The Satellite Images That Show a Decade of Climate Change

The Satellite Images That Show a Decade of Climate Change
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The 2010s will be remembered as the decade when we could no longer deny climate change.

I mean, it’s not like any rational person could deny it in the preceding decades, but the past 10 years have seen scientists’ predictions become reality. Our world has entered an unsteady state, one where the things previous generations took for granted—a frozen Arctic, less violent weather—are no more.

While the impacts of the climate crisis are clear to anyone living on Earth, satellites continue to offer the most striking view of the large-scale changes. Orbiting anywhere from about 400 to 500 miles above the Earth’s surface, satellites operated by NASA and the European Space Agency have revolutionized our understanding of the planet. They’ve provided fuel for groundbreaking discoveries about climate change from pole to pole. But you don’t have to have a PhD to look at the imagery being sent back to Earth and see the changes afoot.

With the help of Pierre Markuse, a satellite imagery expert who worked with Sentinel Hub, Earther took a look at a handful of the changes over the past decade that illuminates the ongoing climate crisis.

Baffin Island’s disappearing ice cap

Ice all around the world is melting, and really, we could’ve picked any of the hundreds of disappearing glaciers, ice patches, and Arctic sea ice. But the Barnes Ice Cap on Canadian Arctic’s Baffin Island stands out for a few reasons. For one, the cap is a remnant of some of the Earth’s most ancient ice, the Laurentide Ice Sheet that stretched from Baffin Island as far south as Chicago during the last Ice Age. Momentous research published earlier this year used ancient plants taken at the edges of the cap to show the Arctic hasn’t been this heated in at least 115,000 years.

Despite existing for more than 100,000 years, the rapid Arctic warming of the past decade has taken a noticeable toll on the ice. Imagery from NASA’s Terra satellite shows the ice cap—which differs from a glacier because it sits in place rather than moving—has retreated and grown darker. The darkening of the cap could hasten its demise. While we may have to wait another few centuries for that to happen, the fact that we can see changes over the past decade illustrates we’re already losing history.

The Tubbs Fire remakes California

This has also been the decade of fire for the West as the climate crisis dried out forests and increased the odds of hot weather that can fuel large fires. But California is perhaps the place most synonymous with flames. Five of the largest fires on record for the state occurred this decade. Of the 10 most destructive fires that state has seen, seven occurred this decade (and six in the last three years alone).

The Tubbs Fire ranks second on that list. The October 2017 fire marauded through the North Bay community of Santa Rosa, charring nearly 37,000 acres and destroying 5,636 structures. ESA’s Sentinel satellite captured the immediate aftermath of the fire. But it also shows that two years later, the landscape and community are still recovering. The burn scar is still visible in the hills surrounding Santa Rosa and the neighborhoods most affected are still in early stages of being rebuilt.

When it occurred, the Tubbs Fire was the most destructive fire in state history, but it was bumped to number two just a year later by 2018's horrific Camp Fire. This year’s fire season was mild by comparison, but that’s largely because utilities that have been responsible for some of the state’s worst fires shut down power to avoid a repeat (which came with a whole host of other issues). That raises questions about where we should build (or rebuild) and what future forest communities should look like.

The big ‘berg that captivated the world

“Superstar” and “iceberg” are not usually synonymous. But the Larsen C iceberg fit the bill. The saga of the ‘berg began in 2016 when cracked formed on the Larsen C ice shelf that sits on the Antarctic Peninsula. The cracks portended a massive iceberg could break away from the floating chunk of ice and reshape the remaining ice.

After a year, the iceberg finally broke away in July 2017. Dubbed A68, the iceberg was about half the size of Jamaica and began a languorous journey out to sea. The open water in front of the new face of the ice shelf became a protected area, and scientists planned a trip into the breach to catch a rare glimpse of what happens when a ‘berg opens up new water. Sea ice, unfortunately, thwarted the trip, but researchers eventually made it there in 2019.

What happens next for the rest of Larsen C is still TBD. The neighboring Larsen A and B ice shelves collapsed specularly in 1995 and 2002, respectively. The calving event was massive but largely due to natural forces, though warming oceans could now cut away at the weakened ice shelf. As for A68? The trillion-ton iceberg is still swirling along the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula on a slow track north. Once in warmer waters, it will eventually meet its watery demise.

The Aral Sea continues its disappearing act

The Aral Sea began to disappear long before the 2010s, but that doesn’t make its continued decline any more shocking. The inland sea was once the fourth-largest lake in the world. A 1960s Soviet irrigation project cut off the two rivers that were its lifeblood, and what was once the fourth-largest lake in the world has been shriveling in the decade since. The climate crisis has contributed to the sea’s transition into a desert, which, in turn, has further altered the region’s climate to an even harsher state.

The 2010s weren’t kind to the sea. Imagery from the start of the decade shows the Aral Sea had a bit of brackish water sitting in the eastern portion of the basin. But by 2014, the only bit of the sea remaining is a sliver on the west side of the lake. While the northern reaches of the sea have bounced back slightly thanks to a dam that has helped build up water levels, the larger southern portion continues to suffer.

Coastlines recede in the Arctic

Drew Point, Alaska, is about 70 miles as the crow flies from Utqiagvik, the northernmost city in the U.S. The pedestrian chunk of coastline isn’t anyone’s idea of an ideal place for a beach vacation. It’s cold, winter brings 24-hour darkness, polar bears are a concern. But the biggest issue is that it’s rapidly eroding.

Battering storms coupled with disappearing sea ice mean house-sized chunks of permafrost and tundra have fallen into the sea. The coastline has recently receded by up to 50 feet per year. The erosion can release stores of greenhouse gases the permafrost holds. And the loss of coast in this remote location is indicative of struggles around the Arctic. The Alaskan village of Kivalina is being forced to relocate due to erosion, making residents some of the first climate refugees in America. And other communities could follow suit as sea levels rise and continue their assault on the coasts.

Solar flourishes in the desert

A time-lapse of the Tengger Solar Park as it grows over the course of the 2010s.
Gif: Pierre Markuse (Sentinel Hub)

Hey, it’s not all bad news (just mostly). Renewables are part of the solution to the climate crisis. While the world has failed to tilt the balance of the energy system toward them in the 2010s, we’ve at least made some headway. The Tengger Solar Park is the world’s largest solar farm, covering more than 16 square miles of China’s Ningxia province. The solar plants there have the capacity to generate 1.5 gigawatts of electricity, enough to power roughly 380,000 American homes.

In China and globally, wind and solar have been growing by leaps and bounds over the course of the 2010s. That’s the good news. The downside is, they still account for just 10 percent of global energy generation, a level they’ve stood at for years as energy demand continues to outpace the amount of renewables being installed. The world will have to draw down carbon emissions (and not just from electricity) nearly 8 percent per year in the 2020s to avert catastrophic climate change. Solar parks like these will be just the tip of the iceberg if we are to succeed.