Climate Change Through a Camera Lens

The impacts of climate change on glaciers and other landscapes are often hard to conceptualize, making it difficult for scientists to convey the urgency of these changes to the general public. This difficulty is being addressed by photographers like Danish artist Carston Egevang and American Diane Tuft, who are taking action through visual image to show the effects of climate change on different landscapes, wildlife and people around the world. Photographers interested in this subject matter aim to convince their audience that climate change is real, according to a new report by Carolyn Beans in PNAS. Rather than reading numbers and graphs, the public is able to look at a photograph and visualize the negative results of temperature rise on the environment.

Walrus hunting in the Thule area of Greenland (Source: Carsten Egevang).

With disappearing glaciers a prominent symbol of global warming, glacial retreat photography is one way to monitor the effects of climate change around the world. Egevang, who began his career as a biologist, completing a Ph.D. in Arctic biology at the University of Copenhagen, first began taking photographs at the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources as part of his research. Egevang’s transition from science to photography was largely due to his desire to share his scientific observations of environmental change with a larger community, according to the report. One series of his photographs shows the reactions of Arctic people to a hunter’s polar bear trophy, a unique capture and sight in the town of Ittoqqortoormiit on the eastern coast of Greenland, made possible by dwindling sea ice and a change in the animal’s hunting behaviors.

“Arctic photographers bring climate change into focus,” Egevang said in an interview with Beans. “With photography, I really feel that I get the attention of a very large crowd.” Climate projections may not move people, he continued, “but when you show the local hunters, how they can’t do what they usually do because there is no sea ice and it is happening so rapidly, it is much easier to understand.” His work captures the lives of people in Greenland, who are greatly impacted by climate change, and the animals that sustain their livelihoods. As temperatures rise, the landscape has changed, forcing the animals to shift their patterns of movement. Hunters are not able to reach their usual hunting grounds because the sea ice isn’t thick enough to hold the weight of their sleds, for example. “With photography, I really feel that I get the attention of a very large crowd,” he said.

Egevang is not the only photographer dedicated to showing environmental change. James Balog created the Extreme Ice Survey program, a photography program that combines art and science to give a “visual voice” to the planet’s changing ecosystem. The program consists of him and his team placing cameras in different locations around the world to view cliff faces and track changes in glaciers through time-lapse photography. As of January 2016, Balog and his team have placed 43 Nikon cameras tracking 24 glaciers across Antarctica, Greenland, Iceland, Alaska, Canada, Austria, and the Rocky Mountains.

Glaciers in Greenland (Source: Carsten Evegang).

The cameras take images of the changing landscape every hour, year-round, and during daylight, producing about 8,000 frames per camera per year. The time-lapse photographs show the incredible transformations of the glaciers. The images are then made into time-lapse videos that display the landscape’s retreat due to climate change and other human activity. The work of Balog and the Extreme Ice Survey team was also recognized in the 2012 award-winning documentary called Chasing Ice.

Diane Tuft, a New York-based photographer, has also worked on projects that show the melting ice in the Arctic Ocean by taking aerial views of the mountain glaciers of Svalbard, Norway. When asked about her images, Diane told GlacierHub, “Through my work as an artist, I feel that I need to communicate to a broad audience the dire effects that the melt in the Arctic will cause throughout our planet. By exposing the public to the emotion and beauty in my images, I hope to stimulate conversation about how to save the Arctic, and thus save the Earth from the drastic repercussions of ocean rise.” Two of Tuft’s photographs, for example, when placed side by side, demonstrate a striking contrast between the size of the Greenland Ice Sheet in 2007 and its gradual shrinking by 2016.

The Greenland Ice Sheet, July 20, 2007 (Source: Diane Tuft).

Another photographer, Kerry Koepping, has traveled from the glaciers of Northern Greenland to Iceland to emphasize the urgent consequences of climate change. Koepping’s photographs reach the scientific community as well, due to his research affiliate at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. Koepping’s position allows him to stay up to date with climate change research, while adding observations from his own work. As founder and project director of Arctic Arts Project, Koepping and other photographers use their photography skills to help people understand the science behind climate change through imagery. Koepping’s work spans from photos of ice caps breaking off the Jakobshavn glacier in Greenland to the ice recession of the VantnJökull ice cave in Iceland.

The Greenland Ice Sheet, July 16, 2016 (Source: Diane Tuft).

Collaborations between scientists and photographers bring to life the facts and results of climate change science. It allows the photographers to convey a concept that is hard to grasp, provoking the audience’s emotions to help them understand the harsh truth of environmental change.