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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

See Earth Transform Like You're a Time-Traveling Astronaut

Those lucky enough to have spent time aboard the International Space Station report a singular feeling while watching the Earth rush by below: It’s called the overview effect. It’s a kind of awe and newfound appreciation for the interconnectedness of planetary systems and the human species. But if you’re like me and have never been aboard the ISS, you can at least enjoy a bevy of images from satellites circling the Earth, our own kind of terrestrial overview effect.

Still, not even astronauts can really watch the planet transform over time, given the brevity of their stints aboard the space station. Cities balloon or depopulate over the course of decades. Mining outfits boom and bust. Loggers deforest a landscape, and farmers bloom vast fields of tulips. Satellites have been capturing all the ways we’ve been transforming this planet, images that authors Benjamin Grant and Timothy Dougherty have compiled into the fascinating new book Overview Timelapse: How We Change the Earth. (Disclosure: Their publisher, Ten Speed Press, belongs to the Crown Publishing Group, a subsidiary of Penguin Random House, through which this author has published his own books.)

Their book of photos takes the wonder of the overview effect and stretches it over many years of change, be it the rise and fall of industries or the retreat of Antarctic sea ice. “That awe and that mesmerizing vastness that you can see in the images is still there. But this is an experiment,” says Grant. “When you look at the same place multiple times from this awe-inspiring perspective, what can we learn?”

Well, first and foremost: We humans have clearly done a number on this planet. Take, for instance, the images above of the Amazon rain forest—or what’s left of it—in western Brazil, taken in 1989 and 2019. Some 80,000 square miles of forest once stretched across the region, but by 2003, 26,000 square miles had been cleared to make way for farmland. The culprit is slash-and-burn agriculture, in which crews cut down a forest and burn the remains, injecting the soil with nutrients. But these nutrients are short-lived, so farmers plant crops, harvest, and quickly move on, obliterating still more of the Amazon. It’s why wildfires have been burning out of control there of late: Temperatures and humidity are much higher at the edges of the exploited forest, which is exposed to open air. Dead, dried vegetation begins to build up here into the tinder that fuels huge blazes.

Overview Timelapse also charts the ravages of human commerce and the production of the materials that fuel the modern world. Above you can see the Salar de Uyuni salt flat in Bolivia, which miners have been exploiting for the lithium that goes into the batteries in laptops and smartphones. At top is an operation as it stood in 2013; at bottom is the same place six years later. Brine is pumped from underground into evaporation pools, the teal cells you see here, leaving behind the lithium and other minerals.

It’s environmental degradation, through and through, but it’s also a means to an end: If we’re going to ditch fossil fuels and green up our economies, we need lithium-ion batteries to store energy, and lots of them. “So if we can understand how we've changed the Earth so far, we can potentially understand how we can change it for the better, as well,” says Grant.

What Overview Timelapse provides, and what no astronaut could make out from six months aboard the ISS, is a window on the relentless march of urbanization, even in recent years. Above, Las Vegas explodes in size between 1989 and 2019, quadrupling its population from 710,000 people to 3 million.

“I often say there's no way I can actually recreate the experience of being in the International Space Station and traveling around the planet,” says Grant. Only satellites can watch a metropolis boom over several decades, after all. “It's the technology enabling us to have a new understanding of what's going on, that we can never actually have firsthand with our own eyes. And I think that affords us immense knowledge and understanding and awareness.”

Overview Timelapse also charts the commercial networks that are the vascular system of globalization—how mountains of goods move around the world. Check out the orderly Port of Los Angeles above.

With that frenzied commerce comes waste, as you can see in the world’s largest tire dump, in Colorado.

Our civilization’s dependence on fossil fuels has had catastrophic consequences for the planet, which we can only fully grasp by leaving the planet, watching it from the eye of a satellite. Above we see the breakup of sea ice in Antarctica. Below are the massive Australian bushfires of 2019 and 2020, fueled in large part by climate change.

With these images, Overview Timelapse gives you both the long view—how landscapes change over 10, 20, 30 years—but also the short view, showing how we’re now, without question, experiencing the consequences of climate change. “We try to tell as up-to-date a story as possible about the condition of the world and the climate,” says Grant. “But because of what's happening, it's hard to keep up.”

Case in point: the Covid-19 pandemic. Grant and his coauthor were supposed to submit the book to their publisher in March, just as the pandemic was taking hold. They actually got an extension, and were able to include the relatively rapid timelapse below. It’s a view of the Huoshenshan Field Hospital in Wuhan, China, built by some 7,000 workers between January 23 and February 2, 2020.

In a weird way, the pandemic ties together the book’s themes of urbanization and consumption. “Thinking about how it spread in an increasingly urbanized world with people living so close together,” says Grant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. “How it spread because we have this incredible transportation network that is sending people all over the world at an unprecedented rate all the time. Even thinking about our consumption habits and how we're shipping things and moving things—and how it's all connected.”

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