Mesmerizing aerial images show the growth of cities like Beijing and Las Vegas over the last 3 decades

A street market in Beijing, China.

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A street market in Beijing, China.
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Stuck in Customs on flickr

Over the last three decades, much of the world’s population growth has centered in urban areas, where 4.1 billion people – around 55% of the world’s population – live today.

By 2030, the United Nations predicts that cities will house 60% of people globally, and one in every three people will live in cities with at least half a million inhabitants.

NASA satellites have visualized this growth through its Landsat program, the longest-running initiative for collecting satellite imagery of Earth. Landsat satellites have captured images of cities across the world since 1972.

The imaging startup Descartes Labs recently compiled these photos to create fascinating timelapses – from the 1980s to today – of five large cities, including Beijing and Las Vegas.

Take a look below:


In the span of just 34 years, the population of Dubai, UAE has grown from 350,000 to 3 million. The time-lapse below shows the city’s rapid development over that period:

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Descartes Labs

Dubai – 1984 vs 2017

“The architectural scope of that expansion is impressive, particularly the infrastructure and buildings over the water,” Jason Schatz, an applied scientist at Descartes Labs, told Business Insider.


São Paulo, Brazil expanded from around 13 million to 21 million people from the late 1980s to today. As you can see in the time-lapse below, much of this urban growth has resulted in sprawl:

São Paulo – 1987 vs 2017

The Las Vegas metro area bloomed from around 540,000 people in 1984 to 2.1 million people today. On the right, you can see that Lake Mead has shrunk, due partly to the region’s increasing water demands:

Clark County, Nevada – 1984 vs 2018

Congqing, China, didn’t formally exist until 1997, when it was declared an official city. Prior to that, people still lived in the area, but starting in the late ’90s, Congqing built its infrastructure at a staggering rate.

Congqing – 1988 vs 2017
“Other cities in the world have shown similar rates of expansion, but in aggregate, nothing comes close to China,” Schatz said. The country’s “colossal expansion of infrastructure shows no signs of slowing down.”

Beijing has seen similar explosive growth. Since 1984, Beijing’s population quadrupled in size from 6 million to 23 million.

Beijing – 1984 vs 2017


“Seeing snapshots of growth over [the past] 30 years is a really dramatic way to visualize local, regional, and global changes,” Schatz said. “The decades-long imagery archive from the Landsat program represents the only globally ubiquitous physical record of changes like these.”

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