AN INTERVIEW with the PHOTOGRAPHER, FLORIAN SCHULZ
Excerpted from To The Arctic
What signs of climate change have you witnessed?
Unfortunately, I have witnessed dramatic changes in the short time— ten years—that I have been traveling to the Arctic. On land, the permafrost is melting at an unprecedented rate. During my aerial expeditions I was shocked to see the Arctic Ocean west of Barrow completely ice free at the beginning of July, as well as many areas where entire hillsides had come down in giant mudslides, taking all the vegetation with them.
From elders in different Native communities, I have heard the same story of shockingly accelerated change. The time when hunters can travel on the sea ice has been significantly reduced, and the dangers have increased. I experienced this myself on my 1,200-mile trek across Baffin
Island. Many areas had dangerous ice that was too thin for safe passage.
The massive Red Dog mining operation is positioned in the middle of the migration route of the Western Arctic caribou herd.
What impact do these changes have on the wildlife?
Without ice, seals and walrus need to spend more energy moving between their resting areas and feeding grounds. Polar bears are dependent on the sea ice for their
food, too—mainly ringed seals—and are under increasing pressure, which is why they are a symbol in the fight against global warming.
Caribou are affected by winter rainstorms, as a thick layer of ice prevents them from reaching food below the snow. Increasingly
regular tundra fires destroy vast areas of their summer feeding ground.
The warming trend also means that wildlife species are pushing north. Moose, for example, are seen more often now in the Arctic plains due to changing vegetation.
And we will also see many more species of fish in Arctic waters as the temperature warms.
The Arctic is very scarcely populated, and very few people ever visit. Why should the rest of the world be concerned about the
changes in the far north?
We need to see the world more as a whole. The Arctic ecosystem is very much a part of the rest of the world. Millions of birds and several species of whales migrate past our latitudes to the south, where they spend the
winter each year. On a larger scale, we need to see the Arctic as an “air conditioner” for the world. Without the cooling effect of the Arctic on the atmosphere, we are experiencing disasters around the world like tornadoes, hurricanes, major floods, and droughts with greater frequency and of greater intensity.
Given all of this, can anything be done to slow climate change?
One major way to reduce warming in the Arctic is to cut black carbon emissions globally. My conservation partner, Earthjustice, is fighting to achieve this goal. Black carbon reduction would have a very
quick effect, as it can leave the atmosphere in a matter of weeks. Of course, reducing CO2 emissions needs to be the number one
priority, and it can be achieved through improved technology and partnerships with the major stakeholders.
Most of the Arctic is so remote and inaccessible; it would not seem to lend itself to industrial development.
Unfortunately, prices for natural resources have increased dramatically over the past years, making exploitation attractive to corporations even in remote areas. There are enormous amounts of resources, from minerals to coal and oil, stored in the Arctic. With the Arctic Ocean increasingly ice free, the Arctic is more accessible to ships. I have seen hundreds of miles of tracks from seismic testing crossing the Arctic tundra and mining operations like the Red Dog Mine—a massive scar right across the migration route of the Western Arctic caribou herd.
One of the oil facilities in Prudhoe Bay, just west of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Despite strict regulations,
it is difficult to avoid contamination of the land, sea, and air from the oil facilities.
The fight over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has been going on for a long time. Why is it so important to keep this area protected?
In the Alaskan Arctic, the refuge is probably the greatest mix of stunning landscape with many different types of habitat, and presents the most spectacular
array of Arctic wildlife in a relatively compact area. It is also of fundamental importance to the Porcupine caribou herd, which has migrated across the refuge for thousands of years.
How much impact does the oil industry have in the Alaskan Arctic?
To be honest, I was shocked at the size of the Prudhoe Bay oilfield when I saw it from the air. We flew for almost an hour over pump stations, oil facilities, pipelines, and
roads. That being said, I have to say that in Alaska I have seen the oil industry making a very serious effort to abide by environmental regulations. They are not interested in bad publicity. Unfortunately, accidents happen nevertheless. Major oil spills have occurred along the Alaska pipeline because the pipeline walls have corroded.
In the Gulf of Mexico, there are thousands of offshore oil wells. Why is oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean such a big deal?
As we saw with the Gulf oil spill in 2010, major disasters can happen. It took many weeks to get the situation under control in the Gulf, even under fairly modest weather conditions and with great infrastructure in place.
Now think of an oil spill in the Arctic Ocean, where for months out of the year darkness and extreme cold temperatures are the norm, and there is no infrastructure—no ports or access for possible cleanup crews. To date, there is no known method to clean up an oil spill in
icy waters. The entire Arctic Ocean ecosystem could be destroyed, and animals from the little krill to seals and polar bears could be heavily affected and possibly wiped out.
Given all you have seen, what are your thoughts on climate change?
I see a lot of forces exploiting this planet at an ever-increasing rate, even though rising average temperatures and CO2 levels are
causing climate catastrophes like the dying of the world’s coral reefs, rising sea levels, hurricanes, tornadoes, widespread drought, and intense floods. These phenomena are not mere predictions anymore—we are watching them on the news. The world won’t disappear, but human society will be forced to adapt, and it’s likely that we will lose a large percentage of the diverse species that share the planet with us.
If life as we know it will change, do you have hope for the future?
Hope is to wish for fulfillment of dreams in the face of all life’s challenges. Hope is fighting for what you dream about. I dream that rationality will win over greed. I have faith that the human race is capable of unthinkable achievements. First, we need to recognize that environmental destruction and climate change, not terrorism or a neighboring country, are the biggest enemies of our time. We need to fight on multiple levels—through public education, through change of policy, and on the industrial level through technology and the way we consume and invest. Often we hear the argument that the economic cost of enforcing a greener policy is too high, but scientists warn today that the price to be paid in the future will be much higher. Our children and children’s children will pay this price. As I am writing these words my wife, Emil, is carrying our first baby in her belly. It was conceived in the high Arctic of Greenland. I hope that in the years to come, I will not have to tell my son stories of a world that once was. I hope that we can continue to explore this frozen world as a family to tell the story of the Arctic. And I am fighting for this dream. This gives me hope.
Migrating snow geese. Western Arctic