A Photographer Documents Climate Change in the Arctic

A new book chronicles Earth's coldest and most fragile seascapes.

By Gemma TarlachOct 30, 2014 5:00 AM
The deck of Russian icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov provides a spectacular view as two icebergs collide in Antarctic waters. | Camille Seaman


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Photographer Camille Seaman grew up in the shadow of New York City, but she learned the traditions of the Shinnecock, her father’s people, a small fishing tribe based on eastern Long Island. That duality, navigating the hustle of the City That Never Sleeps and being attuned to the natural world, imbues her work with a spirit that is both haunting and immediate.

Camille Seaman (above) captures the beauty of polar environments, and the sobering reality of climate change, in her photographs. | Elissa Leibowitz Poma

In her new book, Melting Away: A Ten Year Journey Through Our Endangered Polar Regions, Seaman documents the beauty of our planet’s most extreme environments — and how climate change is affecting those fragile ecosystems. Seaman spoke with Discover Senior Associate Editor Gemma Tarlach about the decade she spent as a ship’s photographer in Arctic and Antarctic waters, the hazards of shooting in subzero weather and the larger meaning behind every image she takes.

Discover: What are some of the biggest challenges of photographing in extreme polar environments?

Seaman: What is necessary makes itself clear very quickly in the polar regions. If you are unable to adapt, you do not last long. Having the right gear is essential. As for the digital camera: Never, ever, change lenses in the polar regions. Static and dry conditions will suck dust onto your sensor like you would not believe.

OK, so never change lenses, but what’s a day in the life of a polar photographer like?

S: There was a day in Deception [a flooded active volcanic caldera in the Antarctic Peninsula] when I walked alone to the far end of the beach. There were light flurries of snow falling, and it gave this very monochrome place a sense of being inside a snow globe.

A polar bear pauses at water's edge in Svalbard, arctic Norway. | Camille Seaman

I sat down, and soon a lone chinstrap penguin came onto the shore from the sea. It walked straight toward me, and I said, “Hello.” It cocked its head sideways as if trying to understand me. It was only 8 inches from my knee. It lay down beside me there in the warm volcanic soil and went to sleep. We stayed there like that for 20 minutes or so. . . . There were many moments like that.

What do you want readers to take from Melting Away?

S: You are part of this planet. Each one of us is interconnected and interrelated. You can choose to be apathetic. You can choose to be a victim. Or you can understand that each one of us has a part to play. Each one of us helps to steer toward a future. We build it every day with our simple thoughts, beliefs and actions. Knowing this, are you happy with the future we are building? Or would you like to help push the ball in a different direction?

[This article originally appeared in print as "Witness to Change."]

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