• October 20, 2015

Seven Nat Geo Photographers on Witnessing Climate Change

Jessie Wender

This month, as National Geographic’s climate change issue hits the stands, we asked seven photographers to share their most poignant images that reflect climate change. From direct examples to more tangential manifestations, we were interested in seeing how climate change was visible in the work they do.

Here, they share stories of retreating ice, flooded landscapes, and the human toll of a warming planet—using photography, as Lynn Johnson writes, “to inform my neighbors in the hope the images motivate change.” —Jessie Wender, Senior Photo Editor

Engabreen Glacier, July 17, 2006
Engabreen Glacier, July 17, 2006
Photograph by Orsolya Haarberg

It is difficult to visualize how climate change is affecting our environment, especially in the Arctic sea-ice regions, because melting still happens slowly with large yearly fluctuations. However, small changes add up to huge alterations over time. This is particularly dramatic on land, and in the case of the glaciers. Glaciers are relatively small compared to ice caps and are therefore good indicators of climate change. The photograph above is of the Norwegian Engabreen Glacier in 2006. When I returned six years later in 2012, there was no ice. From the time I made this first image, the ice had retreated more than 150 meters. —Orsolya Haarberg

Nuugatsiaq, Greenland, April 2015
Nuugatsiaq, Greenland, April 2015
Photograph by Ciril Jazbec

My long-term project dealing with the life of small communities threatened by climate change, from Kiribati to Alaska and Greenland, asks the question, “How do I photograph climate change?” I’ve found the best way to do it is through personal stories. In April, I took a helicopter to the tiny village of Nuugatsiaq, Greenland, home to about 60 people. The village lies at the end of Umiamako, the fastest melting glacier on the Uummannaq fjord.

Here, the Street Larsen family was my host for the week. The village school had only seven students and was closed for the week I was there, and the children spent this time at home, playing video games and guitar. A moment came when Anguteq lifted himself up on a bar hanging from the ceiling and let the sound of music flow through him. I contemplated his life ten years in the future, as well as that of his home village, where life is changing rapidly and many young people are departing for cities, leaving the traditional lifestyle behind them. —Ciril Jazbec

(Jazbec photographed the story “How Melting Ice Changes One Country’s Way of Life” in this month’s issue.)

 Mount Everest (Chomolungma) from the summit ridge of Lobuche peak, Nepal, April 2014
Mount Everest (Chomolungma) from the summit ridge of Lobuche peak, Nepal, April 2014
Photograph by Renan Ozturk

We slept at 20,000 feet, acclimatizing for an Everest ascent, when I took this frame as part of an all-night time-lapse. It was the same year that (just as predicted) a massive 31-million-pound block of ice smashed onto the climbing route, killing 16 Nepali high-altitude workers carrying loads for the commercial guiding season. It’s well known that climate change is a major contributing factor for the increasing dangers of such a glaciated region. What’s not as well publicized is the proportionally greater risk it places on these Nepali workers who enable all the ascents up to Earth’s highest point. —Renan Ozturk

Sunny Day Flooding, Miami Beach, November 2014
Sunny Day Flooding, Miami Beach, November 2014
Photograph by Kadir Van Lohuizen/NOOR

During king tide at Miami Beach, the water comes up through the drainage system and into the street, over the poorly maintained seawall at Indian Creek. In this photograph, workers are checking to see if the drainage system is blocked. Because it is built on limestone, it’s believed that Miami Beach and the bay area will need to be evacuated by 2060.

Being Dutch, I grew up with water and the fear of it, very aware that for the most part we live below sea level and that disastrous flooding did and could happen. So for me, it was logical to embark on a project looking at the human consequences of rising seas. I worked in nine regions of the world for this project, and I am shocked at how urgent this whole matter has become. We don’t have to wait for the floods to come anymore; now land is becoming unlivable much earlier due to seawater intrusion—the soil becomes saline and the drinking water brackish. —Kadir Van Lohuizen

(Van Lohuizen photographed the story “Rising Seas Threaten These Pacific Islands but Not Their Culture” in this month’s issue.)

Columbia Glacier Alaska
Columbia Glacier, Alaska, August 28, 2009 (left)
Photograph by James Balog
Columbia Glacier, Alaska, June 22, 2015 (right)
Photograph by Matthew Kennedy
Images © Earth Vision Institute

The coverage of retreating ice that I started in 2005 goes on. In south central Alaska, the main branch of the Columbia Glacier has retreated over 13 miles since 1980; in the past few years, the west branch, seen here in a pair from 2009 and June of this year, has retreated nearly three miles. My Extreme Ice Survey, now a project of my newly founded Earth Vision Institute, currently has 43 cameras watching 24 glaciers from the Arctic to the Antarctic. We are in the midst of extraordinary change in the world’s landscapes. —James Balog

North Slope, Alaska, 2005
North Slope, Alaska, 2005
Photograph by Joel Sartore

Standing around for hours in the hot sun watching a group of botanists, the pictures just weren’t happening. Perched on metal walkways so they wouldn’t crush their subjects and with faces diminished by mosquito netting, all were hunched over to study what would seem the most trivial of things: Arctic tundra.

To tell you the truth, I was bored.

