Smoke on the Landscape (and Fire in the Sky)

Gary Hart Photography: Smoky Sunset, Desert View, Grand Canyon

Smoky Sunset, Desert View, Grand Canyon
Sony a7RIV
Sony 200-600 G
Sony 2x teleconverter
ISO 100
f/18
1/60 second

After 2 1/2 weeks at the Grand Canyon for three monsoon photo workshops, I’ve had very little time (and even less connectivity) for posting, but I wanted to share this image while the experience is still fresh in my mind. Here’s a new image and a short descriptive post, followed by a longer, but far more important, “refurbished” post.

Beauty comes in many forms. Usually it’s some version of thrilling or soothing, but last week I witnessed beauty that I can only label alarming.

My first week at the Grand Canyon (for three workshops) included the monsoon staples people sign up for: beautiful clouds, vivid sunrises and sunsets, rainbows, and lightning—lots and lots of lightning. But when Mother Nature flipped off the moisture switch at the end of the first week, all that monsoon magnificence was replaced by cloudless skies and smoke—smoke in the sky, and smoke in the canyon.

Without the cleansing monsoon showers, visibility into the canyon varied with the fickle winds, ranging from okay to opaque. And even when we could see across to the other side, a thick brown haze hugged the horizon in all directions.

Adopting my best lemonade-from-lemons stance, I encouraged everyone in the second group to appreciate the rare opportunity to include a red, orange, or yellow (depending on the smoke’s thickness) sun in their images. This wasn’t what everyone was hoping for, but I tried to make that point that as depressing as the smoke is, these images shouldn’t feel like a consolation prize because they really can be pretty cool.

Fortunately, the Grand Canyon is ideal for these shots that emphasize the seemingly infinite supply of ridges that disappear into the distance. Normally photographing these receding ridges by pointing toward sunrise or sunset results in a harsh white sky and hopelessly blown out sun. But smoke knocks down the sun’s brilliance, allowing its color to shine through. And, the smoke that robs the vistas of their glorious canyon views also helps simplify images down to basic color and shape. Wide or tight, the result is a relatively unique visual take on the Grand Canyon’s beauty.

I captured this image on the second group’s first sunset. I like starting the workshop at Desert View because we can all set up together along the rim, allowing me to work individually with the participants to identify who will need what assistance throughout the workshop. But once we got settled in, everyone started to work on their own version of the scene and I got a minute to think about my own shot.

I kicked myself for not lugging my Sony 200-600 lens out in the first place, and ended up jogging back to the car to grab it and my 2X teleconverter, hoping to enlarge the sun and apply extreme compression to the disappearing ridges. Adding this combo to my Sony a7RIV, I couldn’t resist starting by zooming all the way out to 1200mm to make the sun as large as possible. After that I played with a variety of focal lengths, ultimately choosing this one, around 600mm, because I could include more of the ridges. The sun slipping into a few wispy cloud fragments just before it disappeared was a bonus.

To avoid washing out the color in the sun, I had to seriously underexpose the foreground. On my LCD, the ridges you see in this image were black—so dark in fact that there was no way to distinguish one from the next. But I love my Sony bodies and knew that my a7RIV had indeed captured all the shadow detail I would need, a fact I easily confirmed upon opening this image in Lightroom.

I should add that despite all the smoke, all was not completely lost for the middle group. For our final sunset, the sky above Cape Royal cleared wonderfully, allowing the sun to paint Wotan’s Throne with beautiful warm light. (The view of Wotan’s Throne from Cape Royal is one of my favorite Grand Canyon views.) Great canyon views and relatively few cross-canyon lights makes Cape Royal my favorite Grand Canyon rim Milky Way location, so we stayed out and enjoyed the best Milky Way shoot of any monsoon workshop I’ve ever had—so great, in fact, that we voted to blow off sunrise to stay out later.

With the monsoon returning for the final week, the third workshop group enjoyed two spectacular lightning shoots and a couple of equally spectacular sunsets. Just as significant, the frequent showers banished the smoke and the visibility returned, at least temporarily. But with smoky summer skies becoming the norm here in the West—and this year most of the country is suffering from our smoke—I fear that we’ve all reached the point where summer outdoor plans will require a smoke contingency, much as we’ve always had to do with the potential for rain.

I’ll be back soon with more conventional Grand Canyon monsoon drama (something this trip didn’t lack), but in the meantime, I hope you take the time to read below and gain a little understand of climate warming and the undeniable truth of humans’ role.

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Where There’s Smoke (2019)

Gary Hart Photography: Sun and Smoke, Sierra Foothills, California

Sun and Smoke, Sierra Foothills, California
Sony a6300
Sony 100-400 GM
Sony 2x teleconverter
ISO 100
f/16
1/8 second

Humans, we have a problem

Earth’s climate is changing, and the smoking gun belongs to us. Sadly, in the United States policy lags insight and reason, and the world is suffering.

