Types of Agricultural Patterns Visible from Space

Elizabeth Borneman


Irrigation is important, especially when you live in the desert. Irrigation methods have evolved over the centuries, but certain practices have remained tried and true in the harshest of climates.

Irrigation methods, no matter where you are in the world, can make the difference between having enough food to last for the rest of the year or having to go without necessary nutrition. 

Germany’s Random Agricultural Field Pattern

Germany’s irregular agricultural pattern is a legacy from the Middle Ages. Fields of varying sizes can be seen with villages and towns interspersed. The landscape of Germany inspired geographer Johann Heinrich von to create the first geographical models related to agricultural land use.

A satellite image of irregularly sized fields in Germany.
Irregular-sized agricultural fields in Germany. Satellite image: NASA, public domain.

Minnesota’s Grid Agricultural Pattern

These agricultural fields in Minnesota are shaped in regular rectangular grids. The very regular grid layout in Minnesota follows early nineteenth-century surveying where the size of the fields was based on the requirement that they be large enough area to make machinery use efficient. Dirt roads separate each field.

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A satellite image showing the green rectangular fields of Minnesota.
Agricultural fields in Minnesota. Image: NASA, public domain.

Crop Circles

This view of circular farming patterns in Sharq El Owainat, southwest Egypt, was taken by an astronaut onboard the International Space Station.

The crop circles are the result of center-pivot irrigation. With center-pivot irrigation, water is extracted from a well and fed into the system via a tube coupled to metal frames. The metal frames are mounted on wheels, and electric motors propel them in a circle and spraying water as they go.

The Sahara Desert’s distant agricultural outpost is around 290 kilometers (180 miles) from the nearest city and 210 kilometers (130 miles) from the Toshka lakes.

Crop circles as seen from space in Sharq El Owainat, Egypt.  Image: NASA.
Crop circles as seen from space in Sharq El Owainat, Egypt. Image: NASA.

These crop circles are able to exists thanks to the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System found buried beneath the sand. For Egyptians who live outside of the reaches of the Nile River, the aquifer is their only supply of water.

Land in parts of Egypt outside the region of the Nile Delta are considered  “hyper-arid” – with an average yearly precipitation of 0 millimeters, more than 95% of Egypt is inhospitable desert.

Center Pivot Farming in Kansas

The practice of center pivot agriculture can also be seen in this satellite image of Kansas.

A satellite image showing crop circles in Kansas.
Center pivot agriculture in Kansas. Satellite image from NASA, public domain.

Radiating Agricultural Fields

In this planned community near Santa Cruz in Bolivia, agricultural fields radiate out from small communities among the rainforest.

A satellite image showing a radiating pattern of agricultural fields in Bolivia.
Fields radiate out from small communities in Bolivia. Image: NASA, public domain.

Taking Pictures of Agricultural Patterns from the International Space Station

Astronauts living in the International Space Station are part of an important effort to document irrigation methods around the world and find out how effective they are.

Astronauts provided high definition photographs of a region of Libya near to a town called Al Jawf. The region is highly isolated; you would have to go more than 560 miles to get to the nearest major city. Agriculture in this region is, therefore, highly essential to the people and animals living in Al Jawf. 

This image of a variety of agricultural patterns near an oasis in eastern Libya was taken by astronauts onboard the International Space Station using a 1150 mm lens.
This image of a variety of agricultural patterns near an oasis in eastern Libya was taken by astronauts onboard the International Space Station using a 1150 mm lens.

The photo captures different agricultural patterns in the desert, each of which represents a unique irrigation method.

The honeycombed center is the remnants of the first planned agricultural efforts in the 1970s, while the larger circles were later dug as a pivot irrigation system designed to conserve as much water as possible. Another smaller grid irrigation system is also visible as an older but still viable method of irrigating crops. (Related: What are Qanats?)

A nearby oasis gives the residents of Al Jawf a break from the desert, all thanks to the largest known fossil water aquifer in the world. This aquifer is known as the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer. This underground water source is all that is left of the Sahara Desert when it was a lush, green jungle.

Unfortunately, the aquifer is a non-renewable resource, as the region around Al Jawf only gets a tenth of an inch of rain every year. Despite the water shortage, the residents of Al Jawf are doing all they can to conserve as much water as possible. 


Hansen, K. (2017, March 11). Cultivating Egypt’s desert. NASA Earth Observatory. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/89820/cultivating-egypts-desert

Hollier, A., & Wilkinson, J. (2017, January 2). Al Jawf, eastern Libya. NASA Earth Observatory. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/89341/al-jawf-eastern-libya

Hollier, A. (2017, September 18). Crop circles in Sharq el Owainat. NASA Earth Observatory. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/90937/crop-circles-in-sharq-el-owainat


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About the author
Elizabeth Borneman
My name is Elizabeth Borneman and I am a freelance writer, reader, and coffee drinker. I live on a small island in Alaska, which gives me plenty of time to fish, hike, kayak, and be inspired by nature. I enjoy writing about the natural world and find lots of ways to flex my creative muscles on the beach, in the forest, or down at the local coffee shop.