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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.

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