Visitors take pictures in the middle of a poppy field (i.e. not on a trail) on a slope of Walker Canyon near Lake Elsinore. Photo: Etienne Laurent

By: Miro Korenha, Founder and Publisher of Our Daily Planet 

 The past two weeks have brought Southern California not only a migration of a billion butterflies but also a super bloom of poppies and other wildflowers that have set social media accounts abuzz. It’s understandable, these were both brilliant natural displays and worthy of the awe felt by those who experienced them. The irony is that both events were caused by an atmospheric river that brought unprecedented rainfall to California this winter – in other words, climate change played a role in all those social media “likes.”

Social media has many benefits and allows us to stay connected to people and causes we care about but, when it comes to nature posts, there’s an alarming disconnect between the pretty photos people see and the real threats those places face. In fact, geotags have allowed scenic vistas and “Instagram-able” spots to become trashed, overly-crowded, and degraded. In Southern California’s Walker Canyon last week, Instagram influencers trying to snap a perfect picture of the super bloom ended up trampling the flowers and causing traffic jams to the point where the poppy fields had to be shut down. In their pursuit of the perfect picture, humans are destroying the very thing they are trying to capture.

This problem isn’t isolated to Southern California. Arizona’s Horseshoe Bend (a site near the Grand Canyon where the Colorado River makes a 180º twist) is losing its wild beauty as it has become an increasingly popular spot to post on Instagram. As the Outline explained, “Five years ago, Horseshoe Bend saw only a thousand visitors in a year. But this year, over 4,000 people a day have come to see the bend, take selfies at the rim, and dangle their feet over the exposed edge. All this traffic has put a lot of strain on the attraction.” Aside from the degradation to Horseshoe Bend, most people probably are ignorant of the reality that the Colorado River is evaporating due to a drastic decline that began in 2000 because of climate change. If the flow of the river declines by a possible 20-35%, that would not only make for a less striking Instagram post but will also threaten the drinking water of millions of Americans.

During the recent 35-day government shutdown, people spread trash all over Joshua Tree National Park and even vandalized the threatened Joshua trees. The park has more than 1 million geotags, but how many of these photo-op seekers know that Joshua trees and the moths that pollinate them are under threat from climate change? In fact, Joshua Tree National Park may no longer have any of its namesake trees by 2100 if we don’t act on climate change.

A growing group of explorer Instagram influencers have made the decision to stop geotagging in order to prevent the wild places they love from becoming overcrowded but this may not be enough. We must change our mentality when we see a stunning vista, a pristine beach, or a towering snowy peak on social media. Before we hit “like” and move on to the next image that strikes our fancy we need to stop and think about the factors that made that photo possible.  Human activity has affected every ecosystem on the planet (from Mt. Everest to the deepest trench in the ocean) and we seem to be using nature to convey status and accomplishment to our social networks rather than striving to be true stewards of our planet.

Nature photographers, such as #FriendOfThePlanet Brian Skerry, bring us stunning photos of places and animals that we would likely never experience ourselves but these professionals go out of their way to limit their impact on the nature they capture with their lenses. Next time you see an influencer post a photo, challenge that person to disclose the true making of that moment. Did they go off trail? Were they mindful of their presence in that environment? Did they research the history of their picturesque backdrop? Does their caption convey the true nature of what is happening to that place because of climate change?

When it comes to our parks and oceans, ignorance is not a luxury we can afford much longer. The only way we can preserve our natural landmarks is if we begin to hold one another accountable and collectively take action to protect nature. Pictures are nice, but if we’re not careful and mindful, they’ll be all we have left of these breathtaking places.