Saturday, May 17, 2008

Caught on camera: our changing world

A planet in flux, due largely to the actions of its dominant species, Earth has, apparently, reached a tipping point. Some of the hitherto most enchanting spots on the globe are today barely recognisable from what they once were, marred – perhaps permanently – by the recklessness of the human race. Others, where the damage may be less immediately obvious, are balanced precariously atop an environmental time bomb.

Sometimes enlightening, sometimes shocking, snapshots of our rapidly changing world have been captured by some of the world’s most talented press photographers. From toxic rubbish mountains to flooded rice fields, they illustrate what we have lost to climate change – and highlight what it still at stake. To find out more, click on the images in the gallery below.

Children play in a flooded rice field near Jakarta.
In early February 2007, unprecedented rainfall combined with widespread deforestation and inadequate flood defences to create the most devastating floods to swamp the Indonesian capital in more than 300 years. During the deluge, at least 54 people were killed, 70,000 homes were flooded and more than 200,000 people were displaced. Now, more than a year later, some 5,729 people are yet to return – and the legacy of water-borne disease continues to take its human toll.

A bird glides gracefully through the polluted skies above Tehran.
Air pollution in the Iranian capital killed more than 3,600 people in just one month in 2006, an environmental situation described by local officials as “collective suicide.” Considered one of the world’s most polluted places, Tehran’s air is so toxic it triggers lethal respiratory and cardiac problems, with 80% of fatal heart attacks believed to be directly attributable to the noxious smog smothering the city. Half of the six million cars clogging Iran’s streets fail to meet global emissions standards and burn twice as much fuel as their European equivalents, spewing vast quantities of carbon monoxide into residents’ lungs.

A boy plays in a water fountain in Hyderabad, India.
Indian glaciers are among the least studied anywhere, but recent studies show they are melting at an alarming rate. Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that if steps were not taken, incidences of inland droughts and coastal flooding would increase significantly. Glaciologist D P Dobhal, who has been studying Chorabari and Dokriani glaciers in the Garhwal Himalayas since 2003, said they are receding at the rate of 1.5-2 metres every year. “What is worrying is that the glaciers are losing density... largely due to global warming; the snow is melting faster than it can accumulate as ice, thereby thinning the glacier,” he said.

A gumboot sits atop a fencepost on the site of the submerged town of Old Adaminaby in Australia.
The longest “big dry” the country has seen in a century has reduced one of its largest manmade lakes to a dustbowl, exposing the skeletal remains of a town that was deliberately flooded 50 years ago. The savage drought, believed to be caused by climate change, has shrivelled Lake Eucumbene – between Victoria and New South Wales – to a tenth of its normal size. The receding waters have exposed what little is left of the Snowy Mountains farming town evacuated in 1957 to make way for a massive hydro-electricity project promising... near-limitless water.

South Korean soldiers attempt to scrape clean an 11-mile stretch of oil-drenched sand.
A slick black sea engulfed South Korea’s scenic and ecologically rich western coastline in December 2007, when a stricken supertanker sent 10,500 tons of crude oil spewing from its hull. Thick, reeking waves of oil spilled onto the famed Mallipo beach, blackening seagulls and fouling fish farms in the worst environmental disaster in the country’s history.

An environmental activist hands a seedling to a car driver in Surabaya ahead of the UN-led climate change talks in Bali.

A scavenger picks through a sprawling 60ft high rubbish dump – nestled against schools and hospitals – on the Sidon seafront in South Lebanon, south of Beirut.
Ancient Sidouna, one of the most famous names in ancient history, counted among its cultural influences the Egyptian Pharoahs and Ancient Greece. The city’s god, Eshmoun, was associated with the Greek god of healing. Today, Sidon lives in the shadow of this 600,000 cubic metre toxic mountain comprising garbage, soil, concrete debris, hospital waste and the occasional dead animal.

An airbus A380, the world's largest passenger aircraft, skims the roofs of a shantytown as it prepares to land at Mumbai airport.
Daravai is the largest slum in Asia, a sprawling maze of tin huts and open drains that is home to more than 600,000 people. India has announced that the so-called eyesore, which generates £1bn a year through craft workshops, is to be razed and replaced with a new township in a bid to harness the area’s business potential.

A young man drifts lazily in a pond on the outskirts of Jammu in Indian Kashmir.
Choking levels of airborne pollutants forced the state government’s hand two years ago, via a court order to remove thousands of 15-year-old commercial vehicles from the roads. The “herculean task” involved decommissioning 4,814 trucks, 1,152 buses, 580 mini buses, 180 taxis and 613 auto-rickshaws in a bid to cut the amount of toxic emissions being belched into the atmosphere by the region’s ageing vehicles.

Heavy morning fog coils loosely around the soaring skyscrapers in Dubai Marina, one of the world’s largest man-made waterfronts in the heart of the United Arab Emirates.
Accelerating expansion in the UAE has prompted concern about the region’s wildlife: although traditional nature reserves – ‘hema’ – are long-established in the Arabian Peninsula, there is little in the way of legislation to protect areas rich in native flora and fauna, including turtle colonies, from fast-paced commercial development.

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