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These stunning before-and-after satellite photos show humanity’s massive impact on the environment

From deforestation in Brazil to the disappearing Aral Sea between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to the sprawl of Tesla’s Gigafactory in the Nevada desert.

Eight years ago, farmland and some small villages covered the area where a new airport now sits outside Beijing, with a massive starfish-shaped terminal—the largest in the world—made from 220,000 tons of steel. A new book, called Overview Timelapse: How We Change the Earth, uses satellite images to document the transformation from above, along with dozens of other examples of how humans are reshaping the planet.

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Beijing Daxing International Airport (PKX) 2012–2020, 39.509167°, 116.410556°. [Image: © Maxar Technologies]
“The majority of the book is a visual history, looking back through these archives to see what change has taken place—what particular stories tell the larger story of what industries are harming the planet the most, or what particular practices like deforestation or extraction of fossil fuels are so negative,” says Benjamin Grant, who created the book with Timothy Dougherty. “But the book can also be a tool and can be used to better understand how we could change the Earth for the better.”

Grant started collecting satellite images six years ago and publishing them online, inspired by the so-called “overview effect,” the phenomena of awe that astronauts experience when they see the Earth from above for the first time. In 2016, he published a collection of the images in a book. The new book focuses on changes over time, from deforestation in Brazil, the disappearing Aral Sea between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and the sprawl of Tesla’s Gigafactory in the Nevada desert, to wildfires in California and the polar vortex in Chicago. Many of the images are unfamiliar from above: lithium mines in Bolivia, fracking wells in Oklahoma, a petrochemical plant in Louisiana that makes components for plastic. Several of the final images offer some hope, including the world’s largest solar plant, nearly complete in Egypt, and a wind farm off the coast of the U.K.

[Image: courtesy Ten Speed Press]
The book highlights the causes and effects of climate change. “I think if people can understand that . . . all of the things that we’re creating, all of the energy that we make and use to power our cities and our lifestyles, and all the consumption that we have, is releasing lots of carbon into the atmosphere, it somehow becomes a simpler story to understand,” he says. “And then when you see what more carbon in the atmosphere does to a climate, I think the severity of the problem becomes more obvious.”

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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."

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