Paul Nicklen's Polar Obsession

National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen spends his days taking photos in remote and extreme ice environments. Nicklen, who has spent more that forty years living in the Arctic, gave a talk in Calgary recently. The loss of multiyear sea ice due to global warming, Nicklen says, could spell extinction for many species in the north and south poles. His obsession is to document polar creatures - including polar bears - who depend on ice to live in the Arctic and Antarctica.

Here are some things that I scribbled in my sketchbook about Nicklen's talk. (The room was darkened for the slideshow, hence the illegible writing and drawing.)

Nicklen talks about how multiyear sea ice - ice that stays intact over summer - is like the soil in an inverted garden. "If we lose this ice, we stand to lose entire ecosystems throughout the Arctic and Antarctica," he says. Three hundred species of microorganism live in the salt channels in this sea ice, supporting whole chains of flora and fauna from zooplankton to arctic herring to ringed seals to polar bears, among many more. Scientists used to say that the Arctic sea ice would melt in 100 years. But with global warming heating the earth's waters ever faster, current studies predict that polar ice will disappear in 4-10 years.

Polar bears rely on multiyear sea ice to stay healthy, Nicklen says. The bears need to get out on the ice so they can feed on their main prey - ringed seals. But winter ice freeze-up is happening later and later, retreating from October to November in the last ten years. Landlocked bears without access to multiyear sea ice will starve, as will stranded polar bears drifting on isolated bergs in open ocean that used to be thick with ice. Fat seal-fed bears can swim for a thousand kilometers; but starving bears get hypothermia and drown. And polar bear cubs do not have the energy reserves to swim such long distances: the mortality rate for polar bear cubs is over 50%.

"As long as these bears have any bit of ice, they will survive, but it's ice that's disappearing," Nicklen says. Twenty years ago when he first started working in the north, Nicklen hardly ever found dead polar bears. In the last four or five years, bear corpses are popping up all the time, floating in the Beaufort Sea; drifting in the open ocean where the ice has melted out; and on land, showing the stress on the species of the disappearing ice.

Nicklen spoke about his adventures shooting photos of other ice-dependant animals in harsh environments - leopard seals, narwhals, bowhead whales, belugas, elephant seals, penguins and more. Take a look at the gorgeous and haunting photos in his latest book, Polar Obsession.