These photos show the true scale of humanity’s impact on Earth

Humankind has left lasting marks on the furthest reaches of the planet, from building sky-piercing mega-structures in the deserts to depleting the ice sheets of the far north. These images capture the Anthropocene age in all its visionary exuberance – and disruptive destruction.

24° 42′ 24.59″ north, 46° 40′ 16.79″ east
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Standing 302.3 metres, the Kingdom Centre in Riyadh (pictured above) was the tallest skyscraper in Saudi Arabia when it was completed in 2002, but is now fifth on the list. It will soon be dwarfed by the 1km Jeddah Tower, predicted to be completed in 2022, which will be taller than three Kingdom Centres stacked on top of one another. Once fully constructed, the Jeddah Tower will be the tallest building in the world, exceeding the current record holder, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

George Steinmetz

032° 59’ 57.66” N, 118° 30’ 03.00” E
Xuyi County, Jiangsu province, China

Thousands of people converge on Xuyi County, in China, for the annual crayfish-eating festival. Chinese demand for the high-protein crustaceans is on the rise, and over 32,000 acres in Xuyi have been re-purposed into crayfish pond-farms. Owing in part to the robust constitution of the crayfish, no pesticides are used in these rearing centres, and farmers are creating a system that will enable consumers to determine the source of the crayfish they are purchasing.

George Steinmetz

18° 4′ 44.48″ N, 15° 57′ 56.38″ W
Nouakchott, Mauritania

A small strip of road separates relative prosperity and deep poverty on the outskirts of Nouakchott, which was an oasis village of 15 families before Mauritania gained independence from France in 1960. It is now the west African country’s capital city, and home to 700,000 people. Mauritania is one of the world’s poorest countries, but the discovery and exploitation of oil and gas reserves on its Atlantic coast has raised its citizens’ hopes of future prosperity.

George Steinmetz

52° 0′ 53.82″ N, 4° 11′ 37.86″ E
Monster, Zuid-Holland, the Netherlands

The rich amber and fuchsia lights of the Koppert Cress greenhouses have been designed to maximise growth efficiency and minimise light pollution. The Dutch micro-vegetable nursery uses pink-spectrum LED lighting and constructs its greenhouses with hammered glass to reflect light back to the plants, which have met the approval of environmentalists and gastronomes alike. Koppert Cress’s greens are sought after by Michelin-star chefs throughout the world.

George Steinmetz

30° 04′ 48″ N, 94° 07′ 36″ W
Beaumont, Texas, United States

Much of south-east Texas was overwhelmed by trillions of litres of rain- and flood-water when Hurricane Harvey stalled over the region in 2017, becoming one of the costliest natural disasters in the state’s history. Here, homes in Beaumont (population 120,000) sit marooned after the event. The crisis worsened when the municipal water system failed, leaving locals without running water and forcing at least one hospital to evacuate patients by helicopter.

George Steinmetz

38° 28′ 39.00″ N, 122° 44′ 52.40″ W
Santa Rosa, California, United States

The suburb of Coffey Park was all but annihilated in October 2017 by the Tubbs wildfire, which jumped over a six-lane highway expected to act as a fire block. More than 1,400 homes were destroyed – a quarter of the total lost as the fire spread across Sonoma and Napa counties. Sagging power lines were blamed for 12 of northern California’s wildfires in 2017, but a 2019 report determined that the Tubbs fire was caused by an electrical problem on private property.

George Steinmetz

044° 19’ 27.12” N, 087° 57’ 42.54” W
Greenleaf, Wisconsin, United States

At a mega-dairy’s calf farm, 3,300 calf shelters line the landscape. Long known as America’s “Dairy State”, Wisconsin has seen a shift in farming fortunes. Small dairy farms are closing at a record rate, replaced by factory-style operations such as Milk Source, which operates across the Midwest. Calves, all conceived via artificial insemination, shelter in these Calf Source hutches for six months from birth, then transfer to one of Milk Source’s heifer farms.

George Steinmetz

69° 32’ 35.62” N, 49° 41’ 52.09” W
Near Ilulissat, Greenland

Outside Antarctica, the world’s greatest storehouse of ice – and potential contributor to rising sea levels – is Greenland. Its ice sheets are shrinking, as the edges collapse into the sea and the 3km-thick sheets melt. In 2017, two glaciologists used bright dye to track flows of surface water through crevasses and natural drain holes called moulins. In places, this water appears to lubricate the ice-bedrock interface, and increase the rate at which ice slides toward the sea.

George Steinmetz

40° 17’ 32.04” N, 111° 23’ 7.05” E
Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, China

Tuoketuo power station in Chinese Inner Mongolia, the largest coal-fired plant in the world, receives most of its coal from the Haerwusu open-pit mine. Here, dark heaps of coal, many covered by green tarpaulins, are being sorted in an open-air yard, almost 3km long. Satellite images reveal a black smudge around the yard, despite fences intended to stop the spread of coal dust. The mine opened in 2008, and is estimated to have a reserve life of more than 75 years.

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