Earthshots: Satellite Images of Environmental Change

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The United Arab Emirates (UAE) holds about 6% of the world’s total oil reserves. The oil cannot last forever, so Dubai is thinking of the future. The fast-growing city, and most populous in the UAE, is diversifying its economic base by becoming a luxury tourist destination.

Landsat can track the city’s urban growth, along with numerous other types of landscape changes.

(Black stripes run through some of the images because of the Scan Line Corrector failure on Landsat 7 in May 2003.)

Map of the featured area.

About 5 million tourists visit Dubai every year and they have plenty to see and do. To attract tourists, Dubai developed the world’s fastest roller coaster, the world’s tallest building, and the world’s largest shopping mall. It also built fancy hotels, beaches, and even a huge indoor ski resort.

In the first image of this series, desert fills much of the image. As Dubai expands, roads, buildings, and irrigated fields spread out over the desert. But the most prominent project in Dubai, and an impressive engineering feat, is the artificial islands built off its coast. The islands were built from sand dredged from the sea floor. Rock breakwaters protect them from erosion. These Landsat images show the rapid and impressive development of these islands.

Palm Jumeirah was the first of the artificial islands off the coast of Dubai to be built. Shaped like a huge palm tree, it added 56 kilometers (35 miles) to Dubai’s coastline.

Palm Jumeirah includes a trunk with 17 fronds surrounded by a crescent-shaped breakwater. Residences are on the fronds, the trunk has apartments, and hotels line the crescent. The crescent also has a large water park called Aquaventure.

In the early years of the 21st century, substantial progress is seen on this artificial island. Once the island takes shape, vegetation is seen increasing on the new land. The progress on the island matched the urban growth inland during the same time period. New roads, expanded urban areas, and increased vegetation mark the most visible changes in these images.

Palm Jebel Ali is another island similarly shaped to the Palm Jumeirah and slightly larger. And like Palm Jumeirah, this artificial island was built quickly in the early years of the 2000s.

After the financial crisis of 2008, development slowed down. In fact, construction on Palm Jebel Ali was suspended in 2009, and relatively less change is visible between the 2008 and the 2020 images.

Planning is again underway to develop the island but at a slower pace. Similar to Palm Jumeirah, Palm Jebel Ali will include apartments, homes, offices, and hotels.

Another impressive artificial archipelago best appreciated from above is “The World.” These 300 private islands are in the rough shape of a world map. Each island ranges from 23,226 to 83,613 square meters (250,000 to 900,000 square feet), with 50 to 100 meters (164 to 328 feet) of water between each island.

The total area of these islands is about 9 kilometers (5.4 miles) long and 6 kilometers (3.6 miles) wide. An oval-shaped breakwater surrounds it, which provides shelter for the islands from sea waves. This breakwater actually completes the globe-like shape.

Individual islands are named after countries, regions, and cities. No bridges will connect the islands—the only transportation between islands will be by airplane or boat.

The islands took shape roughly between 2004 and 2008, but the financial crisis also slowed development on these islands. However, development on the islands is starting up again on a collection of six islands called the “Heart of Europe.” The plan for these islands is to accommodate 16,000 tourists for luxury vacations.

Starting in the 2015 image, dark shapes cover the desert several kilometers south of Dubai. This set of millions of photovoltaic solar panels is set to become the largest solar power plant in the Middle East, Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park. Once finished, the $13.6 billion project could power 1.3 million homes. It is scheduled to be completed in 2030 and generate 5 GW of power.

Just north of the solar park is a series of lagoons in Al Qudra. Two of the lagoons are in the shape of intertwined hearts, named Love Lake. The heart shapes are clearly visible in Landsat imagery. What is not visible with Landsat is planted trees that spell out the word “love.”


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