An ariel photo of colourful water and sludge

A birds-eye-view photo taken from around 20 metres above an abandoned Romanian village flooded with water and toxic waste from a nearby copper mine. The lake - which is laced with harmful chemicals - has turned into a brilliantly-coloured terrain. © Gheorghe Popa.

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Wildlife Photographer of the Year: A beautifully poisonous landscape

Landscape photographer Gheorghe Popa captures striking aerial photographs of Geamăna - a once-pretty village nestled in a valley of the Carpathian Mountains in western Romania. Today, the abandoned village - including its ancestral graveyard - is a toxic swamp of fantastically surreal colours which invites dark tourism.

As we move towards switching to cleaner energy, the demand for metals has increased. But what is the true cost of a green future?

How Geamăna - a thriving little Romanian village - was wiped off the face of Earth

In 1978, the then-president of Romania, Nicolae Ceausescu learned of precious metals available in mountains near Geamăna. Within a year, he organised mining to be undertaken and forced the villagers to evacuate.

The mine, known as Rosia Poieni, was one of the biggest copper reserves in Europe at the time, producing more than 11,000 tonnes of copper annually at its peak.

However, the mining process produced a lot of toxic by-products which needed to be released somewhere. So Geamăna was flooded with water to function as a catch-basin for the mine's contaminated sludge.

The poison changed the colour and texture of the lake, creating a kaleidoscopic liquid landscape that has enthralled photographers and tourists to this day.

Brave visitors can see remnants of the once-flourishing village: a church tower standing stubbornly in a sea of brown sludge, the ghostly remains of an ancestral graveyard which Nicolae had promised to relocate but failed to fulfil, and a handful of houses scattered on the hills.

Sadly, even these constructions will disappear soon as waste levels increase by a metre each year.

Four photos showing the flooded village church over the years

Images showing the village church in 2014 (A), 2019 (B and C) and 2021 (D). Although the church was built on higher ground than most of the village, it will also be swallowed up by poisonous sludge soon. © Gheorghe Popa. Edited by Tammana Begum.

The ecological disaster of poorly-managed copper mining

Gheorghe, a pharmacist and photographer from Aiud, a small town in Transylvania, Romania is one of the many people fascinated by Geamăna.

'When I first visited Geamăna in 2014, I didn't know I was looking at an ecological disaster,' he says.

Since then, Gheorghe has researched the lake and visited it many times. He has seen its colours change from brownish-red to pink to orange and more.

'I visited Geamăna at different times of the day,' explains Gheorghe. 'Sometimes at four in the morning during summer, when the sun was just coming up so there was enough light but no distracting reflections. Most people tend to go during the day so they're not able to get the same colours that I have.'

Mining locations are found by searching for metal 'fingerprints' - the breakdown of toxic metals on the Earth's surface which occurs naturally and in small quantities.

These minerals are naturally mixed with other metals in the ground. Large machinery is used to excavate rocks containing those metals, and the desired mineral is then filtered out via various methods such as crushing and smelting.

What's left behind is a mixture of unwanted crushed metals and rocks which need to be stored somewhere. In the case of Rosia Poieni, Geamăna served that purpose.

These metals were exposed to the atmosphere and therefore oxidised and broke down further and much quicker, sometimes resulting in remarkable colours.

Robin Armstrong, a mineral deposits geologist at the Museum says, 'The colours you see in the lake are a result of mineral breakdown - mainly pyro which can contain traces of other metals, such as arsenic and cadmium.

'These elements can be a serious issue in the environment, particularly when exposed to the atmosphere and water. For example, the breakdown of pyrite generates acidic waters which are potentially destructive to the local environment.'

The autumn-coloured land meets the yellow poisoned lake

Aerial photo of Geamăna. Nicolae promised the villagers they would be placed only 7 km away and receive a handsome compensation for their troubles. Around 300 homeowners left with the hope of a wealthier life. However, these people were placed more than 100 km away and only received a small piece of land and little monetary gain. © Gheorghe Popa.

Poisoned Beauty: an artistic protest

'Geamăna means 'twin' in Romanian,' says Gheorghe. 'And what happened to Geamăna has happened to many other places around the world.

'So my photo series Poisoned Beauty is not only a story about a little village in Romania but a story about our planet.'

Gheorghe has had his work displayed in various galleries around the world such as Spain and the Netherlands, which has attracted the interest of many unsuspecting onlookers.

'When people see my photos, they say they're amazing and then want to know what they are looking at,' explains Gheorghe. 'I tell them they are looking at poison.

'In most competitions, there is a category on man and nature. And the photos submitted usually show something disturbing. I realised I could tell a sad story but in a beautiful way that doesn’t put people off.

'I'm not an activist but I also don't want to stay quiet. My photos are a great way of reeling people in and getting them to listen to what is happening around the world. This is why I consider my photo series to be an artistic protest.'

While the story of Geamăna is upsetting, it is an example of a poorly-managed mine.

In the past, the lack of proper regulations meant the government was able to mine without any consideration for the environment.

Modern mining, however, is required to be much more responsible and must include the rehabilitation of the environment and the proper closure of tailing ponds in their plans and costs.

'If a company tried to do that now within the EU, it would be shut down immediately,' says Robin. 

An open copper pit

Rosia Poieni open pit copper mine. Image courtesy of Bogdan/wiki (CC BY 2.0).

The price of a green future

Copper was one of the first metals to be mined and has been used to propel civilisations forward for centuries. Copper has always been considered valuable as it is resistant to corrosion, easy to shape and conducts heat and electricity well.

In ancient times copper was used to make coins and jewellery but today it is needed to generate power for industrial machines, vehicles, heating systems, laptops, phones and much more.

As we switch to greener energy, the demand for copper is likely to increase tenfold by 2040.

'Copper is arguably the most important element to the green revolution because we use much more of it than lithium or nickel,' says Robin.

'The parts of Romania that are rich in copper will continue to be explored because they have the potential to generate more copper, which is needed to establish a low carbon economy.'

Working on existing mines can help clean up past environmental damage that still subsists today.

'Technology wasn't as efficient as it is now so there could be a lot of value to the waste in tailing ponds,' says Robin. 'Companies could reprocess the waste, remove further metals and store the remaining by-products in a more sustainable way.'

People protesting with signs

The protests against mining Rosia Montana - an ancient mine in Romania - was one of the largest non-political campaigns in the country in two decades. As a result, the mining was rejected by the government and the area was listed as a UNESCO heritage site. © Leona Gem.

The way forward is to mine in a sustainable manner, which requires a greater effort and costs more but is ultimately better for the health of the planet.

'The most important thing is to mine in an environmentally-sensitive way,' says Robin. 'One way of doing this is by thinking about how we can use a lot more of what is dug up instead of the tiny portion of copper found in a ton of rocks. Using more of what is unearthed helps reduce the amount of waste produced.'

Individuals can help by being conscious of what they buy. This means knowing where products have come from, how far they have travelled and whether they are recyclable, and making the choice to purchase only those that align with their moral values.

'The difference between the mining route compared to the oil and gas route is that those metals are recyclable,' explains Robin. 'Once they enter the supply chain, you should be able to recover a significant amount if managed correctly. Metal can be more amenable to recycling than plastic, and even wood.'