from Sierra Club
Arctic Ice: The Other Recession
What follows is a series of 10 very beautiful pictures
While oil executives and shipping magnates were in their toasty-warm offices calculating how an ice-free Arctic will benefit their bottom line, photographer Florian Schulz was hunkered down on that ice, watching polar bears napping in the midnight sun, being roused from slumber in his riverside tent by the whoosh of hundreds of caribou hooves, lying on his stomach for hours in a traditional Inuit suit while inching ever closer to seal pups, and spending days in a blind to photograph snowy owls. His book To the Arctic(Braided River, 2012) documents the 18 months he spent at the top of the globe over the course of six years, often accompanying filmmakers from the Imax film of the same name.
The Arctic tends to get typecast as a great white nothingness thousands of miles north. But what happens in the Arctic doesn't necessarily stay in the Arctic—as we may all too soon find out: The loss of sea ice could have chaotic repercussions on global ocean currents, temperatures, sea levels, and food webs. During this precarious time when "perennial sea ice" and "permafrost" are becoming misnomers, polar bears are already struggling. This surprisingly curious and trusting mother polar bear allowed Schulz and the filmmakers to follow her and her two young cubs for five days—perhaps thinking they would be a buffer against hungry male bears.
The long-haired musk oxen, with their smile-shaped horns, are a living, breathing remnant of the Pleistocene epoch—their wooly mammoth, saber-toothed cat, and ground sloth compatriots did not fare as well. Like most year-round inhabitants of the Arctic, musk oxen are exceptionally good at conserving energy: Instead of running from predators, they bunch together in a tight circle, with their heads facing out and their calves in the middle. They forage for lichens in places where the wind has blown away most of the snow and spend much of their time standing still.
Florian Schulz spent 72 hours in a blind in Alaska's National Petroleum Reserve to take this gorgeous snowy owl family portrait. Both parents are extremely protective of their clutch of chicks (typically 3 to 11, depending on the food supply) and will dive-bomb predators. Here the male delivers an unlucky lemming, which the brown-specked female will tear into small bits and feed to the brood.
Schulz returned to the Arctic for years, hoping to find the elusive caribou herds, and finally met up with them in dramatic fashion as their pounding hooves roused him from his tent in Alaska's Utukok Uplands. In the spring, this Western Arctic herd, which numbers about 350,000, migrates hundreds of miles from the Seward Peninsula to its calving grounds in the National Petroleum Reserve. The calves pretty much hit the ground running—they're able to stand hours after being born and are trotting and crossing streams within a few days.
A female polar bear in Svalbard attempts to repel the attentions of a male suitor. Female bears give birth in the winter—typically to twins—and will only mate again in the spring after their cubs are weaned, which takes about two and a half years. Polar bears have one of the slowest reproductive cycles of any mammal.
Tusked and bristly-cheeked, the walrus is a master diver, but the Arctic ice is an essential resting platform. With summer sea ice retreating to record low levels, walruses are being forced onto land and are congregating along the coast—many in the Chukchi Sea, where oil leases have been sold. The USGS has a walrus tracker and a video of a walrus "haul out" in Point Lay, Alaska.
A ringed seal pup waits on the ice for its mother to emerge from a breathing hole to nurse. It takes a lot of work (i.e., clawing) to keep these breathing holes open, and seals will maintain several, since polar bears often stake out a hole, waiting for a pop-up seal meal. Schulz writes that this pup was bursting with energy after nursing: "It rolls around in the snow, stretches itself, and tries out its own claws."
Male king eiders are quite the lookers, especially during the spring mating season. These majestic ducks travel long distances and in large flocks (of up to 10,000) to reach their Arctic breeding grounds.
The pagophilic polar bear, listed as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act, is facing yet another new threat: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has ruled that it's okay for Shell Oil to harass polar bears and walruses by "causing disruption of behavioral patterns, including, but not limited to, migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding, or sheltering but which does not have the potential to injure a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild," while the company drills oil and gas wells in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas.