Aerial photos show ‘the human planet’—in all its beauty and pain

A photographer spent years hanging from a paraglider, and later operating drones, to get amazing views of the Earth.

Read Caption

The 992-feet-high Kingdom Centre reflects its city: Riyadh, capital of Saudi Arabia, a kingdom built on abundant cheap oil. The tallest skyscraper in the country when it was completed in 2002, it's now fifth on the list.

 

Aerial photos show ‘the human planet’—in all its beauty and pain

A photographer spent years hanging from a paraglider, and later operating drones, to get amazing views of the Earth.

On Friday, March 13, I returned one last time to National Geographic’s deserted offices, which had closed the day before for an indefinite period. We had finished work on our April issue, devoted to the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, and it had already been overtaken by events. I packed up my computer, washed out my crusty coffee cup, disinfected my desk belatedly, and—thinking ahead to Earth Day itself—nabbed our only copy of George Steinmetz’s gorgeous new book, The Human Planet.

The book was festooned with the photo editor’s Post-it notes, selecting the pictures you see here. I needed it to write this brief introduction, but I also had a vague idea as I took possession that it might end up gracing my own coffee table permanently, rather than that of the photo editor. In these uncertain times we must seize opportunities where we can.

George Steinmetz was 12 on the first Earth Day in 1970. He does not remember much about it. He was climbing trees in his backyard in Beverly Hills, California, and finding that he liked the view. The population of California then (around 20 million) and of the world (around 3.7 billion) were almost exactly half what they are today. In 1979 Steinmetz left Stanford, where he was studying geophysics to prepare for a career in oil exploration, and spent a year hitchhiking around Africa with a camera. His first of many assignments for National Geographic came seven years later. Exploration happened, but not for oil.

Why does it feel so good to find new things out, or to see old things in new ways? If you could answer that question you could understand a lot of journalists. Steinmetz has been an unusually original one. He always liked aerial views, from helicopters or planes or treetops, but for an assignment in the Central Sahara in 1998, none of those were available. So he learned to fly a motorized paraglider—and did so “for about 15 years,” he told me recently, “until drones came along and democratized the low altitudes that I used to have all to myself.”

The view from those altitudes is “both sweeping and intimate,” as Andrew Revkin, another distinguished chronicler of the Anthropocene, points out in the text of The Human Planet. The idea that we live in a geologic epoch defined by our own impact on the planet—the Anthropocene—horrifies many environmentalists. Steinmetz is an “accidental environmentalist,” he writes: It was curiosity that propelled him to a hundred countries, it was delight that drew him into the sky. He just happened to be watching closely as humans were surging in numbers and power, and as our impacts were becoming planetwide and inescapable.

Steinmetz’s pictures offer us just enough distance to see what we’re doing to Earth, but not so much that we feel detached. A sense of amazement and potential shines through them along with a sense of limits. “We can’t keep fighting against nature, we have to make peace with it, and that will require some concessions from all of us,” he writes. In these strange and unsettling days, may that wisdom spread.

View Images

Thousands converge for the annual crayfish-eating festival in Xuyi County, Jiangsu Province, China. Crayfish have been farmed since the 1990s in China, and with demand for the high-protein crustaceans on the rise, Xuyi County alone now has more than 32,000 acres of cultivated ponds. No pesticides are used there; crayfish are naturally robust.

View Images

Some 30 miles off the coast of Oregon, the C/P Alaska Ocean hauls in a 65-ton load of Pacific whiting, also known as hake. With a crew of 150, the 376-foot-long factory trawler processes its catch on board.

View Images

Morning sunlight falls through the smoke from burning trees in Mato Grosso, near the center of Brazil. Thousands of square miles of forest have been burned and logged here to clear the land for cattle ranches and soy farms. Government efforts in the mid-2000s significantly reduced deforestation, but illegal logging and agriculture have driven the trend upward again since 2013.

View Images

In October 2017 the Tubbs Fire virtually annihilated the suburban neighborhood of Coffey Park in Santa Rosa, California, destroying more than fourteen hundred homes—about one-quarter of the total number lost in Sonoma and Napa Counties. The fire was caused by an electrical problem on a privately owned property. Rising temperatures from climate change are expected to increase the frequency and size of US wildfires.

View Images

Near Port Angeles in Washington State, loggers have left thin screens of intact trees to hide large clear-cut areas. Scientists still debate the precise impact of such industrial forestry on climate; replanted trees may eventually absorb as much climate-warming carbon dioxide as is released by logging. But the dire impacts on local biodiversity—and on the landscape—are clear.

View Images

Calves conceived by artificial insemination shelter in 3,300 hutches at a Milk Source farm in Greenleaf, Wisconsin. Small dairy farms are closing at a record rate in America's "Dairy State," to be replaced by factory-style operations like Milk Source, which operates throughout the Midwest. The calves will be transferred at age six months to a heifer farm.

View Images

The main ferry terminal in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, is a focal point of traffic on the heavily traveled Buriganga River. A city of more than 18 million, prone to flooding, Dhaka is receiving hundreds of thousands of migrants a year from coastal areas, where land is rapidly being lost to erosion and rising seas.

View Images

Villagers gather brackish drinking water from shallow wells within a hundred yards of the ocean on Pate Island, in the Lamu archipelago, Kenya. Freshwater is a limited resource for the rapidly growing population. A desalination plant, which began operation in 2018, has brought welcome, if pricey, relief.

View Images

A day after Hurricane Harvey dumped more than fifty inches of rain on parts of Texas in August 2017, floodwaters had yet to recede from the Chevron Phillips Chemical Company refinery in Baytown. Scientists attributed Harvey’s record rainfall in part to man-made climate change, while heavy industrial and residential development in flood-prone areas added tremendously to the impacts.

View Images

In the summer of 2014, New Yorkers escape the urban heat island in a rooftop pool in Greenwich Village. The city has one million buildings and an ambitious plan to increase energy efficiency by retrofitting the largest ones.