The only #2009vs2019 photos we should care about — people are using the ’10-year challenge’ as a stark warning about what’s happening to our planet

Photos of Switzerland's Rhone Glacier in September 2018 (top) and September 2009 (bottom).

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Photos of Switzerland’s Rhone Glacier in September 2018 (top) and September 2009 (bottom).
source
Denis Balibouse/Reuters

As this decade comes to a close, social media users are flocking to Instagram and Facebook to post revealing side-by-side photographs and memes of their current and younger selves, labeled with the tag #2009vs2019. Earlier this year, a similar trend had emerged under the label the “10-year-challenge,” in which people juxtaposed pictures of themselves from 2009 and 2019.

Some environmentalists seized on the opportunity to highlight Earth’s own “10-year challenge.”

Not only did 2018 turn out to be the oceans’ warmest year on record, but scientists realized that oceans are also heating up 40% faster than they’d previously thought. What’s more, recent research found that the Greenland ice sheet is thawing nearly six times as fast as it did in the 1980s and Antarctica is on the threshold of an irreversible melt.

Sites like Reddit and Instagram exploded with posts calling for greater public awareness about the effects of climate change. While the original challenge is meant to provide a visual representation of the way someone has matured or changed, the climate-change versions convey a more serious message: This is the 10-year challenge we need to focus on.

Many of the 10-year comparison photos show melting glaciers, one of the most visually dramatic effects of a warming planet.

Melting glaciers mean the North Pole and the South Pole are slowly getting makeovers (and not the good kind). In a worst-case scenario, called a “pulse,” warmer water could cause the glaciers holding back Antarctica’s and Greenland’s ice sheets to collapse. That would send massive quantities of ice into the oceans, potentially leading to rapid sea-level rise around the world.

If a pulse were to happen, the sea level in South Florida could increase by 10 to 30 feet by 2100. But because water, like most things, expands when it warms, sea-level rise is inevitable even if the ice sheets don’t melt – the oceans absorb 93% of the extra heat that greenhouse gases trap in the atmosphere.

It’s one thing to talk about these threats in the abstract. But it’s a different ball game when we see visual evidence.


The top photo shows the Rhone Glacier in Switzerland now, while the bottom shows how much more ice there was in 2009.

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The Rhone Glacier is in the Furka Pass in Switzerland. The top photo was taken this year, while the bottom is from 2009.
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Denis Balibouse/Reuters

Glaciologists think that half of Switzerland’s small glaciers – and the streams they feed – will be gone within the next 25 years, according to Reuters.


Though many glaciers have shrunk dramatically in the past decade, photos that show their changes over a longer period are even more striking.

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The retreat of Alaska’s Pedersen Glacier.
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USGS

This pair of images shows the retreat of Alaska’s Pedersen Glacier from 1917 to 2005.


You can swipe back and forth between these photos of Alaska’s Muir Glacier to see how much of it has melted over the past 120 or so years.


Different glacial systems, when they melt, may affect some coastal cities more severely than others, according to NASA research.

Scientists even made an interactive tool that shows how more than 290 cities might be affected by certain glaciers melting.


Of course, the effects of climate change aren’t limited to glaciers.

Coral reefs and the ecosystems they support are dying.


Higher ocean temperatures and acidification cause corals to expel the algae living in their tissues and turn white, in what’s known as coral bleaching. Swipe back and forth here to see it for yourself.


Rivers and lakes are also shrinking as growing populations demand more water. Pesticide and fertilizer runoff from farmland can also pollute what little is left.

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These side-by-side photos show how much California’s Lake Oroville shrank in just three years, from July 2011 (left) to August 2014 (right).
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California Department of Water Resources/Business Insider

Forests in South America and Central Africa are also shrinking because of logging and deforestation.

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Huge swaths of the Salta Forest in Argentina disappeared from 1972 (left) to 2009 (right).
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NASA

Politicians and celebrities chimed in about the environmental 10-year challenge, too. Mesut Özil, who plays for Arsenal in the UK’s Premier League and played for the German World Cup team in 2018, has also embraced the message.


In a January Instagram post, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey wrote, “If we want to pass on a sustainable healthy world to the next generation, we need to have started yesterday.”

Like Booker, many people pointed out that humanity may have only one more 10-year challenge’s worth of time to act on climate change before it’ll be too late to meet the world’s goals.