A long time had passed since the last bit of feeling drained from my hands and feet as I crouched on the frozen Barent Sea in Svalbard, Norway. My brain begged me to jump around and swing my arms so that fresh, warm blood could flow through my cold limbs, but I did not dare move for fear of scaring away the pair of polar bears a hundred yards in front of me. After countless years observing hundreds of bears hunting, sparring, catching seals, and nursing cubs, an opportunity to see them mate had finally presented itself. I had been sitting quietly for over twenty-four hours, watching the drama between the pair unfold – they were aware of but not at all troubled by my presence. Driven by the need to ensure his dominant genes would carry into the population, the huge male's only concern was to entice his female counterpart, but she would have none of him despite his endless advances.
So we continued to wait. Just when I thought I could not bear the cold any longer, the female arose, calmly approached the now-sleepy male, and nudged him to mate. At last – I could not believe our luck. I held my breath in anticipation of the rare and beautiful moment I was about to witness, wiping the frost from my viewfinder, eager to capture whatever happened next, when a second male unexpectedly appeared out of the corner of my eye. He charged at the pair with a roar, and the female fled onto the rotten sea ice with both suitors in hot pursuit. I was left to sit in complete disbelief amid the sudden Arctic silence. The moment had ended.
Although I returned to camp empty-handed, it had been a thrill to stand at the precipice of such an incredible moment after putting the assignment on hold for years due to unpredictable conditions and thin, weak freezes. Svalbard was traditionally enveloped by sea ice year-round, but things there had been changing fast, as they were everywhere in the Arctic. We had arrived in March when the sea ice should have been at its greatest seasonal extent but had found only a single, tiny strip on the east side of the island. The bears were plentiful, given it was one of the few remaining places for them to hunt seals, but the scarcity of opportunities to feed resulted in near-nightly encounters at our camp. As we tracked them, their footprints would often disappear into a slushy soup of ailing sea ice only to reappear several hundred yards away, where it became solid again. It was not the Svalbard I had fallen in love with, and it was not the worst things would get.
Another victim of climate change, Svalbard is now experiencing its lowest sea ice coverage since the earliest thickness and surface area measurements were recorded. The evidence that Earth's polar regions have warmed at least twice as much as anywhere else on the planet is irrefutable, and scientists have revised their original projection for the disappearance of summer polar ice from within the next hundred years to the next ten. The result is a terrifying prospect for all Arctic species. As one scientist bluntly put it, "If we lose ice, we stand to lose an entire ecosystem."
On the heels of COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, it is important to reflect on the future of our planet altered by climate change. I recall having the pleasure of showing former US President Jimmy Carter around Svalbard during one evening of a major expedition several years ago. I was struck by his wisdom, especially as a newcomer to the Arctic. He spoke eloquently on the fragility of our planet and understood that the local wildlife posed no threat so long as we respected their space. Instead, he recognized the impact humans are having on global ecosystems as the true risk. One evening, as we looked out over the frozen landscape together, he expressed his desire for a language that could be understood by all, regardless of country or culture – a vessel for truth capable of inspiring action on complex and distant issues like climate change and sea ice loss. To me, that language is photography. Evocative images can foster a relationship with wildlife and their ecosystems that facts and figures never could.
The polar regions have been my life-long playground, and it is painful to watch as they disappear in front of my very eyes. Rather than serve as monuments to a world lost too soon, I am hopeful my images will live on as banners of hope – ambassadors to a fragile, faraway world very few of us will ever see.