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Can photos of ice help translate the science of climate change?

walking on ice photo

All photos: Chris Linder

Conservation photographer Chris Linder spends more time in the frigid polar regions of Earth than most of us like to spend in the freezer section of the grocery store. But there's a reason why it's a wonderful thing that he thrives in the coldest places on the planet — he is busy documenting ice and all the changes the poles are going through, visually translating the science of climate change so that the rest of us can see, understand, and make changes ourselves.
I talked with Linder about what he's witnessed during his work as a photographer, what issues most need our attention, and how he keeps his hopes up in these troublingly warm times.
blocks of ice in ocean
MNN: How long have you been a conservation photographer?
Chris Linder: I began a full-time career as a conservation photographer about 10 years ago, following previous careers as a meteorology officer in the United States Navy and as an oceanographic researcher for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Ultimately, my love of science led me to photography. As an oceanographer, I witnessed compelling stories every day as part of my job, and after a few years in the science world, I decided to devote my full efforts to bringing science stories — using photography and video — to the general public.
adelie penguin photo
What impact do you think conservation photography can have on our planet?
To me, conservation photography uses the emotional power of photography to educate people about conservation issues — and inspire them to take action. As the old saying goes: “out of sight, out of mind.” Conservation photographers shine a spotlight on issues that we must keep in mind.
You have an incredible diversity to your portfolio, photographing everything from ice at Earth's poles to rain forests along its equator. Do you have favorite locations?
I have ice in my veins, and I’m happiest in the polar regions. There is something sublime and magical about the light, particularly in the springtime. The air is so pure, almost crystalline. I’ve watched the sun set, only to see it rise a few minutes later. I’ve watchedgreen and pink waves of Aurora washing through the sky for hours. It never gets old — the Arctic and Antarctic will always be my favorite places to photograph.
man in reindeer herd
Your book, "Science on Ice: Four Polar Expeditions," shows just how much time you have spent at the coldest regions of our planet. What changes have you seen over the years you've been photographing? 
I have photographed 21 scientific expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic in the last 12 years. This may seem like a lot, but it’s really a blink of an eye in terms of global climate. When I first visited the Arctic Ocean by icebreaker in 2002, the sea ice extent was already well below the 1979-2000 average. When you look at long-term climate records and talk to native elders in the Arctic, you begin to appreciate the full extent of how much the polar regions have changed in the last few decades. I am hopeful that my work will bring more awareness to the polar regions and to the scientists and indigenous people who live and work there.
In your travels, which location have you visited that you think needs the most attention from conservationists?
The entire continent of Antarctica is protected as a scientific preserve through the Antarctic Treaty, but put your toe in the water — where, incidentally, most of the life is found — and that protection ends. Fishing fleets have already decimated the population of a top predator, the Patagonian toothfish (aka Chilean sea bass), in Antarctic waters, altering the balance of the food web in the Ross Sea. I would like to see more marine protected areas established, particularly in the Southern Ocean, to allow these ecosystems to continue to flourish.
water rushing from ice
What are all the things you have to juggle as a conservation photographer?
I spend an average of 100 days in the field every year. The rest of my time is spent in the home office.  Like any other professional photographer, I am continuously working on a dozen or more tasks — bookkeeping, writing proposals, preparing talks, creating multimedia videos, submitting images to editors and stock agencies, talking to clients — the list is (seemingly) endless. 
Fieldwork is my escape … even though I might be putting in 19-hour (or more) days and battling hordes of mosquitoes or minus 40 degree F temperatures, it is satisfying to be working on one single task — telling a story with the best photographs I can create.
ship in ice photo
Tell us a bit about the work you do with the International League of Conservation Photographers.
I am a senior fellow in the iLCP.  With my colleagues in the league, I participate in expeditions, which pair us up with conservation partners all around the world to help preserve wild places and species. Recently, I worked with two groups in Chile: Centro de Conservación Chile and Centro de Estudios y Conservación del Patrimonio Natural, to preserve a delicate coastal habitat from industrial energy development. It is incredibly satisfying to work closely with local groups to make a difference on timely issues.
bird with beak open
Do you have a species of wildlife you most love to photograph?
I like underdogs, the critters that no one else loves. Take for example the south polar skua, a nondescript brown bird the size of a large gull. Skuas have been the villains in just about every movie about penguins ever made. Yes it’s true — in addition to fish, they do also eat penguin eggs and chicks. But after having spent six weeks photographing penguin-skua interactions, I can tell you that skuas are remarkable birds.
They nest in the windiest, coldest places imaginable, and lay their eggs in a "scrape" — a hollowed out depression in the ground. They are completely fearless in defense of their nests. I have seen them wheel through the air at high speed and whack penguin researchers in the back of their heads with giant paddle-like feet. They are aerial acrobats — sometimes flying completely upside-down to rob a fellow skua of a snatched penguin egg. Every day I witnessed amazing behaviors as these birds struggled to eke out a living in the most extreme conditions I can imagine.
mountain side with sparse trees photo
What are some of your favorite projects you've worked on, or that you're currently working on?
In the Siberian Arctic, I am documenting research on permafrost thaw and the carbon cycle. Since the last ice age, vast reserves of ancient carbon have been locked up in the frozen arctic soil, or permafrost. However, as temperatures steadily rise, this permafrost is thawing, and the gooey carbon-rich soil is becoming a fresh food source for microbes. As they consume this ancient food, they respire methane and carbon dioxide, both potent greenhouse gases. The amount of carbon stored in Arctic permafrost soil is estimated to be 1,500 gigatons — more than double what is currently in our atmosphere or four times as much as is contained in global forest biomass. Scientists and the press have described it as a “carbon bomb” waiting to go off.
Visually, this is not a glamorous story — my subjects are scientists digging mud pits and collecting water and gas samples ... but I love a challenge, and the fate of this ancient carbon has huge implications for our climate.
On the opposite end of the Earth, in the waters surrounding the West Antarctic Peninsula, scientists have observed dramatic ecosystem shifts in response to climate change. In January-February 2015, I will be joining a science team at Palmer Station to produce daily photo essays about their research on Adélie penguins, krill and ocean physics. Check my website starting in late December 2014 for daily photo dispatches produced in collaboration with Hugh Powell, a science writer from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
researchers in row boat
When you're feeling discouraged about the state of the planet, how do you keep up your inspiration and optimism?
In spite of some of the environmental problems I have witnessed, I remain an optimist. I believe that people will ultimately make the right choices. The problem is, they may not even be aware of the issues. That’s where conservation photographers come in. We pursue stories about imperiled wildlife, lands, and cultures, and give them a voice.
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