Sometimes, it takes a bit of perspective to see the bigger picture.
That is the tack Karen C. Seto and Meredith Reba of Yale University take in their new book, City Unseen: New Visions of an Urban Planet. Within its glossy pages, the researchers use satellite images of 100 cities around the globe to showcase the intricacies of the relationship between urban settlements and the natural world.
Seto and Reba used image-processing tools to reveal patterns, dynamics and connections that are difficult to detect from the ground. In one enhanced photo, order meets disarray in a pair of cities on the US-Mexican border, where only one is subject to American zoning regulations. Another photo, showing Mali’s capital, Bamako, reveals how the river Niger keeps farming aloft in the region’s dusty valleys.
The book explores how vulnerable urban centers are to the vagaries of the changing Earth. As the authors write: “Humans build settlements in the most vulnerable places to inhabit.” Coastal areas prone to storm surges also produce food and access to trade and energy—and can provide more temperate climates. Take Minamisoma, Japan, a coastal town that was devastated by the tsunami in 2011 caused by the Tōhoku earthquake. The tidal wave led to the meltdown of three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, and left 400 dead and a further 1,100 missing. Before-and-after images show the extent of the waterlogged coast in a way that would be hard to grasp from the ground, with inundation stretching three miles (five kilometers) inland.
When it comes to protecting ourselves from the natural world, human ingenuity can only go so far—not to mention the harm we’ve put ourselves in by affecting the climate. An enhanced satellite photo in the book shows the urban island of Malé, in the Maldives, which has an average elevation of under 10 feet. From a distance, it’s clear how vulnerable it is to rising sea levels, and how much its 154,000 inhabitants stand to lose.
Our actions affect the places we live—these far-off photographs remind us of the fragility of our environment, and the tenuousness of our connection to it. Here’s a selection: