Nov. 13, 2012 -- The Arctic is changing. Summer sea ice extent this year was at its lowest in the satellite record as global warming tightens its grip. But change is relative. At their most hostile, the polar regions remain cold and forbidding: as photographer Dave Walsh calls them in his new book, “The Cold Edge” of the planet.
Walsh, who has traveled to Arctic and Antarctic multiple times over the last several years, launched his book with an exhibit at the Copper House Gallery in his native Ireland. “I wanted my photographs” – such as this iceberg, a bright blue as a result of ice being compressed for thousands of years – “to inspire people to not only fall in love with their home planet, but to start giving a damn and take action to protect it.” says Walsh.
Although named after one end of the Earth, Arctic terns are a true pan-polar species, migrating each year from the Arctic and subarctic south to the Antarctic and back again, a round-trip of 35,000 kilometers.
For anyone who has encountered a tern during nesting season, this is a familiar image: the tern hovering overhead, ready to dive aggressively on any perceived threat to its nest. This particular tern was defending a nest it had made beside a road at the scientific research base in Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard, 1200 km from the North Pole.
“The local wisdom decrees that holding a stick above your head persuades the terns to stop attacking your head,” says Walsh. “But as there’s no trees in Svalbard, only driftwood on the shoreline, this is perhaps not the best solution.”
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The totemic species for Arctic change is unquestionably the polar bear. But this particular bear, which Walsh photographed from on board the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise in 2009, was less interested in the fate of its species than the humans who were looking down on it. The Arctic Sunrise had launched an inflatable boat on a photographic and science study in Kane Basin, in north west Greenland, when Walsh and others saw the bear approaching across the ice floes, prompting the boat’s rapid return.
"Probably attracted by the smell of the excellent curry cooked earlier, the bear approached the ship, and stared fearlessly through the camera lens at me," says Walsh. "I could see the blood of the bear’s last meal on its muzzle. Even from my safe position on the ship, it was an unnerving but unforgettable experience. Then it flopped down for a playful roll around on the sea ice to dry its fur, before taking off to stalk a nearby ringed seal."
The Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise was in Greenland waters in 2009 primarily to study Petermann Glacier. The independent scientists on board had predicted Petermann might calve an enormous iceberg during the summer months (A 260-square kilometer piece did break off the front of the glacier in 2010, followed by a 130 square km piece in 2012).
Although the expected calving did not occur while the Greenpeace ship was there, signs of melt were everywhere on the glacier’s surface, including in the form of this melt river, along which the scientists kayaked with radar to measure the ice’s thickness. “The thing I love about this picture,” says Walsh, “is that it’s a river flowing on an glacier’s ice tongue that is itself floating on a fjord full of seawater.”
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Polar bears aren’t the only species at risk from a changing Arctic. The sea ice on which walruses rest is increasingly retreating far out from land, above waters that are too deep for them to forage on the bottom-dwelling life that forms the bulk of their diet.
As a result, female walruses and calves that normally spend their summers on the ice are swimming long distances to reach shore, a journey that leaves them tired and emaciated. Males, however, routinely spend their summers on land, and this one, resting on the shore of Svalbard, is blissfully unconcerned about the changes that are taking place in the Arctic region.
Not everyone sees retreating Arctic sea ice as a problem. Some see it as an opportunity. Walsh photographed this mural of Greenland’s flag in the capital, Nuuk, two days before the June 21st 2009 self-governance ceremony, in which Denmark handed over more power to the people of Greenland. Greenland’s leaders have since frequently stated that vanishing sea ice benefits the country by opening up waterways to oil exploration and traffic. "Greenland used to be a big, white blob on the world map," Aleqa Hammond, an opposition leader and former foreign minister of Greenland said this week. "Now we have a global role."
“This was an auspicious time,” says Walsh. “The flag itself depicts the Greenland icescape, seascapes and sun, and the ceremony took place on the Summer Solstice. The apartment building – known as ‘Blok P’ is part of a run down complex where some one percent of Greenland’s 57,000 population lived, during Denmark’s 1950s Folketinget program, which aimed to urbanize the Inuit people. The building was demolished on Oct. 19, 2012.”
The Arctic may be changing, but one secure part of it stands as a bulwark against dramatic change elsewhere. Nestled 120 meters (390 ft) inside a sandstone mountain at Longyearbyen on Spitsbergen, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a repository of millions of seeds from around the world, stored here in case of disaster, disease, or war. Even if sea levels rise due to climate change and the melting of ice caps, the seeds will be safe and dry, as they are stored at a location 130 meters (430 ft) above sea level.
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As of right now, Walsh is balancing his polar travels with polar policy, as a media officer at the International Polar Foundation in Brussels. But, he says, the lure of the cold edge remains.
“Few people who have been to the ends of the earth can resist the call to return,” says Walsh. “But it’ not all about cold weather – for me, investigating humanity’s relationship with our environment through a camera lens can be done on any street corner of any city – it’s all part of the same puzzle. Where next? Maybe I need to head to a desert!”
Meanwhile, you can see Dave’s polar photographs here.
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