Knowing I wasn’t shooting anything, eventually a researcher looked up and slowly began to speak. “I know this doesn’t look like much,” she said, “but what we’re studying here is going to change the world in the most profound way.” She could tell I still didn’t get it and continued, urgently now. “Look, below our feet lie tons of frozen plants, some in layers hundreds of feet thick, accumulated over eons. When climate change melts the summer permafrost, the bacterial action on all that thawing organic material will release so much methane it’ll make all man-made emissions look trivial and change the planet’s climate virtually overnight. You think it’s hot now? Just you wait.” She turned and went back to her quiet work, methodically picking out the next plant in her grid transect.

I stared down at my camera, suddenly heavy in my hands. —Joel Sartore

(Sartore photographed the story “Some Species Will Actually Thrive on a Warming Planet” in this month’s issue.)

May 6, 2015
May 6, 2015
Photograph by Lynn Johnson

In Springdale, Pennsylvania, play is not without its dangers. Every time this child jumps, she gulps air containing sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides—chemicals linked with asthma attacks, lung and heart disease, and mercury, a neurotoxin, particularly damaging for developing bodies and brains.

Her ominous neighbor and source of the pollutants, the NRG coal-fired power plant, is ubiquitous in the landscape and so, ironically, nearly invisible. Chemical impregnated smoke is a significant cause of global warming.

Four Pittsburgh photographers working in the social-documentary tradition contributed to this project, called “In the Air.” It was supported by a grant from the Heinz Foundation, and I was honored to be a part of this group, using photography to inform my neighbors in the hope the images would motivate change. —Lynn Johnson

Visualizing climate change remains a challenging undertaking. To share your photographs and stories of climate change, join the National Geographic Your Shot community, and contribute to the #CoolIt hashtag challenge.

For a selection of previous National Geographic coverage, see George Steinmetz’s photographs of rising seas, Peter Essick’s coverage of the California drought, and Rob Kendrick’s coverage of coal dependency.

On Instagram, more climate change-related photographs can be seen by following the group @everydayclimatechange.

There are 9 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Brad Riney
    November 8, 2015

    Stability…we all want it, history shows it doesn’t really exist. Change, human or natural is the norm. If we didn’t exist the climate would change on it’s own. 18,000 years ago the sea level was 394′ lower than today. Glaciation was at its maximum. Half of North America buried under Ice. Pliocene Epoch 3.5 million years ago, sea levels were approximately 60′ higher than today. Forests extended into Antarctica surrounding a much smaller ice cap. Our input into the system seems trivial compared to the wild fluctuations of the past 3.5 million years.

  2. Norm Brown
    October 28, 2015

    Its unfortunate that more people do not understand climate change and how it differs from the less appropriate term of global warming. While one area of the planet is experiencing an increase in ice, the remainder of the planet is experiencing precedent setting weather events and temperature increases that normally occur over several millennium. A thousand year flood in the Carolina’s, the largest hurricane in recorded history recently hitting Mexico, and a rise in hurricane activity hitting South America are all happening now. The climate is changing and the events experienced are becoming larger and more significant. There is still much more to learn.

  3. quiquag
    October 26, 2015

    Until our civilization conjures up a safer, more efficient, and conscientious way to heat/cool things and go faster from place to place, maybe we should opt to not drive when we can. You know, walking, ride our bikes, skateboard etc. People powered locomotion. No more excuses for those of us who can, we should conserve fossil fuels. I’m also pretty sure the bible was not meant as a live action script for the future, so stop with the “its the rapture” non sense. It is a book. Holy to some, to others it is just a book. We all share this planet as home. Or we should.

  4. pati
    October 26, 2015

    Its strange to have to consider, but now that we can truly see the effects humans have had, and continue to have on our environment, we can without a doubt accept that our descisions and actions will affect the very near and distant future, the lives of our descendants, and entire civilization. We know that climate change has occured before, whether it was due to the effects of a massive super volcano, an immense asteroid or just because the earth felt like it is a subject of debate. One thing seems to be unquestionable in my mind. Homo sapiens and their dependency on fossil fuels and chemicals can only make things slightly worse, or slightly better in the cosmic planetary scale of things, but the lives of our collective descendants may just rest in our hands.

  5. Manny
    October 26, 2015

    In regard to Combs comment on Antarctic ice record increase : “The upward trend in the Antarctic, however, is only about a third of the magnitude of the rapid loss of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean.” and ““The planet as a whole is doing what was expected in terms of warming. Sea ice as a whole is decreasing as expected, but just like with global warming, not every location with sea ice will have a downward trend in ice extent,” Parkinson said.”

  6. Combs
    October 21, 2015
  7. Clarance
    October 21, 2015

    No mention of the destruction that livestock/cattle playing their part? From the methane produce by them, areas of land being destroyed to house them (forests), the amount water used to feed the cattle etc?

  8. Chris
    October 20, 2015

    That story about the botanists working in Alaska really hits home about climate change. Makes me wonder what the future folks will think and whether they’ll just consider us all idiots.

  9. Silas S
    October 20, 2015

    It is natural that the eyes of men are always upon the skies. Empathy has moved a few others to assume that earth is also heating from within due to lack of trees and vegetation. There are reasons why futuristic roof-top gardens, although something to cherish, are not going to cool the earth at a point where our foot touches it.

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