In August 2021, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest assessment report detailed how the window to avoid climate disaster is closing fast. Climate change is “widespread, rapid, and intensifying,” per the report, which U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres dubbed “a code red for humanity.”
The month before that report’s release was the planet’s hottest ever on record. Overall, 2021 was among the hottest seven years in Earth’s recorded history. Yet record-breaking heat wasn’t the only impact of climate change that people felt in 2021; the year also brought massive wildfires, strong hurricanes, devastating floods, and extreme drought and famine.
A collection of images from Getty photographers shows what those climate disasters actually looked like to the people affected by them on the ground. “Climate photography plays a major role in conveying the devastating impacts of our current climate emergency,” says Getty Images staff photographer Justin Sullivan. “While there is extensive media coverage of these events, being able to inform the public through powerful imagery about how drought or severe weather affects them is an important first step in changing how people approach things like water preservation.”
As the climate worsens, Sullivan says that drone photography has become a key tool for capturing the scope of these often-expansive, hard-to-imagine climate disasters—a bird’s-eye view of a dried-up lake, for example, shows what isn’t exactly clear to someone standing on its shores. And these grand-scheme images don’t only contrast between now and how things used to be; they’ll also be markers of even more large-scale changes in the years to come.
“Documenting these disasters,” Sullivan says, “gives us all context and something to measure against as our world continues to change.”