Adventure photographer Sebastian Copeland has spent more 20 years exploring the planet’s polar regions. Partly that’s because he’s a traveler, climber, and mountaineer by nature, but also because he hopes to share the fragility of these places with the vast majority of people who will never see them. Copeland wants to document what’s being lost now and what’s in danger of being lost in the future as the hot winds of climate change blow across the poles.
A few years back, Copeland traveled to the Arctic and captured some truly stunning images of one of the world’s wildest, most starkly beautiful places. He selected the best of the photos for a book called Arctica: The Vanishing North. We gathered some of the most incredible images from his book and invited him to write some words about his project.
To the casual observer, an ice sheet may look like a lifeless world of white. With little more than sky and frozen matter, the visual monotony can seem underwhelming. But ice is a powerful entity, alive and dynamic, responding to gravitational forces and minute changes in temperature. Ice can be up to 3 million years old, its mass constantly and unperceptively shifting. When it finally calves to the sea, ice enters the final phase of its transformation, slowly returning to its original state, in liquid form. The Inuit have hundreds of words to describe its texture, while its shape evolves into ever-changing and infinite variations.
I have traveled over 8,000 kilometers on foot in its realm, across the Arctic sea, Greenland, and Antarctica. And while it may sound surprising, I can honestly say that no two days have looked alike.
Deep in the heart of the ice, it is the subtle changes in cloud cover that provide unique photographic opportunities. The sun’s low angle combined with the stripped down color spectrum from the dominance of water—both liquid or frozen—create monochromatic displays of soft cold light and blue shadows. At times, the only visible features are ones left by the wind on the ice or the clouds in the sky.
Sea ice expands and contracts following the seasonal cycle. Like the great lungs of the Earth, it delivers a cooling influence to the lower latitudes; its impact is felt globally. But that rhythm is losing breath. Ice is the first line of defense to warming trends, and its decline provides incontrovertible evidence of climate change. My time spent in the high latitudes has given me a deeper perspective of the subtle variations taking place at the hands of a warming world. Photography becomes a tool for change when it links the heart to the mind. But if global warming is inextricably tied to time, some may ask: How can a photo purport to address change from the single instant it records? My work aims to create an emotional ledger of time. It is there to remind us that, distant and exotic though it is, this world is also our home. And the images I bring back tell the story of an environment that, the more I got to know it, looks a lot like us: defiant, fragile and fleeting.