All Photographs by Daniel Beltra
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Shards of a ice float in a shallow lake atop the Greenland ice sheet east of Ilulissat. August 2014
All Photographs by Daniel Beltra

See Dramatic Views of Climate Change From Above

Visually illustrating climate change and global environmental shifts is no easy task. But for photographer Daniel Beltrá, documenting humanity’s effect on our planet has been a lifelong passion. To date he’s photographed the polar regions, the Amazon, Iceland, Greenland, and even the BP oil spill.

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Meltwater flows across the top of the Greenland ice sheet southeast of Ilulissat, which has been sullied by cryoconite, or ash and soot. The presence of cryoconite deposited on top of the ice sheet triples the melt rate, says Beltrá. August 2014.

From a young age, Beltrá loved to be outdoors, but it wasn’t until he was given a camera that he realized how photography could change people’s perceptions. “Photography became a tool to expose what’s happening in the planet, and all the aggressions that the natural world was suffering from us—even though we are supposedly the world’s most intelligent species,” he says.

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Meltwater pools in a low area of the Greenland ice sheet, southeast of Ilulissat. August 2014.

Over the course of his career, Beltrá has discovered a surprisingly effective way to get his message across: abstract, aerial images that, for him, have more impact than traditional storytelling methods. “These photographs are painterly, abstract, beautiful, and also scary, depending on what they’re depicting,” he says. “It helps to have a certain separation from these big issues—deforestation, global warming, climate change, etc. I find that being up and a bit away helps you to understand the problem.”

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Severe drought reveals the remains of a tree on the banks of the Madeira River near Nova Olinda do Norte, Brazil. October 2005.

He says that it’s common for people to view his photographs and not know what they’re looking at. But for him, that’s an advantage. “Images that have that kind of tension, where at first you don’t even know what you’re looking at, but then you feel intrigued … [It] ends up creating a relationship to the subject that’s a bit more deep.”

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Tracking several logging areas in the Amazon, from Macapá to Santarem, Brazil. September 2013.

Beltrá’s projects require a lot of planning and are heavily weather-dependent. He works in a small, chartered airplane, shooting through a narrow window behind the pilot. Throughout the flight, he shoots almost nonstop, using up to three cameras at a time.

While Beltrá has spent a lot of time perfecting his technique and looking for extraordinary compositions, there are still a lot of factors—such as the motion of the airplane—to contend with.

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Construction of the Belo Monte Dam project near Altamira, Brazil. “The dam will be the third largest in the world, submerging 400,000 hectares and displacing 20,000 people,” says Beltrá. February 2012.

“Planes are complicated because you add speed to the equation, you cannot slow down,” he says. “Composing is not that easy—it happens very fast. I always tell people that it just goes from my eyes to my fingers to my brain. I don’t even really know how it happens.”

Sometimes, he says, he doesn’t even fully realize what he’s captured until he reviews the photographs later. “There are images that I discover later when I edit, that I think, Wow, this is incredible,” he says, “but I don’t even remember taking it.”

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A plume of smoke rises from a burn of collected oil in the Gulf of Mexico. Controlled burns were used to try to rid the Gulf of the most visible surface oil leaked from the BP Deepwater Horizon, says Beltrá. May 2010.

Beltrá views his relationship with the pilot as a collaboration. “I always say that the copyright should be shared—they definitely do a lot of the work,” he says. “I try and meet with them before the flight so they can understand what I’m trying to achieve.” If, for instance, Beltrá sees a stunning landscape while in the air, the pilot will loop back around to help him get the shot.

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Water in Iceland’s Ölfusá river flows around sandbars toward the Atlantic Ocean. The Ölfusá is Iceland’s largest river and its watershed drains 2,355 square miles (or 1/7th of Iceland), says Beltrá. According to a 2015 study by the University of Arizona published in Geophysical Research Letters, parts of Iceland are rising as much as 1.3 inches a year as its icecap melts away. July 2014.

Fortunately, Beltrá’s relentless dedication has been rewarded more than a few times, winning him Wildlife Photographer of the Year and even placing one of his books in the hands of Prince Charles.

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Thjorsa river, laden with milky-white sediments, flows through Iceland. July 2014.

But his primary aim is to teach people about the dangers of climate change.

“The important part is to make people understand that we’re all in this together,” he says. “At the end of the day, we all still live on the same planet—we all drink the same water, breathe the same air. I don’t think there’s anybody that wouldn’t want to keep that healthy.”

See more of Daniel Beltrá’s work on his website.