Saturday, November 23, 2013

Why? Candy Colored Sky.

I suppose in a way it was a small movement, a small-scale demonstration of the power of momentum. It just takes one person. Perhaps you and I can be that one person in our own circles of influence, whether that is a small beach in the Arctic or downtown Los Angeles. I ask you, please, join me, in whatever way you can. Our actions can create ripples of momentum, which together have the power to initiate cultural change. The time is now… no, really… the time is now.

I try to step back and view my life as if I am a raptor in an aerie from time to time. When I am working with Polar Bears International in Churchill, I often become so immersed in a whirlwind of work that I forget to do just this, but when I do, I stammer in awe.
It’s hard to put into words what exactly it is that we do up here. Perhaps it is my developing perspective as a newcomer in the greater environmental and business world, but it’s really kind of out there. I thought it would be neat to share, a little more intimately, what exactly it is that I am doing up here in the subarctic town of Churchill. For those who are interested it will provide context to all the polar bear pictures that appear ravenously on my instagram feed. So, here we go…
My primary duty is to oversee the polar bear cam operations. This is essentially a handful (5) of remote tilt zoom cameras in various places surrounding Churchill that are controlled by a remote team of volunteer operators, and let me say that these volunteers are some of the most passionate folks I have ever worked with. Four of the cameras have up close views of polar bears on nearly a daily basis. But why? What is the purpose of these live cameras, beyond being incredibly ecologically and biologically interesting (wink wink, Marty) or as I like to call them, cute? These cameras provide a front row seat to an environment and flagship species that is being affected by climate change at an incredible rate. Promotion of these cameras is linked to education and outreach initiatives providing information and an opportunity to connect with the arctic for people all around the world.

Secondly I assist in the execution of PBI’s Tundra Connections program, a series of educational webcasts. I encourage you to check out one of the archives. I am privileged to work with the scientists and educators to put together the content for these webcasts, whether that’s finding video that compliments their areas of expertise, formatting photographs, or animating graphics and charts to supplement the concepts presented. And then it’s show time. This year I have enjoyed learning how to actually execute the webcasts, meaning I am selecting the various assets as the scientists are speaking and the presentation is streaming live.

Beyond that I fulfill a variety of other roles that help our Churchill programs run smoothly. This includes anything from filming interviews, producing social media content, booking flights, or ordering way to much bacon. And yes, it is possible to order way to much bacon, hard to believe I know…

One of the things that I enjoy most about this work is the opportunity to reach a demographic that is very foreign to me. I come from Bozeman, Montana where the grass is green, the water is clean, and for the most part, people are very connected to the natural world. The work we are doing here, through a very robust digital presence, allows us to connect with people across many different geographic locations, ages, and economic classes.

Through my lens, the work I do up here it’s not as much about the polar bear as it is about the world. I feel honored to contribute to the greater solution by educating and inspiring others.  If we can save the polar bears the ripple effect among the rest of the globe will be huge. If we can save polar bears and subsequently their sea ice habitat we will save hundreds of thousands of precious ecosystems, we will lower the probability of severe weather events, we will leave behind a healthy and nourishing planet for future generations, and of course, high on my personal priority list is we will save SNOW which is something that is very near and dear to my heart.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

A Vanishing Realm | Part 2

*This post first appeared August 10, 2013 on*
I could feel the chill of the metal rungs through my gloves as I scampered up and up. One of the classic features of the M/S Stockholm is the crow’s nest. I felt a little like a pirate as I ascended the mast via a narrow ladder, nestling into the basket 30 feet above the deck of the ship.

The crow’s nest was my favorite place to pass the time during my recent trip to Svalbard. From my perch I was not only able to visually experience my surroundings, but to really experience it with all my senses, to immerse myself completely: to feel my cheeks become numb from the biting wind, to smell the salty sea, and to listen to the rolling waves as the sea birds called back and forth to one another. I visited the crow’s nest often, bundled up in my Canada Goose parka, soaking in the view from my aerie, absorbing the raw beauty abounding in this arctic region.

As we reached 81 degrees north a sea of ice spanned the horizon. At this latitude it almost seems as though you can see the curve of the earth. The ice here stretches up and over the North Pole (for now). Yes, Santa and his Elves live on a floating mass of ice on the top of world. So, if you won’t help us decrease carbon emissions to save sea ice for our furry white polar bear friends, maybe you’ll do it for Santa. (This takes saving the arctic ecosystem for our children’s children to a whole new level, I mean what about Rudolph … come on!).

