These Breathtaking Aerial Photos Of Earth Show How Humans Have Changed The Planet

From massive mines in Africa to dizzying freeway interchanges, these images capture the strange beauty–and horror–of humanity’s footprint.


From above, the Taklamakan Desert in China looks almost empty–a set of sand dunes the size of Germany. But at the desert’s edge, there’s a turquoise rectangular shape that looks a little like a giant swimming pool. It’s a mine for potash, a key ingredient in fertilizer. The bright ponds stretch more than 13 miles.

[Photo: ©2016 by DigitalGlobe, Inc.]

It’s a view few people ever see, like many of the other images in Overview: A New Perspective of Earth, a beautiful new book that catalogs human development and the natural world using stitched-together satellite photos.

The book comes out of Daily Overview, an Instagram project inspired by the “overview effect”–the phenomena astronauts experience when they first see Earth from above and better appreciate the planet.

When the project first started, author Benjamin Grant collected low-resolution screenshots from mapping sites. Over time, he started working directly with DigitalGlobe, a company that gives him raw satellite imagery. Each image, showing a large area, is made from as many as 20 images.

Crescent Dunes solar energy project. Tonopah, Nevada. [Photo: ©2016 by DigitalGlobe, Inc]

After posting daily photos for two years, Grant decided to turn the project into a large-format photo book. “I think it is much easier to understand the scope of the project when viewing the book as a whole, rather than a stream of individual posts on social media,” he says.

Split into sections by activity, the book begins with agriculture from above–palm plantations in Malaysia, plastic greenhouses in Spain, seaweed farming in Bali, and a shrinking rainforest in Bolivia being replaced by cattle ranches.


A chapter on extraction includes a uranium mine in Niger, a copper mine in Chile, and an oil rig in the middle of Arctic ice; a chapter on power shows massive solar and wind farms along with piles of coal at a Chinese port.

A section called “Where We Live” shows suburbs, refugee camps, and prisons; “Where We Move” shows the parking lot at O’Hare, freeway interchanges, and some of the largest ports in the world. The book also includes chapters on design, play, and waste.

Lamberts Point Pier 6. Norfolk, Virginia. [Photo: ©2016 by DigitalGlobe, Inc]

A final chapter, “Where We Are Not,” shows stunning scenes of untouched land. “It is nearly impossible to grasp how long it took to create these natural landscapes over tens of thousands of years,” says Grant. “When you compare that to the other chapters that come before, it forces you to consider how much development has occurred around the world in such a short span of time in just the last few centuries.”

His hope is that the book inspires environmental action. “Every image in the book–whether it shows a man-made landscape or one that is untouched–shows the same planet, the only one we have, the one that we need to better understand and to cherish,” he says.

related video: When Did Urban Infrastructure Become So Cool?

[All Photos: Reprinted with permission from Overview by Benjamin Grant, © 2016. Published by Amphoto Books, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc. Images © 2016 by DigitalGlobe, Inc.]

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."