All of the Bay Area is now out of drought conditions as a result of the recent atmospheric rivers. But 2021 and 2022 felt different — ‘more severe’ — than past years.
As the adage goes: A picture is with a thousand words. While the cliche of it all can come off rather cringy, the perennial appeal of that notion remains true. And especially as it pertains to the climate crisis.
It’s common practice to throw out ostentatious figures around the pillaging of Mother Nature’s gifts. Deforestation estimates are explained in hectares; rainfall averages are extrapolated onto decades-old trends; no one can exactly remember how to convert Celsius to Fahrenheit, leading us to speculate just how much any single European country has warmed as of late. Those numbers, though impactful in their implications, are hard to land with the emotional urgency they require; they’re even more difficult to find proxies of in our own daily lives.
Getty Images Photographer Justin Sullivan inherently knows this as someone who works in visual media. It’s part of the reason why he’s dedicated much of his nearly two-decades-long career to the company to documenting the now-described climate crisis.
“Covering the environment is one of the topics I focus on the most because it’s something that we all have a relationship with,” he told me back in 2021. “And climate change has redefined that relationship dramatically. Even in the past five years alone, it’s frightful to think about just how much the world around us has changed.”
Alas, Sullivan’s spot on in that assessment.
Between September 2020 and February 2022, over 12.5 million people were displaced by the adverse impacts of climate change — the annual average now exceeding 20 million people. By 2050, as many as 1.2 billion humans could be forced from their homes due to human-caused climate change.
In the past decade, at least 467 species of fauna have been declared extinct, per the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Animal populations have shrunk by some 70% across the globe over these past fifty years.
Biodiversity is on a collision course with a dense stone wall. No one has their seat belts buckled; the airbag sensors aren’t working. But the radio — the white noise that soundtracks our unsustainable lifestyles—continues to play.
When that inevitable collision happens, it’ll be sudden… swift and deadly and catastrophic. Though we humans, the dominant species on this planet, won’t be in the same metaphorical vehicle that carried our planet’s flora and fauna into extinction, we will feel its effects well beyond our current comprehension.
We’ll be in our seats when that event does occur. Just burning, too.
2021 saw Northern California’s largest single-source wildfire; 5% of all giant sequoias died (or will die) as a result of wildfires over the past two years; San Francisco continues to see record-making levels of rain and unusually hot weather that threatens the very existence of Karla The Fog.
2022 was less dystopian, though saw historic flooding events wash away whole towns and cause catastrophic damage not seen on such a scale in over 100 years.
Sullivan’s work documenting California’s shrinking water reservoirs in 2021 was particularly of note, as was his coverage showing the carnage caused by the Caldor, Dixie, and Cache fires.
But Sullivan’s a seasoned photographer. He knows his beats and has, through years of photographing the region, become well acquainted with Northern California’s environmental cycles.
But this year felt different to the award-winning photographer. It was far more extreme — “the most severe” local examples of the climate crisis he’s captured, especially around the ongoing drought.
“We have wildfires and droughts, but this drought seems the most severe I’ve seen it,” Sullivan answers over the phone. “I honestly thought that we were going to be out of the drought. Or that there would at least some improvement.”
There hasn’t. Not even the recent Bay Area rainstorms — some of which drenched parts of the region with history-making amounts of rain — were enough to pull Northern California out of either “extreme” or “exceptional” drought conditions.
Capturing the climate crisis (in all its many facets) has also evolved in recent years. In fact: Sullivan’s most affecting images are often those taken hundreds of feet above the ground.
“Aerial shots are incredibly important in documenting climate change,” he waxes. “They give a sense of scale that’s hard to convey on the ground.”
(I wholeheartedly agree with Sullivan’s sentiment on elevated shots. There’s a sense of cosmic oneness that comes from getting a bird’s-eye view of the world — the landscapes, the wildlife, both the synthetic detritus and organic splendor — around us. It’s impactful. If I were to ascribe to the notion of an ape-like god dictating life on earth, it’s slightly reassuring to understand what they might see when looking down on us rummaging around this celestial rock like uprooted fire ants.)
For this very reason. drones have become an important tool over the past few years — “you can also have more control using them, whereas you can’t necessarily when flying in a helicopter surveying an area.”
Sullivan noted during our conversation that photographing the massive salmon die-off in the Sacramento River that occurred in 2021 was demoralizing, an aspect of the climate crisis he found “quite hard” to humanize.
Capturing these haunting images of a world in crisis, however, isn’t without unwilling participants. Much of his work requires accessing private properties, which can lead to encounters with, say, less than obliging residents and owners of those pieces of land.
“There’s a lot of roadblocks in these communities because sometimes people in them don’t want this side of their stories told, “ he adds. “They don’t want to bring negative attention to their areas. Or sometimes they’re just in flat-out denial of the realities around them.”
Nevertheless: Sullivan, like Underscore_SF, is adamant about reporting on the climate crisis — if for no other reason than because it impacts every one of us.
“I want to keep this story alive, and keep things around us alive,” Sullivan tells us in closing. “There are many different layers, and how it’s not just one thing. Climate change affects us all on every level.”
Feature image: Courtesy of Justin Sullivan/Getty Images