A look at some of the world’s landscape photos that have changed over time.
Amanda Breakwell | UNITED KINGDOM
Landscape photos record a location at a particular moment in time. Although it’s easy to assume that landscapes will be photographable forever, this isn’t always the case. With climate change, natural disasters and man-made destruction, many landscapes are here today and gone tomorrow.
This shows how important landscape photography is in documenting the history of places. Above all, a comparison of location shots over time can provide evidence of environmental degradation, and raise awareness of the effects of climate change.
Here are some landscape photos that are going, going, gone.
Earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions not only claim lives, but they can change landscapes forever. ‘Before’ and ‘after’ shots of many natural disasters can make the same landscape look worlds apart.
The devastating volcanic eruption of Mount St. Helens in America in 1980 is a classic example. After spewing out 500 million tonnes of ash 15 miles into the sky for nine hours, the volcano lost 1,300 feet in height. Its shape on the skyline was changed forever. Photographer Robert Landsburg managed to capture close-up footage on camera of the volcano erupting. When he realised that he couldn’t escape the impending ash cloud, he bravely shielded his camera with his body to protect the photos he’d taken. After Robert’s body was found, his photos were developed. They provided scientists with valuable historical documentation of the volcano eruption.
Climate change is causing icebergs and glaciers to melt. Scientists can verify this from their research, but landscape photos taken over time show the stark reality of the situation.
Through the stunning use of time-lapse photography, climate change film Chasing Ice reveals the speed at which glaciers are melting across the Arctic. Nature photographer, James Balog, sets out to collect data on climate change, rigging up cameras in various Arctic locations, as part of his Extreme Ice Survey (EIS). Although initially a sceptic regarding climate change, James is soon convinced that humans have a part to play in this process.
After weeks of patiently waiting to capture footage, videographers witnessed and filmed 1.8 cubic miles of ice calving off a glacier in Greenland. Nothing of this kind already exists on film. Watching ancient glaciers erode and disappear into the sea shows that climate change is very real and happening as we speak. Chasing Ice is a must-watch documentary, and well deserving of the many awards it received.
As another example, the Glacier National Park in Montana boasted 150 glaciers in 1850. Today, it has just 25. By 2030, it’s not expected to have any glaciers left. With around 69% of melting glaciers attributed to fossil fuel burning, it’s a sobering thought that humans are to blame for much of this landscape change.
As sea levels rise due to climate change, some islands are literally drowning, changing the landscape forever.
The small island of Tangier in Chesapeake Bay, Virginia, is a classic example. Since 1850, two-thirds of its land has been swallowed up by the sea. The island sinks up to 2 mm per year, as a result of glacial rebound and rising sea levels. If this rate continues, Tangier may no longer exist in the future. Scientists who have studied the small island, a haven for soft crabs, reckon that the island could probably survive another century if it wasn’t for climate change. It could just take one more storm to extinguish Tangier for good.
Despite this stark warning, residents of the island, many who have lived there all their lives, think the island can survive, albeit with some help. However, they are dubious that climate change is to blame. This island’s story even made headline news when Donald Trump was alerted to the problem. Although he admitted Tangier needed help due to erosion, he wasn’t convinced the island was going anywhere fast. Only time will tell what fate lies in store for Tangier.
On the other side of the world, the Dead Sea is also disappearing. It has sunk by a third in the last 40 years and is vanishing at a rate of 600 Olympic sized pools per day. Experts reckon that it may no longer be around in as little as 50 years time. Environmental photojournalist Noam Bedein highlights the scale of the problem. He took a boat tour around the Dead Sea in Israel, viewing the amazing underwater salt caves. Just months later when he repeated the tour, the landscape had completely changed. Due to the incredibly rapid water evaporation, the salt formations were now clearly visible above the sea.
Deforestation due to logging or land-clearing is a common problem in many tropical countries. It has a massive impact on biodiversity and wildlife habitats, but it also dramatically alters the landscape.
More than half of the lowland tropical rainforest in the Kalimantan region of Indonesia has been lost due to illegal logging. ‘Before’ and ‘after’ photos of this region couldn’t look more different. Borneo is suffering a similar fate with its rainforests decimated to make way for profitable oil palm plantations.
Yet, logging isn’t the only way that trees are disappearing to alter landscapes. A desert in Niger, once home to hundreds of trees, had one final remaining acacia tree. Known as the tree of Ténéré, its nearest neighbouring tree was over 400 kms away. As the most remote tree in the world, it made a striking image on camera, until, a drunk truck driver mowed it down in 1973. A metal sculpture has since taken the tree’s place to symbolise it. The remains of the tree now reside in the Niger National Museum. This is a prime example of how human actions can impact the planet, and why it’s important to tread lightly on our travels.
Making a difference
It’s sad to think that many landscape photos are consigned to history and are no longer around to be shot in person. Or, they face an uncertain future. But, there’s a lot we can do collectively to prevent more landscapes from suffering the same fate. Small changes can make a big difference to safeguard the planet from the effects of climate change, pollution and environmental degradation, helping to keep the world’s beautiful landscapes pristine. Be a responsible and conscious traveller. Use scarce resources wisely, and leave a minimal footprint. Give plastic the heave-ho and recycle as much as you can.
Treasure the photos you take on your travels and shoot with a mindful and respectful approach. Use quality gear to ensure your photos look their best and can be enjoyed for a long time. And never take it for granted that the landscape you shoot today will look exactly the same tomorrow.