5 Photo Essays That Captured Our Changing Planet In 2016

This year, aerial photos and satellite imagery helped make climate change more tangible.

The slow but steady creep of climate change can be hard to recognize in your daily life. While its impact is easy to quantify in degrees and inches, it can be harder to visualize what the numbers mean for the planet and our collective future.


That’s where mapping and aerial photography can play a role, by visualizing the changes our world is undergoing. Beyond that, the computing power of GIS mapping and aerial photo technologies can actually assist in modeling possible consequences of climate change–for instance, scientists can use models of sea level rise and GIS to plan out possible evacuation routes, and urban planners can use it to identify areas of infrastructure that may need strengthening.

Over the past year, Co.Design has highlighted photography and mapping projects that document the changing Earth, turning the numbers into visceral images that can help bolster our immediate understanding of climate change’s effects.

[Photo: Thomas Heinser]

Take San Francisco-based photographer Thomas Heinser’s project Reduziert, in which he takes aerial photographs of California landscapes that have been ravaged by drought. In his overhead shots, which were taken from a helicopter, the Golden State looks like an alien planet, with red bodies of water and parched riverbeds.

[Photo: © Daniel Beltrá courtesy of Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago]

Even in the rainiest parts of the world, the planet is suffering. Photographer Daniel Beltrá has been documenting the world’s rainforests since 2001. He’s watched them shrink due to timber harvests, cleared to make way for grazing land or new developments, or even drowned by hydroelectric dams. His project Forests depicts the mutilation of these landscapes from above. “The unique perspective of aerial photography helps emphasize that the Earth and its resources are finite,” he told Co.Design. “By bringing images from remote locations where human and business interests and nature are at odds, I hope to instill a deeper appreciation for nature and an understanding of the precarious balance our lifestyle has placed on the planet.”

[Photo: Mishka Henner]

As Beltrá mentioned, business interests are often at the root of some of the planet’s environmental problems. Belgian artist Mishka Henner believes the impact of industry on the Earth is best viewed from space. For his project Feedlots, which was included in MoMa’s Aerial Imagery in Print exhibit this year, he stitched together satellite images of the Texas livestock industry, depicting the impact that huge, industrial-scale feedlots for cattle have on the surrounding landscape. In one photo, the runoff from the Tascosa Feedyard in Bushland, Texas, pools in an acidic green lake; in another, the waste from the Coronado Feeders in Dalhart, Texas, glows crimson.

The infrastructure that supports the meat and dairy industries is often located in rural areas, but other, more familiar forms of human development are just as striking when viewed from above. For his project Overview, Benjamin Grant stitched together satellite images that document airports and freeway interchanges, as well as an aircraft boneyard, uranium mine, and thermosolar plant. He hopes his series will spark conversation around the monumental infrastructure that underwrites modern life. “This book is intended to inspire that awareness: Where is our energy coming from, where is our food coming from?” he told Co.Design. “With that, hopefully people will act in the interest of the planet.”

[Photo: Benjamin Grant]

While the long-term development of infrastructure slowly decimates the landscape, temporary events do their own damage. The British photographer Giles Price’s aerial photos capture the effects of the 2016 Olympics on Rio de Janiero. One shows a lush green golf course, built during a historic drought, against a brown, dead landscape. Another depicts polluted waters close to Olympic venues. For Price, shooting from the sky gives a sense of scale and context that heighten the impact of the photos. “When you’re on the ground [at the bay], you might see a few dead fish, but when you pull out, you can see the full effect of the pollution and how it dissipates into the bay,” he told Co.Design.

[Photos: via Terrapattern]

While aerial photography provides a visceral reminder of climate change and the human race’s impact on the Earth, mapping projects offer an idea of what the future might entail.

One example is Terrapattern, a search engine for satellite images. Powered by a neural network, the program is able to gather similar looking images of, say, churches or swimming pools, within a given area. While the tool only works within the bounds of four U.S. cities currently (the demands on computing power are too great for anything else yet), it could potentially give urban planners and government agencies a way to better understand the built world–and design better, greener infrastructure.

Photography and mapping projects like these help raise awareness about an issue that will only grow in importance. Still, as the photographer Thomas Heinser said, these projects hinge on “the complicated issue of beauty documenting devastation.” Photographs can only capture, not heal.


About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.