Documenting the impending loss of nature due to climate change
July 5, 2019 11:45 AM   Subscribe

I'm an amateur photographer who's been seeking a "purpose", and I think I found it after reading The Unshakable Necessity of Nature Documentaries in the face of Ecological Ruin". What resources can help me plan vacations and trips to natural areas that will be destroyed in the coming years of climate change?

My spouse and I like to visit areas with lots of nature, and we like to travel. I like to take photos, I have good equipment and technical skills. It is clear that many animals, plants, and ecosystems will be destroyed within our lifetimes. If I can do a little bit of good by adding to the global collection of photos to remember things lost, I will. I'm looking for resources that help identify what will be lost soonest, to concentrate on those. Can be water-based environments and phenomena (we can scuba dive).
posted by StrawberryPie to Science & Nature (11 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
This is going to be tricky, since climate change by its very nature is both slow and unpredictable (in the sense that specific events are going to be difficult to capture).

I'm not aware of any specific resources for photographers in the fields you mention, so what follows is more a collection of ideas:
  • The NOAA Sea Level Rise Viewer and the Flood Level Viewer may be helpful in determining areas that will be affected by sea level rise. (The former, calibrated in feet, is going to be slightly more sensitive, but is restricted to the US; the latter is in meters, and its unlikely that we'll experience a 1-meter rise in sea level in your lifetime).
  • Similarly, visualisation tools like Earth can provide you an overview of current weather conditions, showing where "hotspots" are developing.
  • In general terms, low-lying communities are going to be hardest hit. In the developed world: Miami, islands off the Carolinas, Venice, Amsterdam, Hamburg and Lisbon. In Oceania: Tuvalu, Kiribati, Vanuatu and the Maldives. The latter might also make good subjects for coral bleaching due to temperature rise and nitrogen saturation.
  • Calving icepacks and retreating glaciers are obviously extremely sensitive indicators of climate change: Alaska, New Zealand, Canada, Switzerland and the Andes would all make good subjects, but probably wouldn't be particularly informative unless they were longitudinal.
  • Stories tend to be more effective in changing minds; people need to be told what they're seeing. You'll need to consider the narrative framing of your photographs, with awareness of your responsibility for accuracy.
  • Avoiding travel entirely, you could simply track and photograph the first blossom dates of flowers, or the migration of birds from year to year in your district. You may want to consider joining efforts like the Audubon Bird Survey or other citizen efforts, which would allow you to contribute data as well as photographs.
  • Following up on the longitudinal nature of global warming, anything that shows change over time would be useful: lowering water tables, disappearing lakes, cut-back forests could all be useful subjects.
I very much admire your motivation, but you should be prepared to deal with accusations of being a "disaster artist" by those who don't understand what you're trying to achieve as you go forward; you should also be aware of the possible impacts on your mental health from documenting the climate disaster. Finally, if you're not already doing so, please use carbon offsets for your travel.

I hope this helps!
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 1:21 PM on July 5 [8 favorites]

You might watch Chasing Coral on NetFlix if you haven't already. Last Chance to See may also give you inspiration.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 1:37 PM on July 5

Photos would be most useful if they are identified very carefully with species, dates, etc. You will probably need a collection of field guides for each area you visit and the best may require learning a new vocabulary. I am currently trying to learn fern vocabulary as they don't depend on the usually brief appearance of flowers but the descriptive terms are unfamiliar and some require magnification to determine. So hand lenses at least which will also be useful for insects.
posted by Botanizer at 2:10 PM on July 5

Travelling around the world to do this seems like a bit of an ecological own-goal, no? Even if you're using carbon offset, you're presumably contributing to the demand for plane seats that airlines use to decide how many flights to run, airframes to buy etc.

That aside, it feels like the most profound changes will be seen from longitudinal studies of the same place over many years to show long-term change, which you presumably can't achieve unless you're planning to go back every year (increasing the carbon footprint even more).

Finding something close to home would overcome both of those, even if it's not as satisfying for you photographically. The same drone shot of your locality over years to show loss of green space; the same landscape on the 1 of May each year to show spring arriving earlier each year; contact your local environmental groups to find out if there are any endangered bugs or plants anywhere near you.

