What Apocalyptic Climate Change Looks Like From Above

Thomas Heinser goes up in a helicopter before dawn. His mission? To take the most vivid photographs of climate change you’ve ever seen.

Two years go, San Francisco-based photographer Thomas Heinser was driving on I-5 in Central Valley on his way to L.A. Citrus groves lined each side of the interstate as he drove, surrounding him with explosions of orange, green, and yellow. But Heinser’s attention wasn’t drawn to the colors. Instead, what stuck with him was a spot that stood out like a cancer: the crumbling, desiccated ruins of an almond grove, starved of moisture and left to rot.


Since then, Heinser has been going out in helicopters and taking breathtaking overhead shots of what climate change has done to California. Although his photos are taken at over a thousand feet in the air, they often have the vivid, otherworldly feel of photomicrographs—for example, a vivid, blood-red corpuscle, running through flesh like a river, or a closeup shot of petrified wood.

All of Heinser’s photographs are taken five minutes before and after sunrise, a time of day that he says gives the best quality of light. Though you’d be hard-pressed to identify them, his subjects are well-known areas of Lake County, the Central Valley, and the SFO/South Bay area. The scenes themselves include evaporation ponds, parched earth racked by drought, and woods destroyed by forest fires. In all of these images, Heinser strives for a minimum of post-processing, and all the photos in his Reduziert series have one thing in common: They all showcase the results of man’s intervention with nature and the apocalyptic effects of human-wrought climate change.

According to Heinser, when people look at his art, they often aren’t sure if they’re looking at a photograph or a vivid watercolor. He finds that flattering, but ultimately, he sees himself as a documentarian of what he calls “the complicated issue of beauty documenting devastation,” which he hopes will inspire more people to talk about the reality of climate change.

All Photos: Thomas Heinser