Climate change science is complex, with many moving parts that make it difficult to communicate to the general public. Climate change also represents a significant reset for some of the world’s most profitable corporations. Those colliding realities created a perfect storm for fostering the doubt and confusion that persists among people who don’t understand climate science and the principles that underpin it.

I’m not a scientist, but I do have enough science background (majors in astronomy and geology, before ultimately earning my degree in economics) to trust the experts and respect the scientific method. I also spent 20 years doing technical communication in the tech industry (tech writing, training, and support) for companies large and small. So I know enough to know that the fundamentals of climate change don’t need to intimidate, and the more accessible they can be to the general public, the better off we’ll all be.

It’s personal

Recently it feels like I’ve been living on the climate change front lines. On each visit to Yosemite, more dead and dying trees stain forests that were green as recently as five years ago. And throughout the Sierra (among other places), thirsty evergreens, weakened by drought, are under siege by insects that now thrive in mountain winters that once froze them into submission. More dead trees means more fuel, making wildfires not just more frequent, but bigger and hotter.

Speaking of wildfires, for a week last month I couldn’t go outside without a mask thanks to smoke from the Camp Fire that annihilated Paradise (70 miles away). I have friends who evacuated from each of this November’s three major California wildfires (Camp, Hill, and Woolsey), and last December the Thomas Fire forced a two-week evacuation of Ojai, where my wife and I rent a small place (to be near the grandkids). Our cleanup from the Thomas fire took months, and we still find ash in the most unexpected places (and we were among the lucky who had a home to clean).

The debate is dead

Despite its inevitable (and long overdue) death, the climate change debate continues to stagger on like a mindless zombie. We used to have to listen to the global warming skeptics claim that our climate wasn’t changing at all, so I guess hearing them acknowledge that okay-well-maybe-the-climate-is-changing-but-humans-aren’t-responsible can be considered progress.

Climate change alternative “explanations” like “natural variability” and “solar energy fluctuations” popular on social media or fringe websites have been irrefutably debunked by rigorously gathered, thoroughly analyzed, and closely scrutinized data. (And don’t get me started on the ridiculous “scientists motivated by grant money” conspiracy theory.)

Science we all can agree on

One thing that everyone does agree on is the existence of the greenhouse effect, which has been used for centuries to grow plants in otherwise hostile environments.

As you may already know, a greenhouse’s transparent exterior allows sunlight to penetrate and warm its interior. The heated interior radiates at longer wavelengths (infrared) that don’t escape as easily through the greenhouse’s ceiling and walls. That means more heat is added to a greenhouse than exits it, so the interior is warmer than the environment outside.

There’s something in the air

Perhaps the most common misperception about human induced climate change is that it’s driven by all the heat we create when we burn stuff. But that’s not what’s going on, not even close.

Our atmosphere behaves like a greenhouse, albeit with far more complexity. The sun bathes Earth with continuous electromagnetic radiation that includes infrared, visible light, and ultraviolet that we’re all familiar with. Solar radiation not reflected back to space reaches Earth’s surface to heat water, land, and air. Some of this heat makes it back to space, but much is absorbed by molecules in Earth’s atmosphere, forming a virtual blanket that makes Earth warmer than it would be without an atmosphere. In a word, inhabitable.

Because a molecule’s ability to absorb heat depends on its structure, some molecules absorb heat better than others. The two most common molecules in Earth’s atmosphere, nitrogen (N2: two nitrogen atoms) and oxygen (O2: two oxygen atoms), are bound so tightly that they don’t absorb heat. Our atmospheric blanket relies on other molecules to absorb heat: the greenhouse gases.

Also not open for debate is that Earth warms when greenhouse gases in the atmosphere rise, and cools when they fall. The rise and fall of greenhouse gases has been happening for as long as Earth has had an atmosphere. So our climate problem isn’t that our atmosphere contains greenhouse gases, it’s that human activity changes our atmosphere’s natural balance of greenhouse gases.

Earth’s most prevalent greenhouse gas is water vapor. But water vapor responds quickly to temperature changes, leaving the atmosphere relatively fast as rain or snow, while other greenhouse gases hold their heat far longer.

The two most problematic greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide (CO2: one carbon atom bonded with two oxygen atoms) and methane (CH4: one carbon atom bonded with four hydrogen atoms). The common denominator in these “problem” gases is carbon. (There are other, non-carbon-based, greenhouse gases, but for simplicity I’m focusing on the most significant ones.)

