Climate Change
5:00 am
Mon December 9, 2013

St. Louis Photojournalist Goes Under The Ice To Document Arctic Climate Change

Randall Hyman is a St. Louis-based photojournalist and writer. For more than three decades, he has traveled the globe covering cultural and environmental issues.

Hyman recently spent four months in the Norwegian Arctic on a Fulbright project documenting climate change.

He told St. Louis Public Radio’s Véronique LaCapra that Norwegians are already feeling the effects of global warming.

Hyman is giving a talk on his time in the Norwegian Arctic on Monday night from 7:30 to 9:00 p.m. at the St. Louis Zoo's The Living World Anheuser-Busch Theater. Admission is free.

Hyman: They long ago stopped debating whether there’s climate change. They live with it every day. The temperature in the Arctic is rising twice as fast as the rest of the globe. So that world is a good indicator of where we’re headed.

And I know you spent some time on a research ship with scientists who are looking at some of those changes, can you talk a little about that?

A crew member aboard the Norwegian Polar Institute's research ship, R/V Lance, prepares to deploy a huge seine net used for collecting phytoplankton and zooplankton from continuous water columns over 1000 feet deep along the continental shelf off the coast of Spitsbergen Island in the Svalbard archipelago.
A crew member aboard the Norwegian Polar Institute's research ship, R/V Lance, prepares to deploy a huge seine net used for collecting phytoplankton and zooplankton from continuous water columns over 1000 feet deep along the continental shelf off the coast of Spitsbergen Island in the Svalbard archipelago.
Credit ( © Randall Hyman)

Hyman: Yeah, the focus of the two weeks that I spent on the Lanse which is the Norwegian Polar Institute’s research ship ― that was a group of 15 scientists, five of whom were divers, [who] believe it or not, dive under the ice, in waters that are about 29 Fahrenheit.

What they’re looking at, is they’re collecting the microorganisms, and also looking at the chemistry, and the temperature, and even density of the water, to try to determine what’s happening to the currents, and how is it affecting the environment, the marine environment.

This is done with a variety of instruments that can be dropped way, way, way down into the water, we’re talking a mile deep or more.

And what they’ve seen is that every year, every season, the water is getting warmer, it’s going farther north, the sea ice is receding farther and farther. So they’re following the ice, and they’re following the changes in the temperature and the microorganisms, and then of course how that affects the rest of the species that depend on them.

Shattered Arctic: In Search of Ice from Randall Hyman on Vimeo.

This is a really extreme environment we’re talking about. You mentioned diving in 29 degree water. Can you just describe a little bit about what that was like, both for you as journalist to be on this research vessel for two weeks, and for the scientists who are doing this kind of work?

Hyman: It’s fascinating. We started in waters that were ice free, and we did all of this monitoring and sampling, and then we moved farther, and farther, and farther north. And then the object was to go as far north as we could until we hit so much ice that we couldn’t move which is what happened.

A diver pulls a sledge full of equipment from the Norwegian Polar Institute's research ship.
A diver pulls a sledge full of equipment from the Norwegian Polar Institute's research ship.
Credit ( © Randall Hyman)

And we moored our ship to the ice. And the trick is to find a hole, usually a breathing hole that seals keep throughout the winter so that they can ― they are mammals, they have to have air. And that’s a good place to jump down under the surface.

For me as a journalist, perhaps the worst hardship was trying to film that. I’m not a diver, and I’m not going under the ice. I took a painter’s pole and mounted a little head cam, or a GoPro, as it were, at the end of this extendable pole, and I followed the cords that lead down to the divers.

A diver surfaces with a suction plunger full of tiny marine life beneath the ice 500 miles from the North Pole.
A diver surfaces with a suction plunger full of tiny marine life beneath the ice 500 miles from the North Pole.
Credit ( © Randall Hyman)

They have to have cords, because when they’re down there, and they look up at the surface of the ice, it’s just one big long white expanse, they can’t find the hole. So they have to have a cord, so they don’t get trapped under there without an air supply.

And so I would just follow those cords, and take a good guess as to what direction they were in, and where to point the camera and hope that I wasn’t just filming blue or a block of ice, or whatever. And I was lucky, I had a lot of good footage from it.

Out of everything you saw, what’s kind of the main message that you took away with you from your time in Norway?

Hyman: Ay. The main message would probably be that we should take note of how rapidly it’s changing in the Arctic. I’ve been going there for three decades now, and there’s much less ice, the summers are longer, they’re hotter, the winters are shorter, storms are more freakish. And you can’t put your finger on any single item, but there’s no question that in the last three decades, there’s been rapid change.

And that’s a reflection of what is happening elsewhere in the world, it’s just magnified in the Arctic.

Svalbard glacier calving from Randall Hyman on Vimeo.

More on what's happening in the Arctic

Toxic Migration

Hyman: We talk about global warming, or climate change, whatever you prefer. But in the Arctic, another big problem, and another reflection of our activities much farther south, is the migration of toxins to the Arctic.

An emaciated polar bear crests a ridge desperately looking for bird nests and eggs on a small isle along the coast of Spitsbergen Island in the Svalbard archipelago.
An emaciated polar bear crests a ridge desperately looking for bird nests and eggs on a small isle along the coast of Spitsbergen Island in the Svalbard archipelago.
Credit (© Randall Hyman)

Primary among them would be mercury, and what’s called PBDEs. They’re sort of like the old PCBs, that we’re all familiar with. They’re the new DDTs and PCBs of our 21st century, that are accumulating.

They’re used in your iPhone and your computer as fire retardants. So when you throw them out, they leach in a landfill, and they go down the Meramec, and then into the Mississippi and the Gulf Stream.

Guess where the Gulf Stream goes? Straight up to the Arctic, precipitates in the Arctic, it never leaves the Arctic. The little microorganisms pick it up, and it goes up and up and up, and the polar bears eat the seals, and it’s exponentially concentrated by the time it goes up the food chain.

And they say, some measurements have indicated that polar bears would by EPA standards be hazardous waste.

The Benefits Of A Changing Climate

Hyman: Well, the surprise for me after four months is that the big winners in this, at least financially, are humans. The Norwegians are benefiting from climate change, like it or not, and as an environmental reporter it’s not what I expected to find, but I try to be fair and even.

A pilot boat pushes the enormous tanker ship, Arctic Voyager, into position for loading of liquefied natural gas at the unique facility in Hammerfest.  The facility is fed by a borehole hidden 90 miles offshore in the Barents Sea, 1000 feet beneath the surface.
A pilot boat pushes the enormous tanker ship, Arctic Voyager, into position for loading of liquefied natural gas at the unique facility in Hammerfest. The facility is fed by a borehole hidden 90 miles offshore in the Barents Sea, 1000 feet beneath the surface.
Credit ( © Randall Hyman)

There’s all sorts of reasons that there’s an advantage for them. The ice is receding, it’s opening up the seabed, it’s more accessible for mining, sea bed mining. There’s a lot of resources at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, there’s of course petroleum, natural gas, and they’ve already begun exploiting that.

But they also have very clever technologies for, for example, taking the carbon dioxide that comes with extracting oil and natural gas, and pumping it back down into the extraction zone, under the ocean, in the seabed and sequestering it, as it’s called.

They also have found a way to extract the resources without platforms, without oil rigs, by sinking the apparatus right down to the seabed floor, and hiding it beneath the surface, which is not only esthetically [an] advantage, but it’s less susceptible to sea ice and the big storms you get in the Arctic.

So they’ve been very clever in that respect, but there are a lot of problems that they still need to solve.

Follow Veronique LaCapra on Twitter: @KWMUScience