Issue #12: Forest fires, energy shortage and drought: climate visual stories from China
It’s Yan, Beimeng, and Charlotte here.
This summer, China recorded its highest temperatures and one of its lowest levels of rainfall in six decades. The crippling heat wave caused droughts, wildfires, and severe energy shortages. Many visual journalists were at the frontlines of these events. So in this issue, we decided to focus on stories about climate and the environment. Specifically, we look at how the heat wave affected three regions along the Yangtze river: causing forest fires in Chongqing, energy shortage in Sichuan province, and drought in Poyang Lake.
In international media, discussions about climate change tend to spike whenever an extreme weather event occurs. One thing we noticed while curating Chinese coverage, though, is the reticence in Chinese media and journalists to link these natural disasters and climate change. In the stories we collected, few mentioned phrases such as “climate change” or “global warming,” with the exception of Sixth Tone directly naming climate change as the culprit for the energy crisis in Sichuan. Of course, in the initial stages of an extreme weather event, it’s not so easy for journalists or even scientists to accurately pinpoint the connection between the event and climate change. But as China Dialogue’s climate communication expert Yao Zhe pointed out last year after the Henan floods, the attention generated by extreme weather events can be an opportunity for government bodies, scientists, and the media to raise public understanding of climate change and its associated risks.
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Chongqing Forest Fires
On August 18, multiple wildfires broke out in the mountains surrounding Chongqing in southwestern China. Photographer Cheng Xueli, a firefighter of 15 years, documented his colleagues in the Sichuan Forest Fire Brigade as they tried to contain the fast-spreading fires. In the blazing mountains, temperatures often reached over 55-degree celsius (131F). While wildfires in the region typically happen in the drier months of winter and spring, Cheng observed that this summer’s heat spell made the forests highly susceptible to flames. By the time Cheng was writing in mid-September, the brigade had helped extinguish seven summer forest fires in southwestern China, many of them located uncomfortably near urban areas. Cheng writes that firefighters need to adapt to a new reality, where higher temperatures turn previously low-risk topographies into highly dangerous (flammable) ones. “Bamboo is non-flammable vegetation, and the humidity level is usually high in bamboo forests. But when encountering extreme dry weather, bamboo shoots burn easily after they have died.”
View Cheng’s images here.
Cheng also lauded the popular support they received. The wildfires drew hundreds of civilian volunteers. This video from iFeng documented off-road motorcyclists who joined the effort by transporting emergency workers and supplies up the mountain to the frontline, unreachable by other, bigger vehicles.
As the wildfires captivated the internet, there were also a lot of “too-astonishing-to-be-real” photos being disseminated. The image above, of a motorcyclist volunteer riding up the hill, which made the rounds online, turned out to be photoshopped. A photographer from one of the cyclist clubs had created it to “honor the volunteers’ efforts.” In addition to traditional image manipulation, some wildfire photos were accused of being generated by text-to-image AI models. The visuals, breathtaking and highly dramatic, could be easily mistaken as photojournalism work. But a closer look often reveals disproportionate figures that are unnaturally positioned.
The viral circulation and republishing of these images on social media made it difficult to verify origin and authenticity. Some were even “legitimized” by official government social media accounts, such as the one shown in the Weibo screenshot above.
Black Holes in Urban Spaces
Known for its capacity to produce and supply hydropower in China, Sichuan suffered from power shortages this year, due to a combination of heatwaves and drought. As this Sixth Tone piece explains, the lack of rainfall led to historically low water levels in southern China, which cut the production of hydropower in half. Meanwhile, electricity demand increased by 25% as people turned on air conditioners to cope with the heat. In Chengdu, the city government shut down LED screens and central air conditioning in public spaces to alleviate pressure on the electrical grid. Chengdu-based photographer Zou Biyu photographed black screens and dimly lit food courts—scenes we rarely see in a bustling city usually saturated in light pollution.
These photos expand our imagination of what extreme weather under global warming looks like. We have seen so many stories of floods, hurricanes, and droughts, as if nature is directly expressing to us the urgency and imminence of climate change. While these photos from Chengdu don’t depict the typical “disastrous” images, the uncertainty and eeriness of a metropolis adapting to climate change is more than just evident.
View Zou’s images here.
The Shrinking Poyang Lake
The scorching heat and reduced rainfall in the lower Yangtze region have had a serious impact on the water level of Poyang Lake, China’s largest freshwater lake. It has shrunk to about one-fifth of its usual size, according to media reports. On September 23, Jiangxi, the province where the lake is located, declared a water supply “red alert”.
As photojournalist Lv Meng reported in this story, the drought has been devastating to agriculture and aquaculture in Poyang Lake’s ecosystem. While drought is a frequent occurrence during winter here, a lack of water in these critical summer months significantly hurts crop growth and decreases yield in the area, one of the 13 major rice-growing regions in China. During his trip there in August, Lv saw rice farmers desperately trying to secure water to rescue their thirsty crops, while fish farmers were faced with the same anguish. Dead fish litter the receding lake bed, and where there is still water, they suffocate due to lowered oxygen levels in warmer water.
View Lv’s photos here.
Amid all this climate change bleakness, there were also moments of wonder, worth beholding. Low waters in the Yangtze River revealed a once-submerged island off Chongqing with a trio of buddha statues. The statues are believed to be around 600 years old.
Who we are:
Yan Cong is formerly a photojournalist currently pursuing a research MA in new media and digital culture in Amsterdam.
Beimeng Fu is a video journalist based in Shanghai. She is a lover of languages and documentaries.
Ye Charlotte Ming is a journalist and visuals editor covering stories about culture, history, and identity. She’s based in Berlin and working on a book about her hometown’s German colonial past.
Writers: Beimeng Fu, Ye Charlotte Ming, and Yan Cong; Copy editor: Krish Raghav
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