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Photography - issue #5

Through the Looking Glass

Words by Tim Dougherty

Since the 1960s, satellite imagery has been a tool for contextualising our place in the universe. There may be no better example of the impact of seeing Earth from space than the Earthrise image, taken by an astronaut on the moon. Since the photograph’s release in 1968, it has become recognised as one of the catalysts for the modern environmental movement. The way it displayed the entirety, fragility, and beauty of our planet floating in an endless void, inspired a new appreciation of and desire to protect our home. From that awareness came practical solutions, and organisations such as the Environmental Protection Agency and initiatives like the clean air movement were born shortly thereafter. For the first time, we had a mirror of our planet - proof of its finiteness and the need to preserve it - and we responded accordingly.

Over 50 years later, short of becoming an astronaut or space tourist, satellites still provide the best understanding of our planet from beyond our atmosphere. Archived images now allow us to look back and observe noticeable changes over time, unlocking further examination of human society and its development. We can observe our population exploding through the increasingly dense and sprawling urbanisation across the continents. The expansion of our transportation systems and signs of our ever-expanding desire to consume products and experiences are all on display. Yet, the images that are most troubling are the result of the activities that interrupt the natural world we’ve inherited. Deforestation and mining, for example, are two industrial practices that leave scars on the land. In theory, we could reforest and re-imagine these areas, but our focus typically just moves to the next area for development.

As satellite technology continues to evolve, it will be harder to ignore the damage being done. Perhaps we will see the birth of a new era of accountability and transparency for our planet. There are already satellite-based means of measuring emissions and biomass levels in rainforests, yet those tools and imagery have not so far transformed our behaviours.

What is more certain is that, long after humans have gone, images of our planet will remain as a time capsule for future civilisations to see how we built Earth. It remains to be seen if the images will make for a cautionary or inspiring tale.

Brumadinho Iron Ore Dam Collapse, January 2019. 98% of mined iron ore is used to make steel, and is thus a major component in the construction of buildings, automobiles, and appliances such as refrigerators. During the extraction and refinement process, iron ore waste is placed into massive ponds that are often dammed to contain the toxic materials. On 25 January 2019, one of these dams collapsed at an iron ore mine in Brumadinho, Brazil, and spilled more than 3bn gallons of red mud, debris, and toxic sludge into the surrounding area and the Paraopeba River. The powerful mudflow claimed the lives of 272 people, many of whom were employees working on-site at the dam that day. This overview was captured four days

The Olympic Dam mine in South Australia contains the largest known deposit of uranium in the world and is the country’s largest producer of uranium oxide, or “yellowcake”. Mining the material is the first step in processing uranium for energy. Before it can be fabricated into a fuel the uranium must be enriched through the process of isotope separation.

Miami red tide, May 2017 and June 2018. In 2018, tides of harmful algae blooms overtook the waters surrounding Miami, Florida, forcing the closure of at least six public beaches. The increased growth of dark algae discolors the typically clear waters, hence the “red tide” name. While it is difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of this phenomenon, red tides tend to follow intense storm seasons, and they may also be fueled by agricultural runoff bringing large amounts of unnatural fertilisers into the ocean. This specific algae, Karenia brevis, produces toxic chemicals that can affect fish and beachgoers alike due to its neurotoxicity and irritative respiratory properties. Red tides can last anywhere from a few weeks to more than a year depending on ocean temperatures, sunlight, salinity, winds, and currents.

Antarctic sea ice melt, 2019. The ice extends far north in the winter and retreats almost to the coastline every summer. Formed from frozen seawater the ice is usually less than 1.8m in thickness. Ice shelves, which are formed by glaciers, float in the sea and are up to 1km thick. In the 1980s, Antarctica lost 36.3bn tonnes of ice every year. In the last decade, that figure was estimated at a staggering 229bn tonnes per year. When ice melts, it often exposes a darker area of soot and dirt beneath its surface and turns into darker, liquid water once it is fully melted. Dark surfaces absorb more heat, so the accelerated melting of the world’s ice could initiate a feedback loop that further speeds up the warming process that is causing the melting in the first place.

Amazon rainforest deforestation, 1989 and 2019. The state of Rondônia in western Brazil has become one of the most deforested parts of the Amazon rainforest. Once home to 207,199 sq km of forest, the past three decades have seen rapid clearing and degradation. By 2003, an estimated 67,340 sq km of rainforest - an area larger than the state of West Virginia - had been cleared. That devastation continued in the following decades and was greatly exacerbated by the Amazon fires of 2019. At one point during that year, 76,000 fires were burning simultaneously, with many ignited for purposeful deforestation, destroying roughly 18,648 sq km of forest.

The lights of Paris by day and night. Paris is often called the “city of light”, a name that originates from its implementation and illumination of 56,000 gas lamps in the 1860s. Today, the city receives half of its energy (and its light) from nearby energy plants that simultaneously generate electricity and heat (called “cogeneration”). 35% of the city’s power is generated by the Nogent Nuclear Power Plant. Nationally, France gets 75% of its power from nuclear plants. The remainder of Paris’s energy comes primarily from trash incineration (9%) and methane gas (5%). Solar and wind power combined contribute 0.1% of the energy that provides powers to the city’s 2.1 million residents.

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