Before and After: See how our planet has been devastated by climate change

The change in Lake Urmia which has slowly disappeared over the decades. Credit: USGS/NASA Landsat; Processing by Planet.

Words by ITV News Science Producer Philip Sime

From raging wildfires to ferocious floods, this week’s gathering of world leaders in Glasgow comes at the end of a year in which the impact of our changing climate has been more evident than ever before.

More gradual but no less striking, however, are some of the changes which have taken place over the decades.

To see these changes, you have to take a longer view.

To mark the beginning of COP26, ITV News has commissioned a series of satellite images from around the world that shows how three precious natural resources have changed over 40 years, a time period during which the scientific basis for climate change has become increasingly clear.

The COP26 climate conference - what you need to know

What is COP26? When and where will it be?

Each year, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meets at what is called the Conference of the Parties (abbreviated as COP) to discuss the world's progress on climate change and how to tackle it.

COP26 is the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties summit which will be held in Glasgow from 31 October to 12 November.

Who is going?

Leaders of the 197 countries that signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – a treaty that came into force in 1994 - are invited to the summit.

These are some of the world leaders that will be attending COP26:

  • US President Joe Biden, climate envoy John Kerry, climate adviser and former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, and 10 other US cabinet officials.

  • Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison. In the days leading up to COP26, Mr Morrison committed Australia to a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Prince Charles, Prince William, the Duchess of Cornwall and the Duchess of Cambridge are also attending. The Queen has withdrawn from visiting after being advised by her doctors to rest - she will address the conference virtually instead.

China's President Xi Jinping, Russia's President Vladimir Putin, and President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil are among the leaders that have decided not to travel to Glasgow.

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What is it hoping to achieve?

1. Achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and limiting global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels - Countries are being encouraged to set ambitious 2030 emissions targets. They are also encouraged to accelerate the phase-out of coal, clamp down on deforestation, speed up the switch to electric vehicles and encourage investment in renewables.

2. Protect natural habitats and communities from climate change disasters

3. Finances for a greener future - In 2009, developed countries were asked to keep to their promises to contribute at least $100 billion (£72.5 billion) per year by 2020 to protect the planet. In 2015, it was agreed that the goal would be extended to 2025.

However, new analysis shows the goal is unlikely to have been met last year and is on track to fall short in 2021 and 2022.

4. Getting all countries and organisations to work together to tackle the climate crisis

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The disappearing lake

Lake Urmia in Iran was once the second-largest saltwater lake in the Middle East.

 It is what’s known as a closed basin lake, which means that water flows into it but it does not flow out. The only way the water leaves is through evaporation.

The turquoise waters of the lake support a variety of wildlife, including pelicans, egrets, ducks, and flamingos.

But it’s disappearing.

study found that the area of Lake Urmia has decreased by around 88% over recent decades.

This reduction in water flow has been put down to both climate change and development.

See below how much Lake Urmia has retreated between 1997 and 2021.

Lake Urmia in 1997 Credit: Imagery courtesy of USGS/NASA Landsat; Processing by Planet.
Lake Urmia in 2021 Credit: Imagery courtesy of USGS/NASA Landsat; Processing by Planet.

The retreating glacier

Columbia Glacier in Alaska descends from the Chugach Mountains to Prince William Sound.

 It was relatively stable until around 1980, when it started to shrink.

Since then, Columbia Glacier is said to have retreated more than 12 miles and lost around half of its thickness, contributing to sea-level rise.

recent study found that between 2000 and 2019, glaciers around the world – with the exception of those in Greenland and Antarctica – lost an average of 267 gigatons of ice per year.

See how much Columbia Glacier has retreated between 1997 and 2021.

Columbia Glacier in Alaska in 1997 Credit: Imagery courtesy of USGS/NASA Landsat; Processing by Planet.
Columbia Glacier in Alaska in 2021 Credit: Imagery courtesy of USGS/NASA Landsat; Processing by Planet.

The disappearing forests

Brazil’s forests are both bursting with life and a vital weapon in our fight against climate change.

They perform the crucial task of absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

But they’re being cut down.

The destruction of Brazil’s Amazon Rainforest hit its highest level for 10 years this summer, despite growing concern about the future of this precious resource.

Viewed from space, the loss of vast swathes of forest cover for economic development is clear to see. 

See below to witness how much forest has been lost between 1975 and 2021.

The Amazon rainforest in the municipality of Matupá in central Brazil in 1975 Credit: Imagery courtesy of USGS/NASA Landsat; Processing by Planet.
The Amazon rainforest in the municipality of Matupá in central Brazil in 1997 Credit: Imagery courtesy of USGS/NASA Landsat; Processing by Planet.
Developments in Amazon rainforest in the municipality of Matupá in central Brazil in 2021. Credit: Imagery courtesy of USGS/NASA Landsat; Processing by Planet.