The Arctic MeltInspiration
‘The Arctic Melt: Images of a Disappearing Landscape’, published by Assouline, is a new monograph by art and environmental photographer Diane Tuft. Following on the heels of Diane’s previous publication, ‘Gondwana: Images of an Ancient Land’, this new book showcases her journey throughout the Arctic Circle to capture the ice before the constant melt renders the once-frozen landscape unrecognisable. Alex Roddie talks to Diane about her inspiration, the journey and the outcome of the project. All photography ©Diane Tuft / Assouline.
Alex Roddie: The Arctic Melt: Images of a Disappearing Landscape is a photographic record of the Arctic in a period of dramatic transition. What inspired you to create this project? What did you hope to achieve, and how did you prepare for it? What is your core message?
Diane Tuft: Since 1998 I have been photographing the effects of environmental change on the Earth’s landscape. The effects of climate change are of increasing concern – and after working in Antarctica for six weeks in 2012, I was inspired to continue recording these effects. Ice is melting faster in the Arctic than any other place on Earth and I needed to document this before the ice disappeared.
By recording the beauty of the Arctic and the drastic change to its landscape, I hope to be able to reach a broader audience that would not necessarily be aware of the Arctic ice melt and its consequences. The melt in the Arctic will cause ocean rise, which will result in land erosion and the displacement of millions of people. The ramifications of this will cause political and economic hardships and destabilisation.
The effect that climate change has on life on Earth is something that we cannot ignore. We need to influence policy that will responsibly address this issue. By curbing the increase in carbon emissions, we can hope to stabilise global warming.
Tell us about the journey you undertook to capture these images. The Arctic is a huge place – how did you choose where to visit, and how did you reach these places? Do you think the nature of your journey has made an impression on the final project?
In order to record the Arctic melt, I needed to visit the three areas that are responsible for ocean rise: the mountain glaciers of Svalbard, an archipelago 600 miles north of the northernmost point of Norway; the Arctic Ocean where the ice is melting, causing thermal expansion of the ocean; and the Greenland ice sheet.
Commercial aircraft are available to travel to Svalbard, but it was very difficult to obtain a helicopter to photograph Svalbard’s mountain glaciers and surrounding waters.
Reaching the North Pole through the Arctic Ocean can only be achieved by travelling in a Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker. Capturing the thickness of the ice and the open waters in the Arctic Ocean was instrumental in my exploration.
Documenting the melt in Greenland required a helicopter and several boats. I knew that ice in the Arctic was melting faster than any other area of the world. After observing Svalbard’s melt, the thin ice and open waters in the Arctic Ocean and the drastic melt happening in Greenland, my fears were heightened. I had to show the world what I had witnessed.
Your images are sometimes abstract, sometimes minimalist, but always with striking visual impact. How did you approach the photographic side of this project? Did you adopt specific visual styles or themes to convey your message?
My love of nature has always been a driving force in my work. Landscape is living sculpture where shape, colour and texture attract my senses. I will go to great lengths to capture the perfect composition in my camera. I do not alter my photographs or use Photoshop to create a photograph – the natural environment is filled with powerful images.
Tell us about some of the challenges you had to overcome.
The biggest challenge in documenting The Arctic Melt were the logistics in planning the trip. In order to obtain the use of the only helicopter in Svalbard, I needed to secure a permit from the Norwegian Polar Institute who use this helicopter six months out of the year to measure the thickness of the ice in the Arctic Ocean.
I also required a permit to visit Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard. A visit to Ny-Ålesund (the northernmost international science research station in the world) was important for me to gain a better understanding of the research being conducted on climate change’s environmental impact on ocean life.
The voyage on the Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker was rough. It was not guaranteed that we would reach the North Pole – it all depended on the ice’s melt. We ended up being the third earliest ever to reach the North Pole by surface vehicle.
The documentation of the melt in Greenland required photographing from both the air and water. During my trip, no helicopters were available, as they were needed by Greenland’s government to provide maintenance on the country’s electric towers. I was lucky to be able to hire one helicopter on the morning of my departure.
Did any aspect of your journey surprise or shock you?
The largest shock was witnessing the change in Greenland’s landscape within the span of nine years. I knew that the glaciers were receding and that Greenland was a key factor in ocean rise, but there was no substitute for personally witnessing the visual difference of the landscape between 2007 and 2016. In July 2007, the icebergs in Disko Bay (Ilulissat) rose 150ft above the surface of the water. The ice sheet consisted of fluffy snow studded with cryoconite holes, and the temperature was 30˚F. Only nine years later, at the same time of year, Disko Bay was filled with tiny icebergs created from the constant calving of the surrounding glaciers. The ice sheet now consisted of peaks of ice and silt surrounded by meltwater ponds and lakes. The temperature in July 2016 was 65˚F.
If you could say one thing to the world’s leaders based on what you discovered on your journey, what would it be?
It is up to our leaders to address climate change as a world problem. Climate change and global warming know no boundaries. The CO2 level of 405 parts/million is currently the same in Antarctica as it is in New York City.
The last time the CO2 level was 405 parts/million was during the Pliocene Epoch, 3,000,000 years ago. At that time the temperature was 2-3 degrees C warmer, and the sea level 2-13 meters higher. Reef corals suffered a major extinction while forest grew to the northern edge of the Arctic Ocean, a region that is now bare tundra.
Ocean rise will heavily affect many – most notably those that live in Bangladesh and Southern Florida. The world needs to uphold the Paris Agreement so that we can responsibly reduce carbon emissions.
If we want to be responsible human beings, we need to work together to influence international policy that will curb carbon emissions and invest in renewable energy. The cost to our society for relocation and war is far greater than the cost of renewable energy. Global warming was once thought to occur in the distant future. It is creeping up on us rapidly and will have drastic effects on the next generation. We need to be pro-active and protect the future of the Earth.
Buy the book here: assouline.com/the-arctic-melt
Diane Tuft is a mixed media artist who has focused primarily on photography since 1998. Tuft travels to remote areas throughout the world in order to record environmental changes to the Earth’s landscape.