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7 NASA Selfies Show Just How Much Our Climate Is Changing

Climate
7 NASA Selfies Show Just How Much Our Climate Is Changing

We’ve all heard the line that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” So to bring home what’s happening to our planet, we rounded up a series of pictures of Earth through the years from the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). And while some pictures could use a thousand words to make their point, these images only need four: “Our climate is changing.”

Lyell Glacier, Yosemite National Park

Photo credit: U.S. National Park Service. 1883 photo: USGS / Israel Russell. 2015 photo: NPS / Keenan Takahashi

The largest glacier in Yosemite National Park, the Lyell Glacier, has lost almost 80 percent of its surface area and about 120 vertical feet (37 meters) of ice. While this change has occurred over the span of 132 years from 1883–2015, more than 10 percent of the total ice loss has happened in the past four years, thanks to warming temperatures and dry weather.

Scientific research shows glaciers have been losing mass since at least the 1970s and ice mass has been declining more quickly in the last 10 years. This melting ice has contributed to rising sea levels around the world, putting millions of people near coastal areas at risk to severe flooding as storms intensify.

Lake Mead, Nevada

Photo credit: NASA

Lake Mead, a reservoir outside of Las Vegas that sustains nearly 20 million people in California, Arizona and Nevada, has suffered from intense droughts in recent years. The reservoir’s water level declined about 120 feet (37 meters) between 2000–2015, hitting record lows as the drought spread across California and southwestern states in the U.S.

But it doesn’t end with dry heat: Droughts mean the water supplies we depend on are affected as bodies of water like Lake Mead decline. A report by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that one-third of all the counties in the U.S.’ lower 48 states are at higher risk of water shortages over the next 35 years because of climate change.

California Wildfires

Photo credit: United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). From Latin America and the Caribbean Atlas of our Changing Environment (2010)

In May 2014, a series of wildfires hit the coastal area north of San Diego, California, thanks to a combination of heat, drought and dry winds that intensified the fires. The wildfires put thousands of nearby residents at risk, resulting in 175,000 evacuation notices.

Over the past decade, wildfires have caused significant damage throughout the western U.S. and other parts of the world and many scientists believe climate change is playing a role. There’s an average of 72,000 wildfires per year and nine of the 10 years with the most burned acres have occurred since 2000. We can’t yet say for sure, but we don’t think it’s a coincidence that the nine worst years for wildfires coincide with many of the hottest years on record.

Typhoon Haiyan, Philippines

On Nov. 7, 2013, Typhoon Haiyan, known locally as Typhoon Yolanda, approached Guiuan on the Philippine island of Samar with winds close to 195 miles per hour (315 kilometers per hour). The storm became the deadliest on record in the Philippines and was responsible for more than 6,300 lost lives, more than 4 million displaced citizens and more than $2 billion in damages. Not all the devastation came when Haiyan first struck, as the storm also swelled the Agno River, shown in the second image above, causing severe flooding later.

Research shows that hurricanes and typhoons are likely to become more intense with stronger winds as the planet, including ocean temperatures, continues to warm. In the northwestern Pacific Ocean specifically, damaging typhoons have become about 10 percent more intense since the 1970s and even stronger storms are expected there as climate change worsens.

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Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon

The images above show what deforestation looks like via satellite in the Amazon, specifically in the Brazilian state of Rondônia. Rondônia has the highest rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, partly because of the area’s growing population from government-promoted immigration and the expansion of the wood-products industry. Rondônia’s population has more than doubled over the past three decades, from about 500,000 in 1980 to more than 1.7 million today.

Deforestation or the clearing of forests on a massive scale, is a major contributor to climate change and responsible for about 15 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. In the last 50 years, about 50 percent of the world’s original forest cover has been lost due to deforestation. Deforestation not only releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, but it harms many other areas of the environment, including wildlife, water cycles and the livelihoods of people who rely on forests. Plus, as forests decline, so does their ability to act as carbon sinks that help remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Talk about lose-lose-lose.

Population Growth in Beijing, China

Photo credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

The images above show the drastic population growth and infrastructure expansion in Beijing between 2000 and 2009. This has created what’s known as a “heat island effect,” which has contributed to an increase in winter temperatures by 5—7 degrees Fahrenheit (3—4 degrees Celsius).

With a population of more than 1 billion, an expanding middle class and an economy that has been rapidly growing over the past two decades, many eyes are on China to do its part in fighting climate change. Thankfully, that’s what China has pledged to do in a commitment last year to peak carbon emissions by 2030 and source 20 percent of its primary energy consumption from clean energy sources. This was a major win for the climate movement.

Earth’s Temperature Changes

Photo credit: NASA

If we had to pick one satellite image comparison to sum up how climate change affects our planet, this would be it. These striking images compare temperatures in each region of the world more than 100 years apart. The left image shows Earth’s temperatures from 1880–1889 and the right image shows temperature from 2000–2009. What the two show is that Earth’s average surface temperature has increased 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit (0.7 degrees Celsius) since 1880, with two-thirds of this increase happening in the last 40 years.

DSCOVR

Seen enough before-and-after images? So have we. Which is why it’s worth taking a step back to look at the big picture and see just what’s at stake with a recent shot from NASA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR).

This beautiful planet is our home and it’s our responsibility to protect it from the devastation of a changing climate. Ready to learn how you can help? Sign up to receive updates from The Climate Reality Project to find out more about what's changing in our climate, the solutions that exist and ways you can get involved.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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