose of the reserve is to offer environmental education, bushland conservation, and recreation such as walking and biking trails.

The 2013 image reveals a new highway that runs in a north-south direction on the west side of Prospect Reservoir. The Westlink M7 toll road opened to traffic in December 2005. North of the reservoir, the highway turns sharply to the east.

A feature west of Sydney changes shape and color throughout these four images, indicating constant change in that location. This area, which covers about 1,935 hectares, is the Penrith Lakes mining and reclamation project.

Located on the floodplain of the Nepean River, Penrith Lakes is the largest sand and gravel quarry in Australia. Eventually, quarrying activities will end and the entire site will be completely turned into parkland and lakes. Three main recreation lakes are planned, and the northern lake will be a wildlife sanctuary. During the first stage of the reclamation, the southern part of the area was turned into the kayaking and rowing venue for the 2000 Summer Olympic Games.


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