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The Big Thaw
Chris Linder wants people to care about frozen dirt. But how does he get people to care about something that is difficult to see? Linder, a science and natural history photographer, has spent the past decade with scientists studying thawing permafrost in the Arctic. His latest book, The Big Thaw: Ancient Carbon, Modern Science, and a Race to Save the World (Braided River, 2019), chronicles the expeditions of The Polaris Project, a scientific undertaking led by the Woodwell Climate Research Center (formerly Woods Hole Research Center). Since 2009, Linder has served as the project’s official photographer.
A massive slab of thawing permafrost leans over the banks of the Kolyma River in the Siberian Arctic.
The polar regions of the planet are where the greatest effects of a warming world can be measured. Temperatures in the Arctic are warming at twice the global rate, and what happens there impacts everywhere else. By conducting research on thawing Arctic permafrost—frozen dirt rich in carbon—The Polaris Project can measure its significance to the climate of Earth.
“Permafrost is something that is out of sight, out of mind,” says Linder. “In order to care about something, it helps to see it. Photographing this uncharismatic subject was my biggest challenge.”
To do this, Linder had to get dirty. At research sites in Siberia and Alaska, he traipsed through boot-sucking mud, immersed himself in boggy swamps and icy rivers, and battled the ever-present summer swarms of blood- and soul-sucking mosquitoes. Linder experienced the same challenges and conditions alongside the scientists studying the permafrost. In addition to documenting their research, he wants to help people engage with those doing the work.
“I want to give the scientists a voice and make them relatable,” says Linder. “I’ve never seen more creative people trying to solve problems in the worst of conditions. I’m invigorated to be with them and see what it takes to do this work.”
Blaize Denfeld collects a water sample from the Panteleikha River in Siberia. Scientists track the flow of carbon—released from thawing permafrost—throughout an Arctic watershed by analyzing the chemistry of its water.
By definition, permafrost is ground that remains frozen for two or more years. But some permafrost has been frozen for tens or hundreds of thousands of years. Found under a layer of soil, permafrost can be from three to 4,900 feet thick. North of the equator, permafrost covers almost a whopping 25 percent of the land surface. Globally, permafrost covers 12.4 percent of Earth’s land surface, while tropical rainforests only cover 7 percent. Why does permafrost matter? The simple answer: carbon. Permafrost contains the ancient frozen remains of plants and animals in the form of carbon, the building block of life. How much carbon? Scientists estimate that the world’s permafrost holds some 1,500 billion metric tons of carbon, which is three times the amount found in all vegetation on the Earth today. What happens when permafrost thaws? Greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide and methane) that trap heat in the atmosphere are respired by microbes and contribute to rising temperatures worldwide. As the planet warms, more permafrost thaws, adding more greenhouse gases that cause more warming.
Covering the overwhelming topic of climate change can quickly lead to despair. But Linder is buoyed by the scientists—those with decades of experience as well as undergraduate students just beginning their explorations—who are immersed in finding answers.
“Permafrost and thermometers just react to conditions, and scientists do the best they can to get the data and make conclusions,” says Linder. “I’m trying to foster a greater appreciation for the people working so hard to understand these complicated problems that affect the entire planet.”
Communicating complex information to general audiences can be difficult, but Linder is dedicated to making the science understandable and accessible to as many people as possible. He’s formed partnerships with museums and educational institutions to give live talks from the field, facilitate discussions and create exhibits for display.
“I’m the go-between, translating scientific results using photographs so a senator or a fourth grader can understand,” says Linder. “It’s a thrill to work with scientists to present their work to a broader audience.”
Above all, he wants people to take climate science seriously, come together to find solutions, and not continue to kick it down the road.
“In the mid-latitudes where the majority of humanity lives, our lifestyles have had an outsized impact on the Arctic,” says Linder. “If scientists say that we’re at a crisis level, then we need to treat it as such. The less we do now, the harder it’s going to get.”
Amy Gulick is a founding Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers. Her latest book, The Salmon Way: An Alaska State of Mind, is the winner of both a Nautilus and Independent Publisher Book Award and has been named a Best Indie Book by Kirkus Reviews. See more of her work at amygulick.com.
See more of Chris Linder’s work at chrislinder.com.