Carbon exists in many forms: as a solo act like graphite and diamond, and in collaboration with other elements to form more complex molecules, like carbon dioxide and methane. When it’s not floating around the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas, carbon in its many forms is sequestered in a variety of natural reservoirs called a “carbon sink,” where it does nothing to warm the planet.

Oceans are Earth’s largest carbon sink. And since carbon is the fundamental building block of life on Earth, all living organisms, from plants to plankton to people, are carbon sinks as well. The carbon necessary to form greenhouse gases has always fluctuated naturally between the atmosphere and natural sinks like oceans and plants.

For example, a growing tree absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, keeping the carbon and expelling oxygen (another simplification of a very complex process)—a process that stops when the tree dies. As the dead tree decomposes, some of its carbon is returned to the atmosphere as methane, but much of it returns to the land where it is eventually buried beneath sediments. Over tens or hundreds of millions of years, some of that sequestered carbon is transformed by pressure and heat to become coal.

Another important example is oil. For billions of years, Earth’s oceans have been host to simple-but-nevertheless-carbon-based organisms like algae and plankton. When these organisms die they drop to the ocean floor, where they’re eventually buried beneath sediment and other dead organisms. Millions of years of pressure and heat transforms these ancient deposits into…: oil.

Coal and oil (hydrocarbons), as significant long-term carbon sinks, were quite content to lounge in comfortable anonymity as continents drifted, mountains lifted and eroded, and glaciers advanced and retreated. Through all this slow motion activity on its surface, Earth’s temperatures ebbed and flowed and life evolved accordingly.

Enter humans. We have evolved, migrated, and built civilizations based on a relatively stable climate. And since the discovery of fire we humans have burned plants for warmth and food preparation. Burning organic material creates carbon dioxide, thereby releasing sequestered carbon into the atmosphere. Who knew that such a significant advance was the first crack in the climate-change Pandora’s Box?

For thousands of years the demand for fuel was met simply by harvesting dead plants strewn about on the ground and the reintroduction of carbon to the atmosphere was minimal. But as populations expanded and technology advanced, so did humans’ thirst for fuel to burn.

We nearly killed off the whales for their oil before someone figured out that those ancient, subterranean metamorphosed dead plants burn really nicely. With an ample supply of coal and oil and a seemingly boundless opportunity for profit, coal and oil soon became the driving force in the world’s economy. Suddenly, hundreds of millions of years worth of sequestered carbon was being reintroduced to our atmosphere as fast as it could be produced—with a corresponding acceleration in greenhouse gases (remember, when we burn hydrocarbons, we create carbon dioxide).

Compounding the fossil-fuel-as-energy problem is the extreme deforestation taking place throughout the world. Not only does burning millions of forest and jungle acres each year instantly reintroduce sequestered carbon to the atmosphere, it destroys a significant sink for present and future carbon.

Scientists have many ways to confirm humans’ climate change culpability. The most direct is probably the undeniable data showing that for millennia carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere hovered rather steadily around 280 parts per million (ppm). Then, corresponding to the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century, atmospheric carbon dioxide has risen steadily and today sits somewhere north of 400 ppm, with a bullet.

Humans don’t get a pass on atmospheric methane either. While not nearly as abundant in Earth’s atmosphere as carbon dioxide, methane is an even more powerful greenhouse gas, trapping about 30 times more heat than its more plentiful cousin. Methane is liberated to the atmosphere by a variety of human activities, from the decomposition of waste (sewage and landfill) to agricultural practices that include rice cultivation and bovine digestive exhaust (yes, that would be cow farts).

While the methane cycle is less completely understood than the carbon dioxide cycle, the increase of atmospheric methane also correlates to fossil fuel consumption. Of particular concern (and debate) is the cause of the steeper methane increase since the mid-2000s. Stay tuned while scientists work on that….

Balancing act

For humans, the most essential component of Earth’s habitability is the precarious balance between water’s three primary states: gas (water vapor),  ice, and liquid. Since the dawn of time, water’s varied states have engaged in a complex, self-correcting choreography of land, sea, and air inputs—tweak one climate variable here, and another one over there compensates.

Earth’s climate remains relatively stable until the equilibrium is upset by external input like solar energy change, volcanic eruption, or (heaven forbid) a visit from a rogue asteroid. Unfortunately, humans incremented the list of climate catalysts by one with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, and our thirst for fossil fuels.

As we’re learning firsthand in realtime, even the smallest geospheric tweak can initiate a self-reinforcing chain reaction with potentially catastrophic consequences for humanity’s long-term wellbeing. For example, a warmer planet means a warmer ocean and less ice, which means more liquid water and water vapor. Adding carbon dioxide to water vapor kicks off a feedback loop that magnifies atmospheric heat: More carbon dioxide raises the temperature of the air—>warmer air holds more water vapor—>more water vapor warms the air more—>and so on.