After two days in the pack ice we headed south again towards the mainland. It was fascinating to watch the ice change. At our northernmost point the ice was almost completely above the surface of the water, the horizon a vast white, windswept plain. Then a layer of ice beneath the water appeared in various shades of turquoise. Puzzle pieces of snow-covered ice protruded above the water, but the layer beneath was generally frozen in very large pieces. Farther south the lower layer of ice became disjointed until it only appeared along the edges of larger free-floating pieces. Rather quickly the ice disappeared completely.

Ice appeared again, in a different form, along the glacier front. Massive icebergs decorated the deep blue water. Smaller pieces appeared in various quantities sprinkling the void. The sprinkles crackled and popped as they melted into the abyss. I ventured to the bridge of the ship and glanced over Captain Per’s shoulder. A small dotted line on one of his screens represents the path of the ship. I looked again. “Per, it looks like the ship is on land.” I said in a state of confusion. “Yes,” he replied, “We’re now in open water. That is where the glacier front was last year.”

I was shocked. Last summer, that water was a frozen mass of the ice cap; in the course of just one year the glacier front had calved and receded immensely. Gawking, I returned to the deck of the ship.

We reached the famous waterfalls of the Austfonna Ice Cap early the next morning. Dawn greeted us with blue skies and soft light accentuating the frozen turquoise rubble. Streams slithered down to meet the glacier front, cascading as colorful waterfalls into the Barents Sea. Summer melt was in full effect.

One of the guests stepped down from the crow’s nest and rushed over to me. “You’ve got to go up there, the view is spectacular and the photos will be great!” I padded my pockets, no gloves. Oh well. Without hesitation I once again quickly ascended the bitter cold rungs of the narrow ladder shivering in delight as I crawled back into the basket of the crow’s nest. I pulled the viewfinder of my camera up to my eye, attempting to capture the beauty of this distant place. The wind whirled around me and I was immediately engulfed by the harsh elements of the delicate ecosystem melting before my eyes.

Polar Bears in the Mist | Part 1

*This post originally appeared July 30, 2013 on*
The Stockholm is like the girlfriend you always wish you had. She has classic style, old-fashioned sophistication, but the newest technology. She is burly at the core, almost hulk-like in her strength, but delicate from afar and soft on the eyes.  She always smells good, has curves in just the right places, and is a safe haven during a stormy night. “And she doesn’t talk too much.” Peter said between a chuckle and a sip of tea.

Peter and I giggled in delight, like children in an ice cream parlor, as we pulled into the port in Longyearbyen and set our eyes on the dear lady Stockholm. We couldn’t believe our luck. We had been invited yet again to join Polar Kruetzfahrten on a cruise in the Arctic. This time we had the good fortune to travel aboard the M/S Stockholm, a beautiful 12-passenger Swedish vessel built in 1953.Peter Laufmann has become one of my favorite traveling companions. He is a journalist for Natur, a publication in Germany, and we have been working together to document the story of the Stockholm. We were asked to come along as a media team, but I think Polar Kruetzfahrten partially just enjoys our company and the humor we bring to the group.

 We call this Vadoring.
On the second night of our trip we arrived at the northernmost island in Europe, accompanied by floating pieces of sea ice. From my limited perspective it appears that there is much more sea ice than last year at this time.

By morning we were in the thick of it. We crossed 81 degrees north, a mere 9 degrees from the North Pole. Mist muddled the horizon and broken puzzle pieces of sea ice disappeared into the fog. We came across our first bear, a dead one. The carcass of a polar bear lay upon a floating piece of ice, picked clean except for the bones and pelt. A paw was strewn a few feet from the body, claws intact. I was overwhelmed by a hollow feeling: a mixture of disgust, sadness, and understanding. There are many reasons that the bear could have died: perhaps it was old age, or an attack from another bear; conditions being what they are in this particular location, hunger was not likely the cause.

Shortly after that we came upon a very healthy male polar bear. He sauntered up to examine us more closely. He was quite clean and had a larger-than-average girth. His condition was encouraging. We have had record-breaking decreases in sea ice coverage for the last six years. A more average winter (unlike the previous year’s mild one) gives me hope. Will this summer possibly be better? Time will tell.

