Six years after first traveling to the Arctic Circle, nature photographer Mireille de la Lez and author Fredrik Granath have created a stunning visual record showing what the earth’s changing environment means in this part of the world. In 130 large-format, color photographs, Vanishing World: The Endangered Arctic (Abrams Books, 2007) is as much a celebration of the landscape and wildlife living in this dramatic setting as it is a firsthand account of global warming.
The book comes at a time when all eyes appear focused on the Arctic Circle. With temperatures there rising twice as much as compared to the rest of the world, glaciers are melting twice as fast as predicted just a decade ago. The result is dwindling sea ice, thawing permafrost and rising sea levels, all of which could have devastating effects on the rest of the world.
Inspired by the primitive beauty of such an extreme environment and the changes that threaten its survival, de la Lez and Granath set out to tell the story of life in the high Arctic. Since 2001, they have logged more than 1,000 days there in stretches lasting anywhere from six to 10 months. The pair worked mainly out of Spitsbergen, which is part of the Svalbard archipelago. Just 560 miles away from the North Pole, they worked by themselves, often traveling hundreds of miles away from the nearest settlement to live among the polar bears, arctic foxes and seals they were photographing.
"If you really want to get close, to get under the skin to anything that extreme in nature, it takes time to learn and get a feeling for where you are," de la Lez says. "To get the essence, to work the way we do with nature and wildlife, you can't hurry up."
The pair set out to capture the animals and landscape of a region rarely traveled to, but often an inspiration for nature photographers. Working in such an isolated environment required a great deal of planning that began several months before each trip from their home base in Stockholm. Once on location, with thousands of pounds of equipment in tow, the real work began. From a polar bear jumping into a seal’s breathing hole to a seal mother rising to the surface of the cold water to return to her waiting pup, the moments captured in Vanishing World were possible because of de la Lez and Granath’s willingness to wait, letting nature take its course.
The equipment they used was exhaustive. De la Lez shot with multiple Nikon D2X and F6 camera bodies, a variety of Nikon lenses ranging up to 600mm, plus teleconverters. Some of the images were also taken with a Mamiya 7 II medium-format camera. She used Gitzo aluminum and carbon-fiber tripods, often paired with a Wimberley gimbal head, in addition to portable hard drives, a stock of Fujichrome Velvia and Provia slide film, and countless other must-have items.
In the beginning, de la Lez’s photography was all done on film using Nikon F5 bodies. While she tested a number of digital cameras at the start of the project, none stood up to the quality of the F5 and traditional film. The release of the D2X triggered her switch to digital, and now she shoots mainly with that camera, while still sometimes using the F6.
When de la Lez and Granath ventured off to a new location from their base camp, they didn’t take the full load of equipment, but they would easily travel with some 400 pounds of gear or more hauled on the back of snowmobiles or in sledges on skis. Before even laying a hand on the camera gear, they would strap on 40 pounds of clothing, boots, battery packs and safety equipment. Then came time for the camera bodies, 500mm and 600mm lenses, and tripods.
"It’s hell week everyday," de la Lez says. "You have to like challenges to work up there. Just managing to get through an entire day in one piece and take a couple of pictures is success."
A key part of documenting this world successfully meant creating some kind of connection with the subject, whether it was a polar bear mother taking her cubs out to hunt or the majesty of this rapidly changing terrain. To do that, they tried to get as close as possible without disturbing the environment.
De la Lez spent a lot of time thinking about and crafting her dream shots. Even if it meant laying on her belly for six hours on pack ice, figuring out how to position herself in a way that brought her to an animal’s level was critical to getting the right shot. That planning paid off when the weeks they spent waiting to shoot became just seconds to actually get the picture.
"The miracles will happen if you’re there," de la Lez says. "On the spot, you will find those miracle moments. But if you just go out on a short trip, or hop from here to there and rush, you will miss the essence. Just working with a fox family or a polar bear takes a lot of patience. It can take months to get the right lighting or the right position just to have an encounter with a polar bear."
The struggles of the polar bear are well documented. Year after year, de la Lez and Granath saw the conditions worsen, with the bears losing more of the precious sea ice they depend on for hunting. To learn more about how to interact with and get closer to the bears and other wildlife, they worked closely with scientists who have devoted years to living among these animals and studying their behavior.