But that’s just the beginning. More liquid water swallows coastlines; increased water vapor means more clouds, precipitation, and warmer temperatures (remember, water vapor is a greenhouse gas). Wind patterns and ocean currents shift, changing global weather patterns. Oh yeah, and ice’s extreme albedo (reflectivity) bounces solar energy back to space, so shrinking our icecaps and glaciers means less solar energy returned to space even more solar energy to warm our atmosphere, which only compounds the problems.

Comparing direct measurements of current conditions to data inferred from tree rings, ice and sediment cores, and many other proven methods, makes it clear that human activity has indeed upset the climate balance: our planet is warming. What we’re still working on is how much we’ve upset it (so far), what’s coming, and where the tipping point is (or whether the tipping point is already in our rearview mirror).

We do know that we’re already experiencing the effects of these changes, though it’s impossible to pinpoint a single hurricane, fire, or flood and say this one wouldn’t have happened without climate change. And contrary to the belief of many, everyone will not be warmer. Some places are getting warmer, others are getting cooler; some are wetter, others are drier. The frequency and intensity of storms is changing, growing seasons are changing, animal habitats are shifting or shrinking, and the list goes on….

We won’t fix the problem by simply adjusting the thermostat, building dikes and levees, and raking forests. Until we actually reduce greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, things will get worse faster than we can adjust. But the first step to fixing a problem is acknowledging we have one.

About this image

Gary Hart Photography: Sun and Smoke, Sierra Foothills, California

Sun and Smoke, Sierra Foothills, California

The Camp Fire had been burning for ten days, devouring Paradise and filling the air in Sacramento with brown smoke so thick that at times not only could we not see the sun, we couldn’t see the end of the block. But on this afternoon, when an orange ball of sun burned through the smoke I donned a mask, grabbed my camera bag, and headed for the hills.

I have a collection of go-to foothill oak trees for sun and moonsets, but most of these trees are too close to my shooting position for the extreme telephoto image I had in mind. Too close because at this kind of focal length, the hyperfocal distance is over a mile. So I made my way to a quiet country road near Plymouth where I thought the trees might just be distant enough to work. But I’m less familiar with this location than many of my others, so I didn’t know exactly how the trees and sun would align. Turning onto the road, I drove slowly, glancing at the sun and trees until they lined up. Because there wasn’t a lot of room to park on either side, I was pleased that the shoulder at the location that worked best was just wide enough for my car.

Envisioning a maximum telephoto shot, I added my Sony 2X teleconverter to my Sony 100-400 GM lens. While my plan was to use my 1.5-crop Sony a6300, when I arrived the sun was high enough that that combination provided too much magnification, so I started with my full frame Sony a7RIII. But soon as the sun dropped to tree level I switched to the a6300 and zoomed as tight as possible.

When I started the sun was still bright enough that capturing its color made the trees complete silhouettes, with no detail or color in the foreground. But as the setting sun sank into increasingly thick smoke, it became redder and redder and my exposure became easier. It always surprises me how fast the sun and moon move relative to the nearby horizon, so found myself running around to different positions to get the right sun and tree juxtaposition as the sun fell. The smoke near the horizon was so thick that it swallowed the sun before it actually set.

Later I plotted my location and the sun’s position on a map and realized that I was pointing right at San Francisco, about 100 miles away, with a large swath of the Bay Area in between. Then I thought about this air that was thick enough to completely obscure the sun, and the millions of people who had been breathing that air for weeks.

I’d be lying if I said I don’t like this image—it’s exactly what I was going for. But I’d be very happy if I never got another opportunity to photograph something like this.

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Where There’s Smoke…

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4 Comments on “Smoke on the Landscape (and Fire in the Sky)

  1. Thank you for this clearly laid out explanation of climate change. While I knew the basics, I didn’t understand the roles each gas plays. This was very informative.

  2. Beautiful photos as always. I live in California and have noticed an overall decrease in the quality of the vegetation in all of the biomes represented in the last 6-8 years. I am also an entomologist and have witnessed the results of pest invasions in forests, as you noted, which seem to get worse year by year. Very sad. Concomitantly, besides the economic exploitation of the crisis through hybrid cars and other fancy technologies that only reach a few more educated and wealthy, it seems as though the American way and most notably the western way of living, which depends heavily on driving individual cars cars for everything and using them a lot, has changed very little. I am glad I have seen these espetacular landscapes before they change forever.

  3. Some amazing photographs here Gary, though I agree that the reason for these kind of conditions recently is unfortunate. I am from Toronto and even here we’ve been getting hazy sunrises with a red hot ball of a sun, from some of the smoke on the west coast of Canada and the US – pretty crazy right?

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