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The Polar Lens

Paul Nicklen understands that humans are pretty irrational creatures. Statistics and facts about the impacts of climate change put us straight to sleep. Yet a single picture of a starving polar bear, stranded at sea with her cub can inspire us to leap into action. Nicklen began his career as a biologist, but soon realised that while many may chose to ignore facts, photographs can tap directly into our emotions.

With this realisation in mind, Nicklen undertook a dramatic career change, becoming a photographer for National Geographic. He has spent the last 20 years capturing stunning images of polar bears, seals, penguins and anything else that lives in the Arctic or Antarctic. Having published thirteen stories, with another six currently in the works, Nicklen has inspired hundreds of millions of people to spare a thought for the delicate frozen ecosystems of our planet.

Appearing at the Arts Centre last month in Melbourne as part of the National Geographic Live series, Nicklen discussed his efforts to gen­erate interest in polar environments, calling his work “the combination of art, science and conservation.” He told story after story of his incredible encounters, laughing as he reminisced about befriending a tiger seal and, on another occasion, crashing an ultra light aircraft into the ice in an audacious attempt to photograph narwhals.

The patience required in Nicklen’s line of work is astounding. He recounted waiting for months in the freezing blizzards of the Arctic and diving for hours in negative 1.5 degree waters, trying to capture an image of a bowhead whale. When one finally appeared on the very last day of his expedition, Nicklen attempted to move from his spot on the edge of the ice, but was so cold that he could not lower himself into the water. Without photographing this creature, months of waiting would have been wasted. So, without a word and with unspoken agreement, Nicklen’s as­sistant simply rolled him into the icy depths and hoped that he would be fine. Luckily, Nicklen regained movement once immersed and managed to capture spectacular shots.

Though his personal stories were riveting, Nicklen spoke most strik­ingly of the havoc being wrought by man-made climate change on polar environments. “I have seen things changing everywhere,” he told the audience, referring to shortening ice seasons caused by increased global temperatures, “it has come to a point where we have to care.” Nicklen ex­plained that scientists now predict there may be no ice left in the Arctic during the summer months within a mere four to ten years. The loss of all summer ice would be disastrous for the complex ecosystems that rely on it to survive. Nicklen explained, “ice is like the soil in a garden,” without it, entire food chains could collapse.

Despite his considerable scientific knowledge, Nicklen seems fairly certain that lecturing people about the science of melting ice is a waste of time. No matter which way you put it – ice is boring. So instead, he devotes his time and energy towards taking photos of some of the most majestic creatures in the world. By capturing a penguin leaping dramati­cally from the water or a polar bear with its cub nestled in its fur, Nicklen reminds audiences around the world that there is something worth saving at the poles of the earth.

Nicklen explained that as he embarks on each expedition, he imagines a person sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, flicking through the dusty magazines on the table. He hopes to capture photographs that are engaging enough to convince the person to pick up National Geographic and learn something about the urgent need for protection of the natural world.

More so than ever before, Nicklen’s work is important for the future of humanity. His arresting images of creatures facing imminent extinc­tion provide an emotional nexus between the predominantly disengaging science of climate change and the visible effects of global warming on our planet. This is the critical decade in which Australia and the world need to begin the shift away from a fossil fuel powered economy and towards renewable energy solutions. This shift towards wind, solar and other clean energy sources is not only possible, it is an opportunity for innovation and ingenuity to prevail. Yet progression towards a sustainable future can only occur if people feel engaged rather than disinterested. Nicklen’s photo­graphs are an accessible entry point for the public, and with each image he hopes to convince more people of his central message; “We need to start factoring in this planet before its too late.”

If you want to see Australia move towards a low carbon emissions future, the Australian Youth Climate Coalition is a good place to start.

The next event in the National Geographic Live series, “Grizzlies, Pira­nhas, and Man-Eating Pigs: On Assignment with Joel Sartore” will be held on September 1 at the Arts Centre. Tickets start from $39.

Samuel Blashki

The author Samuel Blashki

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