Daily Picture Show

Capturing Climate Change

When it comes to climate change, there are more questions than there are answers. How do you explain the big-picture risks of subtle changes like rising sea levels, fluctuating crop yields and shifts in ocean currents — and, more important, how do you make people care? One solution: with photographs. But photographer Joshua Wolfe is convinced that for the purpose of illustrating climate change, polar bears and penguins just won't cut it.

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    This ice, off the coast of Kaktovik, Alaska, is a few yards thick (most is below the surface) and is typical of ice in the late summer, with plentiful freshwater melt ponds on the surface. But floes this thick are becoming more and more rare.
    Peter Essick
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    The Chicago heat wave of 1995 is just one of many record-breaking temperature phenomena happening around the world.
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    Arctic soils are generally held together by ice and permafrost. As the permafrost melts, the soils become very sandy and easy to erode. At the town of Shishmaref on the Bering Strait, coastal erosion rates can reach more than 60 feet a year.
    Gary Braasch
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    Human infrastructure is not the only thing affected by melting permafrost. Forests often grow on a thin layer of soil overlying permafrost, and as it melts, the stability of the trees is jeopardized. This "drunken forest" is near Fairbanks, Alaska.
    Ashley Cooper/Global Warming Images
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    The outflow region of the Everglades in Florida is a typical example of a coastal wetland comprising mangrove swamps. It provides a unique environment for the species that live there. But with the projected increase in the current rise of sea level, wetlands are at risk of being inundated and eventually lost.
    Peter Essick
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    During the summer of 2007, two sets of forest fires raged across Greece. This photograph is from Poros, where fires broke out during the period of highest temperatures of the June heat wave.
    Joshua Wolfe
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    A second wave of fires in Greece occurred that August, as seen in the satellite image. A combination of scant precipitation and multiple heat waves left Greece particularly vulnerable. By the end of the summer, the tally was 120 major fires and 469,000 acres of forestland burned.
    NASA
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    Extreme weather can be tied to climate change. This image shows a sand flood in a beach home on the east coast of Florida after storm surges associated with hurricanes Jeanne and Frances.
    Gary Braasch
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    The Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, Alaska, photographed in 1894.
    National Snow and Ice Data Center Collection, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
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    The Mendenhall Glacier, photographed again in 2004. As with almost all Alaskan glaciers, and indeed most glaciers globally, the front has retreated dramatically because of warmer temperatures during summer and reduced snowfall in winter.
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    This Harlequin toad (Atelopus varius) in Costa Rica is one of dozens of this genus on the endangered species list — some of which are already thought to be extinct — mainly because of the spread of the chytrid fungus, which may be accelerated by climate change and harvesting for the pet trade.
    Gary Braasch
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    An invasive plant species, kudzu was initially imported from Japan to the Southern United States for agricultural purposes, but it rapidly became a pest owing to a lack of grazers and its fast growth. In the past 10 years, it has moved inexorably farther north as temperatures have warmed. This image was made in Melville, N.Y. , on Long Island.
    Joshua Wolfe
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    Smoke billows from a coal-burning plant in Conesville, Ohio. The stack with the white smoke (second from left) is using lime to reduce sulfur emissions and thereby reduce downwind air pollution and acid rain.
    Peter Essick
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    Modern windmills in the Netherlands generate a peak output of up to 2 megawatts each, but only when it's windy. The country's total capacity is around 1,500 megawatts (out of a total of 48,000 megawatts in the European Union as a whole) and is increasing by about 18 percent a year.
    Gary Braasch
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    Biomass growth can be used to store carbon that would otherwise escape into the atmosphere. These Sitka spruce and Western hemlock forests in Oregon are among the richest in the world in soil depth and the amount of nutrients and carbon stored in the soil and woody debris.
    Gary Braasch

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Wolfe and NASA climatologist Dr. Gavin Schmidt recently published a collection of scientific essays and photographs in a book called Climate Change: Picturing the Science. The aim is to shed light on a complex problem and make it both accessible and important to the public. It's a compilation of scientific (but readable) essays, mostly by scientists from Columbia University's Earth Institute. And it's illustrated by not only photographs but also diagrams and satellite images.

It's hard to believe that for a subject as trendy as climate change, there are so few photographers who specialize in it. As Wolfe explained, it's a topic that defies journalism's typical demands of daily deadlines and breaking news. "It's a very hard story to cover," he said, "because it's so huge and so slow, and it's one that doesn't really fit the way we gather news. ... That, and none of us make any money."

But it's an important subject, and Wolfe and Schmidt make a compelling case that we should care. There are a few penguins in the book, and one polar bear, but also much more. Here's a peek at some of the book's imagery, provided by a team of photographers devoted to capturing climate change.

By Claire O'Neill

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