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Historic Aerial Photos to Track Climate Change

I was writing an article on history and climate change for work when a thought dawned on me regarding how to document areas affected by climate change.

The Expected Effects of Climate Change

I opened my article with information about the Camp Fire, which destroyed the town of Paradise and its Gold Nugget Museum. I also discussed the Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume II, which was recently released by the federal government. The report discusses how the effects of climate change are already being felt and they are going to get worse. There will be changes to ecosystems, threats to infrastructure, coastal regions flooded, extreme weather events, and more wildfires. The report is meant to urge people to plan for climate change impacts and be ready to adapt to them.

Those of us in the history field need to not only adapt our facilities for climate change, we also ought to figure out how we are going to document the effects of climate change.

When I was researching the Paradise fire, I ran across a number of aerial photos showing the utter devastation of the town. It’s gone.

Aerial Photography – Who Does This?

Within my museum’s archive, we have a few aerial photos of our county seat. It’s fascinating to look at these photos and study how things have changed over time. When there’s a fire that wipes out a town like Paradise, historical aerial photos can help us to see what was there when the town gets rebuilt. But, if, due to climate change, a town never gets rebuilt, aerial photos can show us that a town existed at all.

There are not very many aerial photos in my museum’s collections, just a few taken by local photographers that have been donated over the years. This got me to wondering, who does aerial photos now? Is there anyone who regularly creates aerial photos of the same locations over time?

Well, yes. Google does for Google Earth. But, do they keep their historical imagery available to users? Yes, again. Here are instructions on how to access historical imagery on Google Earth.

That’s great! Historical aerial views that are easily accessible. My one qualm with this is that Google is a business. If it decides it no longer wants to share this data, it can remove it from online and hide it away. The same goes for any other private company or corporation producing aerial photography or maps. They have no obligation to share it with anyone.

Might there be some publicly-funded aerial photography somewhere? Yep. The Minnesota DNR has historical aerial imagery available online on its Landview site.

Poke around online to find aerial images for other states, like this page from Data.gov providing a list of aerial imagery from a variety of state.

For those of us attempting to track the larger effects of climate change on geographical regions, these resources are going to prove very useful. For the fine-grain, personal-level effects, historians will need to be at the ready to capture the effects of climate change on the ground.