Since their first close encounter with a polar bear on the first night of their initial winter expedition, de la Lez and Granath have come across hundreds more. The experience of getting to know these creatures, along with overcoming the challenges of photographing them, counts for many of the project’s most memorable and satisfying moments.
"Just to be out there with a bear on the pack ice where it really is the ruler of the world is amazing," de la Lez says. "And then finding the solutions to overcome these very big challenges, to actually get the pictures after working for 14 hours. It’s quite rewarding to be there and succeed. It’s like climbing a mountaintop each day, and you never know how high up it is or where it will end."
One of the many tests they faced along the way was to preserve energy. That may seem fairly simple, particularly when much of the time is spent waiting for something to happen. But with so much effort going into traveling from one location to another and generally just surviving the day, it’s easy to wear out. De la Lez and Granath say that dealing with the cold was one of the biggest struggles. The pair endured many days of -40 degrees F temperatures and snowstorms that kept them buried at camp for weeks.
Barring a cracked lens or two, the subzero temperatures didn’t affect their equipment too much. The extreme cold made condensation a concern, so they only took the camera gear inside the camp periodically for cleaning. A major challenge was keeping batteries warm. A fully charged battery can wear out in a minute when exposed to that kind of wind and cold. So they wore belts to keep a large number of batteries close to their bodies at all times, even sleeping with them. Working batteries were crucial, not only for the cameras, but for their satellite phones and other equipment.
Each year, they saw the climate system become more volatile, making conditions tougher for their work and for the animals that live there to hunt, mate and survive. "Year by year, it became worse," Granath says. "With global warming, you have long-term and short-term trends. We worked with a lot of scientists, but just from what we saw with our eyes, it doesn’t look good today for any species that’s depending on sea ice."
Both de la Lez and Granath have endured major battle wounds from their time in the Arctic. While driving up a hill, Granath hit a 20-foot-deep crevasse hidden by a thin layer of snow. He crashed into it with the nose of his snowmobile pointing straight down. The sledge behind him was carrying almost 1,000 pounds of camera gear and gas. His left forearm was crushed and his back was broken in a couple of places. After extensive surgery and six months of rehabilitation, he was able to get back to work.
The International Polar Year Research ProjectVanishing World was published to coincide with the International Polar Year, an interdisciplinary research program focused on studying the Polar Regions from March of 2007 to March of 2009. Some 10,000 scientists from more than 60 countries are working on various projects to examine a wide range of topics related to the environment and the changing climate. Countries participating in the project are set to spend $1.5 billion on research.
This international program comes at a time when there’s mounting evidence of changes to the snow and ice in the polar regions. Reductions have been measured in the extent and mass of glaciers and ice sheets; in the area, timing and duration of snow cover; and in the extent and thickness of sea ice. In the past 30 years, the sea ice extent has shrunk by eight percent. The Arctic sea ice has also become thinner, in some areas by up to 40 percent. Permafrost, frozen ground that impacts nearly 25 percent of the northern hemisphere landmass, also continues to erode because of the warming climate.
The Arctic Circle and Antarctica are of particular interest because they’re used as barometers to measure environmental change. The program covers most areas of science, including ecology, human and animal health, geophysics and astronomy.
While global warming remains a source of controversy, there’s no question that the earth’s climate is getting warmer. The overwhelming majority of scientists also agree that the 70 million tons of pollutants poured into the atmosphere every day as a result of human activity are contributing heavily to the warming trend.
For more information on International Polar Year, visit www.ipy.org.
De la Lez is in the midst of recuperating from a 985-foot fall from an ice cliff that left her unable to use her arm. The pair was working on another project documenting the life cycle of the polar bear when the accident happened. Her recovery is going well, and they hope to go to Greenland or Russia sometime this winter.
The completion of the book marks a major milestone for de la Lez and Granath, both of whom weren’t exactly sure where their work would lead in 2001. The World Wildlife Fund International and the Office of the International Polar Year both have given Vanishing World their endorsement.
"We just completely fell in love with this place and thought we should do something about what’s going on up there," Granath says. "It has been a long road."
Learn more about the environment and organizations dedicated to conserving it by exploring OP's Environmental News section, an online exclusive located at www.outdoorphotographer.com/environmental_news.