Book Review: Earth Under Fire by Gary Braasch

What surprised me about this book was not its rich photographic element, I was already familiar with the stunning landscape and wildlife imagery by Ansel Adams Award-winning photojournalist, Gary Braasch. No. What caught me more off balance was the depth of his research and reporting. Earth Under Fire: How Global Warming is Changing the World is a personal record, via his camera and keyboard, of the consequences of modern affluence on this planet we call home. Read this book and your head will be swimming, just like weary polar bears, outside of ones' usual realm.Speaking of our largest land carnivore, Gary writes that scientists are seeing their first evidence, in 24 years of field work, of polar bear cannibalism and also death by starvation. Polar bear cubs who are alive after one year have fallen from 65% to 43%. All due, in large part, to diminishing polar ice cover.

And it is this loss of polar caps and receding glaciers which is the lead chapter in Earth Under Fire. Gary took ancient grainy photographs of massive glaciers and set out to capture the same image to show the difference now. The results are visually dramatic. And everyday scary. Oregon's Mt Hood, for example, has lost 34% of its ice cover since the beginning of the 20th century.

Athabasca Glacier, Canada. 1917 (photo by A.O. Wheeler) and 2005 (Gary Braasch)

On his six year odyssey to document global warming Gary visited the Baffin Island Inuit village of Pangnirtung. The nearby national park is known as Auyuittuq, meaning 'the land that never melts', though the park ranger thinks they'll now have to rename it 'the land that is melting.' This has far reaching impacts on the ability of the Inuit to maintain their lifestyle and culture, already under threat from externally imposed urbanisation. As Sheil Watt-Cloutier, former chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference put it, "climate change in the Arctic is not just an environmental issue with unwelcome economic consequences [...] It is a human issue. The Arctic is not a wilderness or a frontier. It is our home and homeland."

A view echoed throughout the book as Gary travelled to 22 countries, visiting communities and landscapes in his quest to understand and record climate change. From the Amazonian rainforest of Peru ("once covering about 12 percent of the Earth's land surface but now reduced to more than half, rainforest harbor about half of the Earth's species ...") to Australia's Great Barrier Reef, (earning more in tourism dollars than the country's entire fishing industry, though reeling from coral bleaching that in 2002 affected 60 to 95% of the reef.)

Lurking among the photographs is a plethora of of both sobering and inspiring information.

• An increase in night time temps of almost 2°F (1.2°C) has led to a 10% reduction in rice yields, a crop that feeds 2 billion people daily, the most of any grain.
• the area of the Earth suffering from drought more than doubled in the past thirty years
• 16 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in China (had a look at how many things you buy these days that are 'Made in China'?)
• Residential buildings contribute to almost 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions, equal with road transport and only surpassed by deforestation
• The Kyoto protocol was to reduce emissions by an average 5% below 1990 levels. The USA, who is now the one remaining developed nation not to have signed the protocol, continues to emit 16% more greenhouse gas than 1990 levels.
• Germany expects to get half of its electricity from renewable energy by mid century, while decommissioning its 19 nuclear power plants.
• In the US, from 1990 to 2003, total carbon dioxide emissions rose 20% for all cars and light vehicles but 51% for SUVs and pickups.
• an improvement of 3 miles per gallon in fuel efficiency in the US vehicle fleet would save 1 million barrels of oil per day.
• organic corn, was found in one study, to use 30% less fossil energy than conventional farming.

Gary feels that humankind has strayed off course. He is equally convinced that we can make the corrections needed to ensure our survival, and those that share the planet with us. "The money, technology and skills exist in abundance, but we have yet to muster the needed will." He calls for heroes for a new world. Those that share his goal that, "... no purchase made, no machine designed or built, no land permitted, no product introduced, no law passed, no politician elected unless the action is a step forward to reduction and reversal of greenhouse gas."

What gives a nature photographer such passion to save the world? Get you hands on his book and you'll soon see and read why. And hopefully take your own actions towards a brighter future for all.

::Earth Under Fire: How Global Warming is Changing the World


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