Science On Ice

A photographer chronicles scientific expeditions in the polar regions

Chris Linder’s book, Science on Ice, delivers a visual glimpse into the challenges scientists face in the field while conducting research in the extreme environments found in the Arctic and Antarctic. Linder went on four polar expeditions during the International Polar Year (2007-2009) to get the stories of what goes on behind the scenes. For each trip, he teamed up with a science journalist, and together they combine words and pictures to reveal a detailed look at how science gets done at the poles. Above: The U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy cuts through slabs of broken sea ice in the Bering Sea.

Sleeping on the Greenland Ice Sheet, waddling with penguins in Antarctica and cruising aboard an icebreaker in the Bering Sea are typical days in the life of photographer Chris Linder. An oceanographer by training and a research associate with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Linder has a thing for science—and ice—and he wants the world to know about both. For nearly a decade, he has used his photography to communicate to the public the stories of scientists working in the Arctic and Antarctica. His book, Science on Ice: Four Polar Expeditions (University of Chicago Press, 2011), pays homage to scientists who brave brutal polar conditions to gather crucial information about Earth’s distant past, as well as the risks that climate change poses for its future.

“Most people think scientists work in a lab, wear white coats and stare at computer screens,” says Linder. “The scientists I know camp on ice sheets, wear crampons and stare at penguins. I want to change the stereotype of how science is perceived and communicate just how fun and exciting it is with the hope that people—particularly kids—will want to learn more.”

Left: The Swedish icebreaker Oden navigates the Arctic pack ice. Center: A scientist camps on the Greenland Ice Sheet. Right: Rotors still turning, a helicopter parks on an ice floe while the crew retrieves an instrument.

The four polar expeditions highlighted in Linder’s book took place during the International Polar Year (2007-2009). On each expedition, he teamed up with a science writer, and together they dispatched daily stories and photos via a satellite phone to a website ( so people could follow the expeditions in real time. Participating museums also hosted telephone conversations with the scientists in the field so the public could interact directly with the researchers. In addition to covering the scientific purpose of each expedition, Science on Ice tells the behind-the-scenes stories of who’s conducting the research and the challenges of working on, under or surrounded by ice.

“Ice has many flavors,” says Linder. “In the Arctic, first-year ice in the summer is only a few feet thick, and yet you’re standing on top of 4,000 meters of water in the Beaufort Sea. On the Greenland Ice Sheet, you’re camped on a 1,000-meter-thick slab of glacial ice that’s slowly oozing toward the ocean.”

A penguin researcher climbs a ridge at Cape Crozier, which is known as Penguin City, with about 150,000 breeding pairs. Adélie penguins breed in a number of places along the Antarctic coast, from the Ross Sea in the south to the Antarctic Peninsula far to the north. At Cape Crozier, the trip to the ocean is quick, but given the large number of birds, the competition for food is intense. At smaller colonies, the penguins may have farther to walk, but life is a bit easier.

The Greenland Ice Sheet is the second-largest body of ice in the world, after the Antarctic Ice Sheet. At 1.7-million-square kilometers, it covers roughly 80% of the surface of Greenland and is more than four times the size of the state of California.

“It’s a dynamic place that changes every day,” says Linder. “It’s like watching the Grand Canyon being formed only in accelerated time because water is cutting through the ice so much faster than it does through rock. Everything you photograph is water, either liquid or frozen.”

And everywhere he stepped was water, either liquid or frozen. Linder recalls camping on the ice sheet during a scientific expedition in an area pockmarked with water-filled holes several feet deep. These “cryoconite holes” form when dust containing soot settles onto a glacier, absorbs the sun’s heat and melts the ice underneath. One night it snowed, and Linder awoke to a seemingly smooth white surface on the glacier, only to plunge waist-deep into one of the frigid camouflaged holes upon leaving his tent. It has been these kinds of moments that have helped him appreciate what it takes for scientists to collect data in such difficult working conditions.

Another moment was camping on Ross Island at Cape Crozier, one of the windiest and harshest places in Antarctica. Linder and the penguin researchers he photographed weathered storms that shredded the fabric on their tents and bent the poles that held them in place. During the storms, sleep was impossible, and just walking was a struggle. Conducting research or making photographs is difficult to imagine when survival takes top priority.

Chunks of multiyear sea ice tumble past the side of the icebreaker Oden in the Arctic Ocean. Since 2002, Linder has photographed two dozen science expeditions, including 14 to the polar regions.

“Antarctica is a place of extremes, and you don’t think anything could survive there,” says Linder, “but most of the life is concentrated in the water, and there’s an explosion of biomass at certain times of the year. It starts with the little stuff—microscopic plants called phytoplankton. This feeds the zooplankton, which feeds krill, which feeds whales. It’s incredible to see so much life supported by such tiny things.”

He likens the time he spent with researchers among the 500,000 Adélie penguins at Cape Crozier to being in a city surrounded by small inhabitants. A constant dull roar from all of the birds’ vocalizations filled the air, and a “fishy barnyard” odor created a heightened sensory experience.

“On Antarctica’s Ross Island, penguins have no fear of people and are extremely curious,” he says. “Photographically, it’s overwhelming because there’s so much going on. It’s both a photographer’s dream and a nightmare because you feel like you’re missing opportunities everywhere.”

A graduate student collects a water sample from a melt pond on the sea ice.

While Linder photographs the subjects of the researchers’ work—penguins, microscopic algae and glacial lakes—he places just as much emphasis on photographing the people behind the science. This can be difficult because scientists aren’t models, and they often work under strict time constraints in the field.

“Photographing scientists is like photographing skittish wildlife. You don’t want to spook them so you have to figure out their comfort zone,” says Linder. “I typically start farther away and do big picture shots, then slowly work in closer to make portraits of people doing their work.”

Many of the scientists he photographs are conducting research related to climate change because the polar regions are where the greatest effects can be measured.

“The poles are critical because what happens there affects what happens in the mid-latitudes—we can’t ignore them,” emphasizes Linder. “But it’s hard to grasp. You can’t see a 2º temperature change or a shift in ocean currents. Scientists are very concerned about these changes because they know the impacts will be felt around the world.”

In the Arctic, the Bering Sea supports one of the world’s largest fisheries. If the sea ice is melting sooner, how will this affect the ecosystem—the phytoplankton, fish, seals, polar bears—and the people who rely on it? In Antarctica, how are penguins affected by a warming planet, and what does this mean for us? Globally, how will rising sea levels impact coastal people, as well as those living inland? Seeking answers to these questions are scientists, the people Linder considers his heroes.

“I’ve learned so much from scientists, and it would be a shame to keep this incredible amount of knowledge trapped within scientific journals,” says Linder. “It’s all I can do to pass it on. The polar bears and penguins don’t make my job extraordinary—the people do.”

Chris Linder is an Associate Fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers. His work has appeared in Geo, Outdoor Photographer and Wired. His new book, Science on Ice: Four Polar Expeditions, is published by the University of Chicago Press. To see more of Linder’s work, visit