We joined Captain Per afterwards and scanned the misty horizon for hours without luck. Around midnight the captain found a sizeable piece of sea ice and wedged the Stockholm in place for the night, watching carefully as a deck hand climbed overboard to pound an anchor into the thick white mass. I snuggled into the top bunk bed of our cabin, rolling over every few hours and opening one eye just in case a furry white friend decided to peep into our porthole and say hello. What a picture that would be I thought as I drifted into slumber-land.

Pristine Arctic: The Power of One | Part 3

*This post originally appeared August 23, 2013 on*
Everyone had something that caught their attention and caused them to linger. Peter and I were photographing big pieces of iridescent ice on the beach with a massive glacier front behind. Doris found the skeleton of a Svalbard reindeer caked in sand and perfectly pressed into the earth. The other Peter was photographing the tiny tundra flowers, and Barbara was perched on top of a rock, birdwatching through her binoculars. Getting us to move along at a decent pace was like herding cats, but you’ve got to soak it all in, right!?!

Eventually our guides succeeded in cresting the horizon of a small sandy spit of land on the northeast coast of Nordauslandet in the archipelago of Svalbard. On the lee side of the ridge was a small beach and the crew of the Stockholm had set up a beach barbeque! The first mate, Martin, hauled over gigantic pieces of driftwood and assembled a bonfire. Annika and Marlie laid out appetizers and passed around warm Glögg, a Swedish Christmas wine. Kjelle captained the grill and passengers and crew alike sat around the fire enjoying a delicious meal and wonderful company.

As folks finished dinner people drifted into conversation, some gazed into the fire lost in thought, others wandered among the large piles of driftwood exploring our newfound little treasure cove. I immersed myself in conversation with Peter, laughing and joking about something or other. I glanced to my right and noticed a handful of the guests putting together a piece of beach art. There was a weathered pole sticking out of the sand. Someone had found a small piece of wood with a hole in it, resembling a magnifying glass. This was wedged upright on the top of the pole. Another small stick was added to create a cross, and a few stones and small bits of turf decorated the base. It was no Andy Goldsworthy, but it was neat. The thought that these adults could quiet their busy minds enough to be present and create with such whimsical delight filled me with joy.

Then I noticed Martin, Christian, and Doris walking among the large driftwood piles collecting garbage. Litter of every color, shape, size, and material had washed ashore on this tiny beach nearly 80 degrees north of the equator. Gigantic plastic barrels, coffee tins, ketchup bottles, twine, spools, soles of shoes, hangers, kids’ Lego pieces, crates, and shredded pieces of plastic bags were scattered about. The quantity was overwhelming.

The wild thing is that all of this trash has been washed up on the beach after traveling massive distances on ocean currents. There is no doubt that the litter came from Russia, Scandinavia, and both coasts of the Atlantic. There are no settlements large enough to produce such waste in Svalbard, particularly because there were no Inuit people native to the archipelago, and because the waste the small settlements do produce primarily washes up in the fjords along the western coast.
I get an empty, mildly nauseous feeling even thinking about it. How could we be so wasteful? I have a really hard time understanding why; it goes against all common sense. I feel the same way about plastic bags at the grocery store and paper to-go coffee cups. They are so unnecessary! But re-training our cultural habits is like teaching an old dog new tricks; it’s an uphill battle.
Peter and I joined the litter-collecting group. We soon accumulated the equivalent of three garbage bags full of waste, mostly plastic, and we probably could have collected three more, at least! A few more guests walked over and contributed their own collection of trash. Christian marked the point with a GPS and passed it along to a government entity that would have a passing ship collect it later in the summer.

Of course this little act is miniscule in the grand scheme of our human impact on the earth, but it felt empowering and inspiring. Doris expressed it best, “Did you see how everyone joined in, without even talking to each other, working together silently, towards a common goal?” It was true, no one said a word, we just worked silently, appreciating the company, aware of the exponential growth of our actions with each new person that joined in.

I suppose in a way it was a small movement, a small-scale demonstration of the power of momentum. It just takes one person. Perhaps you and I can be that one person in our own circles of influence, whether that is a small beach in the Arctic or downtown Los Angeles. I ask you, please, join me, in whatever way you can. Our actions can create ripples of momentum, which together have the power to initiate cultural change. The time is now… no, really… the time is now.