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Earth from the air

Earth from the air

With his new book of satellite images, Benjamin Grant gives a fresh perspective on the mark we’ve made

With his new book of satellite images, Benjamin Grant gives a fresh perspective on the mark we’ve made

Simon Willis | August 30th 2016

One day in 2013, Benjamin Grant typed “Earth” into an online map application. He was looking for an image of our planet from space, but what appeared instead was an aerial view of hundreds of little discs arranged in a strict grid. Some were verdant green, others had sections bitten out of them so that they looked like hungry Pacmans. He’d stumbled upon fields in the town of Earth, Texas, where the sprinklers turn in circles, a system called pivot irrigation. 

The intricacy of this image got him hooked on aerial photographs that show the dazzling marks that modern society has laid down. He began collecting them and then publishing them on Instagram. His feed, the Daily Overview, has amassed 364,000 followers. Now he is publishing a book, “Overview”. Unlike Yann Arthus-Bertrand, whose hugely successful book “La Terre Vue Du Ciel” was shot from planes and helicopters, Grant has worked with a satellite-imaging archive, DigitalGlobe, to create his pictures. The added altitude lends them an even greater sense of dislocation. Divided into eight sections cataloguing different processes from harvesting to waste disposal, and one about places untouched by humans hands, it includes 250 shots from around the world: tulip fields in the Netherlands like technicolour barcodes (below), beet-sugar factories in California where pulp is stored in vast flamingo-pink lakes, and man-made islands in suburban Florida (above) where the homes are built on waterways.

The most beguiling pictures in the book are industrial. Like certain species of flower or frog, they entrap you with their visual spectacle only to deliver a nasty venom. One image shows a series of delicate blue and orange stripes which could almost pass for weather systems on Jupiter. They are the result of open-pit mining for lignite, a particularly dirty kind of coal. But as well as reflecting the ways we’ve engineered our way into an environmental crisis, the book also documents the ways we’re trying to engineer our way out of it, from giant solar-power projects in the desert to wind-farms in the sea. In his introduction, Grant writes about the “Overview effect” felt by astronauts when they see the Earth from above and “reflect on its beauty and fragility all at once”. While the book succeeds in inducing that feeling, equally powerful is the bird’s eye view it gives of the potency, for good and bad, of our own ingenuity – which often involves putting things into neat rows.

 

Moab Potash Evaporation Ponds, Utah
If Matisse had ever turned his hand to the mining business, this is the scene he might have created. This mine produces a substance called muriate of potash, a potassium-rich salt that is an important ingredient in fertilisers. The salt is pumped to the surface from deep underground and dried in giant ponds. The painterly blue of the water is the result of dye, which is added to darken its colour so that it absorbs more sunlight and evaporates more quickly. After 300 days the water is gone, and the salt is left over. 

Dadaab refugee camp, Kenya
With a population of 400,000, this refugee camp in northern Kenya is the largest in the world. And it’s growing. On the right of this picture is Hagadera, the camp’s biggest section which is already home to 100,000 people. On the left is a new area called the LFO extension, which is filling up with refugees from Somalia.

Gemasolar Thermosolar Plant, Seville, Spain
The 2,650 mirrors radiating out from the central circle like a giant ferris wheel focus the sun’s energy to heat salt in the tower in the middle. The salt gets so hot it melts, before circulating to a storage tank, where it is used to produce steam and generate electricity. 

Burning Man Festival, Nevada
This week, 65,000 people are gathered in the Black Rock Desert for an event that describes itself as an experiment in self-expression and radical self-reliance. Visitors bring everything they need for the week. As they arrive this “C”, neatly arranged into streets and blocks, sprouts on the desert floor. But the festival also prides itself on leaving no trace. At the festival’s end, the settlement disappears just as quickly as it appeared. 

Iron Ore Mining, Michigan
This bubble-gum pink bloom is a “tailings pond”. Tailings are the waste products generated by mining. At the Empire and Tilden Iron Ore Mines in Michigan, they are pumped into a giant lake called the Gribbens Basin. Here they are mixed with water to create slurry, which is then pumped through magnetic separation chambers to extract any usable ore that might be left over. 

The Empty Quarter
Rub’ al Khali, or the Empty Quarter, is the largest sand desert in the world. It covers 650,000 square kilometres, and stretches over parts of Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates. Here you can see a section in the middle of the desert – about 350 square kilometres – where there used to be shallow lakes, now dried into grey, ghostly formations. 

Overview: A New Perspective by Benjamin Grant, Preface, September 8th

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