I'm not saying don't do it - most of us, me included, do things we know are contributing to climate change... but I'm not sure you should do it if your aim is to 'do a little bit of good'.
posted by penguin pie at 2:19 PM on July 5 [11 favorites]

A photographer I know in NC has been doing this by documenting the same patch of Florida swamp for over 30 years. Documenting climate change involves knowing your patch of planet intimately, so you can see the changes bit by bit. Climate change is incremental, not instantaneous. I would encourage you to make this a project that revolves around your home, not where you go on vacation.
posted by mygothlaundry at 3:50 PM on July 5 [8 favorites]

I agree with those who recommend doing something local. It doesn’t make sense to emit extra carbon in order to mourn faraway parts of the earth that are damaged by carbon emissions. Plus, people in your community might be more impacted and motivated by pictures of how things are changing in their own backyards, instead of far away. It could be more concrete and immediate to them that way.
posted by delight at 4:09 PM on July 5 [4 favorites]

It sounds like you have the best of intentions, but by flying around the world on lots of vacations you're helping destroy the world whose destruction you want to document. That may be justifiable if you're doing a documentary for Netflix, but it's less so if you're doing a hobby project.

A study published about a year ago pegged global tourism with just under 10% of global climate emissions. That's serious business. Please consider vacationing in your bioregion and documenting what's happening there.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 6:29 PM on July 5 [4 favorites]

Thanks for the great comments so far. I don't mean to thread-sit, but a pattern seems to be emerging that I'd like to head off. There have been repeated statements that assume I wouldn't be careful about the impact of my own travel. I think the point was made enough times already – please let's assume that I will not be "flying around the world on lots of vacations [that are] helping destroy the world" :-). It doesn't need to be repeated again. Sometimes I travel for work reasons and can take those opportunities to add some photography excursions, which is why it's useful to have information about global conditions. But I agree 100% that it's better to limit travel and focus on local areas, and will do that. (FWIW, I live in the US West Coast, a couple of hours north of LA.)
posted by StrawberryPie at 9:05 PM on July 5

One person’s share of a commercial flight across the US generates enough carbon to melt about 32 three square feet of Arctic ice. So if you’re going to do this and be taken seriously, you need to purchase carbon offsets or seriously limit your consumption in other ways you document when you share your photos. You started out talking about leisure travel but shifted to saying these trips are business travel when you got pushback. But it’s important to understand that you are generating the problem you want to document with your efforts. As an amateur photographer, can you really contribute meaningfully? What’s your way of sharing these photos for generations? How will your work be preserved? For this to be more than a hypocritical vanity project, you’ll need to research much more about the usefulness of your photos and the impact of your travel. Don’t use this project as an excuse to travel more. Climate change tourism is accelerating climate change.
posted by bluedaisy at 9:29 PM on July 5 [1 favorite]

Picturing and writing about where we are is what resonates best with people (unless you have very specific skills - I heard an interview of a NZ humanitarian photographer who works for TEAR fund etc on Radio NZ last week; that seemed justification for travel, but it sounded a hard life ). The most effective blogs\channels I engage with are writing about their local.

Would you consider teaching locals elsewhwere to document their situation and changes?
posted by unearthed at 12:46 AM on July 6

As a courtesy to people who answered, and for people who may come across this question in the future, I wanted to leave a follow-up comment summarizing the status of this.

Thinking along the same lines as unearthed, delight, Bora Horza Gobuchul, and others upstream, I now believe a better goal is to find ways of supporting people's efforts to learn about and describe their local environments, as well as encourage people to think about the likely effects of climate change locally. I wear a couple of hats at work, as both a research scientist in computer science and a software developer at our institution's library, and part of my work is in data preservation and decentralized networking; this is thus an opportunity to apply my skills and experiences to help people record, share, and preserve their observations and stories, and go beyond just photography.

I'm currently studying existing systems such as iNaturalist that address some of these goals already (I don't want to reinvent the wheel, and will use an existing system or framework if possible), as well as local nature exploration efforts. iNaturalist supports gathering data about species, date recorded, and other characteristics, as seen in this example, something that Botanizer pointed out is important, and it supports (at least in basic ways) longitutional studies, such as this example, something that mygothlaundry suggested. However, as of right now,'s data preservation policy leaves something to be desired, and although the site is being archived at the Internet Archive, bluedaisy correctly alludes to the importance of more explicit long-term preservation if an effort like this is to have any value in the future. Perhaps other systems exist and can be a better foundation – I'm exploring what I can find. Other aspects need to be addressed too: social organization at the local level, development of best practices (e.g., how to avoid destroying your environment while you explore and document it), connecting local efforts in different areas, etc. Other people have worked on these topics and I need to learn more before I can contribute.

In any case, I'm just getting started, and I feel I'm pointed in a better direction now, with a better purpose, thanks to people's feedback.
posted by StrawberryPie at 11:30 AM on July 22 [1 favorite]

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